Decentralized Governance in
Observations from the WSP Perspective
WSP/Somaliland Centre for Peace and Development
Paper for Presentation at the
Second Reconstruction Strategies Conference
(21-25 July 2000)
On May 18, 2000, Somaliland celebrated the 9th anniversary of its
independence from Somalia and, indeed, the people of Somaliland have much
to celebrate: in contrast with much of southern Somalia, Somaliland has
established a stable peace, a functional administration, a reasonably
representative government, and a climate for economic growth. Tens of
thousands of mines and unexploded munitions have been cleared; the
majority of destroyed dwellings has been rebuilt, together with much of
the national infrastructure; and over a quarter of a million refugees have
returned home. The burden of this effort has been borne – proudly and
cheerfully – by the people of Somaliland, with only negligible amounts of
The embryonic Somaliland government, although not without its shortcomings
and difficulties, compares favourably in many respects not only with
previous Somali governments, but also with arrangements for the governance
of Somalis within the states of the region – namely Djibouti, Ethiopia and
Kenya. And Somaliland’s accomplishments offer important clues for the
restoration of peace and government to the rest of Somalia as well.
The aim of the WSP Somali Programme, and its affiliate, the Somaliland
Centre for Peace and Development (SCPD) was to study these accomplishments,
understand the internal dynamics of Somaliland’s reconstruction, and share
lessons learned with key actors from Somaliland, the region, and the
WSP Somali Programme / Somaliland Centre for
Peace and Development (SCPD)
The WSP Somali Programme was the fourth in a series of WSP country
projects, which examined the dynamics of post-war rebuilding and the role
of external assistance. The WSP approach involves the application of
Participatory Action Research (PAR) methodology to the problems of
reconstruction, in a way that is intended to help identify and articulate
priorities, clarify problems, and build consensus among national and
international decision-makers around possible solutions and policy options.
In Somaliland, the WSP programme is implemented through a local affiliate:
the Somaliland Center for Peace and Development or SCPD (Director: Dr.
Hussein Abdillahi Bulhan; Research Co-ordinator: Dr. Mohamed Osman Fadal).
The preliminary research phase spanned the period January-December 1999,
and resulted in the production of “A Self-Portrait of Somaliland:
Rebuilding from the Ruins.” The main research phase in ongoing and is
expected to conclude in early 2001.
Given that the WSP/SCPD programme is still incomplete, it is not the
purpose of this paper to provide conclusions or lessons learned. It is
instead an opportunity to share some of our observations as we travel the
road from peace and reconstruction to development in Somaliland.
The Somaliland Self Portrait
SCPD’s work began with over four months of field research that extended
across Somaliland from Loyacaddo to Laas Canood and from Booraame to
Badhan. The purpose was to sound out the views of a cross section of
Somalilanders on various aspects of social, political and economic
reconstruction. In this paper, I will concentrate primarily on aspects of
Superficially, it is possible to describe Somaliland as parliamentary
democracy with an executive President, an independent judiciary, etc. The
reality, however, is far more complex and deserves a closer look.
Over 9 years since the SNM’s victory in the war with the Barre regime, and
the declaration of Somaliland’s independence, Somaliland’s governance
structure remains in transition: a hybrid of western form and traditional
substance. The clan system (beelo) co-exists with imported, western-style
Some Somalilanders are content with such a system, or feel that the
government has little choice but to function the way it does: it is simply
a reflection of the society that has created it. Critics, however, accuse
the government of manipulating kinship politics to its own advantage.
Almost all, however, agree upon the need for improvement.
Issues upon which there appears to be widespread public interest include
Each of these issues is
further elaborated below.
The elaboration of a future electoral system is one critical element in
Somalilland’s transition from “beel-based” politics towards a more formal
mechanism for representation. The Deputy Speaker of the House has
expressed the problem as follows: “We need to come up with a system that
accommodates one man, one vote, but allows every community (beel) to be
represented. So far, no one has come up with such a formula. In particular,
the public is divided over whether or parties political parties might
offer a solution to this problem.
