Statehood in Somalia. Can It Really Be Called a "Failed State"?

Term Paper, 2017

14 Pages

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Table of contents


2. Definition of a failed state

3. Statehood in Somalia

4. The myth of a single state: Somalia

5. The failed State: Idealised conception

6. Conclusion and outlook

7.Cited works

1. Introduction

The proposition by many scholars and international observers that Somalia is a failed state is far-fetched and a myth; a false belief or an idealised conception. This paper explains why this proposition is far-fetched and constitutes a myth. Based on Max Weber’s definition of a state, in which he argues that a state is a human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within a given territory, can the territory of Somalia be characterised as failed state?

Somalia has three distinct territories: Puntland, Somaliland, and southern Somalia (Ridout, n.d). The former two regions are functioning states, based on a Weber’s definition, situated in the northern part of Somalia whereas the southern part of Somalia remains anarchic (Ridout, n.d). Puntland represents the only functional member state without aspirations of sovereignty (Pham, 2016). The argument that this paper proposes is that while Somalia might have been a failed state at some point in its history, especially between the year 1991 and 2006. In 1991 President Siad Barre’s administration was ousted by a coalition of clan-based opposition groups, backed by Ethiopia's then-ruling Derg regime and Libya. Up until 2006 Somalia lacked a functional central government that unified the whole of Somalia which led to the civil war. Therefore, going by the Weberian definition, Somalia ceased to exist as a state in 1991 as no government has been able to effectively run the affairs of the State in the territory of Somalia to date. Categorizing Somalia as a failed state therefore is misleading for a country that not only has unstable parts (Southern Somalia), but functioning states as well (Puntland and Somaliland).

2. Definition of a failed state

It is key to clearly define what a failed state is before engaging with the case of Somalia. The theoretical definitions may not always apply to political reality of a given territory. The definition of a ‘failed state’ is highly ambiguous and continues to be contested among scholars and other political commentators. Robert. I. Rotberg (2004, p.1) argues that “Nation-states fail when they are consumed by internal violence and cease delivering positive political goods to their inhabitants. Their governments lose credibility, and the continuing nature of the particular nation-state itself becomes questionable and illegitimate in the hearts and minds of its citizens.”

According to Jonathan Hill (2005:p.145), “a state fails when it is rendered incapable of delivering positive political goods to its citizens. Positive political goods according to Renders (2012, p.18) Positive political goods include: “security, law and order (state enjoying the monopoly on legitimate use of violence).”

3. Statehood in Somalia

Somalia, a country in the horn of Africa has been considered a failed state due to its lack of a central government with the monopoly to exercise legitimate use of violence. After the ousting of Siad Barre in 1991, the country descended into protracted war that led into loss of almost a million lives (Global Security, 2017), and over 1.1 million internally displaced (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, n.d.).The recognised regime of the ousted president was disbanded. Somalia failed as a nation (a people bound together into a single body, through history, customs, value, language, culture, tradition and religion) but not as a state. Many scholars might agree that Somalia was officially a failed state during the civil war but fail to recognize some very essential details to the side of the story.

Somalia consists of three major regions: Somaliland, Puntland and southern Somalia. After the collapse of Barre’s regime in 1991, over three million people (Somalia’s estimated population is around 14 Million as of 2016) declared unilateral independence in May 1991 and formed an independent state; Somaliland (Renders, 2012).In the year 1998, a sovereign state of Puntland was formed after a local constitutional conference was held in Garoowe, Puntland in 1998 over a period of three months (Pham, 2016).It was occupied by around 1.5 Million inhabitants at the time. Since its inception, Puntland has been governed by five presidents. Puntland continues to govern itself. However, it has not cut ties with Somalia officially (Hesse, 2010).

