Somalia Lived While Its Government Died

"Serious" foreign policy minds care about everything but citizens' lives.


Somalia in Transition Since 2006, by Shaul Shay, Transaction Publishers, 304 pages, $59.95

In most American minds, Somalia raises unsettling images of pirates and warlords, drought and famine, anarchy and downed U.S. helicopters. For those arguing politics, the East African nation is a powerful talisman: Its mere name is deployed to trump any libertarian argument for less—or God forbid no—government.

Established in 1960 from former colonial territories of Britain and Italy (though united for centuries by a rough sense of national identity and language, with complicated clan divisions), Somalia has been without a functioning modern central state since the collapse of Siad Barre's socialist dictatorship in 1991.

Barre's allegiance bounced from the USSR to the U.S. during the Cold War, while his domestic approach tended toward ruthlessly inefficient central control, cronyism, and inflation. He strove to demolish independent sources of power outside the state and left a nation awash in weaponry from his former patrons. Under Barre, military and administrative costs consumed 90 percent of government spending, while economic and social services commanded less than 1 percent.

Shaul Shay is a former deputy head of Israel's National Security Council and a senior research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism. His new book, Somalia in Transition Since 2006, distills a bureaucrat's-eye view of Somalia. It reads like a set of white papers left behind at a conference of ministers, undersecretaries, and academics shuttled in on taxpayers' dimes to develop, as an actual United Nations report on Somalia states dizzyingly, "long term approaches to institutional development [that] will include support for the development of capacities to formulate strategies [which will] involve the provision of technical assistance to develop, formulate and implement policies."

Shay's book is all about war, diplomacy, international conferences, and failed attempts to make Somalia a modern Western state. While he barely expresses his own opinions, his book—especially when combined with research on Somalia outside its purview—shows Somalia has been more victim than beneficiary of the West's attempts to fix it.

Shay devotes hundreds of pages to Somalia's grim and baffling recent political and military history, but to sum up quickly: After Barre's regime collapsed, warlords hoping to establish themselves as a true national government fought, looted, and extorted. The United Nations and United States intervened, but by the mid-'90s both had given up.

The early 21st century brought a period of relative peace, disrupted by three separate attempts to create internationally supported "real" governments that in practice exacerbated conflict. As much of the largely pastoral population just tried to live their lives, an alphabet soup of often Islamist militias rose and fell and rose and fell, fighting each other and the feckless would-be national governments.

By 2006, a coalition of Islamist courts—known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU)—dominated Mogadishu, the nominal nation-state of Somalia's nominal capital. They imposed some rough versions of Shariah law where possible. Although they won much love from the Somali people for reducing the number of extortionary checkpoints and amount of militia fighting, they became targets of American wrath. In late 2006 a U.S. proxy invasion by Ethiopians (long-time enemies of the Somalis) brought violent chaos back to huge parts of Somalia, resulting in a fresh wave of 10,000 civilian deaths, 1 million refugees, and 3 million in need of emergency food aid.

War, natural disasters, an absent government-but how were people living? Shay neither answers nor even asks that question. What a society looks like without squadrons of technically trained experts isn't worthy of his serious consideration.

Some other researchers are interested in Somalis who aren't warriors or bureaucrats, and they have been fascinated by this phenomenon of a stateless zone in the modern world. Some of the more prominent such researchers have been of a libertarian bent. But even the libertarians, such as the economists Peter Leeson of George Mason University and Benjamin Powell of Texas Tech, rely on data and analysis from non-libertarian scholars and standard international sources.

In a 2007 paper in the Journal of Comparative Economics, Leeson examined 18 development indicators for Somalia. He found that "14 show unambiguous improvement under anarchy. Life expectancy is higher today than…in the last years of government's existence; infant mortality has improved 24 percent; maternal mortality has fallen over 30 percent; infants with low birth weight has fallen more than 15 percentage points; access to health facilities has increased more than 25 percentage points; access to sanitation has risen eight percentage points; extreme poverty has plummeted nearly 20 percentage points…and the prevalence of TVs, radios, and telephones has jumped between 3 and 25 times."

Somalia was still, certainly, a desperately poor and underdeveloped nation. Access to clean water had not improved, and adult literacy and school enrollment had gotten worse. Straight-up comparisons of official numbers showed gross domestic product (GDP) falling in the first decade of statelessness, though Leeson felt these data were ambiguous due to likely upward reporting biases in the Barre era.

But Somalia did not completely devolve. In many respects, it more than held its own against its statist neighbors. As Leeson wrote, "on the majority of the indicators…Somalia improved more than its neighbors over the same period, suggesting that the collapse of government resulted in greater development improvements than would have occurred in its absence. In a number of cases, Somalia has been improving while its neighbors have been declining." National macro-statistics for Somalia, as with most of sub-Saharan Africa, are known to be unreliable, but they are the closest we have to big-picture knowledge.

