Do Not Resuscitate

February 29, 2008 Topic: Humanitarian InterventionSecurity

Do Not Resuscitate

Mini Teaser: Try as we might to revive states like Somalia and Sudan, it is time to just let them rest in peace.

by Author(s): J. Peter Pham

WE SEEM to be on constant red alert for state failure, but we can stop fearing and start looking. It's already happening in Somalia, Congo and Sudan; it is also likely to spread to Eritrea, Kenya, Nigeria and possibly even Ethiopia-and that's just on the African continent. These places do matter to the United States, but breaking them apart-rather than building them up-may be the answer.

Since the end of the cold war there's been a lot more conflict within states than among states. The ensuing televised death, destruction, famine and disease creates calls for humanitarian intervention. We hold up the crumbling foundations of statehood. Adopting a strategy of altering states to fit "nations" instead of forcing "nations" to fit states will put an end to the draining and futile efforts to prop up weak and tenuous countries. It is time to stop nation building and start nation razing.


Code Red

SOME OF the most devastating examples of the wrongheadedness of promiscuous nation building can be found in Africa. The region houses a plethora of "imported states"-states whose territorial order was artificially imposed during decolonization. Their borders simply reflect the arbitrary and artificial way great powers delineated their spheres of influence during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Their inevitable failure has led to nearly two-dozen wars that have left at least eight million dead and displaced an estimated twenty million more. It was typical imperial hubris to have the surreal expectation that the continent's postindependence leaders could somehow weld together a nation out of heterogeneous peoples and cultures. Even more naive was the belief that contrived and artificial unity could ever work. Many of Africa's fifty-three states simply do not reflect the reality of the "nations" within them. Consequently, these states aren't working. They aren't providing order; they aren't providing prosperity; they aren't providing a pathway to democracy. We need to face up to the reality that in some cases "nation breaking" is precisely what is required to escape the cycle of violence at the root of the crises and lift the heavy burden of humanitarian intervention.

These states have not survived on internal legitimacy but on foolhardy international recognition. The West believes there is no alternative. So, in our poverty of imagination, we have canonized an untenable status quo.

In Sudan, the tragedy in Darfur-characterized by the United Nations as "the world's worst humanitarian crisis"-is just the latest in a seemingly endless series of internal conflicts that have bedeviled the country since its independence. Last fall, representatives of the country's South boycotted Sudan's national-unity government. This underscores the precariousness of the U.S.-brokered 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement-a truce that temporarily suspended a conflict that had left more than two million people, mostly South Sudanese, dead.

The ironically named Democratic Republic of Congo has never, in its history as an independent country, had a complete set of free and democratic elections for local, provincial and national governments. Notwithstanding the international plaudits that accompanied the 2006 presidential election there as well as the presence of the largest United Nations peacekeeping contingent anywhere, President Joseph Kabila's writ scarcely extends beyond the boundaries of the capital, Kinshasa.

And when Somalia's leaders are even within the country at all, they only rarely venture into their putative capital of Mogadishu. The country exists more on paper and in the eyes of the State Department than in reality. The internationally recognized "government" can only dream of having so much authority.


Cause for Failure

SOMALIA BECAME the poster child for failed nation building in the early 1990s, when a U.S-led international peacekeeping force beat a retreat after a bloody confrontation with hostile clansmen. The internationally recognized, but otherwise utterly ineffective, "Transitional Federal Government" (TFG) of Somalia-the fourteenth such interim arrangement since January 1991-has never been much of a government. At best, it is an unrepresentative group of warlords with meager prospects who successfully rebranded themselves a "government" at an internationally sponsored conference in 2004. The notional entity survives thanks to generous international aid flows and the continuing presence of an Ethiopian expeditionary force, which came to the TFG's rescue in December 2006.1 Following the resignation of "prime minister" Ali Mohamed Gedi in October 2007, the TFG was teetering toward an ignominious end.

