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.

If mayors ruled Somalia

If Mayors Ruled Somalia:

Beyond the State-building Impasse

Ken Menkhaus

April 22, 2014

Note: A revised version of this piece will be published in May 2014 as a Policy Note for the Nordic Africa Institute (

Over the course of a single week in April 2014, two Nordic diplomats publicly voiced polar opposite views on how external actors can best support the critically important task of state-building in Somalia. Both criticized what they saw as flawed assumptions and analysis behind “conventional” approaches to aid to Somalia, even as they disagreed on their own interpretations of failed aid and state failure in Somalia. Their positions capture a long-running debate on the issue, and one that is overdue for resolution.

This Policy Note critically assesses the strengths and weaknesses of these two schools of thought on state-building and international aid in Somalia and proposes a third option – a transitional strategy that includes more support to municipalities as the source of the most practical, legitimate, and effective formal governance in Somalia.

The “Marshall Plan” approach

In an interview with the Institute for Security Studies, Jens Mjaugedal, Special Envoy of Norway to Somalia, called for the international community to recognize “battlefield realities” in Somalia and urged donors to release large-scale flows of aid to strengthen the dangerously weak Somali government. He criticized donors for pledging $2.3 billion to Somalia’s fledgling government as part of the “New Deal” Somali Compact and then failing to deliver after reported allegations of corruption, collusion, and mismanagement inside the government. The gist of his remarks was that a certain amount of diversion of funds was inevitable, but a small price to pay for jump-starting a besieged government that needs both to defeat a dangerous jihadi insurgency and deliver basic services to its people. According to this view, starving the government of foreign aid in its greatest hour of need plays into the hands of the militant group al-Shabaab.

Mjaugedal’s views represent the “Marshall Plan” school of thought on Somalia – the belief that urgent security imperatives require a massive infusion of financial, technical, and military support to “prime the pump” of the collapsed government and win legitimacy from the Somali people by delivering jobs, security, and basic services. State weakness is at the core of the crisis; therefore the goal of strengthening the central government overrides all other priorities. Gradualist approaches, from this perspective, will doom the current government to failure and perpetuate the conflict trap it has been locked into for 25 years. The Norwegian government has acted on this position, providing $30 million in direct budgetary support to the Somali government, despite concerns in some quarters that the money will be lost to corruption.

The “Social Contract” approach

On April 10, Finnish Minister for International Development H.E. Pekka Haavisto offered keynote remarks on a panel on Peacebuilding and State-building in the Horn of Africa at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC. Haavisto, who co-chairs the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and State-building (IDPS), drew extensively on the Somali case to raise broader points about successful aid to fragile states. He argued that formulaic state-building approaches in fragile states have had little success globally — even when they include massive amounts of aid — because they privilege government capacity-building over local ownership, government legitimacy, and trust-building. Trust in government is typically low after a long conflict, and processes by which new governments and constitutions are formed are often deeply contested. When fragile states lack legitimacy and the trust of their own people, rapid state-building efforts can actually work against rather than for peacebuilding, inspiring resistance from those who fear how state authorities will wield their new power.

Haavisto’s talk represents the “social contract” school of thought on state-building in Somalia – the belief that successful state-building first requires a legitimate government, which in turn depends on greater local ownership of processes leading to the formation of new governments and constitutions, strong accountability mechanisms, greater public trust, and more responsive governments. From this view, government legitimacy must be earned, not bought. In Somalia, donors embracing this view have tended to privilege peacebuilding over state-building, and have looked to support more local-level, inclusive, and organic forms of governance and representation. They have also been more wary of government abuse of power and funding, and more conflict-sensitive to the impact of their aid in the country. In practice, this school of thought has tended to gravitate toward a “go-slow” approach to aid to the series of transitional governments in Somalia from 2000 to 2012, and in some cases has been more inclined to work around rather than through Somali governments with poor track records of accountability.

Two faces of the New Deal

Both of these approaches can claim to be advancing aspects of the 2011 New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States.   Mjaugedal invokes the New Deal, and the Somali Compact derived from New Deal “Busan” principles, in his call for pledges of aid to be released to and through the government. He views the unwillingness of the donor community to release aid to the Somali government as an abrogation of its $2.3 billion pledge in the Somali Compact. Haavisto’s position highlights the pledge of peacebuilding and state-building principles articulated in the Somali Compact – of accountability, inclusiveness, legitimacy, and justice, among others.

New Deal or not, variations on this debate have been waged since the first of a series of Somali transitional governments was declared in 2000. Some arguments in the debate have more merit than others.

