Somali solutions for Somali problems: Can Somalis handle Al-Shabaab themselves?

In the Somali media and blogosphere, it is hard to come by anything approaching a consensus. But on two current issues – the Kenyan government’s crackdown on Somalis in Nairobi, and the desirability of AMISOM peacekeeping troops in Somalia – there seems to be a coalescing of views.

On the Kenyan security crackdown, Somalis have been virtually unanimous in their criticism and outrage, and justifiably so.

On AMISOM and the role of armed interventions of neighboring states in Somalia, views are still somewhat divided, but if I am reading Somali opinions on the web correctly, I sense that more and more Somali opinion-shapers openly agree that the presence of troops from regional neighbors is unwanted and counter-productive. This latter position was most recently articulated in a widely circulated Al-Jazeera op-ed by Ambassador Abukar Armen entitled “Somalia: African Solutions for African Problems?” At the end of the piece, he argues that Ethiopian and Kenyan policies are more to blame for “setting the Horn on fire” than is Al-Shabaab.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Ambassador Armen’s sentiments reflect the views of a sizable majority of Somalis (I haven’t seen many dissenting views on the web, so I think this is a reasonable assumption). If AMISOM is unwelcome, and is viewed by Somalis as part of the problem rather than part of the solution, then perhaps we need to consider alternatives.

What would “Somali solutions for Somali problems” look like?

This begs a critical question: can Somalis handle Al-Shabaab themselves? If the answer is yes, we have options. If the answer is no, or if Somalis simply deny that Al-Shabaab is a problem (this is a favorite diversionary tactic for some, but dodging the question clearly won’t work anymore), then I suspect Somalis will be living with AMISOM for years to come.  So for Somalis who are fed up with years and years of foreign military forces in their country, the answer really needs to be “yes, we can handle Al-Shabaab ourselves, and here is how.”

This essay considers the possibilities if Somalis were left to address Al-Shabaab themselves in Somalia (the Al-Shabaab problem in Kenya is another matter, perhaps for another blog entry). It assumes the Somali government would continue to receive external military and other foreign aid, but that no foreign forces would be directly involved in fighting Al-Shabaab inside Somali territory.

It is meant to start a much-needed conversation, not to provide all the answers. I look forward to reactions and feedback.

Four Options

As best I can tell, if Somalis were left to handle Al-Shabaab themselves, they would have four options, some of which could be sequential: (1) attempt to defeat Al-Shabaab; (2) work to achieve a prolonged stalemate with Al-Shabaab; (3) negotiate power-sharing of some sort with Al-Shabaab; or (4) capitulate to Al-Shabaab.  How likely is each, and what would these scenarios look like?

Defeat Al-Shabaab

If AMISOM were to pack up and leave Somalia, would the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) even survive, or would it be driven out of Mogadishu?

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the government would not collapse and flee within days, as some fear. Al-Shabaab would no doubt take advantage of the vacuum left by AMISOM forces and recapture much of the territory it lost since 2012, and begin the bloody work of retaliating against local authorities who cooperated with AMISOM and the SFG.

Would the government be able to regroup and defeat Al-Shabaab? Nothing we have seen from the poorly-disciplined Somali National Armed Forces to date suggests it could, and it is not clear that a significant increase in external military assistance would make a real difference.  The problem has been one of commitment, discipline, and command and control, not resources.  Al-Shabaab has fought with much greater effectiveness with fewer resources and fewer fighters.

If the government failed to defeat Al-Shabaab, would Somali communities, fed up with the horrific violence and pointless extremism,  turn against Al-Shabaab and either identify Amniyat (Al Shabaab’s underground network) members to the police, or take vigilante action against them? This “Sunni uprising” scenario also seems unlikely at present – the risks would be high, and such a civic uprising would be difficult to organize. But it’s an intriguing possibility worth discussing, and upon reflection may be the only way Somalia moves beyond the current violent impasse.

