The Role of Traditional Authorities in State and Governance Building in Somaliland

Louise Wiuff Moe, December 2009


  • State
  • state collapse
  • state failure
  • de facto statehood
  • state institutions
  • traditional authority
  • legitimacy
  • Somalia

Since the fall of Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia has earned the discouraging reputation as the ultimate case of ‘State failure’. While international attention has focused on reviving a central State in southern Somalia, little notice has been given to the emergence of more ‘organic’ systems of governance – driven by Somalis and building on localised sources of authority - which have emerged within the territory since the collapse of the central State (Menkhaus 2006a). In northern Somalia, within the territory of former British Somaliland, this has added up to an alternative form of de facto statehood integrating customary institutions into its system of governance.

Somaliland has since its unilateral declaration of independence on May 18 1991, developed from a war-torn society into a functioning political unit, with an established set of State institutions enjoying a high degree of internal legitimacy and stability. These achievements have been reached on the backdrop of lack of recognition, implying lack of ability to form formal diplomatic relations, and holding a status as unqualified for loans from international agencies such as the World Bank and IMF (Bryden 2003;Bradbury 2008).

While the unrecognised status of Somaliland impedes on its prospects of consolidating statehood, the lack of external interference has allowed Somaliland to pursue a form of state-building that does not simply copy a Western ideal type State. Rather the underpinning of Somaliland’s statehood is a formula which combines ‘modern’ State governance with traditional leadership. Governance in Somaliland – both governmental institutions and the undertaking of core governance functions – therefore differs from conventional state-governance, in terms of the nature of sovereignty and political authority. Sovereignty is exercised through hybrid institutions and horizontal networks rather than from a strong centre, and in the process of State formation the right to govern has continuously been negotiated and mediated with a variety of non-state actors, amongst whom the traditional authorities play significant roles within the domains of conflict-management, security and rule of law.

This article discusses the pros and cons of coupling traditional leadership and State governance, and analyses what kinds of governance practices have resulted from this in the case of Somaliland. Particular attention is paid to how processes of mutual accommodation between State institutions and traditional leadership impact on the basis of power and legitimacy of both.

The analysis reflects my recent fieldwork in Somaliland, and draws on the evolving concepts of political ‘hybridity’ (Menkhaus 2007; Clements et al. 2007; Boege et al.2008; Boege et al.2009) and ‘mediated State’ (Menkhaus 2006; Menkhaus 2006a; Menkhaus 2007), in combination with recent literature on the resurgence of traditional leadership in Africa.

The article is organised in the following manner: first, the article provides a short introduction to the concepts of ‘mediated State’ and political ‘hybridity’; second, the ‘experiment’ of formally integrating traditional authorities into the national government structures is analysed and; third, focus is turned to the cooperation between state-actors and traditional leadership in undertaking core-governance functions on the local level.


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