The political economy of state-building

Two aspects of the “Marshall Plan” argument are especially powerful. The first is the sense of urgency it conveys, especially with regard to the enduring threat posed by al Shahaab. However disappointing the Somali government has been, allowing it to fail is simply not an option. The second is its analysis of the failure of Somali state-building as part of a pathological syndrome requiring transformational intervention to “break the cycle” of poor government performance, low legitimacy, and low government revenues.

But advocates of a Marshall Plan for Somalia fail to fully appreciate the political economy dimension of state-building and corruption in Somalia. For years, Somali political elites have embraced state-building as a lucrative project, but not an objective, exploiting the fact that Western counter-terrorism priorities have meant that donors cannot afford to allow the Somali state-building project to fail. Somalia has for many years ranked at the very top of Transparency International’s list of most corrupt states, with most state-building aid vanishing into private pockets. For some local actors, state weakness is the desired outcome, not a problem to be solved. A Marshall Plan approach to state-building can work when a government has the will but not the capacity to govern. When its leaders lack both capacity and political will, no amount of aid will succeed in strengthening the state, as the West’s sobering experience in Afghanistan attests.

Slow pace of institution-building

Even if new Somali leaders can purge the government of its most corrupt elements – a hope that has been repeatedly raised and dashed over the past ten years — the Marshall Plan approach faces another grim obstacle. One of political science’s most unequivocal findings is that institution-building takes a very long time – at least a generation in the best of circumstances, and Somalia’s circumstances are anything but ideal. “Priming the pump” of Europe’s post-war economy via the Marshall Plan worked because those governments were already strong institutions. Somalia has been a completely collapsed state for 24 years. What this suggests is that a well-intentioned international effort to jump-start Somali state-building with transformational levels of aid will not yield expected results. With or without the $2.3 billion in New Deal assistance, Somalia’s government will remain weak and fragile for years to come.

Legitimacy matters

Many of the arguments associated with the “social contract” school of thought are compelling – in particular, the recognition that state-building without a legitimate government will undermine peacebuilding and is likely to be self-defeating, and its insistence on more organic, inclusive, and locally-owned processes to revive the Somali government. This approach also has powerful empirical evidence to support it – especially the example of Somaliland, where successful state-building and peacebuilding have been achieved through locally-owned processes and with very modest levels of government funding and foreign aid. Until recently, Somaliland’s government operated on annual budgets of only $50 to $80 million, most of which was generated from local taxes, not external aid. A Marshal Plan was not necessary to build a modestly functional government in Somaliland, and might have inadvertently undermined the Somaliland project had it been offered.

“Art of the possible”

But the social contract approach has its weaknesses as well when applied to south-central Somalia. It is poorly equipped to address the deep-rooted problems of spoilers and the culture of corruption that has arisen among the political and business elites in Mogadishu, as well as the grave threats posed by al-Shabaab. Problems of security and access are so poor in much of south-central Somalia that principles of inclusivity and local ownership are beyond the reach of a government that is under siege in its own compound. And divisions over representation, clan, political Islam, and federalism are still so intense that any newly declared government or constitution will be deeply contested and will unavoidably have weak legitimacy in the eyes of many citizens. In sum, a social contract between state and society in south-central Somalia may not be realistic in the short-term. Local leaders and foreign donors must understand that state-building in Somalia is the “art of the possible” and may have little choice but to work with flawed, contested governments of dubious legitimacy for the time being.

Beyond the impasse

Under these circumstances, can any approach successfully support good governance in Somalia? What is needed in Somalia is a transitional state-building strategy – one that can help provide core government services to the people during the long, slow task of state-building. And that is where Somalia’s municipalities can play a bigger role.

If mayors ruled Somalia

Greater support to Somalia’s many municipalities can be justified on the grounds that they have been the site of some of the most effective, legitimate, and inclusive political performance in the country over the past two decades. As Benjamin Barber argues in his new book If Mayors Ruled the World, municipalities are where the most important basic government services are performed, usually efficiently and in a non-partisan way. In Somalia, a number of towns and cities – Hargeisa, Boroma, Luuq Beled Weyn, and Jowhar, to name a few – have since the mid-1990s attracted political leaders interested in producing results, not in diverting funds. These and other towns have sported piped water systems, police forces, land title offices, regulatory systems for private sector utilities, and market committees. At their best, they have been models of private-public partnerships and flexible, inclusive, hybrid governance. Many of the most dedicated and honest Somali political leaders, both from the diaspora and in-country, have gravitated to mayoral roles rather than vie for positions in the national government.

