|“Protracted State Collapse in Somalia: A Rediagnosis”
Review of African Political Economy (2003)
In October 2002, several hundred Somali political figures assembled for a national reconciliation process in the Kenyan town of Eldoret.1 This internationally-sponsored meeting is the latest in over a dozen external attempts since 1991 to broker a peace and revive central government in Somalia. The Eldoret process boasts several improvements over previous efforts – more unified support from external actors; more comprehensive representation of armed factions; and an agenda which emphasizes a long-term process focused on resolution of key issues of conflict rather than mere haggling over power-sharing. Despite these laudable features, however, the talks immediately encountered a host of all-too-familiar problems which threaten to undermine the peace process.2 While it is too soon to write off the Kenyan initiative, it is more likely than not that the talks will be added to the long list of unsuccessful efforts at national reconciliation in Somalia. Wagering on failure is a safe bet in the most protracted and comprehensive instance of state collapse in the contemporary era.
The repeated frustrations met by over a decade of reconciliation and state-building efforts in Somalia pose a puzzle and a problem. How is it possible that Somalia can remain so resistant to efforts to revive its central government? How do we explain the protracted nature of this extraordinary case of state collapse?3 These questions have special urgency in the context of the war on terrorism. Fears that Somalia’s collapsed state may be exploited by international terrorists have featured prominently in policy debates since September 11 and are a renewed concern following the terrorist attacks in Mombasa Kenya in November 2002.4
The conventional wisdom on Somalia’s crisis includes numerous explanations: that external diplomacy has been consistently misinformed and incompetent in mediation efforts; that Somali leaders have been irresponsible and myopic in their quest for power and their stubborn refusal to compromise; that external states such as Ethiopia conspire to perpetuate state collapse and warfare in Somalia for their own reasons; that collective fear of the re-emergence of a predatory state structure undermines public support for peace-building processes; and that the powerful centrifugal force of Somali clannism works against coalitions and central authority, making quests to rebuild a Western-style central state a fool’s errand.5 All of these theories have merit, and collectively they capture much of the Somali impasse.
Still, there are opportunities to advance our understanding of Somalia’s enduring crisis. This article seeks to do just that by drawing on several analytic tools which have not to date been systematically applied in the Somali setting.6 First, the study disaggregates the broad rubric of “state collapse” in Somalia into three inter-related but distinct crises – (1) the protracted collapse of central government, (2) protracted armed conflict, and (3) lawlessness.7 By breaking down Somalia’s crises in this manner, the interests of key actors are easier to inventory and assess. As will be seen, certain actors may have a stake in perpetuating one of these crises, but not necessarily all three, an important observation if we are to comprehend some of the complex political maneuvering by Somali elites.
Second, the analysis critically explores the proposition that the prolonged crisis in Somalia is not simply a product of diplomatic incompetence, missed opportunities, and external conspiracy, but also an outcome which has been actively promoted by certain political and economic interest groups within Somalia. The claim that protracted state collapse and armed conflict are actually the desired outcome for key constituencies – an opportunity from which to profiteer, not a crisis to be solved – is one of the basic tenets of the political economy of war literature which is generating a growing body of research on complex political emergencies in Africa and elsewhere.8 As this article will demonstrate, the analytic tools emerging from this approach are of considerable value in shedding light on Somalia’s crisis.
Third, special attention is paid to changes over time in the interests of Somali political and economic actors in state collapse. There are obvious explanatory advantages in moving beyond a static situation analysis of Somalia. Major changes in both the dynamics of these crises and the interests in perpetuating them have occurred since the early 1990s. Interests in warfare and lawlessness in particular are radically different today than in the early 1990s.9
Finally, the analysis considers the extent to which risk-aversion and risk management behavior helps to explain otherwise puzzling choices by Somali political actors. It argues that zones of protracted state collapse tend to produce risk-averse decision-making by political and economic actors which result in sub-optimal outcomes (such as continued absence of a central government) and missed opportunities.10
Disaggregating the Somali Crisis
Part of the trouble encountered by analyses of Somalia is the tendency to lump Somalia’s multiple crises into a single syndrome. This shorthand has had the unwanted effect of disguising what are in fact a number of distinct crises which can and do exist independent of one another, which have different dynamics requiring different remedies, and which pose different types of threats. Specifically, three distinct crises – state collapse, armed conflict, and lawlessness – must be disaggregated to be better understood and diagnosed.
