The first steps to building permanent democratic institutions in Somalia began this month in earnest. An 825-member assembly of elders from across the country has approved a provisional national constitution, and is due to select new parliamentarians who will elect a speaker and president before the UN-imposed deadline of 20 August. The hope is that this transitional process will culminate in Somalia’s first national elections.
This tentative path towards democratisation has been made possible by dramatic improvements in security. It is exactly one year since peace was restored in the Somali capital of Mogadishu with assistance from African Union troops. Meanwhile, the radical Islamist group Al-Shabaab is increasingly isolated, and continues to be driven back to the south.
The emergence of a centralised authority in Somalia that is at pains to acquire popular legitimacy is a landmark step in the history of a country emerging from decades of civil war. These developments have not taken place in a social and economic vacuum: civil society, which has come together to redefine what it means to be Somali, has played an instrumental role (which is often not acknowledged).
But despite these developments, at first glance a common identity and shared understanding across all of Somalia still seems a long way off. Political identity did not simply disappear during the civil war, but became associated with de facto regional authorities. In the north, there is the (unrecognised) self-declared state of Somaliland, a legacy of the British protectorate created in 1888. Bordering it to the east, the self-governing province of Puntland has crafted a durable alliance between Daarood and Harti clans. Both regions have remained stable and prosperous, and the political identity of the population has evolved accordingly.
The biggest drive of this nascent sense of national identity is not the new fledgling state institutions; it is rather a deeper, timeless sense of what it means to be Somali — a robust independence and enterprising spirit which Somalis have maintained against all odds. This sense of identity has been defined not on the basis of a strong state, but on the ability to flourish in its absence.
The scars of civil war did not damage or disable the Somali psyche – in some ways they made it all the more determined – and Somalia’s ability to develop in the absence of a viable centralised government is remarkable. Life expectancy fell by two years between 1985 and 1990: but since becoming effectively stateless it has improved by five years. Only three other sub-Saharan states marked such an improvement.
Over the same period, the country went from 29th to 8th in telephone infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa. Mogadishu now has street lamps, restaurants and its first dry cleaners since the civil war. In May there was even a TEDx (1) talk, “Rebirth of Mogadishu”, which the dominance of radical Islamists would have made unthinkable less than a year ago.
A new “Brand Somalia” is being created. And while earlier this year, The Economist was running headlines like How do you solve a problem like Somalia? and “The worst place in the world to be a woman”, by last month it had turned its attention to the rejuvenation of Mogadishu, with “Nice beaches and good shopping” and a piece on the opening of the first new bank in two decades. Somalia could, it seems, be about to arrive on the world stage, with new confidence at home and a fresh image abroad.
Though for the first time, there is hope of real stability, it is too early to rejoice. The crucial test of Somalia’s nascent democratic government will be the extent to which it can enable the enterprising spirit of its people to flourish, by continuing to root out bureaucracy and corruption. Only then will the new government be able to integrate all Somalis, including in the autonomous regions, into this emerging vision of progress.
Source: Le Monde Diplomatique