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  • The Trap of International Intervention:How Somaliland Succeeded where Somalia Failed

Following the 1991 “collapse” of the once-unified countries Somalia and Somaliland, efforts to successfully “rebuild” these two nations have met polarizing results. Whereas the de facto state of Somaliland has achieved a relatively high degree of peace and stability by pursuing forms of localized governance in the absence of a strong central government or external interference, southern Somalia has proved unable to pursue their own, preferred system during its constant battle with international actors eager to “assist” the country in forming a strong, national governance structure. Viewed inaccurately by outsiders as an “ungoverned” area, southern Somalia’s attempts at local, effective, and—most importantly—outside actors have ignored, downplayed, or pushed out legitimate governance. In result, misguided efforts by the international community have unwittingly contributed to Somalia’s insecurity.


“[In the developing world], many political rulers routinely use government to benefit themselves and their supporters at the expense of citizens. … In the extreme, they devolve into little more than organized thuggery, seizing every opportunity to extort their citizens. Ultra-dysfunctional states not only fail to provide public goods and protect citizens’ property. They are in fact the primary threat to their citizens’ property rights and security.”1

—Peter T. Leeson

In 2010 I covered the Somaliland presidential inauguration as a journalist for the Associated Press. I recall riding in the backseat of the newly appointed foreign minister’s black SUV as the long caravan snaked through the city’s main road to the presidential palace. Along each side of the road stood crowds of men and women eager to celebrate the election of President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud “Silanyo.” His path to the presidency had not been without incident, marred by occasional bursts of low-casualty violence and postponed elections several times over a two-year period. But on that July day, I saw no signs of [End Page 121] violent clashes or angry shouts. Instead, I saw only pride. Rather than clinging to power as so many other African leaders had famously done, their outgoing president, Dahir Riyale Kahin, peacefully conceded defeat. Though Kahin was credited with little other developmental progress within the region, Somalil-anders were deeply appreciative for the period of peace that he had presided over. They saw how the south of Somalia appeared to be imploding on account of aggressive fighting between al-Shabaab fighters and internationally-backed government forces. Somalilanders wanted to stay as far away from that scenario as possible.

In 2013, a few months after qualifying Somalis inaugurated Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud as their new president, I made my first trip to Mogadishu, sold on the idea that the intensity of the most recent war that began in 2006 had subsided. Southern Somalia seemed to be in an upswing toward becoming more stable and secure. The Federal Government—having replaced the Transitional Federal Government—had reduced the number of checkpoints, and now controlled ten square kilometers of the capital, five times the amount their predecessors had. Over the preceding three years, al-Shabaab, an Islamist terrorist group based in East Africa, had fallen out of power and retreated. The sound of construction punctured the air, rather than bullets or bombs, although bombings still occurred. In its place, residents—tired of the war and the bullying—had begun boldly reclaiming once-targeted hotspots, such as sidewalks, restaurants, and beaches. Sports stadiums, which militiamen had used as training grounds for years, once again began hosting soccer games and enjoying high spectatorship. Somalis from the diaspora were returning in droves, flush with US dollars and ambitious business plans. Even skepticism of Mohamoud, the man currently occupying the presidential palace that had long hosted numerous corrupt men, was mostly suspended.

“The war is over,” individuals repeatedly told me.

Historical Overview

Somaliland and Somalia united as one country for the first time in July 1960, newly released from the United Kingdom and Italy, respectively. An indigenous desire to have all Somalis under one flag drove the union, and the transition from a colony and a protectorate into one democracy was peaceful and universally hailed for its success. This trajectory upended in 1969, when Siad Barre took power in a military coup and effectively became dictator of the region for the next two decades. While some advances were made under his reign—notably in committing the Somali language to written form and attaining an enviably high literacy rate throughout the country—many other forms of democratic progress slowed, or stalled altogether.