Somaliland, remains peaceful. It has since introduced a modern political system without erasing the formal political role of its traditional leaders. The state functions normally: it has since set up a national police force, issued its own currency and collected taxes that are fundamental to the provision of basic services such as security, health care and education. Marleen Renders, in Consider Somaliland notes that “Somaliland has not had any chaos, fierce competition between warlords and guerrilla commanders, mindless fratricide, or scramble for economic for economic assets. Instead, it has allowed a careful, balanced process of peace-building and state-building which has led to a legitimate and accountable government,” (Renders 2012:p.3).

Southern Somalia remains anarchic and stateless (Ridout, n.d) officially due to intervention from the west, especially the US and the United Nations. These two bodies favoured restoring a central government that would govern the whole Somalia. Through protracted negotiations without any acknowledgement of the two existing stable states, elections, or negotiations with the Somali citizens, the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFG) was founded in the neighbouring country of Kenya in 2004. Its founding took 13 years and marks the fifteenth attempt since 1991 to restore central government in Somalia (Hesse, 2010).

4. The Myth of a single State: Somalia

With the support of the international community, the process to create the TFG began officially in October 2002 under the supervision of the subregional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) (Pham, 2016). The TFG initial plan was to use the “4.5 formula”. “This meant that power was to be shared among the four of the clan families: the Hawiye, Dir, Darod and the Digil/Rahanweyn (Hesse, 2010). The TFG was given a five-year mandate to govern Somalia. It was headed by a militia leader Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed from the Darod clan (Pham, 2016). The TFG governed Somalia from abroad. All government functions were carried out from Nairobi, Kenya. It was not until June 2005 when they first set foot in Somalia. Even then, they could not enter the capital as it was under the control of the UIC (Union of Islamic Courts) (Hesse, 2010). From 2002-2006, that is, the period between the inception and the invention of the western-backed TFG to Somalia, both the TFG and the west (US) overlooked the fact that a functioning government; the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), already existed in southern Somalia. Under the UIC, and before the intervention of the TFG which convened its meetings in Nairobi for a little over a year since its founding (2004-June 2005), there had been the greatest signs of peace and stability in Southern Somalia (Ridout, n.d).

Another aspect that points to the independence of the three Somali States and why Somalia is misrepresented as a single entity or state, are the flags. Usually, a flag is a symbol of unity; as a people, state or nation. This is however not the case in Somalia. Brian.J.Hesse, points out in the The Myth of Somalia that “the official, internationally recognized Somali flag consists of a five-pointed, white star on a field of light blue. Each of the star's points represents one of five parts of the Horn of Africa where ethnic Somalis live,” (p.248). He notes however, that over Ogaden, a Somalia region, flies the Ethiopian flag, whereas the Kenyan flag flies over the Northern Frontier District. The flag of the Republic of Somaliland predominates in former British Somaliland.

The north-eastern part of Somalia to southern Somalia that used to be Italian Somaliland, Somali national insignia is rarely seen. In some instances has been replaced by the banner of Islam (Hesse, 2010).In the modern era Somalis have nearly always lived with an array of flags, but have rarely been united under one of their own (Hesse, 2010). The different flags in the different regions of Somalia are indicative of their respective independence from each other. Calling Somalia a state is therefore far-fetched and does not reflect reality. It is therefore misleading to categorize Somalia as a failed state based on this abstraction of a non- or no longer existent reality. The unanswered question remains why the three distinct states in Somalia have not been acknowledged as independent states yet they fulfill the criteria of the definition of a Weberian state. In the three states, a human community exists, and two of these states have the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence in their respective territories. Southern Somalia remains in theory anarchic and stateless (Ridout, n.d). Whether this reflects the reality on the ground is questionable.

The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) backed by the international community, has failed miserably in trying to control the Southern part of Somalia. The TFG has only been able to control a small part of Mogadishu (Hesse, 2010). The main ‘government’ in Southern Somalia is a militant group: the al-Shabaab. They make and amend laws based on the Sharia law and control the most parts of Somalia (Hesse, 2010). In essence, Southern Somalia should be recognized as a state (or a fragile one), because it fulfills the criteria of Max Weber’s definition of a state: a human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within a given territory. The only argument against the proposition would be, if their use of violence is legitimate. A question that arises here would be who grants legitimacy to the al-Shabaab. Is it the international community or the people? How credible or legitimate is such an arrangement when the source of legitimacy is the international community?