For this scenario to unfold, it would require a level of commitment we have not yet seen from both the Somali the government and civil society.  If Somalis mobilized in common cause and in full force, they might be able to neutralize Al-Shabaab, in part by encouraging large-scale defections, leaving its leadership exposed. Al-Shabaab is a dangerous network, but it is relatively small in number, and  depends on Somali public acquiescence to its presence. It would struggle to survive in a “non-permissive environment” that only the Somali public could produce.  It could conceivably be outmatched by a unified, mass mobilization, involving clan leaders, clerics, the business community, and others. Once the group began to look vulnerable, it would lose its ability to instill fear in local populations, which at present is its chief form of defense. The formula would be straightforward – Amniyat would need to start fearing the Somali people more than the people currently fear Amniyat. A Somali version of the “Sunni uprising” would likely be bloody and messy, and it would take a very dedicated effort to pull it off. But social rebellions against insurgents have occurred elsewhere, and can be the fate of violent extremist and criminal groups who push their own societies too far.

Stalemate with Al-Shabaab

Alternatively, the government could work to hold ground against Al-Shabaab and stop at that.  The stalemate scenario would represent a variation on the status quo that prevailed in Somalia from 2008 to 2012. This outcome would consign Somalia to perpetual instability and division, and is deeply undesirable for most Somalis and the international community. Yet it is entirely possible, and might even be a preferred outcome for leaders in both the government and Al-Shabaab; each would get to enjoy a profitable fiefdom again without having to trouble themselves either with governing or winning a war.  They could not only co-exist but could work out a symbiotic relationship with one another, one as a dysfunctional state, the other as a hidden criminal syndicate.

Leaders in successive Somali governments have already demonstrated that presiding over a failed state  is a condition they not only can live with but can profiteer from; cutting a deal with Al-Shabaab to maintain the status quo would be a small price to pay. As for Al-Shabaab, recent evidence suggests that its growing practice of extortion is already starting to move it in the direction of a violent criminal enterprise with increasingly dubious Islamist credentials. In that case,  Al-Shabaab could maintain a presence as a mafioso protection racket shaking down the government, private sector, and NGOs for cash with threats of violence.  This is a business model that could work well for colluding elites on both sides, but would be a disaster for the Somali people and for efforts to revive a functional government.

Negotiate power-sharing with Al-Shabaab

Would the Somali government instead seek a negotiated settlement with Al-Shabaab toward a cease-fire and some form of power-sharing?  Over the years, many Somalis have gravitated toward this position, reflecting perhaps a cultural preference for negotiated settlements, and/or a lingering belief among some that Al-Shabaab is a legitimate political actor that merits a place at the table. Setting aside the obvious problem here – that many powerful foreign governments would not accept any outcome in which Al-Shabaab leaders are given government positions — would Al-Shabaab want to negotiate anyway? And if it did, would anyone want to be in that coalition government? SFG officials are surely aware of how Ahmed Godane handled the last set of disagreements he had with erstwhile allies – he launched a bloody purge within Al-Shabaab that killed off most of his internal rivals. This does not look like a group with which to negotiate a power-sharing deal if you want to live long.

This option appears to be little more than a stepping stone to an Al-Shabaab takeover, which is the final scenario to consider.

Capitulate to Al-Shabaab

The final post-AMISOM option would be Somali government capitulation to Al-Shabaab.  Much or most of south-central Somalia would then be controlled by a well-organized, ultra-violent jihadi group which has declared war on neighboring states and the West, and which treats any Somali who disagrees with it as a spy or apostate.

It is worth pondering the scene that would follow. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis would flee as refugees, only to find doors to asylum largely slammed shut, and neighboring states intensely hostile to hosting yet another wave of Somali refugees. Somalia would face complete international isolation and sanctions. Remittances would be choked off by new counter-terrorism measures, leading to a collapse of the already fragile local economy.  Businesses would fail, real estate investments would plummet in value. The diaspora would be put under intense police scrutiny not just in Kenya  but world-wide. And war would ensue, involving neighboring Ethiopia, many other external players, and local proxies. It would be a catastrophe. Somalia cannot afford any more catastrophes.