Because Mogadishu became home to the federal government and to major universities and hospitals by extension, southern Somalis dominated the majority of government posts. Frustrated by feelings of exclusion, several politicians, military officers, and businessmen of the Isaaq clan—the largest in the northwest—founded the Somali National Movement.2 By the end of [End Page 122] the 1980s, rifts between the country’s north and President Barre grew into a conflict between Barre and the entire country. Rather than providing national governance, violent political actors and bureaucrats embezzled state funds; extorted and murdered portions of the population; and aggressively engaged in the asset stripping of state-owned firms.3 Instead of devoting resources toward building up public services and institutions, or addressing the severe drought, Barre emptied the majority of government funds—much of it donated by other countries4—into his own private military.5

Siad Barre’s brutal reign reached such proportions that, reflecting later, the United Nations Development Program characterized the twenty-one year regime as having “one of the worst human rights records in Africa.”6 According to the International Labor Organization, the only reason why Somalis did not suffer more during the 1980s—especially during a regional drought that devastated neighboring Ethiopia—was not because of national governance, but because of actions by local actors, including an active private sector.7 After repeated attempts to oust him, Barre finally lost the fight and fled in January 1991, plunging the country into what outsiders have continually marked as Somalia’s collapse. By May of that year, Somaliland had separated from Somalia.

Two Paths: Early Conferences and International Intervention


In the power vacuum created by Barre’s departure, warlords took over. Clan warfare from 1991–92 engulfed Mogadishu, producing almost one million refugees and destroying residual services and institutions that had survived the neglectful and cruel Barre years, including key infrastructure, refineries, telecommunications installations, bridges, and more.8 Concurrently, a devastating famine outside of Mogadishu threatened almost 5 million people with hunger and disease, around 1.7 million of whom fled to the already strained capital city.9

Members of the international community, particularly the United States, contributed to efforts of a United Nations relief campaign, the United Nations Operation in Somalia I (UNOSOM I, later replaced by UNOSOM II). Together with the Organization of African Unity (later disbanded and reorganized as the African Union), UNOSOM tasked themselves with providing humanitarian relief and brokering a ceasefire.10 This ceasefire attempt would later result in more than twenty internationally sponsored peace conferences.

In general, the international community was largely out of its depth when dealing with armed actors in Somalia. As conflicts specialist Roland Marchal aptly points out, “The inability to understand how armed factions in Somalia were built and functioned made it impossible for the international community to countenance the emergence of other collective actors.”11 In the beginning, the coalition’s [End Page 123] peace conferences had only a few groups represented. In fact, those who were present overwhelmingly belonged to one of two groups. The first were elders, specially appointed male leaders within communities whose duties, among others, were to act as arbitrators. The other group consisted of people who claimed to be elders. Due to grossly insufficient representation, peace agreements quickly fell apart. Heeding these failures, with each new peace conference, the coalition extended invitations to a broader range of actors, including clan families, women’s groups, human rights campaigners, and minority communities.12 Even with a growing number of actors included at peace conferences, e.g. the Djibouti conference in 1991 or Cairo conference in 1997, a successful outcome eluded the coalition. Although having more diverse and representative attendance at the conferences bolstered the meetings’ legitimacy, this broadened and diversified conference structure unintentionally incentivized groups to splinter in hopes of gaining a higher proportion of funding or influence, but to the detriment of a clear, cohesive conflict resolution.13

Among the savvier of groups within Somalia were powerful businessmen—backed by their personal militias—who verbalized their own desires to return the country to a place of democracy and human rights. Out of the gate, they positioned themselves as traditional leaders, regardless of whether this distinction was accurate.14 This included Ali Mahdi, a man who Italy heavily backed. In turn, one of the peace conferences appointed Mahdi as Somalia’s first president. (Mahdi would serve as president from 1991–97.) Yet while the international community saw Mahdi as an entrepreneur and a politician, Somalis saw him as just another warlord. Years later, at an international peace conference in 2004, the conference’s body selected Abdullahi Yusuf—the first president of Puntland, a self-declared autonomous state in northeastern Somalia—to become the first president of the Transitional National Government (TNG), which had been established in 2000 yet another international peace conference in Djibouti. Local Somalis viewed Yusuf as a warlord. This trend continued to repeat itself, whereby warlords looking to gain favor with international actors rallied under noble-sounding banners, such as the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism.