If the will of the people decide, then South Somalia should be considered a fragile state rather than one of statelessness or anarchy. Bryden in “Banana test” for Somaliland (2003, p.341-364) argues, “If it looks like a banana, smells like a banana, and tastes like a banana, it is surely a banana. By extension: if a territory looks like a state, tastes like a state, and smells like a state, then it is probably a state.”

5. The failed State: Idealised conception

What exactly is a state and when does an entity qualify to be called a state with all its prefixes? The classical definition of an entity that may be regarded as a sovereign state was set by the 1933 Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of State. It states that “a claim to statehood requires a population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states,” (Renders 2012, p.158). The 1993 Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of State’s definition in essence is similar to Max Weber’s definition of a State. The convention lists four essential elements required for statehood. These are: a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. Somaliland certainly has these characteristics whereas Puntland is almost at par. Somaliland and Puntland essentially look and function like the definition of state but why are they not recognized as one, yet, Somalia the country, which ceased to exist as a state is still rendered a failed state? What are the criteria for statehood, who sets these criteria? Renders (2012, p.19) notes “the stubborn perception that states world-wide, are supposed to converge naturally toward the model of a liberal nation-state has attracted criticism among scholars.” She further argues that “such a perception denies the historical evolution that European States have gone through themselves,” (p.19).

“Expecting the European state as the only possible end product of world history is bound to produce mostly deeply imperfect products: States are identified as failed not by what they are but, but what they are not, namely successful in comparison to the western states,” (Renders 2012, cited in Hill 2005, p.148) . Doornbos (2006) argues that the concept of a state, defined by Max Weber in the early 20th century has drastically changed and can no longer be viewed as an analytical concept, but a normative one. The western world has vastly benefited from this normative concept as they have used it “to legitimize western supremacy over non-Western states and populations,” (Renders 2012, p.19).

African nations or states which were largely created by colonial powers (i.e. from borders, government outlook, to people (movement and separation through reserves) have fallen into victim to the thus justified domination by these apparently superior States in the west, Somalia being a veritable illustration of this effect. Looking at the colonial history of Somalia, like many other colonised African nations, it is clear that the concept of the state is an idealised one; decided upon by Western actors without involvement of local actors. Certain concepts like borders were discussed and collectively decided upon by the colonial regimes in the 19th century, and to-date, only the division of Eritrea from Ethiopia, in 1993; and South Sudan from Sudan, in 2011 have been altered and internationally recognized after they were consented from the western powers and the African Union. Only through the consent of the international community (which is dominated by the west) can the two northern states be legitimately recognized.

David Rawson in U.S assistance and the Somali State, acknowledges that “[…] on the process of state creation […], Somalis like Africans everywhere, inherited from colonial powers a public structure (the postcolonial state) and transformed it into an instrument of authority across the territory they administered […] in order to give international position and significance to that independent state,” (Laitin and Samatar 1994, p.150).

Laitin and Samatar in Somalia: Nation in Search of a State, mention how Somalia came to being and the events that unfolded on July1, 1960. Italian Somalia and British Somaliland (two independent states) joined together to form the newly independent Somali Republic (Laitin and Samatar, 1987). The entire intention of independence was solely to unite the two entities: the frame work of Italy and Britain.

Italian Somalia was the territory that covered today’s Puntland and Southern of Somalia, whereas British Somaliland was what covers the state of Somaliland today. Somaliland, unlike Somalia, to date still maintains the old colonial borders. It even boasts of previous experience of statehood as it enjoyed a five-day spell as a separate British colony prior to independence (Lewis, 1980). The only two differences in the former and current states are: the administration and recognition as independent entities. Coincidentally, Britain and Italy play a key role. The ‘Italian Somalia’ and British Somaliland existed as states because they were governed by Italy and Britain respectively, whereas Somaliland and Puntland still fail to be recognised as independent states because they are the result of a failed state/ ideal state the western world failed to raise.

