Thursday, December 01, 2022
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Federalism in Somalia: Challenges Unpacked

By Muse Duale Aden

What would it take to make federalism a reality in the country?

Somalia adopted federalism on 1 August 2012 through the constitutional assembly as a “holding together” device in the face of internal conflict. Somalia is not the only African country in the post – Cold War that seriously considers addressing diversity and conflict through a federal arrangement. The Somali arrangements in the draft constitution are expected to respect the internal diversity and bring a solution to enduring conflict, most of which is nowadays related to clan-related issues. Moving from a unitary state to federalism, however, it is a daunting task that requires systemic transformation and considering the issues blocking the progress in introducing federalism. The aim of this write-up is to critically review some of the reasons behind the slow progress and formulate recommendations concerning a pathway forward to advance the agenda on implementation of the federalist structures and arrangements in Somalia. 

Although some progress in Somalia has been made over the past few years – e.g., the central government and the federal member-state governments have been established – progress seems to have stalled. Critical issues like the organization of the security forces, elections, power-sharing arrangements, and the associated coordination structures as well as resource sharing arrangements are all still to be fully agreed upon. Although many people claim that it is because of a lack of understanding of what federalism is about, I believe the lack of progress is only partially linked to a misunderstanding of federalism per se, and much more to other political and economic interests of the different parties in the ‘political and state-building game’ in Somalia.

The constituent parts of Somalia gained independence in 1960 from the Italy and United Kingdom on 1 July and 26 June 1960 to form the Somali Republic, as a unitary state. In 1991 the Somali Republic collapsed due to many reasons, but fundamentally related to high levels of inequality with excessive concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few (fueled by corruption) and the exclusion of the larger part of society from any meaningful (political) decision-making. The resulting chaos subsequently became more and more a clan-based civil war with multiple ‘security forces’ emerging in the country. In the absence of agreed on security arrangements, the emerging cross-border security issues could not be controlled and provoked international reaction.

Some people claim federalism is something new and very recent. This is not the case; it always has been one of the options to shape the structure of Somalia after independence. Before and after independence, the federal system was high on the agenda of some sub-clans and political leaders as an arrangement to cater for appropriate power and resource sharing. For instance, already in 1948, the Independent Constitution Party advocated constitutional based decentralization or federalism in Somalia, which could ensure the democratic autonomy of the various Somali regions. During the ‘constitutional debates’ roughly from 2010-2012, this was picked up and, in an effort, to bring the various parties together, in 2012 a federal system was adopted through the provisional constitution.

Federalism (from the Latin Foedus, meaning ‘treaty’) is the principle of sharing sovereignty between central (or national) and member-state (or sub-national) governments. It respects diversity, the popular demand for bringing (political) decision making powers as close as possible to the citizens. It principally seeks to balance between autonomy with unity within in constitutional framework. Federalism, in this sense, is a combination of self-rule and shared rule. Broadly speaking federalism makes three claims, it facilitates democracy, it manages diversity, and it promotes efficiency.

The present debate about federalism in Somalia, however, is skewed. It is based on the perception that a single root-cause is at the core of our conflict: different clan-related interests. While of course clan related interests are important – clans are an important aspect of our socio-cultural organization – the root causes of the conflict are much more related to issues like inequality and exclusion that are transgressing clan issues. By focusing the ‘federalism’ debate on clan-related interests, political bargaining has become horse-trading where the fundamental interests of the citizens risk taking second place: namely have fair and equal access to progress, economic development, social services, and the like, and have a meaningful say in (political) decision-making.

The introduction of federalism can be a strong force in uniting the country building the foundation for a functional state, bringing peace and ensuring the conditions for solid inclusion and equality. Building countervailing powers within the system that avoid undue power of one party, clan, group or other type of entity within the overall structure is key to any democratic system, not only to federalism in the context of Somalia. However, the sole focus on clan-related issues is not helpful to break through the deadlock and make progress.  The lack of focus on the foundational values underlying our political structures leads to a kind of ‘winner takes it all’ mentality with a lack of willingness to make compromise, with those in the central federal power believing that they can intervene as they please in sub-national affairs and those in power at sub-national level believing they can manage without taking the larger federal issues into consideration. This does not build trust between parties to tackle the issues that are blocking progress. We are now 30 years in a chaotic situation and there still does not seem to be an end to it in sight. It is time this is changing.

In Somalia, there are few parties suggesting that federalist arrangements should not be adopted. However, the struggles between the different parties concerning power-sharing seem to have bogged down progress to a level that pushes many citizens seem to ask if there is still a way forward or if the notion of federalism as such is at the core of the lack of progress and more forceful, unitary solutions might have a better prospect …. This deadlock needs to be broken for Somalia to make progress.