This is not a scenario to flirt with. And that brings us back to the question of whether AMISOM should stay or go, and whether Somalis can solve Al-Shabaab themselves. The stakes are way too high for the Somali people to sidestep this question. 

Conclusion: Somali solutions for Somali problems, with backstopping

A push for Somali solutions for Somali problems is long overdue.  Foreign security forces, whether in the form of AMISOM forces or Western covert operations, can push Al-Shabaab out of cities and towns and harass its leadership, but they cannot completely defeat the group, especially now that it has morphed into a terrorist network. Only Somalis can do that.  And we’ve always known that.

Whether Somalis are ready to take that step is unclear.  But if Somalis want AMISOM to leave sooner rather than later, then the government and the Somali people are both going to have to take much more ownership of the Al-Shabaab problem. No more free-riding by leaving most of the fight to African peacekeepers and American drones; no more denying the scale of the problem or wishing it away; no more colluding; no more delaying the inevitable. Not to choose is to choose.

A robust Somali mobilization against Al-Shabaab can be launched while AMISOM is still in place. Realistically, AMISOM forces are not going to be redeployed while Al-Shabaab remains a threat, so any Somali solution to the Al-Shabaab problem is going to have to happen while AMISOM is still on watch. AMISOM would be able to play an essential back-stopping role, and the security it provides to key government facilities would be critical.   But once Al-Shabaab is no longer a serious threat to the Somali government, the Somali people, and the wider region, AMISOM will no longer be needed. No Al-Shabaab, no AMISOM.

This is not a happy analysis for the Somali people. If correct, it means there is no pain-free solution to Al-Shabaab, no way to push the costs onto someone else. Somalis may not want to shoulder the burden of dealing with Al-Shabaab, and they may feel that it is unfair that they have to bear that load when they were not entirely responsible for Al-Shabaab’s ascent.  That may be. But I cannot see any other way this will end unless the solution comes from the Somali people themselves. Somalis are already bearing heavy and rapidly mounting costs thanks to Al-Shabaab, a group which seems remarkably indifferent to that fact.  For Somalis, the costs of inaction are rising faster than the expected costs of addressing the Al-Shabaab problem.

No more selective outrage in the Horn

If you have been following newspapers, websites, and twitter from Somalia and Kenya, you can’t help but notice this pattern:

Somalis express outrage and fury at Kenyan security crackdowns engaging in ethnic profiling of Somalis, but remain largely silent about (or in some cases even rationalize) Al-Shabaab terrorist attacks in Kenya.

Non-Somali Kenyans express outrage and fury at Al-Shabaab terrorist attacks in Kenya, but remain largely silent about (or in some cases even rationalize) the Kenyan security crackdown profiling ethnic Somalis.

This selective outrage plays well to narrow audiences, but is parochial, morally wrong, and ultimately counter-productive. It plays right into the hands of the extremists on both sides who hope to turn these tensions into a clash of civilizations, a campaign of ethnic cleansing, or both.  

If these condemnations are to carry any weight, non-Somali Kenyans and Somalis must speak with one voice against both senseless jihadi violence by Al-Shabaab and brutal, illegal and predatory Kenyan police behavior.  Anything less is just playing politics, and makes us part of the problem instead of part of the solution.


Horn of Africa Year in Review: Storm Clouds Brewing

Each year the Rift Valley Institute hosts a week-long intensive course on the Horn of Africa, in which I serve as Director of Studies. In addition to 6 days of lectures and breakout sessions on many aspects of the Horn, we also provide participants with a detailed course book with short essays on selected topics, as well as a bibliography for further reading.  Here, I share the short essay “The Year in Review” from our 2014 course book:

RVI Horn of Africa 2014 course

The Year in Review: Storm Clouds Brewing

With the notable exception of the spike in Al-Shabaab’s terrorist attacks in Somalia and Kenya, the past twelve months have been relatively quiet across the Horn. The governments of three new leaders – Ethiopia’s Hailemariam Desalegn, Somalia’s Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, and Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta –  survived their first full year of transition. The fact that politics in these governments has changed little suggests to some observers that the crises in all three of those states – enduring authoritarianism in Ethiopia, persistent state failure in Somalia, and unchecked corruption in Kenya – cannot be solved simply by replacing a head of state.