The Somali state was “constructed to the designs of British and Italian constitutional lawyers and granted sovereignty by the society of states;” (Laitin and Samatar, 1994, p.151). It is no surprise that “the standards by which states are assessed are derived from the ideal-typical, rational-legal state apparatus described by Max Weber in his 1922 work The theory of social and economic organization (…) are overwhelmingly European (and by extension states in North America, Australia),” (Renders 2012, p.18 cited in Weber 1947). These western nations in the end fit in the criteria of an ideal type of state. The end product of what a state should look like and its subsequent characteristics certainly “attract some academic criticism on the basis of its a-historical and ideologically biased foundations,” (Renders 2012, p. 18).

Somalia is not recognized as a failed state based on any analytical approach based on realities on the ground, but a political approach. The UN and the international community have taken a political approach in trying to fit in the Weberian state attributes to Somalia as a whole. Nicholas Kay, the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Somalia since 2013, in an article on the Al-Jazeera in 2015 wrote, “I am not blind to the challenges and risks. I have lived and worked in Mogadishu since June 2013. I have witnessed Somalia’s difficult march towards better governance and stability,” (Kay, 2015). According to him, Somalia was becoming politically stable and developed, because of partnership with the international community. He fails to be precise in what region he meant. He further writes that their presence(UN) across Somalia, beyond Mogadishu, means they are able to provide vital political, logistical, humanitarian and development support to the rest of the nation writes that their presence across Somalia, beyond Mogadishu, means they are able to provide vital political, logistical, humanitarian and development support to the rest of the nation (Kay, 2015). Based on his position, he has failed to recognize the two northern independent entities that are functional. Principally, that is what the international community has opted for and he gives that impression; that Somalia can/shall only be considered a stable state, when the TFG through the support of the UN and the international community occupies and governs the entire country. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is a significant example of a “Stewardship” i.e. a forced institution by the west in Somalia that continues to taunt Somalia in a botched effort to unite the country as a single entity The TFG was created by the US and the UN to root out the Sharia based Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) which had indeed brought back the greatest level of similitude to order in southern Somalia since 1991. A relative moderate rudimentary government already existed before implanting the unpopular TFG in Mogadishu (Ridout, n.d). The international community did not consult the Somali people on the legitimacy of the TFG hence it still fails to enjoy support among Somalis. The UIC had defeated militants and warlords before the TFG invasion and disruption of peace in south Somalia and its government, though, unrecognized was functional and had support of the Somalis.

Regional leaders held talks in Khartoum (Sudan) trying to form a coalition government between the UIC and the TFG. After the coalition failed to materialise, the Ethiopian forces supported by the UN send troops to root out the UIC from power (Hesse, 2010). After the UIC was disbanded, militant groups such as the Al-Shabaab emerged. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) took the mandate to support TFG with security and its quest to form a government in the capital, Mogadishu. With the approval of the UN and the African Union (AU), their aim is to maintain peace in the region (Pham, 2016). The irony is that the international community ruined a functioning government, tore the region apart, leading to an anarchy and displacement of Somalis subsequently supporting a government of their choice. They have justified these actions as Somalia failing and needing assistance. South Somalia did not require assistance before the invasion.