Protracted and complete state collapse. This is the most dramatic and unique aspect of the Somali crisis. There has been no functional, central governing authority in Somalia since January 1991; efforts to re-establish a central state have been both numerous and unsuccessful. The most promising attempt was the Transitional National Government (TNG), announced in August 2000. Unfortunately, it has failed to become minimally operational, has not gained widespread bilateral recognition, and now appears increasingly irrelevant. Even at the regional, district, and municipal level, formal administrations that have periodically popped up throughout the country have tended to have relatively short shelf lives.
The terms “failed state” and “collapsed state” have become throw-away lines to describe a wide range of crises. In general, the terms describe a situation in which a central government has either lost control over a significant portion of real estate (territorial collapse), or has lost the ability or interest to exercise meaningful control over territory in which it has a physical presence (collapse of governing capacity) -- or both. By this set of criteria, dozens of countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, qualify as failed states.11 But in almost every other instance of state collapse, a weak, nominal central government has managed to maintain juridical sovereignty as a “quasi-state,” deemed to exist primarily because other states say so (Clapham 1996: 22). Somalia’s inability to pull together even the most minimalist fig-leaf of a central administration over the course of twelve years places the country in a class by itself among the world’s failed states. The fact that Somalia’s quarreling political elites have not been able to make such a cynical bargain among themselves – and there is little doubt that the TNG was driven by interests hoping to establish a paper state which would attract foreign aid but not follow through on the onerous task of rebuilding a functional administration -- is itself a puzzle.12 Somalia is, in an odd way, a failure among failed states.
The complete and sustained collapse of the central government in Somalia has created or contributed to numerous problems. But it is not inherently linked to other crises in Somalia, such as criminality and armed conflict. Indeed, Somalia has repeatedly shown that in some places and at some times communities, towns, and regions can enjoy relatively high levels of peace, reconciliation, security, and lawfulness despite the absence of a central authority. Moreover, a correlation between the existence of a functioning state authority and a state of peace and lawfulness is not borne out in the broader region. Somalis frequently and correctly point out that both criminality and deadly armed conflict are generally worse on the Kenyan side of the border, despite the existence of a sovereign state authority there. Those tempted to use Somaliland as evidence to challenge this proposition may be baffled to encounter the popular opinion in the northwest that Somaliland enjoys peace, reconciliation, lawfulness, and relative prosperity despite, not because of, the existence of a central government there. This is not to argue that a central state is unnecessary, or that the collapse of the state has not come at a high cost to Somalis. It is only to assert that one cannot attribute all of Somalia’s multiple woes to the collapse of the central government. One corollary to this observation is that strategies to address problems such as criminality and armed conflict in Somalia which presume that a revived central government is the solution are incomplete and likely to result in disappointment.
In fact, a case can be made that attempts to revive a central state structure have actually exacerbated armed conflicts. State-building and peace-building are, in this view, two separate and in some respects mutually antagonistic enterprises in Somalia. This is so because the revival of a state structure is viewed in Somali quarters as a zero-sum game, creating winners and losers in a game with potentially very high stakes (Menkhaus 1997:58). Groups (i.e., clans) which gain control over a central government will use it to accrue economic resources at the expense of others and to wield the law, patronage politics, and a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence to dominate the rest. This is the only experience of the central state Somalis have ever known, and tends to produce conflict and risk-aversion rather than compromise whenever an effort is made to negotiate the establishment of a national government. The spate of armed clashes which in 2002 rendered south-central Somalia more insecure and inaccessible than at any time in the past ten years was partially linked to political jockeying in anticipation of the IGAD peace talks.13 It is not the existence of a functioning and effective central government which produces conflict, but rather the process of state-building in a context of state collapse which appears to consistently exacerbate instability and armed conflict in Somalia.
State-building exercises have not only been a preoccupation at the national level; they have also been a factor at the sub-national level as well. A quick inventory of these sub-national administrations reveals four levels of polities – trans-regional, regional, district, and municipal. Only one – the secessionist state of Somaliland – has endured for more than a few years, but some have shown enough resilience and public support to warrant a closer look.