The issues on the table that need to be arranged are rather well known and often debated. Below I will try to outline what I believe are the key issues that are blocking us from making progress and indicate some steps to overcome the deadlock.

The most prominent in the debates is the distribution of roles and responsibilities between the central federal level and the sub-national federal member-states – the power and resource sharing arrangements.

As constitutions and related legislations in other countries do, the provisional constitution in Somalia determines different fields or domains that are either exclusively in the federal or federal member state sphere (exclusive jurisdiction) or are in one way or the other under shared arrangements. The current provisional constitution, however, does not clearly postulate the allocations of power and functions of all tiers in government. This concerns issues around fiscal management, security force arrangements, natural resources, demarcation of boundaries, import/export arrangements, status of the capital, cross-state arrangements like government employment, pensions, and a host of other issues. In some cases, these issues could be arranged through constitutional amendment, but in many other cases would be arranged through regular legal or regulatory arrangements or even ‘non-binding’ agreements. These issues have, with varying intensity, been on the agenda since 2012! Considering the actions and behaviors of the Federal Government (FG) and the Federal Member States (FMS), the federal government stance might be described as cooperative federalism (focusing on interdependency) while the Federal Member states seem to be veering more towards dual federalism (focusing on independency). This struggle to define the levels of autonomy of the constituent parts vis-à-vis each other and the central government is where a foundational challenge lies for agreeing on and introducing the specific type of federalism in Somalia. The absence of agreement continues to lead to conflict and friction between the different parties. Hence, the political settlement concerning the future organization of the state governance structures, which is the first basic step towards enduring peace and building the foundations for inclusion and equality, has not yet been reached.

A first step towards breaking the deadlock is to recognize that the notion of ‘interdependency’ and the notion of ‘independency’ are not contradictory. They are merely somewhat different desired outcomes of the same process – agreeing on the role and responsibility distribution in a country. This is in fact an issue in all types of governance; the federalist approach only indicates a strong willingness to have further reaching powers on sub-national level to differentiate from central level arrangements than would be the case in unitary states. This is always complicated, and, in many countries, this is subject to continuous debate as state structures are evolving over time.

A second step is to, much more explicitly than presently is the case, accept the starting point for discussion. The Provisional Constitution of Somalia contains several provisions that allocate exclusive powers to Federal Government (FG) and the Federal Member States (FMS). For instance, defense, foreign affairs, citizenship and monetary policy are allocated to the FG while the FMS are empowered to draft their own constitutions, draw the internal district boundaries within the FMS, establish and regulate local government within the FMS, appoint their own civil servants and establish a state police force.  As a starting point, the provisional constitution is not bad, it might have been better, but it is what it is and is sufficient to get more fine-tuned arrangements off the ground. Since its adoption, a lot of negotiation, conferences and workshops were held to reach consensus. However, the results are not in line with the expectations.

This then leads to a third step: are the present parties negotiating the right parties to negotiate? For more than 30 years we have seen very limited progress in bringing peace and stability to the country. We have seen a number of different political leaders – virtually all with a very specific clan-representative mandate, but none of them making significant headway. See my comments above on the ‘winner takes it all mentality’ that is associated with this. Should then one possible avenue forward be that instead of relying solely on our political leaders, another methodology to reach agreement should be explored? What about referendums, participatory constitution drafting, citizen-based working groups to solve specific issues, ….. there are many different methodologies available.

A second major issue is the one of representation. The issue of representation has several aspects: two are very important in Somalia. The first one is the assurances that sub-national level entities have an organized authority in federal level affairs.

In most federal states the constituent member states have a guaranteed voice in national policy making through an upper chamber of the assembly. In Somalia this is the upper house with 54 members from the 18 regions of the country (3 representatives for each region). While maybe some adaptations might be reasonable, overall, this arrangement seems fine and certainly enough to function and make headway. However, this arrangement does not tell the full story.

The second issue is related to who the representatives actually are representing. In a democracy one would assume that political representatives are elected by a constituency based on their political programme. In Somalia, however, the representatives are predominantly those who have received an endorsement of a specific clan or sub-clan. This is not only awkward from a political point of view (where representatives should reflect different philosophies on state management and development priority), it also reinforces the single-focus nature of our political debate – clan-related power as the foundational element in our federal structures. This system of selective representation reinforces the notion of exclusion among the majority of citizens, who have no voice whatsoever in the process. The discussions on a more inclusive electoral system are stalling and little progress is being made. For Somalia to make progress in building peace and a functional state structure, this stalemate is not helpful. Organizing national elections is complicated, and maybe the sequence of electoral improvements should be turned around to begin with one-person-one-vote systems on Federal Member State level so experience can be built, and citizens at least will have some more say in the political affairs of the country through the electoral system.

