Centralizing with the whip: how the federal government of Somalia is euthanizing the federal system that brought it to power

In 1983 Nicholas Haysom, then an attorney of the supreme court of apartheid South Africa published a working paper titled “Ruling with the Whip: A report on the violation of human rights in the Ciskei”. Ciskei at that time was a territory in South Africa set aside for the resettlement of forcibly expelled black South Africans in accordance with the racist “separate development” policy at the time. Ciskei and other similar designated territories for “blacks only” were superficially allowed to self-govern presumably through a consensus-based system. However, Ciskei’s political elites had other ideas and opted to rule the territory with the whip. As a result, the population rebelled and clashed violently with the government. Haysom’s report was an attempt to make information on the extent of the Ciskei government’s oppression more widely available.

Nicholas Haysom

Although a historical text today yet the “Ruling with the whip” report has a contemporary echo in Somalia. Haysom himself came to Somalia on September 2018 as UN special representative and less than three months after his arrival deadly violence broke out. At least 15 people were killed in Baidoa, the capital city of South-West state of Somalia, many others were also injured. The violent deaths occurred when Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) forces supported by Ethiopian troops clashed with supporters of Mukhtar Robow–a reformed former high-ranking Al-Shabaab member and a candidate for the South West state presidency at the time. There is little to lose from pointing out that Haysom perhaps felt he was having a Déjà vu in Somalia as he watched the FGS and allies unleash their superior firepower on the protesters. The veteran lawyer who once advised late former South African President Nelson Mandela must have felt that the FGS, like the Ciskei government, are using the whip to reshape the game, disregard the state-building process and violate basic human rights of citizens in the process.

In a written letter Haysom vehemently demanded the FGS to provide the legal basis for the arrest of Mukhtar Robow and requested point-on-point clarification about the following violence inflicted on the protesters in Baidoa. The FGS resolutely responded by expelling Haysom from the country citing diplomatic misconduct from his part and inappropriate interference with Somalia’s internal affairs. In reality, however, the reasons for Haysom’s expulsion are far more sophisticated than a simple turf war between the UN and Somalia. The FGS wanted to get rid of Haysom, one of the most intrusive UN representatives to serve in Somalia, all along because they knew he will ultimately complicate their centralist plans. Second, ejecting high ranking Western bureaucrat energizes the masses emotionally especially in a country where sovereignty is only imagined and not real. FGS wasted no time using the expulsion to re-motivate and whip up a nationalist base who at the time was starting to get anxious about Mogadishu’s aloof handling of the security sector.

What is more important, and increasingly critical in many ways however, is that the FGS used Haysom’s expulsion as a trial balloon to observe the reaction of the International community. If the UN and in extension foreign donors accept the inherent right of the FGS to use the whip in South-West state to adjust elections outcomes then chances are they will also look the other way when Mogadishu utilizes brute force in other states. The UN initially caved into Mogadishu’s sabre-rattling and replaced Haysom without any retribution. Almost a year later, however, the UN released a panel of experts report detailing how the FGS rigged the South-West elections with the whip and bribery. The report even went further and described the worsening ties between the FGS and the federal member states as “a threat to Somalia’s stability”. In another move that could prove a setback for the FGS ambitions, the Security Council renewed the arms embargo on Somalia for another year.

The Kenyans at the gate

In August 2019, the incumbent Jubaland leader Ahmed Mohamed Islam (Madoobe) was re-elected in a strained political ambience marred with competing local, national, and geopolitical interests. Yet miraculously this time the elections went ahead without violence. The critical significance of Jubaland elections could be outlined in one consequential aspect; when the FGS uses foreign power to affect change in Somali affairs it’s depicted as pragmatism by centralists but when regional states do the same it’s unforgivable treason. Leading to Jubaland elections the FGS managed to contract the Ethiopian army as a hired muscle which was the second time Mogadishu used foreign power to euthanize a federal member state. Certain of Ethiopia’s army unreserved support the FGS dismissed the elections in Jubaland altogether as an invalid process and besieged the region’s leader Madoobe economically and militarily. Ironically, when the beleaguered Madoobe found comfort in the bosoms of Kenyan support he was ruthlessly condemned as a venomous traitor.