Support for an early introduction of political parties appears to be
greatest in main urban centres where professionals and intelligentsia are
often openly scornful of the beel-system. They do, however, differ over
how a party based system should be introduced, with some favouring
elections at the national level, and others arguing for a more gradual
process, with elections taking place first at the local level.
Outside Hargeysa, however, interest in party politics is generally low. In
Berbera, community leaders are cautious about the idea, arguing that
political consciousness needs more time to develop. The Governor of Saaxil
has outlined a set of conditions that should be fulfilled before a party
system can function, including full security, full demobilization and
reintegration of militia, establishment of government institutions
throughout Somaliland, and improvement of living standards through the
reorganization/restructuring of the national economy
In more remote areas, a significant proportion of Somalilanders appears to
favour retention of a beel-based system for the foreseeable future. A
spokesman for the Warsengeli Suuldaan has argued: “If clan is
indispensable, why should we not base our functional structures on it and
use it for our reconstruction and development”. In Sanaag, some elders
advocate a shift “from qabiilism to regionalism.” In sum, the prospect of
party-based politics seems less compelling to those on Somaliland’s
periphery than it does to the people at the country’s centre.
Design of the electoral system alone is not sufficient to address such
complex issues. For example, in many areas, pressure exists for the
revision of administrative boundaries and the creation of new districts. A
new region – Saaxil – was established in 1996, but its borders are
indeterminate, and the elders of some communities to the east of Berbera
are uncertain to which region they belong. Officials in Ceel-Afweyne and
Sallaxley also complain that their jurisdiction is unclear, while the
mayor of Maydh feels that his responsibilities are too restricted: “We
cannot go beyond a five-mile radius – not even as far as Sheekh Isaxaaq’s
tomb, which is supposed to be administered from Maydh.”
Boundaries often have less to do with administration than with
representation: many clan groups want their own “district” as a means to
enhanced prestige, or greater influence upon central government. The
proliferation of districts, however, has little to do with demographic
realities, nor with the capacity of a district to bear some of its own
costs. But as long as politicians and elders seek to extend their
political influence through kinship alone, the pressure to increase the
number of districts is likely to continue.
One representation issue that deserves special mention is the role of
women in politics. Despite Somaliland’s pride in its tradition of
“pastoral democracy”, its democratic privileges have historically been
limited to men. Whether or not this should change is an issue that divides
men and women alike.
Traditionally, women have enjoyed no formal role in the clan-based
political process, and today women are not involved in the decision-making
process of government and other public bodies - even those dealing with
issues that concern women directly. Women are absent from the main
branches of government (House of Elders, Representatives, Judiciary and
the Executive Branch), and are also unrepresented in high administrative
At the heart of the debates over the constitution, electoral systems and
political parties lies the issue of participation, and the related notion
of equity. In Somaliland, the perception of equity is far more than a
political ideal: it is an indispensable condition for the preservation of
political stability and social peace. History has demonstrated that
Somalilanders are prepared to tolerate all manner of hardships and
political ills – authoritarianism, corruption, conflict and poverty – but
not injustice. The belief that one group is benefiting from the political
system at the expense of others is among the most potent sources of
Somaliland’s most fundamental contrasts are those between the centre and
the periphery, and between urban and rural. Hargeysa’s status as the seat
of government has encouraged the concentration of private investment,
human resources, international travel connections, and international
assistance within the city limits. The frenetic, sometimes self-centred
preoccupations of the national capital generate a degree of unease and
resentment elsewhere in the country. Many regional leaders fear that the
Hargeysa-based elite has begun to equate Somaliland’s interests with those
of its capital city, losing touch with the rest of the country. Some voice
concerns that if present trends continue, Hargeysa may one day become as
remote from the majority of Somaliland citizens as Muqdisho once was.
The degree of inclusion/alienation obviously varies between members of
different clan, and thus between the east and west of the country. In the
words of one Ceerigaabo market woman: “Ood kaa dheeri kuma dhaxan tirto.”
