Security Bazaars and Hybrid States in Somalia
Somalia suffers from instability dating back to the outbreak of its civil war in 1986, due to violence sustained by clan militias, warlords, jihadists, and international armed forces. The Somali Federal Government (SFG) struggles to project power outside of the capital of Mogadishu. State security services are fragmented, and often operate under the influence of local elites. As a result, Al Shabab is making territorial gains in rural south- and central-Somalia, occasionally carrying out deadly attacks in urban centers. Although certain regions of Somalia have become unstable due to the lack of state presence, others have flourished as a result. After state capacity collapsed in the 1990s, many local governments joined forces with communal authorities and private businesses to supply public goods such as power, water, and waste collection. In addition to public goods, informal governance also provides security, and nowhere is this more noticeable than in Somaliland and Puntland. Despite their lack of international recognition and limited external support, they have emerged as the most stable and prosperous regions of Somalia. Although they both share similar state institutions and face the same security threats, Puntland suffers far more violence than Somaliland. The security institutions of these de facto states highlight important lessons about the potential for informal governance to thrive in the face of weak central states. Comparing them reveals how security in hybrid states is mediated by both international and local forces, and provides important lessons for Western actors in Somalia.
Somaliland and Puntland are products of the ongoing Somali civil war (1986-present), which resulted in the collapse of Siad Barre’s Cold War-era regime. During the war, the regime targeted the Isaaq clan, which makes up 80% of Somaliland’s population. Approximately 100,000 Isaaq civilians died and most northern cities were destroyed. In response, the Somali National Movement (SNM) was created, and managed to drive out the Somali army by 1990. In 1991, SNM leaders and politicians met in Boroma to declare the creation of the Republic of Somaliland. Since then, Somaliland has developed an effective system of governance. Democratic elections are held consistently, and civil society is active. Somaliland rarely experiences violence, and is considered one the safest corners of the Horn of Africa.
Unlike Somaliland, Puntland considers itself a unit of Somalia, albeit a highly independent one. It emerged as an autonomous state at a clan conference in 1998, which established a power sharing agreement between Harti sub-clans, the Majeerteen, Dhulbahante and Warsangeeli. Puntland’s formal security and state institutions closely mirror Somaliland’s. However, Puntland has yet to hold competitive, direct elections. The Majeerteen dominate the civil service, and most politicians use political office for patronage and personal enrichment. The police are corrupt, and are distrusted by the public. Other security institutions, formal and informal, compete on behalf of clan elites and foreign backers. This crowded security arena is unable to effectively combat terrorism, and inter-elite violence is common.
Somaliland and Puntland share several characteristics in their approach to state (and security) building. Both are de facto states; they lack international recognition, despite their functioning formal institutions, such as civil service, tax collection, and security forces. Absent access to most formal markets, these states depend on remittances and customs for revenue. As a result, de facto states rely closely on informal institutions to function. Somaliland’s upper legislature, the guurti, draws on clan elders to represent local interests. Police in both Somaliland and Puntland enforce xeer (traditional clan law) in addition to their regular policing duties. This hybrid governance is crucial for providing public goods and building trust in post-conflict states.
In addition to their similar approach to governance, Somaliland and Puntland face the same security threats. The ongoing Yemeni civil war across the Gulf of Aden has significantly increased the circulation of arms and non-state armed groups in the region, and jihadists groups based in central Somalia are looking to expand northward. Al Shabab and the splinter Islamic State in Somalia (ISS) have launched attacks into Puntland, a new and worrying trend. While Somaliland has so far foiled terrorist attacks on its territory, the region is becoming more dangerous. As a result of this fragile security environment and their violent past, Somaliland and Puntland have formidable security structures. More than half of state revenue goes to defense and security.