Muncipalities and good governance

There are other reasons why municipalities are an attractive target for external aid. Somali towns and cities are also more likely to be places where multiple clans reside and do business, and hence have an interest in routinized social compacts to keep the peace. Accountability is stronger in most municipalities because mayors and town officials are working in close proximity to the citizens, and because they rely almost entirely on locally-generated tax revenues. Problems associated with the slow pace of institution-building are less an issue because town administrations are usually small, as are the tasks they pursue. Cities and towns are also less encumbered by the vexing problems of territory and clan than are district, regional, and federal administrations. External support to municipal administrations is thus less likely to get bogged down in Somali debates over federalism and clannism. Because of its local nature, support to municipalities is compatible with both federal and centralist visions of the Somali state.

Community policing

Finally, support to municipalities in Somalia has at least some potential as a counter-terrorism and law enforcement measure. Most Somali law and order, and deterrence of crime and terrorism, is based on community policing, not the work of the police and security forces. When Somalis see themselves as stakeholders in a local polity, they are quite vigilant against threats to their community. Towns and cities engender a surprisingly strong sense of civic pride among Somalis, who will sometimes self-identify as residents of a city as much as with their lineage. Effective, legitimate, and inclusive municipalities can be a powerful social deterrent to criminal and terrorist activities. This aspect of municipal governance should not be oversold – local polities are very vulnerable to heavily armed spoilers, whether in the form of warlords or jihadis, and community policing can be silenced by threats by al-Shabaab’s Amniyat network. Al-Shabaab’s re-emergence in some neighborhoods of Mogadishu in 2014 demonstrates the limits of municipal and district governance on hard security matters.

Not all Somali municipal authorities are legitimate, of course. Some appointed or self-declared mayors and district commissioners across the country are predatory militia commanders or corrupt leaders. Mogadishu’s district leadership has been especially uneven on this count. Engagement will require case-by-case assessments, not templates.

Toward a transitional strategy

But Somalia’s municipalities have generally been the most promising locations for good governance, basic service delivery, and law and order. And many donor states feature exceptionally strong municipal governments themselves, and so have ample expertise from which to draw.

Supporting city administrations is not a substitute for state-building at the national and federal level, but can be an important component of a transitional strategy designed to provide Somalis with essential government protection and services during the long process of national-level state-building. And support to municipalities honors the most powerful arguments made by both Mjaugedal and Haavisto – it is aid that can quickly and effectively support the provision of essential government services to the people, while encouraging greater local ownership and accountability. It may be our best hope for advancing the principles and objectives of the Somali Compact under very difficult circumstances.


Suggested reading:

“A New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States.” 2011.

Barber, Benjamin. 2013. If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Fabricius, Peter. 2014. “Somalia: Why Orthodox Aid Policy Must Give Way to Battlefield Reality.” Institute for Strategic Studies (April 17)

Menkhaus, Ken. 2014. “State Failure, State-Building, and Prospects for a ‘Functional Failed State’ in Somalia.” Brown Journal of World Affairs 20, 2 (Spring-Summer), forthcoming.

Wilson Center. 2014. “Peacebuilding and Statebuilding in the Horn of Africa: A Conversation with the Finnish Minister of International Development.” Wilson Center, Africa Program (April 16)


Ken Menkhaus is professor of political science at Davidson College in North Carolina USA and a specialist on the Horn of Africa. His interests include state-building, local governance, peace and conflict, and political economy. He is currently an affiliate of the Nordic Africa Institute.

Why Bakara Market?

Bakara Market is the densely packed commercial heart of Mogadishu, Somalia, and the hub of one of the biggest transit trade networks in East Africa. In the mid-1980s, before Somalia’s civil war broke out, I was a student living in Mogadishu and used to walk to Bakara market several times a week to buy meat and vegetables.  It’s where I learned to bargain, though rarely successfully.

After the civil war broke out and the Somali state collapsed in 1991, Somalia became “the world’s largest duty free shop” and Bakara Market grew into the role of a major retail and warehousing district for goods of all sorts. The merchandise transited from Somali beach ports through Bakara Market and was then trucked across Somalia and into East African markets, even as far as Eastern Congo.

Bakara Market’s mystique grew in later years, as an impenetrable and dangerous emporium of  illicit business, a weapons bazaar, a site of secret business deals, and a stronghold of the jihadi group Al-Shabaab.  It was badly damaged in the destructive urban war between Ethiopian forces and Al-Shabaab in 2007-08, but today is again a vibrant, chaotic, densely packed commercial district and the site of some of Somalia’s most valuable real estate investments.

I named this blog Bakara Market in hopes that it too will serve as a busy transshipment site of ideas and analysis on the Horn of Africa, where I have intermittently worked and conducted research for nearly thirty years. More soon!


Horn of Africa