The Somali cattle trade managed to thrive through that first decade of statelessness, for example. Leeson, relying on data collected by Peter Little in his 2003 book Somalia: Economy without State, wrote that "Between 1989 and 2000 the value and volume of the cattle trade [from Somalia to Kenya] increased 250 and 218 percent respectively." Somalis managed a working monetary system via a combination of Barre-era currency, counterfeits of it, and the U.S. dollar. Many multinationals continue to do business in Somalia. Apparently, trade, technology, and tribal institutions do more for Somali lives as lived than a collection of administrators in Mogadishu.

A 2012 paper from the International Crisis Group concluded that the "international community made a mistake in recognizing the [Transitional Federal Government] as the national government, representative of all Somalia. The parliament is self-selected by those who had the means or connections to participate in the endless peace conferences in Arta, Mbagati, and Djibouti City that led to the formation of the last three transitional governments. Many legislators have few, if any, real ties to the local people they claim to represent. The president was then 'elected' by this non-representative institution. The government has failed to win the trust of most Somalis."

Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia scholar at Davison University and no partisan for anarchy, astutely noted in a 2007 article in International Security that at worst, "anarchist" Somalia has emulated existing international anarchy, developing bottom-up systems of "protection and access to resources…through a combination of blood payment groups (diya), customary law (xeer), negotiation (shir), and the threat of force-mirroring in intriguing ways the practices of collective security, international regimes, diplomacy, and recourse to war, which are the principal tools of statecraft that modern states use to manage their own anarchic environment." But, he says, "these extensive and intensive mechanisms for both managing conflict and providing a modest level of security in a context of state collapse are virtually invisible to external observers, whose sole preoccupation is often with the one structure that actually provides the least amount of rule of law to Somalis-the central state."

The Somali people have decently functioning cultural and juridical practices that come surprisingly close to the private adjudication systems proposed by the anarcho-capitalist writers Murray Rothbard and David Friedman. That "legal" system, known as xeer, generally outlaws only direct physical harm to other people or their personal property. Xeer is built entirely around victim compensation, known as the diya, not punishment or imprisonment. Kinship groups have an interestingly sophisticated system of group insurance, essentially committing to pitching in to help make good on costly misbehavior by their relatives. (In a less Rothbardian touch, the largely nomadic pastoral Somalis don't recognize true individual ownership of landed property.)

The ICU's legal system tended toward a non-uniform syncretist mix of Shariah and xeer, with the former applying most to family, marriage, inheritance, and strictly civil matters. Some instances of harsh Shariah-like physical punishment are known to have happened in Mogadishu when the ICU dominated the city. But as Hanno Brankamp wrote in a 2013 overview of ICU practice for Think Africa Press, "Contrary to popular assumption and terminological intuition, the Islamic Courts were not able to establish a system under which sharia was systematically, or even exclusively, applied." Indeed, clan law "ensured that the legal force of Islamic law remained limited."

Andre Le Sage, a political scientist at National Defense University, wrote in a 2005 paper that "customary xeer is the most far-reaching of the Somali justice systems, particularly in rural areas that are commonly beyond the reach of formal judicial systems, and is the most effectively enforced." Since these various justice systems have maintained "a modicum of peace and security in various parts of the country," he added, trying "to force one system across all areas would undermine those systems that function locally, and 'rule of law' assistance could in those circumstances create more conflict by undermining the structures that currently underpin local peace and security arrangements."

Those are some of the cultural resources that have helped Somalia's development indicators keep pace with its neighbors'. What has bedeviled the Somalis, from the Cold War to the war on terror, is being treated as a pawn in larger powers' schemes. Intervention has bred intervention: The 2006 Ethiopian invasion to overturn the ICU led to the rise of the Al Qaeda-allied radical Islamist group Al Shabaab, which led in 2009 to a new Kenyan invasion. (The Kenyans, like the Ethiopians, acted with America's active cooperation.) Back in 1992, a State Department official said that the U.S. mission in Somalia was "basically re-creating a country." Having perhaps learned that that's a trick that never works, Washington is now more cynically using Somalia to wage a drone war and to run rendition and torture camps.

As the latest attempt to impose a national government flounders in internecine bickering, the Associated Press reported in November that Somali sources said the U.S. is threatening to cut off aid to the would-be state if the current president and prime minister can't work together effectively. The existing aid package includes "$58 million…in development assistance in this fiscal year and an additional $271 million in military assistance for the Somali national army and the African Union force in Somalia."

A wide range of scholarship and commentary on Somalia, most with no ideological ax to grind, tells an interesting and even somewhat encouraging story—one about a society with an unusual and robust clan-based system of dispute resolution and goods provision that has managed to keep daily life moving along even without a "Somali government." (Even the threat of Somali piracy has practically disappeared compared to its zenith in the early part of this decade.) But for all its very fine-grained details about militias and conferences and battles, Somalia in Transition Since 2006 misses this tale entirely.

The problems with Shay's book, as informative as it is about what it chooses to cover, are the problems with the American and international outlook toward Somalia writ small: Both view bureaucrats and military leaders as paramount, ignoring what life is actually like for the people trying to live, work, co-exist, and even thrive.