As a result, institutions remained weak and the government lacked the ability to control territory or raise money through taxes. When the government received international money, political leaders directed it into their and their local backers’ pockets, rather than into public service works. When clashes with militia factions occurred, residents did not even bother to call upon the TNG military for protection, as its soldiers were loyal first to their clans, leaving the [End Page 124] TNG to outsource militia services from loyal businessmen.15 At the same time, Mogadishu residents were still paying taxes for access to roadways, airports, ports, large markets, and trade convoys. However, warlords and local businessmen’s militias were collecting the taxes.16 The TNG administration based itself hundreds of miles outside of Mogadishu, rather than relocating to the country’s capital, on account of security concerns. Together, this fed into the outsider’s view that Somalia continued to be lawless and ungoverned.

In reality, during this time Somalia enjoyed a relatively high degree of peace and security—in spite of controversial governance—as the internationally sponsored peace conferences continued. Sporadic violence that took place tended to constitute relatively small-scale rivalry, and commerce expanded throughout the southern region.17 While the central government held questionable legitimacy, governance at the municipal level retained a high degree of “legitimacy and local ownership,” which had produced the majority of day-to-day governance in Somalia for decades, even during the Barre era. At times, these municipalities could provide basic services, operate piped water systems, regulate marketplaces, and collect a modest degree of taxes and user fees to cover administrative salaries. But despite local support, these administrations received the least amount of external support.18

These local governorships included the leaders of southern Somalia’s shari’a (Islamic law) courts, who are known as sheikhs. Both the courts and their sheikhs had steadily gained popularity and influence since the 1990s. Because the courts worked within Somali customs, they were able to establish a sense of rule and justice and were seen as legitimate authority figures by locals. Additionally, because a hybrid of clan elders and businesspeople funded them, the sheikhs and their respective courts tended to be moderate in nature. By 2006 they had risen to a national level of recognition for providing fairly effective local governance.

In fact, “[I]n some parts of Somalia, local communities enjoy[ed] more responsive and participatory governance, and a more predictable, profitable, and safer commercial climate, than at any time in recent decades,” including during Barre’s reign.19 Others observed that “fewer people died from armed conflict in some parts of Somalia than did in neighboring countries that ha[d] governments.”20 Although outsiders were uneasy with the increasingly conservative form of governance, the institutions proved effective at keeping war at bay and worse actors from creeping in.

It was precisely because of this form of governance that al-Qaeda struggled to find a firm foothold in Somalia. The group suffered from, among other things, the inability to strike significant alliances with Somali Islamists and difficulties with “hostile local actors,” which taxed them to operate in their areas.21 [End Page 125] After a visit to a struggling camp near both the Ethiopian and Kenyan borders, al-Qaeda’s operations chief at the time, Mohammed Atef, alerted his superiors that he found Somalia “difficult… because of dangers pertaining to security.”22

However, this delicate balance between security and the rule of law shifted dramatically in mid-2006 as international actors—particularly the United States—became more involved with on the ground operations. As Ethiopian troops moved into Somalia to displace the shari’a courts and usher the TNG into the presidential palace, violence once again resurged in result of backlash by rebel militants, who would soon be known worldwide as al-Shabaab.


By the time of Somalia’s collapse in 1991, approximately 100,000 people in the northern capital of Hargeisa had died as a result of summary executions, aerial bombardments, and ground attacks by Siad Barre’s troops. Widespread damage was done to Somalilanders’ water supply, destroyed through poison, physical destruction, or intentional draining. Additionally, the extended violence impacted crop cultivation and killed more than half of Somaliland’s total livestock, leaving the country grappling with high food insecurity.23

Within a month of declaring its separation from the south, leaders within the northern clans and the Somalia National Movement (SNM) began organizing peace conferences within Somaliland’s borders, sponsored rotationally by different Somaliland towns. This model starkly contrasts the internationally held conferences taking place for their southern brothers.24 Left alone by the international community and devoid of a national structure, clan and SNM leaders utilized existing Somali law and xeer (unwritten “private” laws) to immediately begin negotiating and addressing grievances, rather than waiting years for international tribunals.25

