April 29, 2003

Is Somalia a Model?

The conventional wisdom during periods of transition or revolution if the term is appropriate, as may well be is that the most important priority is to establish order. Disorder, on this understanding, is pretty close to the natural condition of man, especially in times of stress and uncertainty. So U.S. military people subject to possible problems from "pockets of resistance," a marvelous military euphemism meaning, as nearly as I can figure it out, guys with guns who want to kill you are to be the establishers and keepers of order, through force exercised as a de facto, if not necessarily de jure just yet, central government.

While Gen. Garner would no doubt sincerely prefer to have help from some kind of Iraqi constabulary in the process, the important thing is to be prepared and systematic about applying force to stave off disorder. Everybody knows that without an entity prepared to use force preferably one with the cachet of being designated a state, government or legitimate designee thereof you would have anarchy, and anarchy inevitably means chaos, disorder and a surfeit of suffering. So somebody has to have power and a willingness to exercise it.

Or is it possible, as the French philosopher Proudhon put it, that "Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order"? Is liberty only possible if order is first established by force, or does order arise best from an atmosphere of liberty, from free people developing their own interpersonal agreements, arrangements and accommodations to stave off disorder? Is it even possible to think this way when discussing a traditional society with an overlay of modernism brought on through occupation or influence that has involved a highly centralized structure?

It might seem unlikely to look to a country like Somalia yes, that Somalia, of Black Hawk Down notoriety, an example of failed nation-building, where modern ideas were unfortunately not applied properly leading to a reversion to tribalism for an answer. Yet, I'm about to suggest, such a glance might prove instructive.


In the April 2003 issue of Liberty magazine is a fascinating article by one Michael van Notten, a Dutch lawyer who married into the Samaron tribe of northwest Somalia and lived with them until his death last summer. Spencer MacCallum, a long-time advocate for the idea of building free societies from the community level up, helped him with the essay and further amplified it after Mr. van Notten's death.

"The Somali nation abolished its central government ten years ago and became a stateless nation," the article begins. "During that time, the fears expressed by many international observers that Somalia would fall into chaos have not only not been realized, but many Somalis are finding statelessness an agreeable condition. Somalia is more peaceful, and the people are becoming more prosperous. Boosaaso, located at the tip of the Horn on the Gulf of Aden, is a case in point. When Somalia had a central government, Boosaaso was a small village. Into its port a few small fishing boats came each day to offload fish. Occasionally, a cargo vessel came in as well. Officials of the Republic crawled over these boats collecting taxes and demanding payment for every kind of service, real or imagined.

"With the demise of the Republic, control passed to the local community and the port began to be managed on a commercial basis. A lively import/export trade developed and soon reached an estimated value of U.S. $15 million per year. Private enterprise provided essential public services such as trash collection and telecommunications. In eight years, the population grew from 5,000 to 150,000. Parents and teachers put up schools for their children and even built a university. In the absence of a government-run court system, the heads of extended families of contentious parties settled disputes on the basis of customary law.

"While Boosaaso is a dramatic example, its experience is more the rule than the exception throughout Somalia. Somalis are thriving and prospering without a central government. Exports in 1998 were estimated to be five times greater than they had been under the Republic."

That's not what you expect to hear about Somalia, which seems to have disappeared from the radar screens of the world's international observers (with the exception of an occasional report of a terrorist training camp out in the hinterlands) about 1995. But van Notten makes a persuasive case that on balance things are better for the actual people who live in Somalia than back in the days when the country's leaders tried to sustain a central government. And he does a pretty good job of explaining why this should be so.


Most westerners, especially those with political (if not necessarily ethnic) roots in England, are justifiably proud of what has come to be called the Common Law, a set of principles for handling disputes and outbreaks of crime or violence that is arguably the basis of the philosophy of law practiced in England, the United States and some Western European countries. What seems to be the case is that similar more-or-less informal but generally agreed to customs, often quite culture-specific (and so not recognized as such by outsiders or visitors) have grown in other countries to handle the disputes, disagreements and pockets of resistance that seem to develop wherever people are human.

In Somalia, according to van Notten, "they have only returned to their traditional, pre-colonial system of clan government. A clan is a kin-based association of a large number of extended families." In Somalia, a country of about 15 million, colonial powers began occupying the territory shortly after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, withdrawing in about 1960, when Italian and British Somalilands were combined into the Republic of Somalia. "Thirty years later, in 1991, that government collapsed and was dismantled. Each of the 60 Somali clans within the former territory of the Republic reaffirmed its sovereignty, and clan leaders undertook responsibility for maintaining law and order. Today private individuals assure order by participating in what amounts to a free market for security services."

Returning to localized clan government was not swift, easy or without problems. As in the former Soviet Union there was a period of banditry. The United Nations intervened to try to re-establish a central government, one of several efforts by the "international community" to provide in Somalia the kind of centralized state structure most westerners associate with civilized governance. There were Muslim fundamentalists who tried to establish a theocracy. There were problems establishing freeports that could work with clan elders in the interior to establish mutually agreeable ways to run export markets.