In Burco, public confidence has suffered acutely from two rounds of civil
strife. “These conflicts have shaken our inspiration for the Somaliland
state,” observes one local leader. “They were a painful experience: they
took away everything we have rebuilt.”
In Sool and eastern Sanaag regions, populations have long been divided in
their attitudes towards Somaliland. Many are persuaded by the combination
of economic, cultural, historical and political ties that bind them to
Somaliland, but feel that the government needs to ensure a more equitable
distribution of benefits. A man wants to build a fence and is seeking a
hangool (a naturally grown stick with a crook at one end and a fork at the
other) with which to do the job. “My problem,” says the man, “is that I
have found the two ends of the hangool (gadh iyo farraar), each in a
Resolving these multifarious, complex and overlapping problems will not be
easy. Some Somalilanders believe that one more round of traditional
peace-making, in the form of a shir-beleed, is a precondition to a more
formal political framework. As one traditional leaders put it:
Before a final political settlement there should be a turxaan bixin… a
formula acceptable to all the clans. That does not exist with the present
government… [During the 1996 peace process] they wanted to undermine the
unity of the Eastern regions as a political force. So we had [our
leadership] elected by a few people in a room by raising their hands. Is
Others are not so sure. They argue that politics is the art of the
possible and that it will never be possible to satisfy the many competing
demands. AS one cabinet minister has argued: Caano jiilaal, camba can
dareen [In the dry season when milk is scarce, each cheek feels it is
getting less than the other].
One of the most critical issues in the constitutional debate is that of
decentralization, which emerged as a priority for research within SCPD’s
research programme. At the National Project Group Meeting, convened by
SCPD in November 1999, and including over 80 representatives from across
Somaliland, decentralization was selected as a priority for further study.
Although there exists an extraordinarily high level of consensus across
the political and social spectrum that decentralization is fundamental to
Somaliland’s success, there appears to be no consensus on what
decentralization might mean in practice, or how to realize it. Many
Somalilanders are unclear about what the devolution of administrative
authority to the local level would entail. In an unpublished paper on the
topic, one analyst noted that many Somalilanders tend to view the issue
only in terms of “political autonomy – regional self-government – ignoring
the corroborative need for fiscal autonomy”. In other words, few people
realize that if they want local self-government, they will have to be
prepared to bear its costs.
In sum, decentralization is a complex and delicate proposition. Some
Somalilanders might even describe it as an idea whose time has not yet
come, but others would argue that in the interests of national unity they
cannot afford to postpone it.
In the course of it’s research on the topic of decentralization, the SCPD
held a first workshop in Baki district, Awdal region in early July 2000.
Participants included members of parliament, the Guurti, the Ministries of
Interior and Planning, regional and district governments, civic
organizations, the private sector, pastoralists and farmers and village
committees. During three days of discussion, the workshop examined various
aspects of decentralization and developed recommendations. Two more
workshops of this nature, on related aspects of decentralized governance
are planned in the coming months, and a working group meets regularly in
Hargeysa to advance the research.
The current situation
Participants at the Baki workshop described the development of local
administration as an ongoing process, which started from scratch after the
Boorame conference. To date, they have established village committees, and
executive committees at the regional and district levels. There is a
functioning tax collections system, and a generally high level of
acceptance among the local population for the payment of taxes.
On the other hand, participants described the process as yet incomplete,
and still relatively centralized. Decision-making and appointments of
local officials still take place at the central level. Power is typically
concentrated within the hands of the mayor, and the relationship between
the local authorities and the public was described as weak. Unclear
responsibilities between different levels of government, and between
public officials at the same level have hindered the growth of functional
In consequence, workshop participants described a situation in which there
exist unacceptable levels of corruption, overstaffing of local offices,
excessive turn-over of mayors and other public officials, and that
services are concentrated in regional and district headquarters at the
expense of the local population. There was also some concern expressed
that public officials are chiefly preoccupied with satisfying their
superiors to whom they are accountable, rather than to their constituents.