While Somaliland and Puntland are both de facto states with similar security concerns, security actors in both states face different incentives. One key difference is the role of local elites. Somaliland was created on a framework of consensus - the state is populated by the same sub-clan, which experiences relatively little internal competition. The police effectively cooperate with informal clan actors without appearing impartial, given the close level of cooperation between traditional and formal institutions. Moreover, clan interests overlap with those of the business class and civil society. Security services are supported by informal and formal elites, providing them with legitimacy. Elite buy-in in hybrid states ensures that formal and informal security services cooperate, providing much needed stability in post conflict zones. Puntland’s power structure is much more fractured. The Majerteen sub-clan dominates politics and controls most formal security services. As a result, other clans hold little trust in the state, and instead rely on informal security services, including clan militias and Al Shabab, to provide security. High levels of competition and inequality within formal sectors of de facto states create rifts and competition between formal and informal security services, generating instability.
Another difference between Somaliland and Puntland is the degree to which external actors are present. Interactions between foreign states and domestic security services functions like a bazaar. Since foreign states pursue their own interests, they tend to select one security actor who can best help them achieve their goals. In the case of Somaliland, the state’s independence from Somalia has isolated it from most external sources of funding. As a result, what little assistance does come in is usually in the form of salaries for police rather than equipment. These funds are small enough to have little influence on the incentives facing domestic security institutions. Puntland, on the other hand, is a perfect example of a crowded and highly competitive security bazaar. Since Puntland is formally attached to the Somali state, several foreign states are present. These external backers have different mandates and interests, and due to the already fractured nature of Puntland, empower different institutions to compete for funding. The United State’s focus on counterterrorism has made it a natural partner for the Puntland Intelligence Agency (PIA) which receives significant backing from the CIA. China invests in coastal bases for the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF) who protect Chinese commercial interests from piracy. While these external sources of funding may not appear mutually exclusive on the surface, when combined with the hybrid-nature of Puntland’s state, they generate instability. On one hand, external funding changes the incentives of the big men who head security services. If revenue comes from external sources, they have little reason to be accountable to the population. In addition, external funding risks creating a security dilemma. For the Dhulbahante and Warsangeeli sub-clans, external support tips the balance in favor of the Majerteen who control the state. As a result, other clans turn to informal groups for security, such as clan militias and Al Shabab.
This security dynamic can be seen in police forces in both states. Puntland and Somaliland draw on colonial administrations and the Barre regime as models for their centralized system of policing. In Somaliland, police are mostly concentrated in major cities, and rely on trusted informal security actors to maintain peace and dispense justice in rural areas. They are subordinate to clan elders, and implement xeer in an impartial manner. The only major donor active is the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which pays salaries for the police. Combined with the annual $11.5 million domestic spending on a police force of 6,800, incentives for corruption is low. Somaliland enjoys an effective and accountable policing system thanks its complementary approach to informal institutions, elite-level agreement, and the non-disruptive nature of international assistance. Puntland’s police do occasionally engage with xeer, but most clans choose to use daraawiish (clan militias) for policing due to inter-clan competition. External support for security institutions has come the expense of the police. While state spending on the well-equipped sectors like the PIA and PMPF has gone up, the police have had their salaries cut. As a result, they often turn to bribes and extortion, and enjoy little trust or support. Puntland’s police services lack of accountability stems from their substitution by informal actors at the local level, inter-elite competition that politicizes government institutions, and competing international interests.
U.S. foreign policy could learn important lessons from security institutions in Somalia’s de facto states. Under the Trump administration, U.S. assistance to Somalia is securitized, and drones and special forces are operating with increasing frequency. Traditional U.S. security assistance has approached security sector reform with a state-centric view. This involves creating centralized formal security institutions, which hold a monopoly over force. In Somaliland, effective security institutions developed thanks to their partnership with decentralized and informal security groups. U.S. policy should be more willing to engage with informal security actors, given their high levels of local legitimacy. Moreover, any sort of foreign assistance must always be contextualized - if security institutions are dominated by one group, then external assistance could increase the divide between formal and informal sectors. The case of the PIA shows how state-centric U.S. security assistance can backfire in hybrid states. The PIA’s counterterrorism mandate has turned it into a lethal force thanks to CIA backing. However, it often acts with impunity, killing suspects without any evidence. These tactics have eroded public support for Puntland, further increasing elite’s reliance on coercive security institutions to maintain power. Meanwhile, the police have less funding and the divide between the state and non-Majerteen clans is growing. If Washington is to effectively counter al Shabab and promote accountable governance in Somalia, it must develop ties with informal security actors.