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Somalia: one country, three systems?

The international community is at a loss when it comes to solving Somalia. The country’s problems have slowly become every country’s problems: from cross-border terrorism to piracy. Looking to China may offer some lessons, says Patrick Duplat
Patrick Duplat
30 June 2011

There is only one China. This mantra has been repeated by almost all countries since the days of ping-pong diplomacy. Yet to anybody who has been to Taiwan, Hong Kong and the mainland, it’s very clear that there are in fact several Chinas. Even Beijing recognizes that – notwithstanding its sacrosanct sovereignty – the country hosts several different political and economic systems, protected by internal borders and treaties.

This rather pragmatic approach would work well for Somalia, a country that is probably the antithesis of China in its lack of central government rule, its clanic infighting and its downward economic trajectory. The fact that history and context oppose these two countries should not deter the international community from drawing some lessons. Indeed, it would do well to recognize that there are several Somalias.

This is not a radical argument for Somalia’s disaggregation in the face of its government obvious failure to protect its citizens. On the contrary, it calls for the preservation of the rhetorical status quo, while promoting policies that accept the partition as a fact on the ground. This game should be familiar territory for any western country which pays lip service to a unitary China while selling defensive weapons to Taiwan.

Somalia gained its independence in 1960 – inheriting the external borders of a British trusteeship in the north and an Italian protectorate that spanned the northeastern tip of the African continent down to Kenya. United for three decades, these two former colonies always sat at odds with each other, since British Somaliland’s borders roughly corresponded with one of Somalia’s large clan families.

When the central government collapsed in the early 1990s, Somaliland quickly announced its independence. In 1998, Puntland, in the north east, announced it would be an autonomous state but would not secede from Somalia. These three entities have followed different trajectories ever since.

South-central Somalia, the remnant of the Italian colony minus Puntland, is in the midst of a civil war. The territory is largely controlled by Al Shabaab, a home grown Islamist organization bent on imposing its strict version of Sharia law. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which nominally represents all Somali citizens, is confined to a small part of the capital Mogadishu, protected by an 8,000 strong African Union contingent. There is little end in sight to the humanitarian tragedy which has engulfed this part of the country for nearly two decades.

In Puntland, Al Shabaab has not gained a solid foothold, and the surprisingly sturdy local government is trying its best to foster security and promote development. Most of its small budget is spent on its police and military forces, as it tries hard to convince international donors that it can deal with its rampant piracy problem. Puntland also has to manage a spill-over humanitarian crisis – as it hosts 180,000 internally displaced people from south central. This leaves little budgetary room for education or health, but the region remains stable enough for mineral resources companies to have shown serious interest.

The most stable part of Somalia is without a doubt Somaliland. If it were a country, it would be as safe as Jordan according to the UN’s internal threat ranking. While it might not be a paragon of democracy, Somaliland held recognized free and fair presidential elections last year. It has one of the largest commercial ports in the region, and its capital Hargeisa hosts a significant expatriate presence, from UN staff to investors from the Gulf. This year a Coca-Cola bottling plant will reopen after a two decade hiatus, a $10 million investment that will bring in 130 jobs.

The international community is at a loss when it comes to solving Somalia. The country’s problems have slowly become every country’s problems: from cross-border terrorism to piracy. Each year, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent to address the humanitarian and political crises, with very little to show for. Taken as a whole, Somalia may be in a mess; but the whole might be less than the sum of its parts.

A “Chinese” approach to Somalia would be three-pronged: emphasize Somalia’s territorial integrity but confine conflict mediation to south-central issues; promote good governance in Puntland; and lastly Taiwanize Somaliland by promoting trade missions in major capitals, stopping short of recognizing its independence. This would not be easy, least of all for donor countries which would have to manage programs ranging from life saving food aid to trade delegations.

The long term objective would be to bring these three entities together, politically and economically. In the meantime, acknowledging that they face different security and developmental challenges would be embracing a reality that Somalis already live with. It would also change the broad brush perception of Somalia as the land of Black Hawk Down – which has penalized Somalis for far too long. This is not a risk-free strategy, as Somalis have in the past equated financial rewards to local authorities as reason for further partition of the country. Yet over a few years, development in the north might be an incentive for peace in the south. In other words, economic reform before political reform. Something China also knows a thing or two about.

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