Somalia: On the Centralist- Federalist Debate

Rash moments and regret

Sometimes we impulsively legitimize hateful words: hardliner, sectarian, clanist, Islamist, anarchist. At times, we utilize these words quite idly, at other times whimsically. We cock it and unleash it against opinions we don’t like, don’t agree with, or do not comport to our prejudices and caprices. In those rash moments, we feel we are the world, and every opinion must oblige our thinking. We feel we are the way; we are the truth. And the attendant overweening sense of own moral impeccability puts us in an undesirable situation.  We make errors in Judgment. We make mistakes. No one is immune to this. Last week, it was my turn.

In my response to Abdi Aynte’s article “The Kismaayo Conundrum”, I implied that Aynte’s views on Kismaayo were shaped by clan loyalty, and not by objective analysis of facts. This was wrong. I have no evidence of Aynte’s clannishness. Not in his articles, not as a person. His analysis may have been faulty, in my opinion. But I should never have doubted his objectivity, because one could actually be objective and faulty at the same time. I have since unreservedly apologized to Aynte.

Having cleared my conscience with this overdue apology, I wish to go into the main theme of this installment.

The missing debate

Somalia may have already adopted a federal system of governance, but the debate over whether a unitary or a Federal system is the antidote to the country’s governance malaise or appropriate to its social and political realities is far from over.

There is one problem though. In the current debate, federalism, by and large, is presented as the sole system with decentralized fiscal and administrative structures. A unitary state can also have these arrangements. By cross-fertilizing the two systems, it is possible to come up with a unitary system where legislative authority is centralized while fiscal and administrative powers are decentralized. This possibility is not well presented in the national debate. In unitary states with fiscal and administrative decentralization, the constitutional authority is vested in the national government and power delegated to regions or sub-national bodies may be retrieved. In Federal systems, the power regions exercise is inherently guaranteed by the constitution – it is not delegated – and therefore it cannot be repossessed by the central state.

The debate in Somalia – unlike in other countries – rarely discusses the putative virtues and vices of the two systems. Theoretical and empirical arguments for and against each system are not presented; the efficacy and policy payoffs of the two systems is not hypothesized. The debate does not sufficiently interrogate the implications of these systems on social justice, rule of law, citizen participation, national integrity, peace and democracy. Nor does it probe which system has the strongest causal relation and correlation with good governance.

Sectarian texture

Predictably, the debate assumes a characteristic sectarian texture, giving the opposing views an unmistakable clan identity. Blogger Matt Freear somewhat captures this regional/clan dichotomy: “for many around Mogadishu, Federalism of any kind is seen as the dissolution of a proud sense of united Somali nationhood, an assault on historical Hawiye clan dominance, a general fear of losing power, or misunderstanding of how federalism can work. For others, it is the only glue that will hold a damaged country together”.

This clear-cut grouping does not always hold, but in general terms, it reflects the present division line, although the reference to “an assault on Hawiye clan dominance” is misleading, unless Freear is talking about the last two decades. In reality, the “dominance” of the last two decades – in the form of more Presidents coming from Hawiye clan – really did not mean much at the national stage, as these Presidents rarely controlled areas outside Mogadishu. Therefore, to call it a historical “dominance” is not correct.

The divisions outlined by Freear notwithstanding, centralist Somalis who hail from all regions and clans, worry – with strong justifications – that because of the schismatic propensity of the Somali society, federalism could be used as subterfuge for tribalism by self-seeking regional politicians. These centralists fear that tolerating and naturalizing tribalism under the guise of regionalism would eventually lead to the disintegration of the country.

Federalists contend that Mogadishu is no longer a national capital where all citizens have equal rights. With grisly memories of the civil war still fresh in their minds, the Federalists are not prepared to trust national leaders, especially when these leaders happen to be from Mogadishu. Cynicism, skepticism, paranoia, and conspiracy theories pervade the national political landscape.

The Politics of Otherness

In the ongoing national debate, the risks of a centralized unitary state have been scrutinized and expounded more intensely than the dangers of federalism. Federalists fear Mogadishu’s domination and encroachment, but ignore the potential threat independent regional states pose to national cohesion and possibly national security in a context where politicians tend to put clan interest before country well-being.

For instance, during the transitional period, there was a perception that President Faroole of Puntland was using the Federal constitution to browbeat the national government into doing nothing or into acquiescing to his demands, although not all of his demands were unreasonable. If regions obsessively feel different to one another or to the center or conversely become indifferent to the concerns of the other or the center, a politics of alterity or otherness takes root.  Such politics of alterity or otherness is dangerous because it emphasizes the rights of “the region” but neglects the “region’s” national obligation – as a constituent member of the Federal Republic of Somalia – which is to be accountable to the center.

This politics of otherness – manifested by un-assimilative political tendencies of regions and recurrent region-center acrimonies – will likely escalate as more and more regional States enter the political scene and competition over national resources intensifies.

It follows that while centralization of power in Mogadishu may lead to discontent and perpetuate sectarian divisions, unregulated regionalization would lead to the waning of national identity and pride, and the disintegration of the country in the long-run. Therefore, the dangers of regionalization outweigh the risks of centralization.

But, ultimately, what matters most for Somalia is not the typology of the governance system. What matters is the existence of visionary and accountable leadership at all levels, the presence of citizens with solid civic loyalty to Somalinimo, and the existence and quality of national and regional governance institutions.

Federalism as an expedient arrangement

Nowadays, federalism is the dominant global normative theory of governance favoured by academics, politicians, and policy makers across the political spectrum. However, there are no conclusive evidences that indicate that federalism is more efficient or leads to better governance than a unitary state. In fact, some comparative studies have shown that federal systems generally tend to derogate the quality of public policy and bureaucratic efficiency and result in the adoption of suboptimal policies, as infinite compromises are sought to address competition between sub-national entities.

In my opinion, in the long run, Somalia does not need a Federal system because it has a relatively small population, and is too fragile and too homogenous. However, in the current context of clan mistrust and bitterness, the Federal system can be used as an expedient arrangement – a temporary waiting station – towards a unitary state with fiscal and administrative decentralization.


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