A number of regional and trans-regional authorities have come into existence in the past seven years, following the termination of the UNOSOM operation. Somaliland and Puntland are the only two such entities which have achieved much functional capacity, but a number of others -- the Rahanweyn Resistance Army’s administration of Bay and Bakool regions in 1998-2002 and the Benadir Regional Authority in 1996 – showed some initial promise. Strictly speaking, most of these regional and trans-regional polities are or were essentially clan homelands, reflecting a Somali impulse to pursue a “Balkan solution” (i.e., “clanustans”). Puntland’s borders, for instance, are explicitly drawn on clan lines, encompassing the territory of the Harti clans in the northeast and contested sections of Somaliland.14 Even authorities which appear to be based on a pre-war regional unit are often thinly disguised clan polities. The periodic proclamation of a “Hiranland,” for instance, is really an attempt by the Hawadle clan to declare and control their own autonomous political unit, even though their control extends only to the east bank of Hiran region (Menkhaus 1999).
In recent years, the fate of trans-regional and regional states in Somalia has been inversely related to the status of efforts to rebuild a national government. Trans-regional states in Somalia were at their high point in 1999, when both Somaliland and Puntland were operational and a nascent Rahanweyn administration in Bay and Bakool regions looked promising. The “building-block” approach to Somali state-building, a policy favored by external donors at the time, actively promoted these incipient states (Bryden 1999). Once the Djibouti-led Arta peace process began to promote a national government in 2000, however, the regional states declined in importance. Now, with the demise of the TNG, the building-block approach is regaining favor. Renewed efforts to form or consolidate regional states in coming years – almost certainly in Puntland, Bay and Bakool regions, and the Middle Shabelle region, and possibly in Hiran, Gedo, and the Kismayo area – are likely. If these regional states are formed as “clanustans,” however, they will trigger conflict and at worst ethnic cleansing. In southern Somalia -- where, thanks to decades of migration and settlement, much of the ethnic topography resembles the patchquilt of a Bosnia-Herzegovina rather than the ethno-state of Puntland -- the building-block approach is only viable if regional polities are ethnically heterogeneous experiments in co-existence and power-sharing rather than tools of ethnic hegemony.
The political administrative unit which has received the least amount of external support but which has produced the most actual day-to-day governance in Somalia is at the municipal and (in Mogadishu) neighborhood level. In the immediate post-UNOSOM period, this “radical localization” of politics tended to manifest itself mainly in informal, overlapping polities loosely held by clan elders and others (Menkhaus and Prendergast 1995). Over the course of the second half of the 1990s, these local polities often became more structured and institutionalized.15 A variety of different types of local polities have emerged in Somalia, but the most common manifestation has been a coalition of clan elders, businessmen, and Muslim clergy to oversee, finance, and administer a sharia court.
Several features of these sharia courts stand out. First, they have been widely embraced and supported by local communities as a means of restoring rule of law. Second, they have usually (though not always) remained under the control of traditional, moderate elements – the clan elders, the businessmen, and the sheikhs making up this system are usually staunchly opposed to radical Islamists. These sharia courts should therefore not be confused with a rising tide of radicalism in the country, though in some cases sharia courts in Mogadishu neighborhoods have been run by the radical group al-Ittihad (Le Sage 2001; Menkhaus 2002b:116). Third, these sharia court systems have remained eminently local in nature, rarely able to project their authority beyond a town or district level, and rarely able to exercise jurisdiction over clans which are not parties to the court administration. They thus offer rule of law within, but not between, clans, though they often facilitate inter-clan relations. Fourth, they have proven to be fragile and very susceptible to spoilers. Finally, they appear to come and go in cycles, and are currently in what appears to be an early phase of ascendance following a decline in the 1999-2001 period. Their current re-emergence in parts of southern Somalia is linked to the failure of the TNG and the related rise of insecurity, and is a reflection of local efforts to provide core functions of governance in a context of state collapse (ICG 2002a).
