A Decentralized Approach to Augmenting Somali Governance

The problem of poor governance lies at the heart of Somalia’s famine and its problems with criminality including piracy. In this regard, this week’s Foreign Affairs contains two articles concerning governance failures in Somalia. Each article critiques the Transition Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu and suggests the solution to governance is a more decentralized approach. First, Kenya’s President Kibaki writes:

A new round of talks should recognize that ethnic and tribal differences in Somalia are not easily bridgeable. Thus, efforts to support and reform the TFG must be accompanied by a determined effort to decentralize power to Somalia’s different ethnicities and geographies.

While recognizing the need to engage with the TFG, Kibaki presages a federal structure whereby each political subdivision retains considerable autonomy. The second article provides a more extreme view, suggesting the U.S. and UN give up on the TFG altogether. In this article, two members of the Atlantic Council, Bronwyn Bruton and J. Peter Pham, provide a devastating assessment of the TFG’s prospects for success:

This year, the TFG and UN mediators agreed to create a road map for accomplishing these tasks and decided to prioritize local elections. This was a clever move, since doing so will delay presidential and parliamentary elections, leaving the current president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament safely in their seats. Given the inability of the president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, to collaborate with any faction outside of his presidential compound, it is unlikely that even municipal elections will take place. The road map has probably done little more than postpone the inevitable reckoning by one more year.

As a result, governance in Somalia remains highly fractured and lends itself to continued fighting:

The weakness of both al Shabab and the TFG has produced a confusing security vacuum in Mogadishu that appears to be spreading outside of the capital. As both the TFG and al Shabab falter, Somalia’s watchful clans have stepped into the fray. Various militias, including some led by the warlords who infamously stole food relief and tortured Somalia’s population during the 1991 famine, are vying for control.

Bruton and Pham therefore propose a pragmatic policy they call  “earned engagement”:
[G]overnmental entities, regional authorities, clans, and civil society organizations — would be accorded equal access to international resources, but only to the extent that they prove themselves capable of meeting defined benchmarks and of absorbing the assistance that would be provided them for relief and development. Al Shabab leaders who renounced al Qaeda, promised regional cooperation, and focused on providing for their clan constituencies would be prime targets for engagements, while militant jihadists would be excluded.
To date, the U.S. has actively supported the TFG while engaging with break-away regions, such as Puntland and Somaliland, without acknowledging the independence of the latter. Bruton and Pham suggest engaging instead the clans that form the basis of Somali society, with an immediate goal of disempowering al Qaida. But they also suggest that the provision of humanitarian aid would be more effective and more likely to actually reach the intended recipients through clan leaders.
Considering the TFG has another year to produce some tangible progress, the international community should start engaging with the clans and other break-away regions now. If the TFG fails to produce, the case for continuing to support it becomes ever weaker.
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