Most of the good news from the Horn over the past year has been economic.  Ethiopia’s continued rapid economic growth — at 7%, a bit slower in 2013 than in past years, but still ranking near the top of the list of the so-called “African Lions” – was welcome news.  Eritrea is projected to enjoy 8% growth rates in 2014, one of the highest in the world, thanks in large part to mining exports. Potential game-changing economic developments in the wider region – growing evidence of major oilfields, and the advancement of plans for major regional infrastructure projects like Ethiopia’s electric power grid and the LAPSSET (Lamu Port South Sudan Corridor) project which aspires to link south Sudan, Ethiopia, and Uganda to the Kenyan coast – offer additional reasons for hope.  Piracy off the Somali coast continued to decline, reducing risks to regional sea-borne commerce.  Fiber-optic cable was extended into new parts of the Horn, including war-torn Mogadishu, offering the promise of expedited information flows and new opportunities for businesses.  And in September 2013 the Somali Compact was announced, part of the “New Deal” between donors and the Somali government that included a $2.3 billion pledge to underwrite reconstruction and state-building.  China, Gulf states, and Turkey increased their investment portfolio in the region, reflecting a growing trend to look east for foreign investment and aid.    

But the generally positive economic news was offset by worrisome political trends.  Somalia’s post-transitional government has remained mired in political paralysis, has been hit by repeated Al-Shabaab bombings and assassinations, and has faced serious charges of corruption that immediately put a chill on the donor pledge for the New Deal. The progress of the AMISOM-led offensive that has pushed Al-Shabaab out of most towns in southern Somalia has been tarnished by the predatory behavior  of the Somali National Armed Forces occupying the new recovered zones, leading to local resistance and even pushing some communities back into Al-Shabaab’s arms. Eritreans continue to vote with their feet against the repressive Isaias regime, with thousands of citizens per month risking the harrowing overland journey out of Eritrea, where they face shocking abuses at the hands of human traffickers in Sudan and Egypt. In  Ethiopia, street protests by students as well as by Islamic groups have been met by mass arrests and police violence, and serve notice that beneath the country’s calm veneer lie mounting social and political tensions that have no means of expressing themselves in open political dialogue, and that will not be assuaged with news of high economic growth.  

Spillover from the crisis in South Sudan is an immediate regional security concern.  Al-Shabaab remains a top security threat in the region as well, and though its bloody internal battles in the summer of 2013 appeared to have weakened the group further, the consolidated hardline leadership which emerged from that purge has committed the group to unprecedented new levels of terrorism against civilian and international targets in both Somalia and Kenya. The Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi in September 2013 shocked the world and underscored Kenya’s vulnerability to a group possessing a well-established network there.  Al-Shabaab also launched deadly terrorist attacks in Mogadishu against the UN and the Federal Government of Somalia, shaking confidence in Somalia.  Recent Kenyan government crack-downs on the large ethnic Somali population in Kenya in response to Al-Shabaab attacks have heightened communal and political tensions in Kenya and are the source of considerable controversy. Continuing turmoil in Somalia is likely to prevent repatriation of Kenya’s vast Somali refugee population, who may face still more years trapped in Dabaab refugee camps.

Regional affairs have grown more complex than ever, with states increasingly committing armed forces in cross-border operations that deeply entangle them in the politics of neighboring states. Nearly every government in the region – Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, and Uganda – has peacekeeping forces inside Somalia, while Ethiopia and Uganda have troops inside South Sudan as well. There is no small irony in the fact that regional heads of state have been the most vociferous in invoking state sovereignty against what they see as intrusive meddling by Western governments and the International Criminal Court, yet have been deeply intrusive in one another’s political and security affairs.

The biggest storm on the horizon in the coming year may be yet another major humanitarian crisis. In what has become a depressingly familiar cycle, a combination of political failure, armed conflict, displacement, drought, lack of access, and donor fatigue is placing millions of people at risk of a major food crisis in South Sudan and southern Somalia. The good news about overall economic growth in the region will mean little if it co-exists with famine conditions. Weak regional states insisting on the right to be treated as sovereign authorities will have the chance to earn that sovereignty in the eyes of their own people by facilitating rather than impeding humanitarian response.