Whether the discussion is about the central state or sub-national administrations, an enormous gulf separates foreigners and Somalis in consideration of and conception of the central government. In fact, there is perhaps no other issue on which the worldviews of external actors and Somalis are more divergent than their radically different understanding of the state. For external actors, the conventional wisdom is that a responsive and effective state is an essential prerequisite for development, a perfectly reasonable proposition enshrined in virtually every World Bank and UN strategy on development. For Somalis, the state is an instrument of accumulation and domination, enriching and empowering those who control it and exploiting and harassing the rest of the population. These different perceptions of the state often result in external and national actors talking past one another rather than with one another in discussions about the rebuilding of the central government.
Protracted armed conflict. Somalia has been a zone of intermittent but not constant armed conflict since 1988. Armed clashes were most destructive and widespread in 1988-1992, when Somalia was in a genuine state of civil war. Since the UNOSOM intervention, Somalia’s armed clashes have been a source of disappointment but are generally localized, brief, and much less costly in terms of loss of life and damage to property. Some regions of the country – most notably Puntland – were almost entirely spared from war in the 1990s (WSP 2000), while other locations have enjoyed relatively long stretches of, if not peace, at least an absence of armed conflict since 1995. Armed conflict has thus not been synonymous with state collapse in Somalia. Peace can and does exist despite the absence of a central state. Likewise, the establishment of a central government would not be likely to eliminate armed conflict. Instead, it would transform at least some of the conflicts into insurrections, guerilla movements, or secessionist movements pitting government forces against rejectionsts.
Unfortunately the trend of diminished armed conflict in Somalia was reversed in 2002.16 Somalia’s multiple and in some instances fairly serious outbreaks of armed conflict from Gedo region to Puntland that year produced casualty levels which again qualify the country as a zone of civil war (Bryden 2002). As was noted above, these conflicts have been triggered by a number of factors, but some can be attributed to political maneuvering linked to the IGAD-sponsored peace talks in October. Collectively, they plunged southern and central Somalia into greater levels of insecurity than at any time since 1995 (Menkhaus 2002d).
Not only has the severity of warfare in Somalia changed since 1991-92; the nature of armed conflicts has changed over time as well. In the early 1990s, armed conflicts were mainly inter-clan in nature, pitting large lineage groups against one another. Initially, this meant warfare between the largest clan-families in the south – the Darood versus Hawiye. These wars were characterized by sweeping and fast-moving campaigns across much of southern Somalia from the outskirts of Mogadishu to the Kenyan border. The warring militias of the Darood SPM and SNA factions and the Hawiye USC faction often ceded or gained hundreds of kilometers of territory in a day in fighting waged mainly off the back of battlewagons known as technicals (Lyons and Samatar 1995: 22-23). Both sides committed atrocities – massacres and rape -- against civilians who had the misfortune of belonging to the wrong clan, or to a weak and defenseless clan caught in the middle of the war (Africa Watch 1992). Pillaging and looting of captured territory were an essential aspect of the warfare, providing war booty to otherwise unpaid militiamen, and enriching merchants of war who served as financial backers of their clan’s warlord.17
By late 1991, the centrifugal forces which have driven Somalia’s fragmentation led to a new and highly destructive phase of warfare, in which both the Hawiye and Darood clan-families fell into deadly internal quarrels. In Mogadishu, the split between the Abgal/Hawiye (led by self-declared president Ali Madhi) and Haber Gedir/Hawiye clans (led by Madhi’s rival General Hussein Farah Aideed, head of the USC/SNA) erupted into heavy warfare in November 1991. Extensive and often indiscriminate use of mortars and RPGs leveled much of the center of the capital and incurred thousands of casualties, and heavy fighting was waged to gain or hold single city blocks. To the south, tensions within the Darood culminated in an explosion of clashes in and around Kismayo, pitting Ogadeni/Darood clan militias led by Col. Omar Jess (the SPM/SNA) against the coalition of Marehan/Darood, Mijerteen/Darood, and other clansmen in General Morgan’s SPM.