After the break out of the civil war, the international community started off with reasonably clear objectives of bringing peace and stability in the region. However, after the success of self-government in the north, this stance needed to be reconsidered. The west and the international community have ended up being ambiguous in their quest to discursively coerce the Somalis into the idea that their country has failed, and that the only way to revive it is through acceptance of a Weberian ideal model of a state (Renders, 2012).Instead of embracing and learning from indigenous Somali successes in the north, the international community undermines them by supporting the TFG. Attempting to graft a government onto Somali society has failed for 20 years. The TFG is in constant battles with clan-based militants in southern Somalia. It is increasingly hard to determine whether the conflict is slipping south Somalia further into anarchy or limping towards a reformed statehood. The TFG “being promoted in Somalia is a foreign initiative meant to abort national reconciliation and institutionalize social fragmentation,” (Uluso, 2014).

6. Conclusion and outlook

Categorizing Somalia as a failed state is not only a misleading, but an idealised conception of statehood based on a Weberian definition. Essentially, all the three states, should be officially recognized as independent entities, and should be judged independently whether they qualify to be a state, or a failed one. But the question as to whether Somalia as a country qualifies to be a state as a whole, or not cannot arise. Somalia existed as a state before the civil war broke out in 1991 and could be considered a failed state for a few months before the declaration of unilateral independence of Somaliland in May 1991 but it has not been a state (single entity) since then. It is therefore inaccurate to refer to the country as a failed state. Conceptualizing Somalia, as a single state is inaccurate, and the decision to portray the country as a failed state is a political rather than an analytical decision. A more accurate analysis of Somalia would be to recognize that Puntland until 1998 and South Somalia (after the disbandment of the UIC) remained anarchic. The classification of the whole country as a failed state is deceiving. At present, “recognising Somalia (as a state) would imply taking apart Somalia,” (Renders 2012, p.16).

A state like Somaliland today has achieved the Weberian model of state; it controls its own territory effectively, the democratic institutions and rule of law function yet the international community continues to undermine its legitimacy. Puntland which is certainly almost at par with Somaliland still has challenges in fighting the militants that control the piracy industry control towns like Garaad, Eyl, Hobyo and Xarardheere (Pham, 2016). The situation has however vastly improved since the government introduced prisons and harsh penalties for convicted pirates in the region. Before the invasion of the TFG (Between 2004 and 2006) and the UN to the south of Somalia, the UIC had firm control of the region. In the period between 2004 and 2005, all the three states of Somalia, fulfilled the Weberian state model criteria. The international community nevertheless did not at any point recognize Somalia, or its independent entities as stable. The Weberian state model has become a politically motivated idealised conception used as a tool by the western world to undermine the legitimacy and sovereignty of the non-western countries: a refined form of neo-colonialism.

The definition of state failure and its subsequent criteria to a stable statehood continues to affect mostly only the developing world, due to the legacy of colonization. The manner in which these states are formed tend to be to the disadvantage of the non-western states. “Western Nations on the other hand do not adopt the imposed concepts of state, non-state institutions, democracy or good governance as such. They instrumentalise and appropriate the concepts and discourses in ways that give them political clout and control. They become tools in local politics and (however limited) tools in power negotiations within the global arena, dominated by the west,” (Renders 2012, p.20). Somalia continues to endure war, conflicts and displacements of Somalis due to the intervention of the west. J. Peter Pham (2016) argues that “most analysts and political actors have the assumption that the ideal state (Weberian) is the best way to maintaining international relations and preserving peace due to its monopoly on legitimate violence, so when peace lacks, the best way to solve the issue is through reinforcement or recreation of a state.” While he agrees that such efforts yield mostly a positive outcome, he argues that “there are those, like Somalia, in which state-building efforts actually fuel conflict, given the legitimacy of political legitimacy of the interim regime or the central government. Instead of enhancing peace, it serves as a prize in which rivals contend,” (Pham, 2016). The West continues to abuse the Weberian state model in TFG. The TFG should not be counted as a functional government since it is entirely dependent on foreign troops to protect its minor part of Mogadishu (Pham, 2016). The TFG administers no territory and it has failed to show any functional capacity to govern or provide any minimal services to its citizens.

