Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Somalia's clan system and piracy

Seth Kaplan, a foreign policy analyst based in the U.S., has written an interesting commentary on the Policy Innovations website that offers some fresh thoughts on how to address piracy, and other criminal activities, emanating from Somalia. In particular, Kaplan suggests that outside powers should consider working with the various clans there that wield real, local power within the country, instead of attempting to emplace some kind of arbitrary form of "national" government upon the Somali people.

As Kaplan writes, "The United Nations, Western governments, and donors have been trying to fix Somalia in a way that is convenient for them—by creating a central government. They are more willing to accept the appearance of a cohesive regime than they are to accept the reality that they are simply backing one faction, which just happens to control the purported government.

"Instead of repeatedly trying to foist a Western style top-down state structure on a deeply decentralized society, the international community should work with Somalia's long-standing traditional institutions to build a bottom-up government."

This is a unique idea, one that holds great potential in addressing the need to stop piracy by enlisting the support of local leaders. It requires, however, a huge leap of faith on the part of the various outside institutions that have been trying to grapple with Somalia's rampant lawlessness for over fifteen years. The failures of the national entity that is currently supposed to govern Somalia - the Transitional Federal Government - are many, yet the TFG remains internationally recognized.

What Kaplan advocates is nothing short of a radical new approach to governing Somalia, one that is based not upon the creation of a federal "democratic structure" but, instead, involves the various regional players in a confederational system. This would, however, mean dealing with some of the more nefarious elements operating in Somalia, such as the warlords who control pirate gangs. And talking to the bad guys is not a popular idea in most capitals.

But after all the efforts expended in Somalia to date, none of which have proven successful, perhaps the time has come to consider trying something new. Unless the outside world can find a way to create law and order for the Somali people in their own land, it matters little how many naval warships patrol the Indian Ocean or how many pirates are captured, for there will always be someone willing to head to sea with a Kalashnikov believing he can make money by pirating.

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