Local Security Arrangements in Somali-Inhabited Areas of the Horn of Africa

Ken Menkhaus, December 2009


  • State
  • state sovereignty
  • weak state
  • local security
  • collapsed government
  • traditional authority
  • customary leadership
  • peace building
  • Somalia
  • Horn of Africa
  • Wajir
  • Kenya
  • Somaliland

“The new emerging polity resembles a kind of neo-medieval empire with a polycentric system of government, multiple and overlapping jurisdictions, striking cultural and economic heterogeneity, fuzzy borders, and divided sovereignty.”

This statement appears to be an exceptionally insightful and precise description of the State of affairs in many weak or failed African States, where juridical and theoretical notions of the State and State sovereignty collide with the extraordinarily messy empirical realities of governance on the ground. Yet the author, Jan Zielonka, is not painting a portrait of politics in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, or Sudan. He is describing the enlarged European Union. His depiction of the EU as neo-medieval empire serves as a reminder that Africa is not the only region of the world which has taken creative liberties with the Westphalian State. It is also a useful reminder that deviation from Weberian models of the State is not, as some anxious political analysts worry, necessarily a slippage away from an essential structure of modern political life, but can, under certain circumstances, constitute a development beyond the Weberian State.

This question is especially relevant for the Horn of Africa, which features one of the largest geographic concentrations of “ungoverned space” in the contemporary world. Where the State operates at all, it competes with a variety of other forms of authority and power – some of which have colonised the State itself – in a messy, neo-medieval arena. Vast portions of Sudan, virtually all of Somalia, and some of the hinterlands of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, are beyond the effective reach of the central government. In many places, this State of affairs has been the historical norm; remote, economically uninteresting areas of the Horn have never really come under the control of the colonial or post-colonial State. In other instances, this “resurgence of indigenous structures” as Englebert describes it reflects the retreat of weak States in the face of armed insurgencies or the partial or complete collapse of the State itself. Though State failure and retreat are phenomena affecting communities across the political landscape of the Horn of Africa, including in urban slums, it is especially pronounced in the hinterlands of these States. A centre-periphery tension – in which a political and commercial elite based in and around the capital monopolises resources and power at the expense of communities living in the rest of the country – is widely understood to be a critical driver of armed conflict throughout the troubled Horn of Africa. Approaching the Horn of Africa’s multiple crises through a centre-periphery lens is also analytically powerful as an approach to the study of the politics of ungoverned space, and justifies focus on the hinterlands of the Horn of Africa as a unit of analysis in this study.

The bulk of recent research on zones of State collapse or ungoverned spaces in the Horn of Africa – and elsewhere – has understandably focused on the threats posed by this condition. Prior to the September 11 attacks, the threats of State collapse were generally depicted as problems of spillover – of armed criminality, war, refugees, disease, and environmental degradation – or as areas of lawlessness which transnational criminals could exploit. Anarchy was a problem to be “contained” lest the fearful scenes of mindless criminality depicted in Robert Kaplan’s famous 1994 piece “The Coming Anarchy” spread from troubled third world countries to the West. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, international preoccupation with zones of State collapse has been dominated by concern that it does, or could, constitute a safe haven for terrorist groups. This idea has been enshrined in US counter-terrorism strategy thanks in part to the work Assistant Secretary of Defence Theresa Whalen.

Whatever the policy preoccupation, the presumption that these territories are “ungoverned” is rarely subjected to careful scrutiny in the policy world. This is surprising, since both historians and anthropologists have generated extensive bodies of research which demonstrate, conclusively, that systems of governance or order can and do exist apart from the modern State. Conflating the State with governance – or, more accurately, the absence of a State with anarchy – is a serious intellectual error and yet is ubiquitous in the state-building and good governance literature. Whether this reflects a dogmatic belief in a key tenet of modernisation theory, an inability to see governance unless it presents itself in our own likeness, or merely the dogged and thoughtless application of boilerplate “Rule of Law” projects by foreign aid bureaucracies, the result is a collective blindness to an extraordinary riot of systems of governance at the communal level in areas of State failure.

Fortunately, recent research and policy reforms have begun to take a more nuanced look at local governance and security arrangements and their implications for state-building. This has long been a matter of interest to diplomats and civic groups engaged in conflict mediation at the local level; traditional authorities and other local religious, business, and civic groups have always been understood to play a vital role in dispute resolution. In the 1990s, the issue arose as part of efforts to better understand and improve upon programs designed to promote political decentralisation. Formal local government is often absent in weak States, forcing donors like the World Bank to consider the pros and cons of direct reliance on traditional structures which are “vertically linked to the central government” as the most effective source of local government. In locations like southern Sudan, where the Government of South Sudan has institutionalised traditional authorities and law as lower courts in the judicial system, the United Nations Development Programme and other aid agencies have actively explored how to engage traditional authorities in state-building and governance programming. In other failed States, where reviving effective rule of law is a matter of high strategic importance, donor States are turning to informal systems of governance as a matter of pragmatism – a desire to tap into whatever works. In Afghanistan, for instance, American efforts to revive a formal judicial system are now exploring ways to integrate rather than replace traditional justice systems at least as an interim measure. “The informal system is critical to dispute resolution in Afghanistan,” notes a recent US Institute of Peace study, “and a positive relationship between the State and non-state justice systems could substantially benefit the justice sector and Afghan citizens.”

This article examines some of the key features and patterns of informal governance – and efforts to link them to formal State structures – in the Somali-inhabited zones of the eastern Horn.


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The full article can be found in the publication “Rethinking these Foundations of the State” (forthcoming 2010)