States are at once form and substance, theater and function. Their most fundamental function is power: territorial control through a monopoly on organized violence. And theater, or more politely “ceremony,” generally tries to make such power more acceptable to the masses, thereby turning it into authority. When Christianity spread across medieval Europe, the rulers of what was then little more than a highly violent collection of tribes embraced the practice of being anointed by bishops — and having their legitimacy recognized by the pope — as a fashionable and potent symbol of modernity.
While its trappings have evolved, theater still matters today. In fact, it is critical to saving the failed states of the 21st century, most notably Somalia, the perennial No. 1 on the Failed States Index, where theater is not facilitating stability but getting in its way. Since the mid-20th century there has been a global consensus about what constitutes a modern state: United Nations recognition, a constitution, a head of state, a judiciary, ministries of this and that. The problem with Somalia is not that it lacks these institutions — it has all of the above. But in Somalia they are mere imitations.
For years, Somalia has had an internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government, a president, ministers, and a legislature. And just this past February, hundreds of delegates agreed to a new constitution that privileges political correctness — 30 percent of legislators are required to be women — over what might otherwise be expected from a deeply traditionalist Islamic society.
Yet, as this year’s Failed States Index makes painfully clear, these seemingly progressive institutions have failed to lift Somalia out of debilitating poverty and violence — not to mention that the country in reality has lacked a centralized government for the past 21 years. Last year’s drought-induced famine exacerbated already troubling levels of malnutrition and displacement, resulting in outbreaks of cholera and measles and killing tens of thousands of people in its wake. Although international forces have helped weaken the al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab in the capital of Mogadishu, headlines about kidnappings, rapes, and bombings persist.
So how do truly centralized and inclusive states emerge? In Somalia, big-power attempts to impose peace — think Black Hawk Down — have come up far short. The country’s neighbors have fared no better. Ethiopia sent in troops in 2006 but pulled them out three years later when it became apparent how unwelcome they were, and now Kenya has launched its own intervention, with likely the same result. The international community is clearly unwilling to send in the many thousands of troops that would be needed for years to impose stability. Simply building a fence around Somalia won’t work either. New research by Tim Besley of the London School of Economics, for instance, finds that in 2010 Somali piracy resulted in economic losses to global shippers in the range of $2 billion to $3 billion.
Theater demands that Somalia make the transition from no state to one that is both centralized and inclusive — essentially, from zero to Denmark — in one quick leap. But there is little realistic prospect that the country, which lacks a history even of being a single nation, will be able to do so. The only realistic option is to follow the sequence that gave rise to Europe’s modern states — and try to speed it up.
Historically, modern states formed through centralization followed by inclusion. Localized proto-states competed for territorial control, leading to political consolidation and shared identities as people fought against a common enemy, be it the Vikings or the Huns. For embattled rulers, the key survival technique was to build a tax system to finance an army. Once the ruler had a tax system, he had an interest in growing the economy, which in turn called for basic economic infrastructure and the rule of law. At some point, provoked by this taxation, people came to demand political representation, and the state embarked on a long journey toward inclusivity. This is how modern Europe emerged, consolidating from thousands of proto-states into today’s handful of modern states, all of which are more or less centralized and inclusive.
In Somalia, the West is putting the cart before the horse. The first step is decidedly not to build imitations of representative government. Rather, it is to encourage the emergence of monopolies of organized violence at the local level. Even without international support, this is already happening. Somaliland and Puntland are proto-states in Somalia’s north, while the transitional government, in reality if not aspiration, is a proto-state around Mogadishu. Conforming to the history of state-building, these three proto-states do not like each other, and they have demonstrated it in armed clashes. But such competition can be healthy. It provides the impetus for taxation, which eventually provides the incentive for development.
This doesn’t mean the international community should merely watch on the sidelines, letting Puntland build a revenue base from piracy. Outside countries can offer support through both substance — helping build tax systems and making piracy less profitable — and theater. But so far, aid to the fledgling government in Mogadishu has provided an incentive for Somalia to continue with sham institutions of statehood, while neutering the impetus to raise tax revenue. Somali authorities have become utterly dependent on external funding, thus underutilizing obvious sources of income such as control of the country’s main port.
As for theater, recognition of the transitional government as the sovereign state for the entire territory of Somalia has given its leadership unrealistic pretensions, while denying the other proto-states the prospect of recognition and support. The overweening model of the modern state, realized in its Somali mock version, has deprived these proto-states of status among their own inhabitants. Rather than ignoring, and thereby implicitly mocking, these structures, the international community should bless them, conditional on a few basic features of the rule of law — just like in medieval Europe.
Even with a smarter international approach, it will likely be decades before Somalia is governed by a state that is both centralized and inclusive. It took Europe centuries to emerge from the stateless mess that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. Somalia could consolidate much more quickly, though, because unlike in medieval Europe there is a modern world out there to help and a road map for guidance. But as long as the international community tries to run history backward just because we approve of its end result, Somalia is likely to continue to top the list of failed states — no matter how elaborate its political theater.
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