One of the most significant trends of armed conflict since 1992 has been the continuing devolution of warfare to lower and lower levels of clan lineages. With a few exceptions, such as the Rahanweyn clashes with Haber Gedir occupying militias in Baidoa in 1996, most armed conflicts since 1995 have consisted of extended family feuds. Clashes which periodically rock parts of Mogadishu are now almost always within the Abgal or Haber Gedir clans, not between them. Indeed, recent clashes in the Medina neighborhood involve competing leaders and militias from within a single sub-clan of the Abgal. Likewise, the Haber Gedir clan has long since ceased to be a cohesive political unit; splits between the Ayr, Sa’ad, Suleiman and other sub-clans animate most of the fighting and political intrigue within the Haber Gedir. Other clans have followed suit. The Rahanweyn now fight among themselves in Baidoa, not against their hegemonic neighbors the Marehan and Haber Gedir; and the fighting which plagues Gedo region is a deadly intramural squabble of the Marehan clan (UN 2002c: para 7-11).
The fragmentation of warfare in Somalia into much lower levels of lineage identity over time has many implications. It has meant that warfare has become much more localized; clashes are contained within a sub-clan’s territory or neighborhoods. Conflicts are shorter in duration and less deadly, in part because of limited support from lineage members for such internal squabbles, in part because clan elders are in a better position to intervene, and in part because ammunition is more scarce. Conflicts are somewhat less predictable, often precipitated by a series of incidents involving theft or other misdemeanors. Atrocities against civilians are now almost unheard of, as combatants are much more likely to be accountable in subsequent clan reconciliation processes. Pillaging and looting are no longer as common, in part because little territory is gained or lost in localized clashes, and in part because commodities worth stealing are generally in the hands of businessmen with paid security forces protecting them. “Warlords” have become less of a factor, as only a few have funds to pay a militia, and even those which do find it harder to manipulate clannism in a context of increased (and renewed) inter-linkages between clans for commercial purposes.18 Since 1999 businessmen in Mogadishu who had previously provided funds to warlords in their clan have refused to pay, instead funding their own militias. These salaries are generally quite low – a dollar or two per day per militiaman. With few exceptions, gunmen fight for whomever will pay them, not for a clan or a cause – though in the event the clan is under attack, clan elders will mobilize gunmen for temporary purposes. The paucity of opportunities to loot, and the low salaries offered to militiamen, means that the status and earning power of a gunman is not what it used to be in Somalia, prompting a gradual, spontaneous demobilization by militiamen, and reducing incentives for the new generation of young teens to take up arms as a form of employment. It has, however, increased problems of lawlessness, especially kidnapping for ransom – a topic discussed below.
International efforts to negotiate an end to these armed conflicts are uncommon. Instead, reconciliation efforts are generally the domain of clan elders, with the international community simply suspending aid operations in battle zones until security for staff is deemed adequate. The main exception is the role Ethiopia has unsuccessfully attempted to play in mediating armed clashes between Ethiopian clients. Otherwise, external mediation tends to focus on state-building, not peace-building, despite the fact that the average Somali needs and benefits more immediately from a state of peace than a revived central government.
Lawlessness and criminality. The third crisis facing Somalia is lawlessness and criminality. An enduring stereotype linked to Somalia’s protracted state collapse is the “Mad Max” anarchy of young, armed gunmen riding battlewagons and terrorizing citizens. Concerns about transnational criminals or terrorists exploiting Somalia’s lack of law enforcement capacity have long been raised as a global security issue, a concern heightened in the aftermath of September 11. The collapse of the state has in fact created conditions ripe for lawless behavior, just as outbreaks of armed conflict also create an environment conducive to opportunistic criminality (looting, rape). But Somalia has repeatedly shown that even in a context of state collapse and armed conflict, informal systems of governance can insure rule of law and in some instances exceptionally high levels of personal security. In fact, one of the most intriguing paradoxes of contemporary Somalia is how dramatically and quickly rule of law and personal security can change. A town or neighborhood which is notoriously bandit-ridden can within a year boast stalls of street-corner money-changers and open roads; likewise, towns lauded for their peace and security can fall quickly into lawless criminality.