On the other hand, Somalia has shown the world that indigenous institutions can fulfill all the functions of a state, and perform them more effectively as experienced in Somaliland and Puntland. The best solution the West and the UN can advocate for to the Somali people is to try and incorporate the indigenous policies and come up with fair and effective long lasting policies for the southern part of Somalia, that is, “a departure from the Weberian benchmark when assessing statehood with a fresh look at African states, beyond normative concepts,” (Renders 2012, cited in Migdal and Schlichte 2005). Blending formal and informal institutions might help recover Southern Somalia and unstable African states in the same predicament Renders (2012) believes that a Hybrid Political Order (HPO) would offer countries like Somalia a practical and more effective solution as compared to the already existing fixed (but failing) institutional arrangements.

According to her, “HPO’s make the concept of statehood more flexible, surpassing the dichotomous depiction between the formal and the informal, the state and the non-state spheres,” (Renders 2012, p.28). Trying to unite Somalia as a single entity is bound to cause conflicts with the two other independent states (Somaliland and Puntland). There are many citizens from these regions, especially those born after the regions declared their independence who have never thought themselves as citizens of a unitary Somalia who would not accept losing their independence because of a Model of State that the West seems to want them to adhere to.

In the light of all the above, the International Community ought to be objective in their assessment of Somali affairs, and recognizing the reality on the ground and adjusting policies beneficiary to the Somali people. There ought to be fair arbitration, and support of an analytical approach on the situation of the country as there are enough necessary resources and know-how to give a constructive and accurate overview of Somalia. It is time to stop with all the idealised conception of what failed states should look like. Somalia as a failed state is a case of both an idealized conception and false interpretation. It is inaccurate and unfair to the Somali people and like-minded citizens of the world that care about the truth on the ground. Continuing to pretend that Somalia is one state governed by the TFG will continue to produce more harm than good to the country.

7. Cited Works

Bryden M. (2003) ‘The banana test: is Somaliland ready for international recognition?’ Les Annales d’Ethiopie, 19, pp.341-364.

Doornbos M. (2006) Global force and state restructuring. Dynamics of state formation and collapse. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

Global Security (n.d) Somalia Civil War, (Accessed: 18.09.2018)

Hesse J.B (2010) Introduction: The myth of ‘Somalia’, Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 28:3, pp.247-259 Hill. J (2005) `Beyond the other? ` A post-colonial critique of the failed states thesis. African Identities, 3(2), pp.139-154.

Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (n.d) Somalia, (Accessed: 18.09.2017)

Kay N. (2005) Somalia ’s year of delivery, (Accessed: 18.09.2017).

Laitin.D.D and Samatar.S.S (1987) Somalia: Nation in Search of a State, Colorado, Westview Press.

Lewis, I.M, (1980) A Modern History of Somalia: Nation and State in the Horn of Africa, Hong Kong, Wilture Enterprises.

Migdal, J. S., & Schlichte, K. (2005) Rethinking the State. In K. Schlichte (Hrsg.), The Dynamics of States. The Formation and Crises of State Domination (S. 1-40). Farnham/Burlington: Ashgate.

Pham.P.J (2016) The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs: Somalia: Where a State Isn ’t a State, (Accessed: 18.09.2017).

Renders, M (2012) Consider Somaliland, Amersfoort: Drukkerij Wilco B.V.

Ridout.A.T: Somalia is not a State, (Accessed: 17.09.2017).

Rotberg, Robert I. (2004) When States Fail: Causes and Consequences, Princeton: Princeton University Press. Samatar. I.A. (1994) The Somali Challenge: From Catastrophe to renewal? London, Lynne Rienner.

Uluso M.M (2014) Myths about federalism in Somalia, ( Accessed: 17.09.2017).

Weber M. (1947) The theory of social and economic organization. New York, Free Press.


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Statehood in Somalia. Can It Really Be Called a "Failed State"?
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
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called, failed, really, somalia, state, statehood
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Joseph Sitienei (Author), 2017, Statehood in Somalia. Can It Really Be Called a "Failed State"?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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