Want to know more about the Rift Valley Institute Horn of Africa course?

– Syllabus:

– Course page (with a video introduction):

– Application form:

A Comparativist’s Approach to Somalia

I am trained as a comparative political scientist, and it appears that some of my writing on Somalia from that perspective is creating misunderstanding among some Somali readers. This blog is meant to clarify what a comparative method to the study of politics is and why it’s such an important tool now for Somalis engaged in politics in the Horn of Africa.

Students of comparative politics appreciate the unique aspects of each political system but also look for points of commonality – point of comparison – across political systems in order to test propositions about political behavior, processes, and structures.  Since we can’t run experiments on politics the way a biologist can run controlled experiments in a laboratory, the comparative method is our principle tool for trying to move our study of politics beyond an interesting pile of anecdotes, opinions, and preferences toward something approaching an empirically-grounded “finding.”   One way or another, observers of politics have been using the comparative method as least as far back as Aristotle.

Comparativists don’t just focus on the politics of sovereign states.  We look at all manifestations and levels of political life, including local and municipal systems of governance, regional transnational governance like the European Union, and informal, non-state systems of governance and social organization. These all form part of the rich and complex set of practices, institutions, and social contracts that the seven billion of us living on this planet draw on to manage our endless disputes over resources and power and, hopefully, keep our societies from falling into armed conflict and  chaos. Comparativists are also pretty good at uncovering the interests at play in perpetuating armed conflict and chaos where it does occur.

The comparative method is also a critically important instrument for learning and sharing lessons about best practices and innovations in public policy and politics.  Central governments, regional governments, municipalities, and civil society groups all face similar sets of problems, and can and do learn from one another’s successes and failures.

I say all this because the Somali-inhabited eastern Horn is the site of many different Somali experiences with governance – thousands of them. Some, like Djibouti and the Federal Government of Somalia, are at the sovereign state level; others, like Somali Regional State, Puntland, and Garissa County, are at the regional level; and many, many more are at the city, town, and village level, or are part of the rich collection of informal systems of governance that prevail in much of the region.  Across the eastern Horn of Africa, over fifteen million Somalis, in very different, sometimes overlapping political settings, are trying to work out solutions to vexing political problems.

Whether one is an outside academic like myself, or a Somali living in the Horn or the diaspora, we all have an obligation to understand these different political experiences and try to learn lessons from them that might be of wider use to other Somali communities and to the donor agencies funding state-building. Otherwise we risk missing opportunities to help transfer valuable knowledge about what works and what does not work in governance in the eastern Horn of Africa. We simply can’t afford to keep making mistakes in state-building in Somalia, and one way to reduce the risk of mistakes is by learning as much as we can about political systems across the region.

Studying municipal and regional administrations in the Horn is not a reflection of a normative preference for “grass-roots” politics or federalism over centralism, nor does it in any way confer legitimacy on secessionist or irredentist claims. Studying the politics of Somaliland to learn about the pros and cons of its “hybrid” governance model in which elders have formal roles in the upper house of Parliament does not imply acceptance or rejection of Somaliland’s secessionist claim.  Comparing political structures in Puntland and the Federal Republic of Somalia is not a hidden agenda to equate Puntland with the SFG, any more than comparing the health care policies of the state of Massachusetts to those of the United States government is equating the status of those two polities.  Concluding that municipal governance has been the site of some of the most effective governance in Somalia is not an attempt to undermine state-building at the central level; it merely recognizes an important source of success in governance that can and should complement efforts to revive a central state in Somalia.

The Somali diaspora is now a rich additional source of knowledge about comparative politics. It actively participates in political life from Canada to New Zealand. That diaspora knows – or ought to know – that around the world, authority and responsibility for provision of basic public goods is split between different levels of government, and that much or most of that service provision is done at the municipal level. There are very few places in the world (that you would want to live in) where a central government exercises control over all policy, service delivery, and political appointments down to the municipal level.