Where Somali communities have been able to establish and maintain a high level of lawful behavior and personal security, it has almost always been accomplished either by clan customary law (xeer), enforcement of blood payments (diya) for wrongs committed, or application of Islamic law by local sharia courts. The latter complements rather than replaces traditional sources of law. Several necessary but not sufficient conditions must obtain for customary law to successfully maintain order. One is the restoration of authority and responsibility of clan elders, who negotiate all disputes. A second is the establishment of a rough balance of power within local clan groupings. The capacity of a lineage to seek revenge for a wrong committed is critical in inducing other clans to seek settlement of disputes through customary law. Very weak and powerless clans (including the minority or low-caste clans) rarely enjoy the protection of an enforced customary law; the best such lineages can do is seek client status with a more powerful clan and hope that that clan fulfills its obligations. In this sense, both lawful and predatory behavior in contemporary Somalia is much better understood through the lens of international relations theory – as patterns of cooperation and conflict in a context of anarchy. Clans constantly seek a rough balance of power both to avoid being overrun and to enhance enforcement of customary law and routinized patterns of cooperation, reinforced by repeated adherence by all sides -- what international relations theorists would call “regimes.”
Like armed conflict, lawlessness in Somalia has changed considerably over the course of the 1990s. The early years of civil war – from 1988 to 1992 – featured a level of impunity and gratuitous violence which has long since passed. Wholesale looting, rape, and murder associated with armed clashes simply do not occur. Violent crimes and thefts are much more likely to be addressed via customary law and blood payments than before, serving both as a deterrent to would be criminals and reassurance to communities that criminals cannot commit crimes with complete impunity. Neighborhoods and towns (often of mixed clan composition) have in some places organized the equivalent of “neighborhood watch” systems, sometimes absorbing former young gunmen into paid protection forces. Vigilante justice is not unknown against both individual criminals and gangs – often by their own kinsmen.19 Militia gangs which terrorized villages in the early 1990s have increasingly “settled down,” making arrangements to “tax” a portion of village harvests in return for protection (Marchal 1997). These protection rackets and Mafioso behavior are hardly ideal, and sometimes engender local resistance, but do provide a more predictable security environment for local communities. In some cases, these arrangements have moved into a curious gray area between extortion and taxation, between protection racket and nascent police force.
Importantly, rule of law in Somalia was in the past never associated with formal judiciary and police. Most of the law and order Somalia enjoyed prior to the late 1980s – and Somalia was unquestionably one of the safest places in Africa – was a reflection of social contract more than the capacity of the police. Most Somalis took their legal disputes to a local sheikh or elder for mediation or adjudication, rather than to a court of law. The extensive and costly capacity-building efforts of international aid agencies to support police and judiciaries throughout Somalia often presume they are rebuilding a set of institutions when actually they are trying to make them functional for the first time.
Lawless behavior in contemporary Somalia remains a serious problem, especially in the more troubled south. Ironically, the most egregious crimes (if measured in value stolen or lives lost) are committed by many of the top political and business leaders whom the international community convenes for peace conferences. This includes incitement of deadly communal violence for narrow political purposes, embezzlement of foreign aid funds, introduction of counterfeit currency into circulation (which, by creating hyperinflation, robs average Somalis of most of their savings), huge land grabs by force of arms, export of charcoal (illegal in the past government and highly destructive), and involvement in piracy, among others. This criminal behavior tends to get less attention than street crimes such as carjackings, murders, and kidnappings which are usually perpetrated by gangs or individuals and which are at epidemic proportions in some places, but which pale in comparison to the cost of the “white collar crimes” of their political and business leadership.