Thanks to factors underlying Somali society, reestablishing and maintaining a central government there is, by definition, a questionable proposition with rather dim prospects. The main political actors in Somalia are clans and subclans, whose interactions with each other have historically been a Clausewitzian interchange of complex political maneuvers and open warfare. Most telling, in Somalia's very oral culture, there are no tales, even mythic ones, of primordial political unity. In fact, the current effective divisions of the territory marked on most maps as "Somalia"-Somaliland, Puntland, Mogadishu and the southern areas-are similar to the precolonial patterns of political organization.

So it is unlikely, despite repeated calls by the U.S. State Department for "continued dialogue and national reconciliation," that any other "national" entity could do much better. And disunity is compounded by corruption. The resigned "prime minister" was at odds with the "president" for months, arguing over the winnings from the only card the TFG could really play: the country's status as an internationally recognized body. The winnings were the resources that could be had by trading on that commodity: control over the aid funds from various international sources, including the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and various Arab countries. Both men apparently did well in this game, if the mansions they acquired for themselves since assuming "office" are any indication.


The Proof is in the Pudding

CONTRAST THIS with a second approach: in the northern part of the collapsed Somali state the model is one "from below," rather than the "top-down" approach favored by the international community. In 1960, Somaliland, a former British protectorate in the northwestern region of present-day Somalia, joined with the former Italian colony of Somalia in a voluntary union, giving rise to the Somali Democratic Republic. Today, more than a decade and a half have gone by since Somaliland proclaimed the dissolution of that union, although the sovereignty the country reasserted has yet to be formally recognized by any other state.

In early 1991, when the former president of Somalia, Mohamed Siad Barre, was forced to flee from Mogadishu and Somalia effectively collapsed, one guerrilla group in the north, the Somali National Movement (SNM), was in control of Somaliland. Following the SNM's victory, Somaliland returned to its precolonial roots; responsibility for the shape of the postconflict settlement devolved to traditional elders. In May 1991, SNM leaders, representatives of civil society and the diaspora, as well as the Garaaddo, Suldaanno and Ugaasyo (titled traditional leaders) of the principal Somaliland clans signed the declaration of Somaliland's independence. One-hundred-fifty elders along with hundreds of other delegates and observers from throughout Somaliland gathered between January and May 1993 to reach a Somaliland national accord. The civilian administration that emerged is key in a society where the influence of kinship on personal and communal identity is still pervasive.2 The legislature balances an elected legislation-initiating House of Representatives and a conflict-resolving House of Elders, who are vested with traditional moral authority to consult, deliberate and mediate. This represents a kind of compromise between clan-based social patterns and the exigencies of modern administration and democratic governance.

When unification stems from the people within a nation, instead of being artificially imposed from without, success can be natural. A national referendum in May 2001 approved a definitive constitution by an overwhelming majority, and Somaliland has since held successful, competitive multiparty elections on several occasions. Encouraged by positive international and African evaluation of these developments, Somaliland formally applied for admission to the African Union (AU) in December 2005. The AU has not yet acted on Somaliland's application, but it has also not rejected it out of hand. And there is reason to believe the AU is reconsidering its old commitment to dysfunctional borders. A report in 2005 by AU Deputy Chairperson Patrick Mazimhaka concluded:

The fact that the union between Somaliland and Somalia was never ratified and also malfunctioned . . . makes Somaliland's search for recognition historically unique and self-justified in African political history. . . . As such, the AU should find a special method of dealing with this outstanding case.

Somaliland is wedging open the long-closed door to reorganizing Africa's territorial order. But it is a quasi state in another country, Sudan, that may well blow it wide open. After an interim period under a "national unity" government, whose mandate expires in 2011, the South Sudanese will vote in an internationally monitored referendum on whether "to confirm the unity of the Sudan" or "vote for secession." If the South Sudanese choose to strike out on their own-and that seems likely-they'll take with them more than three-quarters of Sudan's hydrocarbon reserves. Such a change will alter not just the map of the country, but also the regional geopolitical balance. Resources will shift from the Islamist regime in Khartoum to former rebels with close ties to the West. This could be a good thing-if we adjust our focus.

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