The northern Somali conferences set out to establish many essential, foundational necessities: confirmation of Berbera Port as a public asset, ensuring a source of future funding for the government; creation of a framework for the participation of clan elders by establishing the National Council of Elders; peaceful transfer of SNM control to a civilian government; development of a coalition of Somaliland’s main clans through a power-sharing system; demobilization of the militia; and provision of a secure environment for economic recovery. Over several years, the conferences resulted in increased participation at the peace talks and in voting delegates and seats in parliament for opposition groups, minority clans, and women. With fewer chances to receive outside funding, the north lacked the multiplication of groups as seen in the south, which allowed for a more inclusive representation at the proverbial table.26

Still, the state remained politically vulnerable to shifts in clan relationships and in the opposition’s preferences to remain with Somalia. However, given the absence of a revenue base, a decimated infrastructure, and a large number of displaced people, the government had little capacity to deal with the growing number of “freelance militia.” Violence broke out between rivalries within the SNM between 1991–92 and later between 1994–96. In both cases, Somaliland’s elders stepped forward to mediate local conflicts, increasingly taking on many administrative and security functions.27 [End Page 126]

Still shaky after each of these conflicts, Somaliland marked a turning point in 2002, when Somalilanders made it through the death of its second president, Mohammed H.I. Egal, elected in 1993. Keeping in line with the democratic institutions developed after 1991, as well as traditional and religious justice systems, power peacefully transferred to Vice President Dahir Riyale Kahin, who came from a non-Isaaq clan.28


So-called “ungoverned spaces”—a term scholars Anne L. Clunan and Harold A. Trinkunas have called a misnomer—rose to international attention during the 1990s when they were perceived as a “threat to global governance.” As a result, the United States alone began spending hundreds of millions of dollars to strengthen the capacity of state governance, such as through “international military education and training, counterterrorism assistance, antinarcotics assistance, programs designed to strengthen the rule of law, and even traditional economic and military aid.”29 Yet, despite so much attention and resources devoted to building up governance elsewhere, international donors have remained “distinctly reluctant to conceive of or sanction alternatives to states for the provision of governance.”30 Attention to “ungoverned” territories has only increased as leaders around the world have posited such territories as being potential breeding grounds for terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda. In 2007, for example, James Swan, then the Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, argued “Somalia’s ungoverned spaces opened opportunities for terrorists who directly threatened US persons and facilities… and that the opportunities afforded terrorist-affiliated individuals increased significantly in Somalia during the period of the Islamic Courts’ control.”31 As a result, Swan stated that the United States and the rest of the international community were prepared to help Somalis “secure their country” through “inclusive dialogue and reconciliation … [including those] marginalized from the political process.”32

Swan failed to mention that the United States and the international community had undertaken this course of action for the last sixteen years, as well as that the superpower had been, in effect, responsible for contributing to unequal representation at the internationally-developed peace conferences.33 Furthermore, Swan promised this would lead to the “formation of an inclusive government of national unity within the framework of the Transitional Federal Charter”—despite the lack of overwhelming support from Somalis to form such a type of national governance. In fact, many participants were averse to such a seemingly zero-sum game.34

This overwhelmingly Western approach to forming a national governance structure has resulted in misguided efforts to “return” the country to a mythical time when the central state of Somalia extended effective governorship and [End Page 127] security to its citizens when, in fact, central governance has demonstrated itself to be the least effective way to produce stability and security in the East African country.35 Somalia is not alone; many societies have historically lacked central state governance.36 Likewise, many societies have not necessarily flourished under national or state governments either.

