After over two decades of famine, Islamic extremism and piracy, Somalia may be showing signs of revival.
The country seems to have turned the corner, creating an inkling of hope for many Somalis who have never seen a meaningful peace, but rather bullet holes. For years, the country has been the perfect example of a failed state, but things are looking up for the war-torn nation.
Since 2007, the extremist Islamist group al-Shabaab controlled much of southern Somalia, and large part of the Capital Mogadishu. It imposed strict Sharia law, banning aspects of western culture such as sport, films and art. Many experts were surprised, however, when they withdrew from Mogadishu in 2011, paving the way to the first democratic elections in 42 years.
A year later, the new Somali parliament elected Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as president, closing the chapter of a decade old transitional governments. They began the process of restoring diplomatic ties and in January 2013, the United State of America officially recognised the Somali government for the first time in 21 years.
The federalism debate
Somalia might be defying all the odds, but there has been criticism from within the country. The autonomous state of Somaliland proclaimed their independence in 1991, but they are not officially recognised by any government. They fear that the US’s decision to recognise Mohamud’s government weakens their own bid for recognition.
However, Mogadishu based Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS) has endorsed the move saying: “The U.S. recognition of the Somali government…is a great and timely opportunity that could contribute to Somalia’s effort to retake its rightful place among community of nations.”
“In the two decades Somalia took hiatus from the international scene, many opportunities that could have helped Somalia shed the ‘failed state’ designation appeared and vanished with the same speed. Thus, it’s up to the Somali government and citizens to ensure the US recognition does not turn out, yet again, another squandered opportunity.”
Tress Thomas, who is researching federalism in Somalia for his PhD, told The Foreign Report that some federalism advocates believe that President Mohamud will use US recognition to stifle the development of regional administrations. The government may be able to use international aid as a point of leverage to increase Mogadishu’s overall power.
“However, these could be overblown reactions. The first test will be how President Mohamud manages Mogadishu’s involvement in the formation of aspiring states like Jubaland and established ones like Puntland and Somaliland, which he has yet to visit.
“The second test will be what decisions the Somali parliament reaches on how to divide federal and regional powers and responsibilities within an amended constitution. The effect of US recognition on Somalia’s stability hinges partly on these indicators, and President Mohamud will be judged significantly by how he manages these matters.”
Federalism has been debated in Somalia more recently, as many Somalis believe that centralized government led by Mogadishu would only lead to isolation of other parts of the country. Others, however, argue that federalism will only perpetuate the division and conflict in the country.
Somali writer Mohamud Uluso, writing for Hiiraan Online, expressed his concerns: “Secession, clan based federalism, and unitary decentralized political system…are obstacle to the recovery of the lost nation of Somalia.”
Uluso commends the US for their decision to recognise the Somali government, and he believes that it will help the government to bring peace and economic prosperity to the country. “The US diplomatic recognition of the government of Somalia gives impetus to the implementation of these goals and offers space and encouragement for internal unity and dialogue,” Uluso said in the article.
Dual track policy
In 2010, the US government announced a dual track policy for Somalia. It was intended to support the Djibouti peace process, while also broadening the US’s engagement with responsible regional administrations, civil society and clan leaders that seek voice in Somalia’s future. On track one, the policy supported the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia as well as the African Union mission in Somalia (Amisom). The second track supported education and maternal health as well as encouraging democratic elections across Somaliland, Puntland and other emerging regional administrations.
The Somaliland government was one administration that benefited the policy, but officials called the recent US recognition a “slap in the face” for Somaliland’s ambition to secede from Somalia.
“If re-unification talks between Hargeisa [the Somaliland capital] and Mogadishu restart in the near future, Mogadishu likely will begin with more leverage since both parties know that the US remains hesitant to recognize Somaliland,” said Tress Thomas.
“However, Somaliland’s best available counter-strategy may be to govern itself so successfully that other foreign countries begin to afford it more legitimacy. This could help Somaliland build more international support but reflects a more long-term strategy,” he continued.
US statement on the Somali government recognition did not mention whether the US will abandon the dual track policy , but Tress Thomas thinks that’s unlikely: “There has not been any evidence to suggest that there will be significant changes in the US dual track policy. If anything, these statements show that the United States is depending on Somaliland and Somalia to choose their own course for future cooperation.”
Somaliland president, Ahmed Mohamud Silanyo, has assured Somali lawmakers that US recognition of Somali government will not affect Somaliland’s ambition to secede from Somalia. “Our relation with the US nothing has changed, it will be as it was before,” Ahmed Silanyo said.
Silanyo read out an open letter from the US State department: “US recognition of the government of Somalia will not prevent the US from engaging with Somaliland, nor prevent us from conducting our programs in Somaliland, we made sure to clarify this with the Somali government before deciding to recognize them.”
The government in Somalia will hope to use the greater legitimacy that comes from the US’s recognition to roll out reforms throughout the country. But they will also have to find a solution to the question of Somaliland’s independence, something that seems to be an ever more impossible task as neither side dares go against their polarised electorate.