Bait and Switch in Dhuusamareeb

In November 2019 the better equipped and trained special forces of FGS briefly clashed and quickly overwhelmed the religious militia of Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaaca in Galmudug state. FGS forces took full control of the state with minimum casualties, slightest local outrage and no external uproar. The lack of any serious local resistance in Galmudug says more about the internal division of the state’s stakeholders than it says about the prowess of FGS military.

Leaders of FG and FMSs meeting, Garowe, Puntland, Somalia

With that said, it must be acknowledged that the FGS displayed a high level of political shrewdness far more refined than their predecessor who also pursued their own centralization policy. The difference is current FGS centralization policy, crystallized in Galmudug more than any other state, could ultimately work because it centers on four interconnected steps that proven successful so far:

  • Be mindful and prepared to exploit the delicate cleavages of clans living in each federal state.
  • Be bold enough to know when to take forceful measures against a federal state without creating a cause for the clans to rally around and unite against the center.
  • Be flexible enough to offer hierarchies in every federal state impressive rewards to entice them to switch sides and serve the FGS.
  • Publicly use populist rhetoric glorifying the government as the patriotic side while framing regional actors and the opposition as rent-seeking “blast from the past” politicians that are in bed with the enemy.

However, the FGS policy is not entirely immune from failure considering how weak and under-equipped the federal military still is which makes the whole centralization project a premature venture at best and bridge to nowhere at worst. Reports of Al-Shabaab setting up courts just 90km from the city of Adaado in Galmudug right after FGS seized the state is an indication of how all things that could go wrong will go wrong when centralization plans are executed prematurely. Discarded local actors in Galmudug who have the capacity and the will to regroup will also pose a threat to Mogadishu’s plans sooner or later. Especially if they decide to join forces with other disgruntled actors in other states who feel the same way about the FGS which will generate uncertainty and instability.

Rolling out the net further North

While most discussions in the media were still preoccupied with the events unfolding in Galmudug, news about a midnight shoot-out at the footsteps of Puntland’s parliament came to light and it took every observer by surprise. The internal gunfight in the vicinity of the parliament building in the capital Garowe resulted in casualties and eventually led to the dismissal of Puntland’s speaker of the house. A couple of days later, Bosaso, the commercial capital of Puntland, was engulfed in an armed standoff that filled the peaceful city with ad hoc combat vehicles. Broadly speaking, Puntland is accustomed to peaceful conflict resolution approaches and for decades the polity was known to compromise when it comes to internal divisions. Therefore, exchanging gunfire across the parliament building and heavily armed militiamen marauding the streets of Bosaso is a dangerous “new normal” for the North-Eastern state.

As of the writing of this discussion, Puntland did not officially accuse the FGS of having a direct hand in setting up the crisis in Garowe and Bosaso. Pro-Puntland government circles, however, are totally convinced FGS funnelled bribes and promised political positions to high ranking officials in Puntland to turn-up the heat on Villa Garowe. Externally, the US expressed concern and urged all sides to exercise restraint which underlines America’s subtle discomfort about a “manufactured” political violence in Puntland and the prospect of that violence spinning out of control. If the FGS is truly behind the Puntland crisis as many sources in Puntland are alleging then this is a frightening new level of Machiavellism from the FGS side. Destabilizing a peaceful and functioning region with a thriving economy is not only a reckless escalation in the struggle between federalism and centralism, but it’s also political thuggery that could undo the progress made so far in Somalia.

Clueless Opposition

Mogadishu’s seemingly unstoppable centralization with the whip project highlights the lack of viable alternative ideas to challenge the FGS. To the perception of the average Somali citizen, opposition groups in Somalia are inept and all they have to offer so far is common animosity for President Mohamed Abdulahi (Farmaajo) and nothing else. In fact, the opposition became so feeble that the FGS has only one proven strategy that fits all circumstances; agitate the opposition parties with minor provocations and they will shoot themselves in the foot and commit irreparable mistakes.

For example, after Jubaland elections, the opposition’s scheduled visit to Madoobe’s inauguration was delayed by the FGS. This irritated the opposition to the extent that they were willing to be seen canoodling with the Kenyan majority leader of the national assembly who once threatened Somalia with force if Kenya legally loses the maritime dispute. Then there was the time when the SFG delayed the opposition flight to flood-stricken Beledweyne and all hell broke loose, a former President and current opposition leader went as far as threatening to forcibly drive the government out of town.

