Between Integration and Fragmentation


This paper intends to contribute to the national discourse on federalism in Somalia. It’s based on more than a year of extensive research on Somalia’s federalism process, and reflections from field research trips recently undertaken by a team of researchers at the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS). Our team is visiting Baidoa, Kismaayo, Garowe, Galkayo and Beledweyn.  The aim of this ambitious research project is fourfold:

a) To foster a broad-based public dialogue on federalism and constitutional review process. b) To inform and influence federalism policy in Somalia in a way that reduces the risk of conflict, promotes reconciliation, social cohesion and national integration. c) To harness and amplify the voices of local communities in the process of state-building and formation of federal member states in Somalia. d) To enhance public understanding of federalism by promoting a viable system of governance that strengthens local control but preserves national unity

The current debate on federalism in Somalia is replete with controversies and contradictions. The overall process is extraordinarily complex, ambiguous and has the potential to spark conflicts. But that tension is predictable and even necessary at this stage. As Prof. Michael Burgess, the author of “Comparative Federalism” puts it, “federalism spans the whole gamut of human experience”, and thus is inherently complex system of governance, one that’s bound to create perpetual conflicts.


Now, let me reflect on our experience conducting field research in key cities across Somalia. While we anticipated robust discourse on federalism, we were ill-prepared for some of the thematic issues that emerged from these consultations. There was a general consensus that power needs to be devolved from Mogadishu and into the regions. But that’s where consensus ends and contradictions begin. Exactly how to devolve power remains deeply controversial. From our experience, four main themes emerged repeatedly and deserve deeper analysis. We will do that in our upcoming reports and policy briefs, but let me share our preliminary observations on those four themes:

  1.  Reconciliation: Almost invariably, people we interviewed at different corners of Somalia raised the issue of reconciliation as inextricably linked to the state-formation processes. People felt that the ongoing federation process is overly political, technical and legal, but fails to recognize that, notwithstanding the 14 or so reconciliation conferences held over the past two decades, scars of the civil war remain unhealed. Many of the participants reiterated the need to create parallel social reconciliation programs in order to address fundamental grievances among communities. We are cognizant that reconciliation could sound like a cliché to many people in this room, because it has been overused and frankly abused. But what we people are yearning for is not power-sharing as much as it’s reconciliation among communities in a way that recognizes grievances and offers closure to those who suffered during the civil war.
  2. Lack of consultations: the absence of meaningful consultations with the Somali people on key national policy issues, federalism being a principal one was universally seen as deeply problematic. There was a wide spread feeling that the public was systemically excluded from decision-making processes. As a result, participants questioned the legitimacy of the policy decisions taken on their behalf. Among the many challenges facing federalism in Somalia, the question over the legitimacy of the entire process is, in my opinion, by far the most profound one.
  3. Role of the clan: While participants overwhelmingly advocated for a modern nation-state with equal rights for its citizens, they often struggled to place their clan within the broader nation-state agenda. Many, if not most, clearly wanted their clan and/or subclan to emerge as the dominant force in the existing or emerging federal member states. Paradoxically, however, participants fretted upon the reality that dominant clans in federal units will inevitably infringe upon the citizenship rights of others, ultimately leading to ghettoized federal units where a citizen from Boosaaso won’t have equal rights in Baidoa. There lies the classic balancing act between federation and fragmentation in post conflict societies.
  4. Universal demands: when asked what they wanted from an ideal, federalized Somalia, participants stated four key demands: 1) Ability to directly elect their local, state and national leaders so that they can hold political leaders accountable. 2) Availability of rudimentary government services, such as education and health, at the nearest location. 3) Equitable sharing of national and natural resources. 4) Constitutional protection for citizens’ inalienable rights to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and other fundamental rights.

Main issues

As Somalia sprints toward a fully-fledged federal system, the Federal Government in Mogadishu faces the daunting task of leading or at least coordinating the federation process without deepening conflicts. This paper won’t do justice to address the mammoth task at hand in detail. But we’d like to highlight three main issues stymieing progress:

First, the legal infrastructure in place to support this intricate process is extraordinarily vague. The Provisional Constitution, which, as the guiding national document, mandates federating the country, provides limited directions on exactly how to go about that. In some cases, the Constitution contradicts itself. For example, Article 84 states that two or more regions could voluntarily join and form a federal unit.  The operative word is voluntary. At the same time, the Constitution provides no viable avenue for any region that wants to remain on its own as a federal unit of its own. Hiiraan, among others, appears to be advocating for such arrangement, but it’s swimming against the tide. Ultimately, all regions are forced to merge with at least one other. That’s hardly a voluntary exercise!

Relatedly, the legal threshold to approve the formation of new federal units is too low. It needs simple majority (50+1) in the parliament. Although few countries have similar minimum threshold, the processes of these countries are substantially clearer. Given the extraordinary nature of this process, the minimum legal threshold is worth revisiting.

