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Federalism and Somalia

by Aden Hire
Friday, July 19, 2013

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Federalism is a governance system whereby power of distribution is divided between federal (national) and state (local) governments.   In many countries federalism is a great success story, but in some is not always the best.  The 19th century saw the creation of new federal states.  Switzerland and the United States are the oldest federations.  Today there’re around 193 countries in The United Nations approximately 30 are federal.  To name some they include, Argentina,  Brazil, India, Australia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Canada, Spain, Germany, South Africa, Austria, United Arab Emirates, Comoros, Sudan, Kenya and Mexico.

Every federal state that exists today has a very unique federal system that is supposed to solve some specific issues in a country.  Generally it’s true but not always the case that federalism is implemented when a country is too large in terms of its size, has different ethnic groups, religions and languages.    United Arab Emirates which is a small country by size has one culture, religion and language and yet the country is federal.  Simply Abu Dhabi and Dubai had serious political and economic differences and couldn’t trust each other.   Dubai originally wanted to become a city state of its own, but after a long negotiation brokered by the British it agreed to join the federation of United Arab Emirates.  Comoros in Africa and the islands of St. Kitts and Nevis in the Eastern Caribbean are very tiny islands, but use federalism as a model of governance. 

It’s also a fact that federalism has been adopted in a number of a post-conflict environment such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan, Iraq, Kenya and South Africa.  Federalism has also been attempted in Sri Lanka, and Nepal. 

The discussion of federalism didn’t start in Somalia now; it began in mid 1950s when some members of the Somali Territorial Council under the Italian Trusteeship brought a federalism motion to the Council. The motion was later defeated, because Somalis of that time didn’t see an interest in federalism and believed that they were homogenous society.  A key member who brought the motion was Honorable Abdulkadir Zoppe from Bur Hakaba constituent.

After two year long negotiations in Kenya, Somalis with the help of international experts in post conflict chose federalism in 2004 as a way forward.  One of the main reasons they chose federalism is due to the civil war and the huge mistrust among regions and communities in the country.  During the past 22 years and before an estimated 2 to 3 million Somalis perished in an armed conflict, hunger and diseases.  Somalia has one of the longest civil wars in modern history and the biggest refugee camp in the world.  There is too much trauma in our society which will take a long time to heal and forget. 

Before I go further on whether federalism or unitary system is suitable for Somalia or not, the real question is do we really want to govern ourselves?  I can only hope that the answer is yes.  If there is a will there is a way.  

I agree that federalism is a complex and challenging system especially in Somalia whereby there is no governance capacity, rule of law, democracy, and tolerance at this moment at least.  Having said that we may have no choice now other than implementing federalism if we want to see the country waking up from the deep coma it entered more than 22 years ago.  For the sake of argument let us assume Somaliland is still part of the union, shall we expect from them to accept a governor appointed by a unitary government?  The answer is very clear.  The same concept can be definitely replicated in Puntland, Gal-Mudug, Jubbaland, Southwest, etc.  A decentralized unitary system which permits states and cities to elect Governors and Mayors directly could be an option only after Somalis do a very serious real truth and reconciliation that goes back to 1960 and even before which studies and documents all of the political, economic, social, and military mistakes that we did and the atrocities committed by Somali Governments, opposition groups, movements, organizations and prominent individuals.  Unless Somalis forgive each other through this process, a unitary system is out of topic in my view.

With regard to how many federalism models exist, there’re number of them, but can generally be summarized into two: dualist (decentralized) and cooperative (an integrated, interlocking) model which is centralized. 

The dualist model usually assigns exclusively different jurisdictions to two different levels of governments.  In this model both federal and state governments share some jurisdictions at different capacities as well.  In dualist model the federal government is the highest authority in the country while state governments have a lot of powers and space to run their affairs.  The federal government has many departments and larger civil servants in the country.  Canada, United States and Brazil use largely dual federalism.

Under the cooperative or centralized model, fewer jurisdictions are exclusively assigned to federal government, and more jurisdictions are shared whereby the federal government sets legislations and policies and state governments deliver services.  This model can be called administrative federalism because the real powers of the states are administrative.  Usually this creates a lot of conflicts and confusion over what each jurisdiction does.  In this model the federal government has a lot of power and control and has fewer civil servants in the country.  South Africa and Germany use cooperative model. 

In both dual and cooperative models there are always conflicts and hiccups, but the cooperative (centralized) has more conflict than dual federalism and this is the time courts step in and resolve matters.

Here is some of the general division of powers between federal and state governments:

Air traffic, customs, border services, coast guard, ports, international airports, navigation and shipping, immigration and citizenship, passports, defense, federal courts, federal appeals courts, post and telecommunication, treaty ratification, radio and television, patents and copyrights, banking, currency, interest rates, pension, external trade, foreign affairs and more fall under federal government.  

Hospitals, education, natural resources, roads and infrastructure, local police, prisons, property and civil rights, marriage licenses, lower courts, lower appeals courts,  housing, transportation and driver’s license, insurance, property taxes and more fall under state level.

Trade, environment, labor, major infrastructure, agriculture, criminal law, corporate and personal taxes are shared between the federal and state governments.

Clearly, Somalia with its current situation can’t implement neither unitary nor federalism smoothly by itself without the help of the international community.  With real leaders with greater vision we could do it.  To begin with if 20,000 of highly trained and educated Somalis in the Diaspora are willing to go back to the country with their local counterparts and serve, then there might be a good chance of implementing federalism.   My observation is that we shall implement a dual federalism due to the reality on the ground and let people run their local affairs.

Aden Hire
Mississauga, Ontario.  Canada
Aden Hire is a Finance Officer at one of the Fortune 100 Companies and Somalia Analyst. He can be reached at [email protected]

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