Instead of framing their own policies and focus on exposing how Mogadishu is willfully ignoring the constitution; opposition parties have repeatedly taken actions that made them look like obstacles to national unity. As a  general rule, opposition in Somalia is usually seen as spoiling agents from the outset. Somali citizens who have been yearning for statehood for the last three decades are naturally not so keen to be critical of the knavery and the deception of the fragile state they have today. To avoid rocking the boat Somali citizens are ready to give the state the benefit of doubt even when the state is clearly in the wrong, a courtesy rarely extended to the opposition. In this context, the opposition can not afford to make avoidable mistakes. To have an impact, opposition groups in Somalia must raise the bar much higher than the current standards. They must learn to communicate effectively and acquire the capacity to propose constructive ideas and tangible solutions to the real problems facing the Somali citizen.

How did we get here?

Since its introduction arguments against federalism in Somalia have been growing. A popular opening salvo among centralists is that federalism is dividing the country into private fiefdoms and it’s preventing the revival of the Somali state. The first observation about this assertion is that for the last three decades local and external efforts to revive the Somali state in the “Weberian” sense utterly failed for many complex reasons. “Weberian” understanding here means the state has a monopoly of violence within its territory, established legitimacy and capacity to enact and enforce laws, maintains security,  systematically collects taxes, and provides public goods. One of the most significant reasons that delayed state revival in Somalia was that Somali clans were too reluctant to endorse a system where a powerful central government could choose not to distinguish between power as a coercion tool, or “ruling with the whip”, and power as legitimate authority to serve others, or “ruling with consensus”.

“Winner-takes all” approach is essentially a tribal methodology in its original form and it has both historic and contemporary precedent in the pursuit of power in Somalia.  In that sense, decentralizing power and dispersing it across the board is actually a practical solution. Thus it could be argued more than any other form of governance federalism has the potential to revive a functional Somali state, if not in the “Weberian” sense then at least in the “Lockean” sense. In Lockean thought, the state functions as a service provider and is legitimized only when the population consent to its authority.

Before the FGS launched the current euthanization policy, federal states were starting to learn how to match local knowledge with local problems. They were providing basic services in areas the federal government could not afford to reach and improving the quality of pivotal sectors the federal authority didn’t have the resources for, including security. Galmudug, local forces, for example, drove Al-Shabaab completely from their areas without any federal help. In Jubaland, local processing factories started to reflect independent economic growth and in Puntland, massive investment incentives lured global financiers into the region.

No one would argue that federalism as a system is a perfect paradigm free of structural flaws. What can be argued however is federalism as a model of governance is the most suited model for Somalia’s needs at this junction. If implemented correctly federal system should diminish the need to fight over power because no one single authority will have to monopolize power over everything, everywhere, at the same time. More importantly, federalism draws people closer to the policymaking process and enables them to have a say in what happens in their communities. A right that becomes more crucial as the country enters an era of new socio-economics controlled by oil companies and faceless corporations.

The second observation is if federalism is as bad as centralists claim then let it be dismantled by referendum and not by forced euthanization. It seems, in every scenario, centralists have no inclination for popular consultation because they fear the outcomes of referenda might be incompatible with their narrow agenda. And in here lies the danger, the closer FGS gets to achieve centralization the more the centralist base becomes comfortable with Mogadishu’s draconian approaches and illegal transgressions.

“See No Evil Hear No Evil” is the new political conditionality

Taxpayers in donor countries have a consistent desire to leverage aid and link it to good governance. In 2011 Eurobarameter surveyed 25,000 people from 27 donor countries and 90% of them stated that preserving human rights, democracy, and good governance should be essential prerequisite to aid. Historically, the International partners of Somalia have been vocal about the political transgressions of the past administration and used aid to modify dubious behaviour. Unfortunately, now priorities seem to shift and “see no evil hear no evil” culture has replaced the will to promote the protection of basic human rights.

