Why did Democracy Fail in Somalia?

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Source: Alternatehistory 2017

ANALYSIS René Brosius 23 July 2021

If you ask older Somalis about the time shortly after the country’s independence, they often advise you very politely: Firstly, that Somalia was never really colonised. Secondly, that it was one of the most peaceful periods in Somalia’s recent history. Yes, sometimes you hear that Somalia was the Switzerland of Africa and that Mogadishu was one of the most beautiful cities on the continent. Can that be true in view of recent history? Can the country’s history be so incomprehensibly eventful? And if so, what happened?

Colonising Somalia?

Somalia came into fore of European colonial powers in the middle of the 19th century, rather late compared to other African regions. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were Italian-, French- and British-dominated areas in the settlement area of the Somali tribes. However, this influence was often limited to coastal towns, trade routes and agricultural areas in the south of the country. Simultaneously, the predominantly nomadic population did not experience the significance of the colonial grip. Throughout colonial history, there was also active resistance from individual, entire clans or religiously motivated movements, which made the colonial aspirations as a whole a (life-)dangerous venture. Therefore, it is true! The European powers could never really assume with certainty that Somalia would be a “quiet” colony. In addition, until the demarcation of the borders in the wake of the Berlin Congo Conference in 1884/85, one cannot speak of a territorial state of Somalia. Rather, the nomads’ way of life required neither a state structure nor state borders. Colonial influence was therefore always only partial; both territorially and functionally. In this respect, the first statement is quite true: Somalia was never really colonised.

Italy’s Attempt of Colonization

Only Italian fascism in the 1930s attempted more intensive rule through brutal repression. Italian East Africa was for a short period (1936-41) a coherent territory under Italian dominance and at the same time an ambivalent partner for the Somali elites. On the one hand, many Somalis supported the Italian expansionist course towards Ethiopia, as they hoped it would curb the neighbour’s ongoing hegemonic aspirations. On the other hand, Somalis often felt the racist and inhuman effects of fascism.

Many of the actors in the first Somali republic were born into this aggressive Italian colonial period. For example, the first president of independent Somalia, Aden Abdullah Osman Daar (Aden Adde) was born in 1908 and the later dictator Siad Barre was born around 1910/1919 ( data varies here). Both were confronted with oppression, the denial of education, the racist division of society and apartheid in their youth. This shaped this generation of politicians, who nevertheless took very different paths in life. While Aden Adde concluded that the only way out of the colonial trauma was through equality, respect for human rights and democracy, others were inspired by the corrupt Italian divide and rule strategy. From the beginning, Somalia’s young democracy had to struggle with this bitter colonial legacy and many of the negative influences of the Cold War. Since the mid-1950s, there has been an increasing division within the political elite. On the one hand, there were representatives of an idealised vision of the future. On the other, politicians with nepotistic self-interest. While the momentum of independence in 1960 and the unification of two parts of the country under one flag initially gave the idealists a tailwind and Aden Adde was elected the first president, political fragmentation increasingly prevailed to the point of democratic and constitutional self-destruction. This negative development was also promoted by the former colonial powers, especially Italy (in Djibouti also France), to whom the UN entrusted Somalia in trust after 1950. Until about 1956, there were considerable efforts by the former Italian rulers to secure political and economic advantages in the former colony. Partly through foreign policy campaigns during UN deliberations, partly through the establishment of pro-Italian parties, partly also through violent actions and the financial manipulation of certain actors. It was only in the second half of the trusteeship that policies on both sides changed towards more cooperation. After independence on 1 July 1960, the country faced enormous challenges. In addition to the integration of two very differently developed parts of the country, that of the British protectorate in the north and the Italian-dominated south, and massive conflicts regarding Somali settlement areas on the borders, the political leadership was confronted with a sustained lack of resources, poor levels of training of political representatives and in the administration, and a deficient police and military capability. All the more remarkable was the claim that the first democratic government imposed on itself with the 1963 constitution, which was adopted by popular vote. Democracy (Art. 1 para. 1), equality (Art. 3), the supremacy of law (Art. 5) and respect for the human rights of the UN Human Rights Charter (Art. 6,7) were the main constitutional guidelines that the young state gave itself. It was mainly in the first half of the 1960s that Somalia thus became one of Africa’s first democracies.

The Road to Military Dictatorship

The road to military dictatorship, which started with the assassination of the second president Abdirashid Shermarke on 15 October 1969, had many reasons. Whether the USSR was already involved in the assassination of the president is unclear. However, the fact is that in just a few days, a professionally choreographed seizure of power and an incorporation into the Soviet hemisphere of the country took place. Nevertheless, even before that, the young democracy had not succeeded in solving the problems described at the beginning. Whereas the referendum on the constitution and the parliamentary elections in 1964 were still predominantly fair and transparent, the centrifugal forces of democracy due to the personal interests of individual actors prevailed in the elections of 1967. The state was seen as a resource, the constitution as non-binding. Not only did corruption grow immensely, but increasingly the state’s monopoly on the use of force was used to pursue personal interests, such as manipulating elections. It was the political elite’s lack of respect for the project of a united and democratic Somalia that ultimately exposed the country to Cold War forces. In retrospect and compared to the current situation, Somalia was certainly a peaceful and rudimentarily democratic country. From this perspective, the second statement is also true: it was the most peaceful period in Somalia’s “recent” history.

But how could the light of democracy be extinguished so quickly?

Much blame can be placed on the colonial legacy. Rightly so. But it was also a lack of understanding of what constitutes a nation, what constitutes a state and which responsibilities these two institutions carry. State, ruling empires or central administration. All this was at best sporadic before the colonial period. The European idea of statehood never fitted Somali society. In this respect, one could argue that it was not democracy that failed in Somalia, but the few democrats who tried to transfer Western models of statehood to Somalia. 

By René Brosius

René Brosius is currently a PhD student in Law at the University of Bayreuth. He first studied Modern and Contemporary History, Sociology and Political Science at the Humboldt University to Berlin and later changed to Law at the same university. He passed his 1st and 2nd state examinations in Berlin. While still a student, he worked in the German Bundestag as a research assistant at the interface between politics and administration. During this time, he specialised in the areas of special administrative Law and European Law. After his studies, he joined the judicial service of the State of Hessen in 2009. Since February 2020, he has been working in the Hessian State Chancellery. In his doctoral thesis, he examines the question of the transferability of state structure principles of the German Basic Law to Somalia.

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