Somalia: New Players, Same Problems

Somalia’s troubles are in the news again, as Erik Prince of Blackwater fame is reportedly backing a private military company’s bid to work for the embattled Somali government.

With the varied meanings of the word, it’s easy to write off Somalia’s issues as merely the fruit of “anarchy.” But Somalia’s problems were created by rulers and aspiring rulers, not by any anarchists advocating no rulers. Somalia does not have anarchy, nor does its situation serve as evidence that anarchism is unlikely to work.

Since the brutal dictatorship of Mohammed Siad Barre fell in 1991, Somalia has faced varying intensities of civil war between aspiring governments, not an overall defeat of government.

Many foreign observers do not understand the social foundations of Somalia on which a state is attempting to impose itself. The overwhelming majority of violence in the country is suffered in national government centers in the south. In these struggles as well as in piracy, foreign states exacerbate conflict.

The basis of Somali society is generally clan allegiance. Somali customary law, called Xeer, allows judgments to be rendered in ad hoc courts by anyone able to muster sufficient respect for his relevant abilities. This system of traditional authority, which has a tendency to devalue women and exhibit suspicion toward — or take advantage of — people outside the clan, should not be idealized. However, where traditional law operates without state interference it has generally caused less conflict than the state, and Xeer could provide a useful framework for social progress.

Within the borders internationally regarded as defining Somalia, there exist several states whose claims of independence or autonomy go unrecognized by the “international community.” Apparently it is in the best interest of international elites to promote one Somalia under centralized rule instead of a confederation of several smaller states. But a cynic might wonder if the conflict which hinders the development of civil society and creates a power vacuum that can be taken advantage of, is strategically advantageous for international powers to perpetuate.

Violence is done in trying to force a centralized government on a county with decentralized power, and in forcing a modern state onto conflicting customary law. But proponents of central government are unable to accept that forcing everyone to obey whoever has government power might not be the best way to promote harmony among different interests and allegiances.

International activity in Somalia, whether to plant the flag, recover debt from defaulted loans to dictators, or rub out blowback from other empire-building projects, has persisted well beyond the famine relief missions of the early 1990s. Prince’s new venture is only the latest foreign intervention in the violent struggle to establish and maintain a central government. The United Nations, United States, and Ethiopia have attempted to influence the situation using military force. It might be impolite, but not implausible, to suggest parallels between these interventions and the establishment of colonies and protectorates in Africa during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The hand of foreign exploitation is seen clearly in the piracy issue once the observer looks beyond the superficial explanation that boils down to “more force needs to be deployed to keep poor black people from committing crimes.” The long coastline of Somalia had traditionally been fished by locals operating small boats (who should thereby have a usufruct claim). But foreign ships over-fished the waters and dumped toxic waste from wealthier nations. Somalis turned to piracy either to defend their shores or to make money in one of the few lucrative options left to them. When some “volunteer coast guard” operators engage in extortion against people who are not responsible for harming the Somali coast, they are only imitating government by levying taxes or demanding bribes.

But does the Somali case of authoritarians exploiting a fallen state mean that an anarchic area would necessarily be helpless against invaders? No. One must take note of the impoverishment of Somalia versus the prosperity of neo-colonial powers. Little was left in the hands of the Somali people when the looting state collapsed in 1991. They started with little yet were able to get somewhere.

In “Better Off Stateless: Somalia Before and After Government Collapse,” Peter T. Leeson shows that life for Somalis has on average improved relative to life under the Barre regime. Leeson examined a series of developmental indicators including life expectancy, access to medical care, and access to communication technology. With more progress toward anarchy — by dissolving the authority of central government, regional government, and traditional inequality — more improvement could be made.

Anarchy didn’t establish dictatorships, make International Monetary Fund agreements, or deploy foreign militaries to Mogadishu. The problems in Somalia have been, and continue to be, caused by authoritarians and looters in government, business, and banking.

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