Somalis are understandably apprehensive about any analysis that appears to reinforce fragmentation or clannism, and I share that concern. But we can’t let that fear prevent us from the essential task of learning best practices of Somali governance wherever we find it.  The comparative method is a tool with enormous potential for good in Somalia, not something to disparage or reject.

Another casualty of the Kenyan government crackdown on Somalis

Most of what needs to be said about the Kenyan government’s heavy-handed and indiscriminate crack-down on Somalis and Somali-Kenyans in Nairobi has already been stated many times over the past few weeks. The criticisms have included the following:

  • It is exactly what Al-Shabaab wants the Kenyan government to do – overact and engage in collective punishment against all Somalis, which could drive Somalis back into the Al-Shabaab’s arms;
  • It is a violation of human rights and due process;
  • It is fueling dangerous levels of communal tensions and unfairly demonizing an entire ethnic group in Kenya;
  • It is reinforcing a sense among Kenya’s many Somali-Kenyans that they are marginalized, second-class citizens;
  • It risks economic consequences as the large Somali business community considers relocating businesses and selling assets in Kenya;
  • It has quickly morphed from a security operation to yet another opportunity for corrupt Kenyan security forces to extort money from Somalis;
  • It is poisoning already tense relations between the Kenyan and Somali governments, and exposing Kenyans working in Somalia to security threats.

But there is one other casualty in the Kenyan crackdown on Somalis that has not gotten as much attention – the Somali experience with democracy and “normal” politics in Kenya.

Somalis from across the eastern Horn – in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somaliland, Puntland, Somalia, and Kenya – pay close attention to how politics is pursued in the different political systems within which they live. Kenya has been of special importance in this regard. For decades, Somali Kenyans had no voice or role in Kenyan politics – indeed, until 1992 northern Kenya was governed under martial law. Over the past decade, however, Kenyan Somalis have fared much better, not only in the economic realm, where their business community presides over booming commerce in Eastleigh and Garissa, but also in politics, where Kenya’s democracy has opened up new avenues for Somali Kenyan influence.  Somali Kenyans have risen to top positions of power in recent Kenyan governments, including Minister of Defence, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chief of Police, Head of Intelligence, Deputy Speaker of Parliament, and head of the Electoral Commission.  Thanks to devolution, in 2013 Somali Kenyans elected their own governors and legislative assemblies in the three Somali-inhabited counties of Garissa, Wajir, and Mandera.

What all this means is that Somalis in Kenya have been learning how to play – and win – in a democratic political system. And other Somalis from the wider region have been watching, and learning too. This is a very good thing. The more Somalis come to appreciate the benefits of working out disagreements with ballots, not bullets, the sooner Somalia can enjoy sustained peace. And the more that Somalis feel that they are stakeholders in the political systems in which they live in the eastern Horn, the more stable and secure the region will be.

The Kenyan experience thus has the potential to have major impact on Somali political orientations in the rest of the region.  This point was hammered home to me two years ago while on a short research trip to Jigjiga and Gode in Somali Regional State, Ethiopia (if you’re wondering, yes, it was a difficult trip to arrange, and yes I was watched closely). At one point a Somali Ethiopian interviewee pulled me aside and said, “look, we accept now that we are Ethiopian citizens – we no longer seek to be part of a Greater Somalia. But we want to be full citizens of Ethiopia, with all the benefits.” He paused and then added, “We want in Ethiopia what we’ve got in Kenya.”

That was a powerful statement – a reminder that Somalis are playing close attention to how politics is played across the wider region, and are learning lessons from it.  The Somali experience in Kenyan politics could have a ripple effect across the wider Horn, encouraging Somalis to play, and win, via political engagement rather than political rejection.

