Somalia and Somaliland

Greg Mankiw has just linked to a video that riffs on a familiar debate trope: so you don’t like government? Well, how would you like to live in Somalia! It’s easy to see why one might find this “argument” frustrating: if you believe that government does more than it should, and that doing more than it should means that it does everything less well than it might, you are evidently a partisan of Somali-style warlordism and chaos. Order in most societies rests on shared norms rather than coercion. A strong state has to exercise unconscionably high levels of repression when these shared norms don’t exist, and relatively weak states can perform tolerably well when they do. One can argue that states can facilitate the spread and deepening of shared norms, because the building of trust is an iterative game that states can help along by punishing miscreants, etc. That sounds about right, but it is not always easy to disentangle which force is most powerful. States can be colonized by civil society, and vice versa. The states that are most open and responsive tend to be the most durable and successful. This is an axis distinct from “strength” or “weakness.”

So back to Somalia. While I wouldn’t have much confidence in my physical security if I were living in Somalia, I’d feel much the same way in many other countries in the region. The relevant comparison is not necessarily between Somalia and, say, the United States or Norway, but rather between Somalia in a condition of anarchy vs. Somalia before it fell into that state, or between Somalia and other countries that had comparable levels of human development at around the time Somalia’s government collapsed. 

The economist Peter Leeson, known for his work on the economics of piracy, wrote a provocative paper a few years back arguing that Somalia’s development trajectory is widely misunderstood:

Could anarchy be good for Somalia’s development? If state predation goes unchecked government may not only fail to add to social welfare, but can actually reduce welfare below its level under statelessness. Such was the case with Somalia’s government, which did more harm to its citizens than good. The government’s collapse and subsequent emergence of statelessness opened the opportunity for Somali progress. This paper uses an “event study” to investigate the impact of anarchy on Somali development. The  data suggest that while the state of this development remains low, on nearly all of 18 key indicators that allow pre- and post-stateless welfare comparisons, Somalis are better off under anarchy than they were under government. Renewed vibrancy in critical sectors of Somalia’s economy and public goods in the absence of a predatory state are responsible for this improvement. 

This paper came to mind in part because a Kenyan friend of mine was describing the extremely high quality of Somalia’s mobile phone network. Granted, I’d rather enjoy peace and security than excellent phone reception. But might I choose lawlessness over a predatory state in the vein of the old Somali government? It’s not a no-brainer. 

It’s also interesting to consider the modest success of Somaliland, the breakaway republic in the northern part of Somalia that has been struggling to secure international regulation. Government in Somaliland is limited by necessity, and there is a wide variety of nongovernmental service providers and clan structures that keep society humming along. Jeffrey Gettleman offered a precis back in 2007:


The Somali National Movement proved indispensable in the fragile years after the Barre government collapsed. It set up the guurti, a council of wise men from every clan, which soon evolved into an official decision-making body. Most of the men were illiterate herders but they became the glue that held Somaliland together.

In a sparsely populated nomadic society, where many people live far from government services, clan elders are traditionally the ones to reconcile differences and maintain social order.

“They were a cushion,” said Ahmed Mohammed Silanyo, the leader of Somaliland’s main opposition party. “Whenever there was friction, these old men would step in and say, ‘What’s wrong with you boys? Stay together.’”

In the 1990s, while clan warlords in Mogadishu were leveling the city’s fine Italian architecture, the guurti, along with rebel leaders, were building a government.

Somaliland, like southern Somalia, was awash with weapons and split by warring clans. Their first step was persuading the militiamen to give up their guns — a goal that still seems remote in the south. They moved slowly, first taking the armed pickups, then the heavy guns and ultimately leaving light weapons in the hands of the people.

Note the role of persuasion rather than superior firepower.

Again, this stood in contrast to the south, where thousands of American marines and UN peacekeepers in the early 1990s failed to put a dent in the clan violence.

Somaliland’s modest and restrained government has worked to check clan power, and it has been animated by a principle that many libertarians and conservatives would find quite congenial:

The less outside help, the better. Over the years southern Somalia has received tens of millions — if not hundreds of millions — of dollars in aid, Somaliland almost nothing.

We absolutely shouldn’t romanticize Somaliland, which remains poor and heavily dependent on livestock. My guess is that Somaliland would be far better off if it had the more reliable trading relationships that would flow from international recognition, but that might also introduce aid flows and the potential for corruption. What is extremely impressive is that Somaliland has proven far more successful than far stronger states at combating piracy, at least according to the presumably somewhat biased reporters at the Somaliland Press:

As the IMB’s 2010 Piracy map shown above depicts, the Somaliland waters are completely free from Piracy attacks and attempts in 2010 despite the record number of hostages taken and ships hijacked; the number one reason is because many Pirates who made attempts to hijack ships from Somaliland waters in 2009 have been captured by authorities and are in Somaliland jails.

Somaliland is the only nation that has convicted more than 60 pirates who are currently serving long jail time after being convicted by local courts. Throwing this many Pirates in Jail has had the intended consequence and it has been reported that pirates warn each other to avoid Somaliland waters when attempting to attack ships in the Red Sea waters.

Despite its meager resource this little country spends far less (about .0001%) than the International community and shipping corporations do, yet it has achieved much better results. 

In Africa Spectrum, scholars Michael Walls and Steve Kibble refer to Somaliland as a “hybrid state,” and they point to future barriers to progress:

This article argues that Somaliland’s remarkable achievement in establishing a durable stability is due in large part to the ad hoc, organic and unplanned adoption of a hybrid political system that fuses elements of kinship affiliation and “modern” constitutional design. In spite of a heavily underresourced, post-conflict government and the need to grapple with challenges as fundamental as the accommodation of the competing interests of representative nation-state democracy and a social structure based on egalitarian male kinship affiliation, Somali traditions of discourse and negotiation have enabled genuine progress. Since 1991, community- and clan-based reconciliation conferences and meetings have enabled the iterative construction of a resilient system of state, gradually widening the ambit of political consensus through sequential popular congresses and wide, albeit largely male, debate. …

Somaliland’s model of development has enjoyed much genuine success, and is seen by some as representing the first indigenous, modern African form of government to achieve stability through a regime employing traditional social systems within a democratising framework, while maintaining an emphasis on individual and collective self-reliance. The model includes a commitment to reconciliation, tolerance, unity and compromise through the engagement of traditional elders and customary political institutions, and indubitably holds insights with respect to other conflict-affected parts of Africa. [Emphasis added]

Somaliland seems to have achieved much more than many other African states while extracting far less from its citizens and accepting virtually nothing in government-to-government transfers, i.e., overseas development assistance. It’s model of consensual government doesn’t just involve periodic elections. Rather, it is a minimal state that treads lightly, as it governs a citizenry that zealously guards its autonomy. It would be tough to make a wacky video about a country that is pretty much on its own in the world and that spends a pittance to secure its coastline. But I’d love to see it. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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