At the end of the colonial era, Somalia was arguably the most ethnically homogeneous country in sub-Saharan Africa. The nearest to it was probably Botswana, which is four-fifths Tswana — and which turned out to be peaceful and prosperous, suggesting to some that countries populated and run by a single big tribe have a better chance of stability than those with a hodgepodge of smaller ones. Nonetheless, Somalia became a byword for conflict, poverty and ungovernability.
Its ethnic homogeneity is misleading. Despite also sharing a single language and a single religion, it is divided into more than 500 clans and sub-clans, which are notoriously fractious and competitive. This, as well as their largely nomadic way of life, has made many Somalis fiercely loth to accept the edicts of a central government.
The last man to exert real authority from the capital, Mogadishu, was military dictator Siad Barre, who was ousted in 1991. His downfall was the cue for two decades of civil war. Can the country’s latest president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was elected by parliament last September, do any better while using democratic methods?
So far, so good. An uneasy peace holds in much of Somalia, thanks largely to a promise of federalism and decentralized power. Under the prodding of Britain, which has been leading a foreign push to put Somalia on its feet again, the new government accepts that the half dozen or so of Somalia’s fiefs that enjoy a measure of autonomy should be given their head and should be drawn back only gradually, if possible, into accepting central authority. So far the mosaic of clans, with their shifting alliances, mostly have held back from openly challenging Mohamud’s government while they wait to see how resources and authority will be shared.
However, Mohamed Omar, the foreign minister of Somaliland, a northern breakaway from Somalia, says that the government in Mogadishu has achieved little despite its international backing. Both Somaliland and Puntland, a sem-iautonomous northeastern region, cold-shouldered a grand international conference on Somalia in London on May 7.
"The days when Somalia could be governed from the center are over," Omar says. "Anyone who brings them back will not bring peace."
A former university dean and civil-rights activist, Mohamud is well liked by foreign governments. In London they pledged $300 million in aid in return for his promise of a "new Somalia." At home, however, he holds sway only in the areas controlled by forces — mostly Ethiopians, Kenyans and Ugandans — under the aegis of the African Union. He is being closely watched for any signs of breaching his federal pledge.
Some worry that big tasks, such as completing a new constitution, outlining how power will be shared and setting up commissions to define boundaries and electoral systems, have yet to begin. Matt Bryden, a Canadian who runs Sahan Research, a Somali-oriented think tank in Nairobi, notes that "none of the work has been done toward federalism," letting critics allege that the government is more centralist than it admits. They fret that the new security forces and police will be dominated by Mohamud’s powerful Hawiye clan.
Abdi Aynte, head of the Heritage Institute, a think tank based in Somalia, complains that too many conspiracy theories abound. The president has no hidden agenda, he says, and "an incredibly hard job." Still, some of Mohamud’s opponents in rival clans still back the Shabab, the armed Islamists linked to al-Qaida that previously dominated the country, in order to destabilize him. In the past month scores of people were killed in two Shabab suicide attacks in Mogadishu.
The United States, which has spent $1.5 billion, channeled through the African Union, to bring better security, and Britain, which promised another $280 million in aid last week, are keen to take credit for gains in Somalia. Both acknowledge that the game is far from over, however.
"Somalia has begun a rapid recovery in the last year," Justine Greening, Britain’s development minister, said at the conference. "But this will be put at risk if the Somali government cannot manage its own public finances properly, avoid future famines or tackle terrorism and piracy."