April 29, 2003
Somalia a Model?
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.
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
OR CUSTOMARY LAW
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.
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."
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.
to van Notten, Somali clan law differs from western legal systems
in some important ways:
are not imprisoned but only made to compensate their victims.
against society do not exist, which obviates the need for public
must be paid to the victim or to his family, not to the court
must be insured against any and all liabilities he or she might
incur under the law.
are appointed by the litigants, not by the clan."
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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