One of the most troubling and growing types of crime affecting both international agencies and local Somalis is kidnapping. It is most common in Mogadishu, but not unheard of elsewhere. Kidnapping falls into several different categories. The most common is kidnapping for profit, and has exploded as a major criminal activity because kidnapping currently is one of the few profitable ventures for Mogadishu street criminals. This tends to target Somali nationals who are linked to a likely source of funds, such as a job with an international agency or family members in the diaspora. UN agencies have been especially plagued by kidnappings of national staff in recent years. Somalis from weak or minority clans are especially vulnerable to this predatory behavior, which often yields only a small ransom (as low as a few hundred dollars). The scarcity of employment and opportunities for looting have made kidnapping an obvious alternative income-generating activity for armed gangs, a few of whom have come to specialize in kidnapping. There is evidence that in some cases these gangs exchange kidnap victims to more powerful warlord for a fee, at which point the warlord assumes the risk of negotiating for a ransom. Clan elders who mediate the release of the kidnapping victim also routinely receive a “cut” of the ransom for their services, giving them a stake in the industry.20
A second type of kidnapping involves debtors who have defaulted on or repeatedly postponed repayments. Somalis lend and borrow an extraordinary amount of money to one another, as part of the extensive web of mutual obligations that are at the heart of lineage-based societies. Not surprisingly, rates of default are also quite high. Kidnapping in these cases involves the ultimate collateral – the debtor himself – whose family must scrape together the funds to secure his release. Some high-visibility kidnappings, including of some MPs and ministers in the TNG, have been debt collection actions. Third, kidnapping is in some instances a political tool, designed to frighten off international agencies or humiliate a political opponent by demonstrating his incapacity to control an area he claims to administer. The dramatic kidnapping of UN and international NGO staff members in north Mogadishu in March 2001 was executed by a warlord and explicitly intended to humiliate the TNG and expose its inability to provide international aid workers with security, in order to scuttle a proposed establishment of a UN peacebuilding presence in Mogadishu. A more recent form of kidnapping has involved militias targeting wealthy businessmen from their own clan in order to finance armed attacks. Those businessmen once funded the militias but have since 1999 refused to do so, which explains this otherwise puzzling practice. Whatever the motive, internationals traveling and working in parts of southern Somalia are now at a considerable risk of kidnapping, one of the main reasons that aid agencies have cut back so substantially on the number of international staff members in the field.
What is surprising is the fact that Somalia’s state of lawlessness has not attracted the level of transnational criminality one might expect. In principle, the protracted collapse of any formal law-enforcement capacity in Somalia should be an attractive safe haven for a wide range of criminal elements – terrorists, smugglers (of drugs, guns, people, and other contraband), money-launderers, pirates, and criminals on the run -- seeking to position themselves beyond the reach of the law. In reality, Somalia has to date proven to be relatively inhospitable terrain for international criminals (Bryden, 2002; ICG 2002a). Foreign criminals are at the mercy of the same sources of insecurity which plague international aid workers – they are prone to extortion, threats, and betrayal from Somali hosts seeking to profit from their presence, and their activities and whereabouts poorly kept secrets among Somalis, who are extremely alert to the agendas of foreigners in their land. Somalia is a reminder that mafias and other organized crime flourish not where rule of law is absent but rather where rule of law is thoroughly corruptible. Nonetheless, misuse of Somalia’s lawless environment by external criminals and terrorists should and will remain an item of enduring concern. If it is proven that Somali territory was used as a base for the Mombasa terrorist attacks in November 2002, or that the Somali Islamist organization Al-Ittihad was involved in the attack, these concerns will become front-burner issues. The greatest threat of terrorist exploitation of Somalia’s collapsed state will almost certainly be not as a fixed operational base but as a short-term point of transit for men, money, and materiel into other states in the Horn of Africa (Menkhaus 2002a).
Explanations of Somalia’s protracted crises part into two distinct but not entirely antithetical camps over a key question: are the crises enduring despite the fact that key Somali constituencies would benefit from peace and government or because key interests are served by prolonging a state of collapse, war, and lawlessness? Most diplomatic initiatives have presumed the former, an analysis which logically leads to certain prescriptive actions ranging from civil society peace-building workshops to national reconciliation conferences – all designed to promote greater understanding and communication. The latter proposition – that the protracted Somali crisis actually reflects the interests and objectives of key actors – suggests that there is a method to the madness, that a certain level of rationality, expressed in pursuit of well-defined individual or group interests, is driving the Somali crisis. How feasible is it to conclude that Somalia’s triple crises of state collapse, armed conflict, and lawlessness have endured because that is the outcome which key players seek?21
When one considers the evidence of the past decade in Somalia in light of the political economy of war theory, several things become clearer. First, there is an impressive but shrinking set of actors whose interests are served by protracted conflict and lawlessness, and who appear to actively and successfully promote both. But there are not many Somali players who clearly benefit from complete state collapse, though some nonetheless scuttle efforts to revive a central state. The “war economy” theory is thus of real use in explaining part, but not all, of the Somali debacle. Finally, the closer one looks at both interests and behavior in Somalia over time, the more apparent it is that the interests of some social and economic groups have changed considerably over time, prompting in some instances marked changes in behavior toward state-building and peace-building projects. This malleability of interests in Somalia may constitute one of the most important opportunities for external actors seeking to promote peace and rule of law there. To the extent that interests, not identity, are increasingly at the root of Somalia’s crises, and to the extent that interests of key players can be shaped or reshaped, external actors may be able to better promote peacebuilding in Somalia.22
One useful aspect of this approach is that it forces us to conduct an inventory of actors in Somalia, organized not only around the question “whose interests are served by conflict, state collapse, and/or lawlessness?” but also around the question “whose interests matter?” The latter question highlights the central issue of power, or -- more precisely -- veto power.