Constraints in advancing decentralization
Workshop participants recognized that the process of decentralization
faces formidable challenges. Neither the people of Somaliland, nor their
leaders have prior experience of decentralization, and instead tend to
gravitate towards familiar, centralized patterns of governance. Little or
no effort has been made to raise public awareness about the issue, and
many Somalilanders remain distrustful of any contact with government. Many
public officials are said to lack the creativity and flexibility to
abandon old habits and procedures.
More concretely, participants agreed that the central government needs to
invest greater effort and attention in decentralization. Furthermore,
while proposals of this nature have been advanced by the executive, it was
argued that the parliament has yet to pass legislation that would
translate the constitutional principle of decentralization into law.
Finally, some participants emphasized the need for patience, asserting
that the legacy of war and displacement is still very much alive.
Confidence and trust must be restored before people are fully prepared to
face such fundamental changes.
Despite these constraints, the Baki workshop identified a number of
opportunities to advance the process of decentralization. Perhaps most
fundamental was the realization expressed at the workshop that Somaliland
society has a unique opportunity to build itself from a veritable tabula
rasa, and to learn from the lessons and mistakes of the past.
This opportunity, they argued, was underpinned by the gradual
consolidation of peace, government administration, and economic activity,
as well as the de facto “decentralization” (or deregulation) of sectors
like health, education, communications, transport and business.
The workshop also took note of the maturing of Somaliland civil society,
and the justification that Somali culture and Islamic faith lend to a
decentralized social and political structure.
The full recommendations of the Baki workshop are available through the
SCPD, and will eventually be incorporated into a more comprehensive work.
But there is room here to summarize some of the main points:
The central government (executive
and parliament) should take the lead in fulfilling its constitutional
responsibility to effect decentralization, through raising public
awareness, submitting the Constitution to a referendum, and completing the
required legal framework
Involve all levels of
government in the planning and developing a framework for decentralized
governance. The framework should include the rationalization of revenue
collection and management at all levels, devolution of specified authority,
responsibility and resources to local levels, and conformity with cultural
and religious precepts
Responsibility should shift
increasingly to communities through the election of local councils,
completion of unfinished clan reconciliation issues, and encouragement of
Somaliland’s growing civil society
It would of course be premature to draw any conclusions at this stage in
an ongoing process. Nor would it be appropriate to describe Somaliland’s
ongoing experimentation in unreservedly positive terms.
Power remains heavily concentrated in the hands of the executive,
vis-à-vis the legislature and the judiciary. Support for Somaliland’s
independence among various clan groups has been uneven, with some parts of
the territory remaining beyond effective administrative control. Issues
like corruption and human rights continue to engender public debate, and
require constant attention.
What is clear, however, is that Somaliland is struggling to find answers
to these difficult problems on its own terms – with a modest, but
encouraging degree of success. Somaliland’s political and economic
experimentation holds out the promise of a framework of governance rooted
in Somali society, traditions and culture. It has made slow but steady
progress in developing a framework for governance that is consensus-based,
decentralized, market-driven, and grounded in self-reliance. That is an
accomplishment that most of Somaliland’s neighbours can only aspire to,
and that no other Somali populations enjoy.
Somaliland is struggling to find answers to those questions on its own
terms – with a modest, but encouraging degree of success. Certainly no
government in the region has done better at providing for its Somali
citizens. The peace proposals being pushed by policy makers in the
international community seem destined to reproduce a politically
dysfunctional, economically feeble, aid-dependent Somali state. If this is
unacceptable –as it should be – then Somaliland’s lonely journey through
political and economic experimentation merits the attention and
encouragement not only of the international community, but of Somalis
everywhere. Politically fragile, institutionally immature, internationally
isolated, the hurdles to be overcome are formidable, and Somaliland’s
future is beset with uncertainty. But it is the uncertainty of choice and
opportunity, not the certainty of failure.
 A fence that is far from
you cannot protect you from the cold.
 Drysdale, John. Unpublished Mimeo. Hargeysa, 1995.