Class and Power in a Stateless Somalia
Published on: Feb 20, 2007
Class and the State

In the 1980’s, one fraction of the emergent mercantile class had access to state power. It tried to break the hold of its major competitor (the Isaak livestock merchants) but failed. Nonetheless, its control over the instruments of state power enabled it to acquire enormous wealth and control over large areas of agricultural and pastoral land. This strategy of seizure was economic madness that directly attacked the productive sectors of the economy. The state’s dependence on foreign aid and military coercion proved unsustainable and it collapsed.
This experience is of more than historical importance, for several reasons:
  • Many of today’s conflicts are a legacy of the land-grabbing and asset acquisition of the former period. Resolving these will require much legal archeology into the provenance and status of land titles.
  • Urban real estate, especially in Mogadishu, was dispensed under the Siad Barre regime. Even more than riverine land, disputes over urban land ownership will be a central bone of contention and potential source of violent conflict under a future government. The “landowner” class, most of which was driven from the city in 1991 and absent ever since, still possesses title to large parts of the city where their residences and businesses are occupied by others.
  • Financial capabilities acquired under the state regime remain important in the viability of the present contending factions.
  • The contesting political elites anticipate that they will be able to use state power in the way that their predecessors in the 1980’s did. Hence the struggle for state power is sharpened: there is more to gain and more to lose than merely office holding.
  • The hinterland for the Berbera- and Bosaso-based livestock export trade stretches throughout the Somali peninsular. Any Mogadishu-based government is going to support its own mercantile class to compete, commercially and perhaps militarily, for control of this trade.
This analysis has clear implications for the type of state structures that should be established in a future Somali government.

Across Africa, governing elites are commonly neo-patrimonial, that is, they combine reliance on a rational-legal bureaucracy with utilisation of patrimonial systems for exercising power. Usually, there must be a semblance of balance between the two, or the state will collapse into primary accumulation by violence, namely warlordism, which is unsustainable. Patrimonialism does not generate resources but only consumes them, and hence the system is parasitic on either the productive sectors of the economy, or rents extracted from the international community.

In the case of Somalia, the accumulation strategy of the elite in power in the 1980’s was rent-seeking taken to an extreme. Somalia was Africa’s largest per capita recipient of international aid in Africa (with the exception of micro-states such as Gambia). These huge inflows of aid money, especially from the U.S., made it possible for the Siad Barre government to establish a patrimonial system wholly disproportionate to the productive economy. Indeed, it was the aid flows that made possible the strategy of assaulting the productive sectors such as agriculture and livestock.

The immediate consequence of the collapse of the state in the late 1980’s was that the locus of primary accumulation shifted from the exploitation of sovereign rents (aid, debt, printing banknotes and taxes) to violent asset stripping (looting). There was a brief frenzy in which anything moveable of monetary value was seized and exported. Thereafter, some provincial authorities came to an accommodation with the productive sector (Somaliland, Puntland), while others failed to do so, or did so only intermittently or incompletely (Mogadishu).
Each attempt to create a new government since 1991 has been a repeat exercise in trying to set up a new neo-patrimonial structure. Rent-seeking, chasing diminishing rents, has proved a more powerful political force than the longer-term prospect of building up a political economy based predominantly on productive activities.

There are three theoretical solutions to this conundrum: 
  • One is consensus among all groups. This has never been achieved, because conflict over the imaginary resources of a restored state has been sufficient to disable the establishment of an effective state. The consistent pattern has been that any force or coalition of forces that came close to assuming state power conjured up an equal and opposite array of forces that succeeded in preventing this from happening. The motivation of the opposing forces was not that they opposed the re-establishment of a patrimonial, rent-seeking state, but that they feared not being fully part of it. In a winner-takes-all system, there are no benefits at all to being in opposition.
  • The second solution is the political dominance of a commercial class with its economic base in the productive sector and no expectation of foreign patronage. This occurred in Somaliland in 1992-3, when the Berbera livestock traders feared the complete collapse of their business because of militia conflict, and were sufficiently cohesive to work together with the clan elders of the Isaak to put a stop to the fighting. The Republic of Somaliland began as a commercial agreement and later established a functioning government.

    In the same vein, the Union of Islamic Courts was, in part, a mode of governance imposed on militia leaders by the Mogadishu business class. Clan identity and opposition to the TFG, which had excluded the most significant Hawiye leaders, facilitated this coalition. The UIC and its business backers did not anticipate obtaining foreign aid: theirs was a true political compact based on local interest. The UIC did not exist for long enough for the relationship between the mercantile class and the Islamic courts’ militia to become fully stabilized. But this was the first effective exercise in southern Somalia of organizing the business sector into a political force capable of gaining control over state structures. The entry of the TFG into Mogadishu spells an end to this experiment.

  • The third option is a Leviathan: a political leader that commands sufficient military force to be able to impose a solution. This is now being attempted by the Transitional Federal Government with the Ethiopian army as its guarantor.
The Transitional Federal Government, set up after protracted negotiations in Nairobi, began as the latest of fourteen attempts at the same formula of achieving consensus among the different factions. It differed from its predecessor in that it has the backing of Ethiopia and, for the first time since 1990, has a Darood as head of state. But its economic basis is exactly the same as before: another exercise in rent-seeking patrimonialism. The viability of the TFG is premised on international assistance (it is funded by the European Union and will doubtless get aid from the U.S. as well) and coercion (notably the Ethiopian army), rather than a mutually-beneficial relationship between the state and the productive sectors. Businessmen from the livestock, farming and financial services sectors were influential in the process of forming the government. But they were unable to envision a model of government that would serve these sectors rather than be parasitic upon them—anticipating major inflows of aid and sovereign rents.

While Somali leaders such as the TFG President, General Abdullahi Yousif had long dreamed of being able to rule the country through a monopoly on the use of force, none had been able to do so. The opportunity to move beyond an agreement among the factions, to a government imposed by force of arms, was provided by the confrontation between the UIC and Ethiopia, leading to the military intervention of Ethiopia with the backing of the U.S. It is unlikely to succeed.