All that is in peril in Kenya today. The new lesson Somalis are now learning in Kenya is that they are still not seen as full citizens; their loyalties are suspect, and their political status can be revoked at the stroke of a pen even in a democracy. All of the external and domestic efforts inside Somalia to encourage a new culture of rule of law and checks and balances on abuse of power are undermined by the meta-message the Kenyan crackdown sends.

follow-up on If Mayors Ruled Somalia

I received some excellent feedback on my post  “If Mayors Ruled Somalia” over the past week (the published version of it is now available as a Policy Brief for Nordic Africa Institute, at:; or check their main website at

Here is a summary of a few of the questions and feedback, and my responses:

If the international community starts throwing lots of money at municipalities, won’t that risk attracting all the wrong people and eliciting the same corrupt behavior we see at higher levels of politics in Somalia? Yes it will. One of the many reasons  municipalities have been effective is they have had modest levels of locally-generated tax money to work with, That has attracted fewer political hyenas, and it also meant local populations are more attentive to how funds are spent when it’s their tax dollars, not “someone else’s money.” External donors need to be very careful not to overwhelm these governments with too much money.

If funding and attention to cities and towns start to increase, will that not attract a power struggle between central and federal political leaders over authority to appoint mayors?  That has already happened, and could get worse if donors shift more attention to municipalities. Somali citizens and foreign supporters of Somalia need to urge federal and central government leaders to allow local communities to select their own mayors and city councils. Appointed officials coming from a distant capital are far less likely to be committed to the city and accountable to local citizens, and will enjoy little legitimacy.

What about the places where local leaders have been corrupt and repressive?   There are lots of these cases, hence the need to judge on a case by case basis.

How do you know municipalities have been  more effective in Somalia than other levels of government? I was limited to 2,000 for the Policy Brief and so could not go into much detail,  but can elaborate here. In the mid to late 1990s, I had several opportunities to conduct fieldwork on local level government in Somalia for the UN. Though the focus was supposed to be on regions, what I quickly discovered is that the most committed and effective governance was happening in towns. In Somaliland, the mayors and their staff in Boroma and Hargeisa were doing great things. Boroma had an underground piped water system (built in partnership with UNICEF, which figured out local governance partnerships early on) which the municipality ran and maintained by collecting fees; it had an office dedicated to land titles, with organized files; it had a committee to organize the market, so it was kept clean and everyone had to rent a space; it led a local volunteer effort to pave a main road. It was pretty impressive, The Mayor at the time was a diaspora returnee nicknamed “Chicago: who was all business, and really dedicated. Boroma residents had a strong sense of civic pride, as did their diaspora, which donated money for a public library and a hospital wing, and supported Amoud University there.  I was aware that much of this civic boosterism had clan connotations, as Boroma was and is mainly populated by a single clan, But still it was impressive.  And if you’re going to be clannish, being a booster and building a library is a lot better than other ways to express it.

Hargeisa’s municipality at the time was also impressive — in fact the Mayor and the city won awards for urban planning to cope with flood of returnees from Ethiopia. The Mayor was a no-nonsense figure who ran the city with the attention to efficiency and results that you’d expect of a successful businessman, which he was.

To the south, I encountered more examples of good city governance combined in some places with an impressive level of civic pride. Jowhar had a committee running an underground water system, using a hybrid arrangement of city officials, businesspeople, and elders, Beled Weyn could have its troubles as a city divided along clan lines, but the town officials relied on clan elders to take on regulatory tasks (determining the fair price per bulb of electricity in a context where a single business had a monopoly on a local power grid) and to ensure proportional allocation of jobs and contracts to keep the peace. Luuq’s town authorities managed to keep that town peaceful and orderly despite turbulent times after Al-Ittihad was driven out by Ethiopian forces. There, locals expressed a strong sense of being the people of Luuq (reer Luuq) that transcended clan affiliation and gave the city a sort of civic-mindedness and trust.

I could go on. The point is that some cities seemed to be the one place where day to day functional governance was taking place. Not perfect, and in some places (Kismayo, Bardhere, Buale, among others) local authorities were awful predators. But for every warlord in one location there was a mayor in another trying to deliver basic city services in partnership with elders, women’s market committees, clerics, and businesspeople.

Since that time, there have been additional cases of good municipal  governance in Somalia, giving me confidence that cities are a good place to build on for basic government services.