Jason Mosley
Associate Fellow, Africa Programme
Somalia has a long way to go in order to build the ‘post-transitional’ institutions and political order required for a functioning federal state.
The House of the People in Mogadishu on 2 December 2013, as lawmakers hold a session to impeach the prime minister. Photo by Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images.The House of the People in Mogadishu on 2 December 2013, as lawmakers hold a session to impeach the prime minister. Photo by Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images.

Despite the adoption of the provisional constitution and establishment of a new federal government in 2012, there continues to be active and violent contestation for control over large areas of Somalia. As the end of the government’s term approaches in 2016, the nature of decentralization has yet to be established, although international backing for the federal project in Somalia remains strong. Perhaps as a result, even those in dispute with the current administration in Mogadishu frame their political agendas within the language of federalism (with the notable exception of the Islamist insurgency al Shabaab).

The current political dynamics and international interactions in Somalia present a series of contrasts. On one hand, the government in Mogadishu and donors are engaged in a conversation about ‘Vision 2016’, which calls for, within two years, finalizing the provisional constitution, establishing a number of federal institutions (including member states) and overseeing preparations for a constitutional referendum and general election. Simultaneously, the past year has seen a resurgence of infighting within the federal government, with a change of prime minister and, most recently, 130 MPs signing a petition urging President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud to resign, not even halfway through his term. Such counter-productive political manoeuvring harks back to the era of the dysfunctional Transitional Federal Government (2004-12). A weak and divided government will be ill-placed to deliver the scale of the undertakings Vision 2016 proposes.

Another contrast is in the security situation. The robust military intervention of the African Union peacekeeping mission (AMISOM) against al Shabaab has seen an expanding number of key urban centres and roads brought notionally under the influence of the government. However, insecurity persists, partly as a result of al Shabaab’s asymmetrical tactics, including targeted killings and bombings against targets in Mogadishu and other regions – although al Shabaab is not the only source of insecurity, with recent clashes between other factions in Lower Shabelle and Gedo. 

Sustainable federalism faces multiple roadblocks

The political processes around the federal project – and Vision 2016 by extension – do not engage with several important facts. First, the framing of the federal government’s engagement with donors does not reflect political reality. Under Vision 2016, Mogadishu would lead the process of establishing district and regional administration in the areas secured by AMISOM, the Somali Army and militia forces. This is despite the government lacking political traction in these areas, and AMISOM troops (particularly where the forces are from Kenya or Ethiopia) having complicated relations and limited legitimacy with local communities. 

The conflict between the aspirant Jubbaland regional authority based in Kismayo − led by Ras Kambooni militia chief Ahmed Islam ‘Madobe’ − and the federal government between October 2012 and July 2013 might have been expected to temper Mogadishu’s sense of its reach. However, the opposite seems to be the case. Despite signing a political compromise establishing an Interim Jubba Administration (IJA), the government is also backing district and regional authorities in Gedo, which are clashing with IJA aligned factions. Similarly, rival processes for the establishment of a ‘Southwest Somali State’ have taken place in Baidoa − one with a territorial vision encompassing Jubbaland.

Continuing to ignore smaller clans and minority communities is storing up the potential for future conflict. Large clan groups, with better organization and resource mobilization dominate the de facto politics of regional state formation and the constitutional process, under the 4.5 clan formula. Many of the voices from minority communities across Somalia are lacking or drowned out in the discussions. Smaller clans, as well as, to some extent, the larger but resource-constrained Rahanweyn, have been a key base of support for al Shabaab since 2007. They fear that their interests are unlikely to be taken into consideration under the emerging federal institutions or regional states. 

Discussion over the management and sharing of natural resource revenues will become an urgent priority with the entities of both Somaliland and Puntland – especially given the oil and gas exploration already underway along their border region. The self-declared Republic of Somaliland, which celebrates its 23rd anniversary of independence on 18 May, has dialogue with Mogadishu, but avoids engagement around the federal government’s processes. Puntland, the only existing federal state with a functioning administration and territorial control, is active in the federal debates: firmly backing Jubbaland, and suspicious of an overly influential government in Mogadishu. 

Essential to a sustainable process of institution building will be the emergence of a definition of federalism that captures the aspirations and concerns of the people in various regions of Somalia, who have different experiences of access and marginalisation during the past two decades of political instability, as well as under the pre-1991 state. Moreover, defining Somalia’s federalism will require an accommodation with the political realities as they exist, in terms of both the emerging regional states and the existing administrations in Puntland and Somaliland.

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