somali-days by burningmax @ flickr

For almost four years now I’ve been a careful observer of Somali politicians. For three of those years I was paid to try to be their lawyer. To provide them expert international legal assistance tied to a deep network full of some of the finest international practitioners and thinkers in the world. But they rarely, if ever, wanted that help. So largely I invented work, I went into meetings and had a product to sell. I can’t buy you new computers, but I how about I help you write that legal framework that Parliament has required you to do?

I’ve spent a lot of time with Somali politicians, and I also spend a lot of time with other people who spend a lot of their time with Somali politicians. This is an expat’s life when you live in a pretty small town. I reference Hargeisa, a town of, oh, 500,00 to 1M people depending on who’s estimating as a small town.

And that it truly is. This is one of the most amazing things when you really get to know an African town. To learn how inter-connected things are is fascinating. This is what makes me do something foolish like invest everything I have into starting a law firm in a country which has very little (if any) law. Judges routinely dismiss cases with little to no justification. Parliamentarians make no estimates, and rarely even discuss, what the effects of this law will be in the next month, much less the next year – so legislation (a lot of it quite decent) is routinely ignored.

And yet things work. I don’t believe in libertarianism – much to my father’s chagrin – it is incredibly unjust and inefficient. But I can say the Somalis are teaching me how to respect it, and how to work within its boundaries. I know a little but more importantly I truly care deeply about this place. I have spent more time in this place than I had in any one place since I was in college. I have joined, in many ways, the ranks of the diaspora (only the opposite way that that term is used).

For a long time, when I first arrived, it seemed like no one really got what the hell was happening down here. See Nairobi is a long way away. And after the 2008 Hargeisa bombings, when pretty much all of the expats left the connections between Hargeisa and Nairobi were even more tenuous. So a disconnect really felt like it developed. Luckily, over the course of the previous year it has felt like “Nairobi” is starting to get it. I don’t agree with everything I’m hearing coming out of the high level cluster meetings and typical other rumor mill stuff, but I must say that I agree with a lot of it (see, e.g., this initiative by the UK’s government).

I did not think that a harder military strategy off the coast would reduce piracy. I really felt that a tribunal in Somaliland along with a huge police building effort in Puntland was the best possible shot at fixing things (basically pirate DDR is what needs to happen); I still feel this needs to happen, but the military situation seems to be putting a recent damper on the number of attacks. So they may be right, they may be wrong, but at least they aren’t dead wrong. Not the way they were dead wrong in the early nighties when everyone that knew anything about Somalia would tell you how clearly wrong some of the actions were.

Nairobi (by which I mean the big money and big – even if distant – powers), seems to be starting to understand two things: there has to be some element of external assistance to stabilize the situation, BUT the Somalis want to have assurances that this isn’t an invasion or their territorial fires start overheating. To do that largely means staying the hell out of the politics BUT also helping to create the conditions of stability long enough for the Somalis to figure out how they will be represented and what the terms are – which can often take months or years – even where you have a majority clan conferences these things take lots of time.

Most Somali analysts are quick to point out that the reason the South cannot seem to fix itself is that the Italians castrated the clan leader system. The problem has been for a long time that no one had the moral authority – among the Southern clans – to stand up to the gangsters that kept hijacking clan resources, state resources, international resources. They just continued to gobble them up like locusts and when they reached an end to their resources they just started gobbling each other. From the early warlord phase into the ICU takeover this is what continued happening.

But a couple of other things were happening also beneath the surface of that. For twenty years there seems to have been an identity crisis within much of the Somali community. This identity, just like lots of things in our lives, runs to the safest place it can find when it is threatened. For most Somalis that is somewhere around one or two or three or four or five clans below the major clan level. It varies by the individual and their experience where this safe place is. One thing I can say for sure, that for most people I’ve met in four years Northerners, Southerners, Easterners and Westerners, for the vast vast percentage of these people that place is no where even close to the pan-Somali level. This is and will for a long time remain the invalidity in the argument that the pan-Somali movement was a viable option without a dictator.

Even after twenty years Somaliland politicians bicker nearly continuously; lack of trust within Somaliland is rife. The same can be said, only the distrust rises as you go clockwise around the circle.This deep distrust is deep seated in Somali lore going back to way before the mad mullah. By the time you get to Isaaq’s grandsons, they were already fighting with each other. I don’t like all my cousins, but I certainly know I’m not ready to fight with them.

Luckily the Somalilanders – at the end and often despite this distrust – they make it work. Things haven’t fallen apart here and actually are going pretty well. It has taken a long time to solidify the post-conflict gains and to begin the development phase of their state building, but it is going. And, perhaps more importantly, it is going at a Somali pace. Somaliland really did have to retract after it separated from the South into basically a federated microstate solution. Sure there was a central government created at the Burco conference. But the amount of power and influence of that government was marginal. One cannot compare the power that Silanyo has with the power that Tuur had. The central government was present, but it has taken almost two decades of steady work before anyone gives it any mind about being anything other than a minor inconvenience.

This is another incredibly fascinating thing about being here now, this is the point where the Somaliland Government is really figuring itself and really trying to exert some will.

This gets us to the microstate solution. In my view, it should be endorsed as it is probably the best viable option currently. Some of the donors seem to be realizing that – as reflected in much of the language coming from the UK as well as the US’s two-track policy shift. In my opinion, the donors need to throttle back the incentives for state capture. When the mandate for the TFG ends UNDP needs to have the political courage to stop paying Parliamentarian salaries, and other than emergency aid the rest of the money flowing into the South needs to end. Then the donors need to let the Somalis work from their grassroots (microstate) levels up.

Equal with this the Somalis have to take ownership. They really have to stop blaming all of their problems on the international community and take ownership for their own mistakes. I can fully accept many Somalis gripes about the prior actions of external actors. And I fully understand their paranoia about external interventions in their problems. But equally they have to trust a bit more. And they have to take a lot more ownership. This is, at its most elemental, a Somali problem, and they have to be the ones to figure the solutions out.

I am cautiously optimistic about London Conference. A lot of the right things appear to being said. We will see what will happen but if the donors really wanted to get to the roots of the problems, they need to just shut up and they need to hold their next conference in a place which is neutral enough to get all of the important-to-Somalis people under a great big, giant ass tree and then they need to not show up and to not pay. And then let them stay there until they figure it out. It will take a hell of a long time, but it will get done.

It has taken the fine work of a lot of Somalis and Westerners for the awareness to be sufficiently raised as to why we’re here and what the hell can we do about it. I must say for the first time in a while I’m cautiously optimistic about all of the Somali region.

For more perspective on the London Conference here are a few articles I thought highly incisive, particularly from the Somaliland view point: Article 1, Article 2.