A third main issue relates to practical government operations. Most of the work that the judiciary and executive government is doing has little political bearing. Even in the absence of full political agreement on roles and responsibilities, we have seen over the past few years’ examples of progress; for instance, the production of two National Development Plans, where federal and sub-federal entities have cooperated. While it is important to further work on the power sharing and role and responsibility distribution in the country, it is just as important to recognize that whatever the result is concerning different roles and responsibilities, a federal government cannot operate properly without solid coordination with the Federal Member States et vise-versa. In virtually all areas of governance, different tiers of government need to work together to make progress, whether it is in education, health, judiciary, agriculture or other various fields: efficient and effective governance will not be realized in isolation. And these arrangements to cooperate can be established and operated, even in the absence of full agreement on all the constitutional powers of the different tiers. It is not a technical challenge; these mechanisms are not (fully) operational because of political lack of willingness to do so. This issue does not only play out in the struggle to agree between the Federal Government and the Federal Member States. Within these governments, similar battles exist between ministries and for instance between the Federal President and the Federal Prime Minister, who after 10 years still didn’t manage to find a constructive cooperation arrangement and are involving in dangerous turf battles. The result is that we lose so much time and energy to determine what separates us (exclusive mandate debates, role and responsibility distribution, division of labour), while progress is sitting in what unites us (e.g. joint governance, coordination arrangements, realizing socio-economic progress, get peace,). We now have government systems that are not matching and, due to lack of cooperation, the citizens feel very little positive impact from government development action. This has to change. Somalia has very limited resources at its disposal; we simply cannot afford to waste these due to inefficiencies (refer to a previous article of the author on this issue: The political economy of implementing the Puntland state-development plan 2020-2024

The same argument goes for the so-called ‘Capacity Development’ of our government structures. Significant amounts have been spent on improving individual skills of government officers. This is fine, but these improved individual skills are not and will not be deployed in situations where the working environment does not allow these skills and competencies to blossom. The political (often clan-related) turf wars between the FGS and the FMS and between different ministries on mandates leads to inaction and individual government officers would take risks of losing their job when seeing to coordinate with a government officer from the other side….. So, it is not happening. In general, individual government officers have a lot more skills and competencies than they use in their work. Something else then individual incompetence is determining low government functionality.

Finally, the Somali leadership need to reach political agreement and finalize the provisional constitution and move to referendum to the extent possible considering the security situation and seek endorsement of the Somalia people through inclusion of all sub-national administrations.  The Somalia provisional constitution set a new direction for Somalia by proposing a federal approach towards multi-tiered governance in the country. No federal two countries are the same. Therefore, Somalia should evolve into its own version of federalism based on local power dynamics. It is paramount to creating more spaces of mutual learning between political leadership, development partners and academia to deepen the understanding of political, legislative, administrative, and fiscal dimensions of federalism. The required technical knowledge base would inform the process of decision-making for a coordinated implementation of devolution.

Unpacking the type of federalism that suits Somalia (agreeing a suitable federal structure), institutional arrangement for shared rule and develop and agree on the exclusive and concurrent functions while, benchmark for future residual functions need to be clearly articulated. agree supervision mechanism of states in case of failure. Establishment of effective coordination mechanism between the Federal Government and the Federal Member states to ensure proper implementation of political agreements and related action plans.  Adoption of federalism is a process. Unless we work the course, it will not happen effectively, we must go step by step. How does it evolve and adopt over time is through learning, by making mistakes and adapting to changing circumstances and this is how the world works?

Muse Duale Aden
Email[email protected]

Muse Duale Aden, (MA (Public Administration), MA (Finance & Economics), PG Dip (Dev), BBA), has been working with the UN for more than 17 years and a former civil servant as Director. The opinions voiced in this article don not necessary represent the opinion of UN.

Related Articles
Federalism and failed democratization the case of Puntland By Faisal A Roble
Federalism a suitable governance system for contemporary Somalia By PDRC
Centralizing with the whip: How the federal government of Somalia is euthanizing the federal system that brought it to power By Abdusalam Salwe and Awil Mohamed
The political economy of implementing the puntland state development Plan 2020-2024 By Muse D.

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