According to van Notten, Somali clan law differs from western legal systems in some important ways:

  • "Criminals are not imprisoned but only made to compensate their victims.
  • "Crimes against society do not exist, which obviates the need for public prosecutors.
  • "Fines must be paid to the victim or to his family, not to the court or clan.
  • "Everyone must be insured against any and all liabilities he or she might incur under the law.
  • "Judges are appointed by the litigants, not by the clan."

Different clans may apply these principles with different local wrinkles, but the clans follow the same general principles well enough that decisions are usually respected by other clans. Thus law and order (or at least a semblance) is accomplished without prisons, without a central government, and without taxation. The system, like any legal system, is not without shortcomings, including inadequate protection of the rights of women. But "in rural Somalia, which comprises probably 90% of the country, the customary law continues to operate," according to van Notten and MacCallum.

The writers compare the system to the period of Judges in Israeli history, before the establishment of a monarchy, a system the British author Robert Southy dubbed a "kritarchy" about a century ago. Hungarian-born sociologist Raphael Patai, in his recently reissued 1974 book, "The Arab Mind," describes a similar system, with its own local or traditional wrinkles, of clan-based or village-based dispute resolution system in most Arab countries. The problem, especially as the world becomes more globalized and larger cities develop, is how to apply clan-based customs to cities where people from many different traditions may live.


Michael van Notten and Spencer MacCallum contend that democracy as a system of governance is ill-suited to a clan society like Somalia. "Democracy presupposes independent political parties and an electorate willing to debate issues and vote accordingly. In a society comprised of close-knit kinship, ethnic, or religious divisions whose members would find it unthinkable to vote otherwise than by group affiliation, the group with the largest number ends up controlling the truly awesome powers of government. Its own ethic then dictates that it direct those powers to the benefit of its own members. In self-defense, other groups must then vie with one another to capture the power by coup or revolution or else attempt to secede. The turmoil in Somalia following the demise of the central government consisted of groups attempting to position themselves to control the government they assumed would soon be re-established. In this case the mere expectation of a centralized power structure was sufficient cause for conflict. The United Nations interventions aggravated the situation by keeping alive that expectation. The conflict has only abated as the probability of a central government being established has receded."


Could anything be learned from Somalia that might apply to Iraq? One would have to be careful to respect and understand local traditions and dispute resolution methods, but at least the lesson that a strong central government structure quickly becomes a prize whose power is almost inevitably used to favor one's own clan and to disfavor others is worth considering. Saddam's regime, of mostly Sunni Muslims, with most positions of real power held by people in several key families in the town of Tikrit, can be viewed as an example of a near-worst-case scenario of one kinship-based faction seizing total power and exercising it ruthlessly.

In an interesting recent article on the History News Network Website out of George Mason University Eric Davis, Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University, who is about to publish a new book on modern Iraq, argues that "Iraq Might Be a Better Candidate for Democracy than You Think." In my view, his argument amounts to the contention that based on recent history that could well re-echo now, Iraq has enough manifestations of independence that it might be able to tolerate a democracy, or to ameliorate some of the aspects of democracy that could get ugly if it worked out to be "one man, one vote, one time."

Davis argues that the country had a relatively flourishing civil society beginning in the 1920s and on through the period of the monarchy, into the 1950s. There were "a highly respected legal profession, a vibrant press, political parties, artist ateliers, writers associations, labor unions, and an extensive coffeehouse culture. This nascent civil society expanded greatly after the end of World War II." Abdal-Karim Qasim, who led the coup that toppled the monarchy in 1958, tried to establish "a federated entity, much along the lines of the European Union," and ruled as a secular leader. But he was executed by the first Ba'athist regime in 1963. Eventually the Ba'athists established a unitary state that became increasingly despotic and cruel, and erased civil society.

I have no more right than anybody else to tell the Iraqis how to run their country. But they could do worse than to strive for a country with something resembling a federal system a weak central government that leaves most day-to-day decisions to localities, or even a system without much in the way of a discernible central state so long as there are ways of handling disagreements that stretch beyond strictly local boundaries, perhaps reciprocal agreements that one locality will respect the judicial decisions of other localities.

Can you imagine the United Nations, the United States or the "international community" viewing such a system as other than "chaos" and "dog-eat-dog" and very much in need of a biggest dog to step on the unruly? While Iraqis might benefit from a close study of Somalia (allowing for large differences in the two societies) I very much fear what will be set up will be the kind of powerful centralized structure likely to lead to conflict and, eventually, to a relatively despotic kind of rule perhaps with more persuasive democratic "cover" than Saddam could muster, and almost certainly not as cruel as Saddam at first but, especially with oil as a single most important resource, something that resembles a kleptocracy more than a kritarchy.

– Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register and a weekly columnist for WorldNetDaily. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995). He is also author of the new book Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press). His exclusive column appears every Tuesday on Antiwar.com.

Archived Columns by Alan Bock

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