There has in fact been a fairly substantial shift in the rise and fall of different political actors in Somalia since 1991. Factions, for instance, have virtually disappeared from the political landscape, a remarkable fact considering they were the centerpiece of reconciliation efforts for over six years in the early to mid-1990s. Warlords and militia leaders are with few exceptions much less powerful than they were in the early years of the crisis. Conversely, businessmen have emerged as a major political force in urban centers and now operate with considerable, though not complete, autonomy from clans and warlords in pursuit of their interests. Clan elders have also gradually reasserted their authority, and civil society leaders play a more robust (though still modest) role.
Despite the rising and falling fortunes of specific groups of actors in Somalia, one fact has remained relatively constant – that is, there is a wide range of players who are not necessarily powerful enough to shape a peace accord or government, but who enjoy the ability to veto political developments they do not like. In the current Somali environment – one featuring a very high level of communal distrust and accumulated grievances, a zero-sum attitude toward revival of the central state, a highly-armed society, a corps of frustrated, unemployed gunmen, and weakened and sometimes corruptible social authority of clan elders -- it takes relatively little to scuttle peace talks or render an administration stillborn. Promising local and regional initiatives to seal a peace between warring clans or operate a local sharia court administration have frequently been torpedoed by a small gang of gunmen, a single warlord, or a group of clan elders corrupted by small bribes. Thus the answer to the question “whose interests matter?” is that a broad section of Somali society possesses veto power over state-building, peace-building, and law enforcement. This makes negotiating towards those objectives all the more difficult, and means that mediators need to take great care to insure that proposed power-sharing and resource-sharing formula are acceptable to a very wide range of actors, some of whom may not have enough political legitimacy or clout to attend a peace conference but who nonetheless retain enough power to sabotage the results. When one adds to this calculation the numerous external actors who possess the interests and capacity to play spoiler of political developments they do not like (Ethiopia is the most obvious but not sole example), the task of brokering an accord becomes even more challenging.
Spoilers in Somalia come in three types. One type are actors who seek to undermine efforts at state-building or peace-building because they are unsatisfied with the size of the pie they were accorded. These can be individuals or whole clans. For instance, the Eldoret peace talks in Kenya have been bogged down by grievances over levels of representation by clan. These are “situational” spoilers, who in some instances have legitimate grievances (though in most cases their motive is greed) and who in theory can be bought in to a state-building venture with appropriate concessions. A second type are “intrinsic” spoilers. These are actors with a fundamental interest in maintaining a state of lawlessness, state collapse, and/or armed conflict. War criminals are the most obvious candidates, but a host of other social and economic groups – young gunmen, merchants of war, individuals and groups holding valuable state and private assets which they would likely lose were government and peace re-established – can also fall into this category. Whole clans have benefited from armed occupation and settlement of towns and valuable riverine land in southern Somalia over the course of the war, and will be unlikely to accept accords which require relinquishing those spoils of war (Besteman and Cassanelli 1996). It is this set of interests that the political economy of war theory is best suited to explain.
A final and more complex set of spoilers are those whose opposition to state-building and peace-building initiatives are driven by risk-aversion. They could potentially benefit from peace and governance and rule of law, but face such a high level of uncertainty about the impact those developments would have on their interests that they choose a sub-optimal but safe route of scuttling initiatives which might alter an operating environment which, while not ideal, is at least familiar and in which they have learned to profit. Some of the major businessmen in Mogadishu who are believed to be quietly subverting the TNG fall into this category.