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By Izzy Birch
The world is starting to wake up to what has been happening in Somaliland and to what its people have achieved on their own terms.
'Why write a book about Somaliland, a lightly populated region on the edge of Africa which, if the international community had its wish, would be reincorporated into a federal Somali state?' The author, Mark Bradbury, answers his own question by filling an important gap in the literature on Somali studies. The book, written by someone who has been deeply engaged with the region for many years, provides a comprehensive and inspiring account of how people in Somaliland and its diaspora 'debated, defined and created a new polity' in the aftermath of war, and in so doing challenged normative assumptions about what states look like and how they are built.
The book tells the story of the process of state-building in Somaliland from the start of European colonization in the early 19th century to the holding of multi-party elections in September 2005. Two notable characteristics of the political system that has taken shape in Somaliland since it declared its independence from Somalia on 18 May 1991 are its fusion of modern and traditional forms of political organization and its strong roots in society.
The Somali National Movement (SNM), which fought against Siyad Barre's regime in the north-west during the 1980s, published its political manifesto in 1981. It proposed 'a new political system built upon Somali cultural values of cooperation rather than coercion'. This challenged the political orthodoxy of the time, as the author explains, because the clan was then regarded as incompatible with a unified, modern state. From 1988 a council of clan elders, or Guurti, acted as an advisory body to the SNM's central committee. After the war this evolved into the upper house of a bicameral parliament thus, uniquely in Africa, incorporating a traditional institution within the formal structure of the state.
Somaliland's lack of international recognition, and the west's preoccupation with events in the south of Somalia after the fall of Siyad Barre, forced Somalilanders back on their own resources. The succession of clan conferences in the first half of the 1990s which cemented the peace and fashioned the new state were led by elders and financed from domestic or diaspora sources. This strengthened their legitimacy, as did the use of customary processes of dialogue and consensus-building and the highly visible nature of the discussions. With the country's limited access to external aid and finance, funds from the diaspora have been essential to the survival of many families. They have also underpinned the rebuilding of public institutions, from universities to hospitals, and the regeneration of key sectors such as telecommunications and housing.
Support for the path Somaliland has taken is by no means universal, even within Somaliland. Despite his evident respect for what has been achieved, the author also makes an honest assessment of the shortcomings and challenges. The government's detention of its critics, restrictions on the media, and use of emergency laws to prohibit public debate on sensitive issues (such as the prospects of reunification with Somalia) have been widely criticized both within and outside the country. Its writ barely extends over the eastern regions of Sool and Sanag. Its finances remain highly dependent on tariffs on a single export (livestock). Neither the clan-based system of political representation nor the multi-party system which replaced it has so far shown much concern for the rights of women and minority groups. And what were once some of the system's strengths are now showing signs of weakness: the moral authority of the guurti, for example, has been undermined by being institutionalized within government, leaving elders vulnerable to accusations of having a vested interest in the regime's survival.
Nevertheless, throughout the 17 years since Somaliland revoked the 1960 Act of Union, its people have shown a remarkable level of political maturity. Three elections have been held since 2002: district, presidential and parliamentary. All were found by external observers to be reasonably free and fair, while power passed peacefully on the death of one president to another, even of a different clan. The ruling party won the presidential elections in April 2003 by a whisker – just 80 votes – and yet the party which was narrowly beaten into second place chose to contest the results (and eventually accept them) using constitutional means. The multi-party parliamentary elections in 2005 created a situation in which – uniquely in Africa, according to the author – the ruling party does not control the legislature. Although Somaliland slipped back into civil war between 1994 and 1996, on the whole the preference has been to resolve problems through dialogue rather than violence. Time and time again, religious leaders, civil society activists, elders, poets and businessmen have joined together to mediate between conflicting parties when the political system has reached an impasse. These achievements are rightly given their due recognition in this book.
The literature on the state often draws a distinction between juridical and empirical statehood. In the case of Somalia, it is the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu – the product of an externally driven process of negotiation, and now surviving only with the military support of Ethiopia and the West – that enjoys juridical statehood in the eyes of the international community. But it is Somaliland, unrecognized under international law, which has achieved the greater degree of empirical statehood, and it has done it with only a fraction of the resources that have been directed in search of peace and stability in the south. The comparison may not be entirely fair, given the differences in context, but as Mark Bradbury points out, the West's line on Somalia – that the solution to its problems must lie with Somalis themselves (including the resolution of Somaliland's current 'diplomatic limbo') – is rather undermined by its heavy-handed intervention against the Union of Islamic Courts. Bradbury does not use the word, but a fair degree of humbug has for a long time characterized the West's dealings with Somalia/Somaliland.
In a recent article in the International Herald Tribune, two staff from the International Crisis Group commented on the distorted priorities of those crafting resolutions at the UN, seemingly more concerned with piracy off the Somali coast than with the suffering taking place on land. 'Strange how an African country can be moving from prolonged chaos to violent collapse and no one in the world notices until a couple of European boats get seized by armed gunmen,' they wrote. All too often the good news out of Africa receives similarly short shrift. The world is starting to wake up to what has been happening in Somaliland and to what its people have achieved on their own terms. This book will make a major contribution to that process of enlightenment.
Bradbury, M. (2008) 'Becoming Somaliland'. Progressio, in association with James Currey, Indiana University Press, Jacana Media, Fountain Publishers and East African Educational Publishers. Softback, 271 pages.
*Izzy Birch works for Fahamu