The lack of effective political conditionality has emboldened the FGS to acquire despotic tendencies and get away with transgressions. Violations including illegal extraditions, political repressions and physical attacks on opposition individuals, travel restrictions on political activists, and the dismantling of the Federal Member States are all made possible by the reluctance to enforce conditionality. This precedent has serious repercussions not only how Somali citizens interact with the central government now but how governing practices are formulated in the future. Which raises the critical question; what exactly are the roles and responsibilities of International partners in Somalia? Because if donors are not catalysts for the protection of popular sovereignty and human rights then they are enabling the violators of both.

Where are we headed

Uncertainty is the keyword in the road ahead for Somalia says James Swan, the man replaced Nicholas Haysom as UN representative. While FGS controls, directly or indirectly, all state members of the federal government the centralization process is still incomplete because Jubaland and Puntland are still not accounted for. For the Centralists, things are on the right track and they believe what the FGS accomplished so far is an impressive feat considering the immense challenges Mogadishu had to overcome.

James Swan

What centralists don’t want to admit however is how the FGS is siphoning valuable resources intended for security and using it to euthanize the Federal member states while Al-Shabaab is re-inventing itself. In addition to that, the constitution is still incomplete and so far there is no coherent strategy for electoral reforms. Both Jubaland and Puntland states are also digging in and both polities might resort to desperate measures to maintain their autonomy. All of this fluidity is taking place as the country is on the cusp of ‘resource boom’ phase which has its own set of challenges and new types of conflicts.

So, to put it in simple terms, the FGS is so consumed with the desire to dismantle the system that put them in power that they are taking the country into a darkroom in the process. And because Mogadishu has been so good wrapping itself with the blue and five-star flag they face little dissent from the public so they are not in a hurry to turn the lights on in that darkroom. There is little doubt several serious challenges will emerge right after the forced transition from federalism to centralism is completed and the extraction of resources kicks off. And in all likelihood, Mogadishu won’t have the answers to these challenges because it simply did not plan that far ahead.

What we need to do

Despite the uncertainty, there is still a sense of optimism about Somalia’s future and one must admit the FGS has contributed a lot to that wishful aspiration. Paradoxically, the FGS is also casting an alarming precariousness about Somalia’s future by dismantling the federalism system without being transparent about the alternatives. To continue on the path of recovery Somalia needs sound policies based on consensus-building frameworks and transparency. FGS must recognize their capacity to coerce does not legitimize their authority, only consensus and cooperation will. Peddling in sanctimonious exhibitionism and feeding off narrow nationalism will only widen the ‘us’ against ‘them’ impasse. Mogadishu should instead invest in a culture of dialogue with the other. Current gathering between FSG and the forum or opposition parties is a good initiative but it should be a genuine effort, not a ploy to buy time.

Citizens of Somalia have the right to be informed about their government’s intentions and policies. The FGS is duty-bound to explain why Somalia should part away with federalism and rush into unstructured centralization when more pressing issues are not settled yet. Irrespective of their chances to win or not FGS must also hold the upcoming elections on time and don’t tamper with the existing election rules. Citizens must understand questioning the FGS is not going to diminish the sovereignty of the country, the two subjects are not mutually exclusive. They also should know patriotism is not blind submission to the will of the state, it’s about holding power to account and effect positive change through accountability.

Somalia also needs responsible opposition parties who have the capacity and the will to formulate innovative ideas. Effective opposition is about policies, not personalities, about improving not destroying what has already been built. To be the voice of the marginalized; opposition parties in Somalia must learn to listen to the will of the people. They must move away from carrying bullets in their pockets and embrace the utility of the law, constitution, and democratic principles. Regional leaders also must find alternative ways to close the gap with the FGS if they want to maintain their autonomy. They must provide transparent information to their constituents as well and clarify what are the core disagreements between them and the central government. They must also be prepared to compromise and recognize the right of the center to have a say in regional matters as stipulated in the constitution but above all, they must avoid involving foreign entities in Somalia’s affairs.

In the end, the constitution must be finalized as soon as possible. Somalia is a fragile state that is about to enter an extremely challenging phase. There is a high probability that the impending “resource boom” to turn into “resource curse” if elites don’t prepare the country very well. Finalizing the constitution is one of many essential steps that could prevent disputes over the ownership of natural resources and distribution of revenues from turning violent.

Abdusalam Salwe Awil Mohamed
Email:amsalwe@gmail.com Email: awil.bile@gmail.com 
Abdusalam Salwe @asalwe|               Awil Mohamed @awilbile

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