As Peter T. Leeson, professor at George Mason University, observed: “It is common to think that most governments in world [sic] are the well-functioning variety. However, this conventional wisdom has it backwards. Well-functioning, highly-constrained governments that protect property rights and supply public goods are the exception, not the rule.”37 With respect to Somalia specifically, Leeson argued that Somalia worked better under anarchy than under government, and the absence of a predatory state stimulated local economies and public life.38 Pointing to the 2007 Failed States Index, Leeson mused that if the statistic that nearly 16 percent of the world’s countries were classified as “failing states” was correct, then:

In over half of the world, states are either critically or dangerously dysfunctional. The world’s ‘experiment’ with government, then, has been a far more mixed one than most people think. Since dysfunctional and predatory governments are disproportionately located in the poorest… is it possible some least-developed countries could actually perform better without any government at all?39

What may be just as unfortunate about the United States’ single-minded approach to seeing a national governance structure come to fruition is the fact that US leadership is already aware of the negative impacts this type of governance can have. According to a 2008 Defense Department report:

In many cases, provincial, local, tribal, or autonomous governments… are simply better positioned than the central government to address the local conditions that enable illicit actors to operate there. It often will be more efficient and effective to influence and enable those entities rather than… the host state in the short term. For diplomatic, legal, and practical reasons, the host state cannot be ignored or bypassed, but nor should it be permitted to impede progress against safe havens when other entities are positioned to help. An appropriate balance is needed.40

The international community—and more importantly Somalia—would be served well if it heeded these words.


As this article goes to print, Somalia’s security situation remains tenuous at best. In interviews I conducted in 2014, scholars relayed frustration that the current internationally-backed government has squandered an opportunity to capitalize and promote a peaceful Mogadishu, and at worst that the current government [End Page 128] is actually directly responsible for the insecurity. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council argued the current administration was in fact “undoing” the progress made by others. “[al-Shabaab],” he said, “should be well on its last legs.”41

Although the intensity of war has subsided, the battle against insecurity in Mogadishu will continue to be a problem until the way the international community addresses it changes. After abandoning its stronghold in Mogadishu back in 2011—due to over-extension and gains made by better-trained troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia—al-Shabaab has transitioned back to operating as guerilla fighters. “Just like the Taliban, you’ll see a cyclical movement from al-Shabaab, where you see them getting stronger during one season and weaker during another season,” remarked Abdi Aynte, then director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, a Mogadishu-based think tank. At the same time, he added: “The vast majority of Somalia remains quite peaceful and stable. Many places are pretty stable without any government or administration. … Mogadishu tends to steal the thunder from the rest of the country.”42

By continuing to mislabel and treat Somalia as “ungoverned” territory, the United States and the international community will fail to achieve their ultimate goal of bringing security to the country. It is not enough to bring just any governance; it must be the most appropriate. Worse, by sticking to this tunnel vision approach, misguided efforts will in fact undermine continuing efforts by local administrations and actors who are succeeding—or those who might succeed if given the chance. If the international community is truly concerned with seeing security in Somalia, it must concede far more control to regional and local-level actors, including ones whose missions may oppose Western sensibilities. It is only then that the world’s most notorious failed nation will finally get its chance at achieving lasting security.

Teresa Krug

Teresa Krug is a multimedia journalist specializing in economic injustice, immigration, and the effects of war, particularly in the Middle East and Somalia. She has worked with al-Jazeera English, al-Jazeera America, CBS, the Associated Press, and Meredith Corporation. Krug has an MPA from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a BS from Iowa State University.


1. Peter T. Leeson, “Better Off Stateless: Somalia Before and After Government Collapse,” Journal of Comparative Economics 35 (2007): 690.

2. Marleen Renders, “Appropriate ‘governance-technology’–Somali clan elders and institutions in the making of the ‘Republic of Somaliland,’” Afrika Spectrum 42 (2007): 443–444.

3. Leeson, “Better off Stateless,” 693.

4. At the brink of the collapse of Somalia, the government spent less than one percent of its GDP on economic and social services, despite having 100 percent of its development budget and 50 percent of its recurrent budget funded by foreign aid. Ken Menkhaus, Mark Bradbury, and Roland Marchal, “2001 Human Development Report for Somalia,” United Nations Development Programme,

5. Kenneth Menkhaus, “Governance without Government in Somalia: Spoilers, State Building, and the Politics of Coping,” International Security 31 (2007): 80.

