Somalia Enters a Devolutionary Cycle

Posted in Africa | 02-Feb-07 | Author: Michael Weinstein

During the last two weeks of January, the future political configuration of Somalia and the dispositions of external actors toward the country became more apparent, as a devolution of power to sub-societies got underway that international and regional players seemed too weak and half-hearted to arrest.

The dissolution of the Islamic Courts Council (I.C.C.), which had attempted to unify Somalia under an Islamic state based on Shari'a law, following the late-December 2006 invasion of the country by Ethiopian armed forces backed by militias loyal to Somalia's feeble and internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government (T.F.G.), warlord militias and forces from the breakaway sub-state of Puntland -- with the diplomatic and later military support of the United States -- left the country at the mercy of external powers. As PINR noted in its January 17 report on Somalia, the country had returned "to its status as an international step child and custody case."

One of the persistent legacies of Western colonialism has been to force former non-Western dependencies into the modern competitive and bureaucratized state system, in which the ex-colonies are at a severe structural disadvantage. Where pre-modern bureaucratized empires antedated colonial rule, adaptation to the Western nation-state system has been possible to achieve, though imperfectly, as the BRIC countries -- Brazil, Russia, India and China -- demonstrate. Where pre-modern political systems were decentralized and functioned through lateral networks and negotiations, adaptation to modern political forms has been far more difficult to achieve, and Somalia is an extreme case in point.

With a predominantly pastoralist economy, pre-modern Somalis gained their identity as members of a distinct societal community through a common language, shared traditions and adherence to Islam. Their society was structured by an elaborate web of clans and sub-clans, which represented distinct nomadic bands that contested over pasturage and access to water, and that developed sophisticated techniques of lateral dispute resolution.

British, French and Italian colonialism carved up the territories inhabited by Somalis and imposed on them modern structures of control, distorting and impairing traditional political relations, yet left intact the clan system as the structure of Somali society. With independence and the union of the former British and Italian colonies in the fledgling state of Somalia in 1960, the country was faced with the challenge of becoming an effective and organized nation-state.

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