Second, the relationship between federation and boundaries remains deeply contested. Article 49 of the Provisional Constitution stipulates that, future federal units must be based on the same boundaries as Somalia’s erstwhile 18 regions. In practice, that’s being ignored as existing and emerging federal units are largely drawn along clan boundaries. Take the city of Gaalkayo for example. It’s being partitioned between Puntland and the emerging Central State. The de facto situation in Sool and Sanaag is similar. The two regions are engulfed in a three-way contestation between Puntland, Somaliland and Khaatumo. The case of Galkayo could have a profound domino effect across the country. There are at least half a dozen cities where two or more major clans cohabit. Among others, Baardheere, Bu’aale, Beledweyn and Kismaayo are worth mentioning. Essentially, what’s emerging now is a clan-based federal system.

Furthermore, the Provisional Constitution calls for the creation of an Upper House in the parliament, which is supposed to be based on the 18 regions, as opposed to the new federal units. On the one hand, the Provisional Constitution appears to be promoting federal member states as catalysts for new political and administrative dispensations, but on the other hand, it’s preserving the 18 regions structure.

In most other federation experiences, the region losing territory to a new one is given the right to consent to dismembership. In Somalia, the new boundaries are being drawn with neither the consent of the regions affected, nor the Federal Government. Federating the country without first settling future boundaries is bound to create long and intractable conflicts.

However, much of the legal lacuna around Somalia’s federation process is due to the failure of the Federal Government to establish the Boundaries and Federation Commission (BFC). This is the constitutionally mandated independent commission that was supposed to lead national consultations, conduct extensive research and return to the parliament with evidence-informed recommendations. Although the Federal Government is making some headway in the establishment of this commission, its delay of more than two years undermines the entire federation and boundaries process in fundamental way.

Third, there’s lack of clarity on whether the federation process should be top-down or bottom-up approach. In other words, there’s a serious contestation over who should “lead” the federation process. The Provisional Constitution gives considerable powers to the Federal Government to play an important role in this process. For example, the establishment of the BFC, which is central to the entire process, is under the domain of the Federal Government. But various communities around the country are essentially taking matters onto their own hands, and carving out what they hope to be future federal units. In some cases, such as Jubbaland, a bottom-up approach takes root notwithstanding the Federal Government’s initial resistance. Circumstances on the ground, and regional geopolitics have helped the creation of Jubbaland

Then there are the top-down efforts in Southwest and Central Somalia. In both cases, new federal units are being established with the backing of the Federal Government in Mogadishu and the international community. However, there are major controversies surrounding both cases, not least of which is whether a region and half (Galgaduud & half of Mudug) in Central Somalia could withstand the constitutional litmus test of 2 or more regions. In Southwest, a rival bottom-up approach is clinging to a six-region state that would, in theory, encompass Jubbaland. Although that effort appears to have wide support among local constituencies, the political reality on the ground favors the 3-region top-down approach.

The way forward

In the absence of either a popularly elected government that can implement the universal demands of the Somali people, or a powerful military regime that can railroad its wishes, Somalia’s federation is going to be deeply messy and controversial.  There are legitimate grievances among clans and between clans and the government(s). Although the federation process will never be perfect, per se, some fundamental issues must be addressed:

  1.  A social reconciliation process among the people (not politicians) is badly needed. Communities in the periphery hold deep mistrust for the Mogadishu-based Federal Government. Many have been violently displaced from the capital 24 years ago, and some of their properties maybe held illegally. Their legitimate grievances have never been sufficiently addressed. A parallel reconciliation process that aims to address fundamental grievances will boost the federation process in a meaningful way.
  2. Federating Somalia without settling the boundaries question is a slippery slope that could sink the country into a much deeper abyss. Credible, capable and inclusive Boundaries and Federation Commission must be established urgently, with the immediate task of carefully studying political, social and economic realities on the ground, and recommending a nationwide boundaries plan. Addressing one boundary problem without the other (or “Kala karis”) has proven to be an incalculable risk.
  3. Federal boundaries should be based on existing regions, separately or together. New boundaries are likely to deepen hostilities between clans. Clan-based boundaries have the double affect of infringing upon the citizenship rights of the non-majority residents, and ghettoizing the nation into small Bantustans. The rights of citizens in federal units should be constitutionally protected.
  4. The legal threshold to approve federal units should be revisited. If impeaching the President requires two-thirds majority in the parliament, then setting up permanent federal units deserves equal if not greater threshold. Given our parliament’s dismal attendance record, this issue is even more relevant.
  5. The absence of clear rules of the game is a major problem facing federalism in Somalia. In consultation with key stakeholders, including existing and emerging federal units, the Federal Government should immediately convene a high level panel comprising of principal stakeholders in order to set clear and agreeable rules for federation.
  6. The role of the international community has been largely but not always positive. AMISOM should be commended for helping to create the physical space to federate Somalia. Other external actors have at times exercised undue influence over the process. The international community should only help facilitate the process by providing technical and financial assistance.

Finally, we must not forget that Somalia had a long and proud tradition of being one of Africa’s first democracies. The claim that Somalis can never reclaim that glory and form a modern nation-state, despite the tragic civil war, is defeatist at best.

NB. This was a paper presented by the HIPS team at the “Federalism in Somalia” conference organized by HESPI and IGAD in Addis in October 2014.

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