The issue of decentralization has been hotly debated in Somalia for the past decade. Following the collapse of the military dictatorship in 1991, few Somalis openly advocate for the return to a centralized authoritarian state that monopolizes power in Mogadishu.
For many Somalis, some form of decentralization is necessary. However, the most suitable model of decentralization for the country remains a matter of contention.
The Provisional Constitution of Somalia is clear on the issue, prescribing federalism as the most appropriate system of governance.
It stipulates, "Somalia is a federal, sovereign, and democratic republic founded on inclusive representation of the people and a multiparty system and social justice".
Federal member states, according to the Provisional Constitution, must be formed of two or more of the 18 administrative regions "as they existed before 1991". With slow progress on the implementation of federalism, however, the debate continues.
Somalia's political class appears to lack consensus and a comprehensive understanding of the concepts of 'federalism' and 'decentralization'. Federalism is commonly understood to represent the only alternative to unitarism.
Interestingly, many Somalis, following past experience, broadly associate the unitary state system with authoritarianism. There is little acknowledgement of alternative models of decentralization, including those within a unitary framework.
The most important driver of decentralization is a prevailing lack of trust in and among the Somali political elite. In the first decade of the independent Somali state, politics was centered in Mogadishu.
Although the country was democratic, many communities outside of Mogadishu were marginalized. In 1969, the military seized power. In response to growing repression, opposition groups were formed in order to depose President Mohamed Siyad Barre.
Also, decentralization is widely considered to offer Somalis greater participation and representation in government. Previous governments appointed governors to each region, and mayors and police commissioners to each city. There is strong demand for democratic participation - people want to elect their local, regional, and national leaders. Greater local democratic participation will act, it is commonly held, as a safeguard against under-representation in national politics.
Aspiring politicians have proven apt at exploiting the common desire for greater local participation and representation by conceptualizing clan-based fiefdoms before declaring themselves president.
Third, historically Somalis have been forced to travel to Mogadishu to acquire a passport or other vital services.
The desire for greater access to government services is often cited in the argument for greater decentralization in Somalia - Somali citizens should not be required to travel long distances to gain access to basic services that could be offered locally. Attempts to limit access to basic services are commonly viewed as further evidence of central government's desire to consolidate control over the country.
Besides domestic drivers, external stakeholders (neighbouring countries and the donor community) have had an influence on the model of governance suitable for Somalia. Neighbouring countries, particularly Ethiopia and Kenya, have not shied away from engagement in Somalia's national and sub-national politics.
Following independence in 1960, Somalia's leadership pursued aspirations for a Greater Somalia - what Kenya and Ethiopia referred to as 'irredentism' - seeking to unite all ethnic Somalis under one nation state. Both countries remain nervous about the re-emergence of the desire of greater Somalia.
The donor community has also demonstrated preference to a decentralized system of governance in Somalia. Many donors have, over the past decade, openly worked with sub-national entities.
The U.S. government formalized this approach in what it called the 'Dual Track Policy' in Somalia. Given the incapacity of Mogadishu-based governments to extend authority far beyond the capital and other major cities, the approach to working with non-central-state actors in Somalia can be explained in practical, as opposed to ideological, terms.
By working with sub-national actors, donors have gained significantly greater access to parts of Somalia not under the authority of the FGS. Still, and for better or worse, by working with regional administrations by-passing the government in Mogadishu donors have arguably legitimized the authority of sub-national actors at the expense of the FGS.
There is no system of governance that can provide a panacea to the overwhelming governance challenges Somalia has faced since the collapse of the state in 1991.
Lessons can be learned from other countries emerging from conflict to rebuild government but the Somali context is unique and, ultimately, sustainable solutions to its problems will also be unique. A major challenge is how to balance the contradictory trends within Somali society as both centrifugal and centripetal tendencies are strongly present in Somalia.
- Dr. Afyare Elmi is a HIPS Fellow and teaches political science at the Qatar University