6. Menkhaus, Bradbury, and Marchal, “2001 Human Development Report,” 42. [End Page 129]

7. François Grünewald, Aid in a city at war: the case of Mogadishu, Somalia, Disasters 36 (July 2012); S109.

8. Ismail I. Ahmed and Reginald Herbold Green, “The Heritage of War and State Collapse in Somalia and Somaliland: Local-Level Effects, External Interventions and Reconstruction,” Third World Quarterly 20 (1999): 120–121; “United Nations Operation in Somalia II (UNOSOM II) - Background (Full text),” United Nations,

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Roland Marchal, “Warlordism and Terrorism: How to Obscure an Already Confusing Crisis? The Case of Somalia,” International Affairs 83, no. 6. (November 2007): 1100.

12. Somaliland was noticeably absent, insisting they be treated as a separate country and that Somalia had no functioning government to negotiate with.

13. “Somali Peace Process,” African Union Mission in Somalia, May 2, 2014,; “Somali Political Leaders: Cairo Declaration on Somalia,” International Legal Materials 37 (1998): 780–787.

14. Marchal, “Warlordism and Terrorism,” 1093, 1099.

15. Andre Le Sage, “Somalia: Sovereign disguise for a Mogadishu Mafia,” Review of African Political Economy 29 (2002): 134–137.

16. Leeson, “Better Off Stateless,” 705.

17. Jacob N. Shapiro and Kenneth Menkhaus in Ungoverned Spaces: Alternatives to State Authority in an Era of Softened Sovereignty, ed. Anne Clunan, et al., (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).

18. Kenneth Menkhaus, “Governance without Government in Somalia,” 82–85.

19. Ibid., 1998, 220.

20. Leeson, “Better Off Stateless,” 695.

21. Menkhaus and Shapiro, “Ungoverned Spaces,” 78–79.

22. Ibid.

23. Ahmed and Green, “The Heritage of War and State Collapse in Somalia and Somaliland,” 119.

24. Adan Yusuf Abokor, Haroon Ahmed Yusuf, and Mark Bradbury, “Somaliland: Choosing Politics Over Violence,” Review of African Political Economy 30 (2003): 459.

25. Renders, “Appropriate ‘Governance-Technology,’” 442; Abokor, Bradbury, and Yusuf, “The Heritage of War and State Collapse,” 462. Note: This access differed from that in the south. While the south also held traditions of Somali clan law, they had weakened under Barre’s rule through his desire to annihilate all forms of clan structure in lieu of national unity. They now further weakened because of international actors’ misguided efforts.

26. Abokor, Bradbury, and Yusuf, “The Heritage of War and State Collapse,” 458–461.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid., 463.

29. Anne Clunan and Harold Trinkunas, Ungoverned Spaces: Alternatives to State Authority in an Era of Softened Sovereignty (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 28.

30. Ibid.

31. James Swan, “Remarks to the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs on Somalia,” Department of State,

32. Ibid.

33. Interestingly, with each passing international conference and initiative, Menkhaus notes that it is likely to become “exponentially more difficult” to nation-build as time goes on. As local actors have adapted to a “state-less” existence, there is a higher risk of aversion or resistance to reviving a central state. Menkhaus, “Governance without Government in Somalia,” 77.

34. Ibid.; Swan, “Remarks to the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs on Somalia.”

35. Clunan and Trinkunas, Ungoverned Spaces, 6; Menkhaus, “Governance without Government in Somalia,” 87.

36. Ibid.

37. Leeson, “Better Off Stateless,” 690.

38. Ibid., 692. [End Page 130]

39. Ibid., 690; Fund for Peace, “The Failed States Index 2007,” The Fund for Peace, According to the index, that same year, 49 percent of the world’s countries were in “warning” mode.

40. Robert D. Lamb, “Ungoverned Areas and Threats from Safe Havens–Final Report of the Ungoverned Areas Project,” US Department of Defense, 2008, 5.

41. Teresa Krug, interview with Peter Pham, Phone, March 6, 2014.

42. Teresa Krug, interview with Abdi Aynte, Skype, March 10, 2014. [End Page 131]

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