By RASNA WARAH
Monday, August 20, 2012
This week Somalis have a reason to celebrate as a new government assumes office to see the country through the post-transition political process.
Somalia has not had a proper government for 21 years; the transitional government that was established in 2004 has been unable to govern the country due to insecurity and has been mired in controversy and internal wrangles.
Somalis have already started preparing for the post-transition period in anticipation of a more stable and predictable environment in which to live and work.
It may seem hard to believe, but a Somali diplomat called Idd Mohamed has entered into negotiations with the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE) to establish a stock exchange for Somalia.
The NSE will assist its Somali counterpart by providing technical expertise and support to pave the way for Somalia’s private sector, such as the lucrative telecommunications and money transfer companies, to enter the stock market. Other financial services companies wishing to expand their client base will no doubt follow suit.
So, does this mean that Somalia is out of the woods and can happily join the rest of the international community as a sovereign nation with solid institutions? Not quite.
Many observers believe that the post-transition government — and the newly adopted “provisional” constitution — will have little impact on the country beyond the capital Mogadishu.
Critics of the new constitution say that it is based on a Western template that does not apply to the larger Somali society. It gives unprecedented rights to women and has a Bill of Rights that declares everyone to be equal, regardless of clan or religion (although Islam is still recognised as the only religion of the state).
Moreover, the constitution was not approved through a referendum and the parliament was not constituted through a general election, which raises questions of legitimacy.
BBC journalist Mary Harper says that while the constitution is very progressive, it seems to exist in a “parallel universe, a fantasy land”, because it does not reflect the reality on the ground.
For instance, in a country where female circumcision is widely accepted, the outlawing of the practice in the constitution is a goal that will be difficult to implement, at least in the short term.
It is also important to remember that two decades of statelessness produced other forms of governance that were more culturally acceptable to the Somali people.
In the absence of a strong state, informal governance mechanisms and customary laws (known as Xeer) came to play an important role in Somali society.
According to Ken Menkhaus, professor of political science at Davidson College, the rise of informal governance in Somalia involved “a hybrid of a coalition of actors with shared interest in establishing basic security and the rule of law.”
These actors included professionals, who guided traditional elders through the new and complex problems that customary law could not address, Muslim clerics, who set up local Sharia courts, women market vendors who could operate across conflict lines, and an emerging business class that underwrote local institutions such as courts and the police in order to create a more secure business environment.
In many cases, the private sector took on the role of government, providing services such as water and electricity to those who could afford to pay for them.
Somalia’s huge diaspora, which remits about $2 billion every year, also kept institutions such as the University of Mogadishu running. On its part, Al-Shabaab created informal mechanisms of “tax collection” and laws based on its interpretation of Sharia.
In this environment, it may be difficult — if not impossible — for the new government, which is based on Western-style institutions, to assert its authority.
The state’s authority may be further undermined by a complicated federal system of governance in the constitution, and which critics feel may further fragment Somali society.
Not everyone, however, is pessimistic about Somalia’s future. Thousands of Somalis in the diaspora are heading back to Mogadishu and other cities to rebuild their homes and start new businesses.
The entrepreneurial Somali spirit will see to it that Somalia is up and running again — with or without a strong and effective government.