BUNGOMA, Kenya — These days, Somalia is known for two things: its pirates and its Islamic militants. When Al Shabaab, the extremist Islamic insurgents based in southern Somalia, claimed responsibility for the July bombings that killed 78 people in Kampala, international concern over the problem of Somalia spiked.

Somalia’s transitional federal government hangs on by a thread in Mogadishu. Despite several years of international support, including an African Union peacekeeping force, its authority remains tenuous. The international community seems torn over what to do next. At the end of July, the African Union was poised to widen the mandate of the AU peacekeeping force, but was deterred after the United Nations opposed it. What might be a constructive way forward in Somalia?

Somaliland, a peaceful enclave in northern Somalia, offers some valuable lessons. The autonomous area is not recognized by the international community, but it recently held successful presidential elections that saw Dahir Riyale Kahin, the sitting president, hand over power to Ahmed Silanyo, a long-time opposition leader.

Somaliland is a small success story within the larger failed state of Somalia. To understand what might be possible in Somalia, it’s useful to examine the history of Somaliland.

In 1991, when the regime of Siad Barre collapsed, northern Somalia was left in disarray, much like southern Somalia. The area’s strongest political force was the Somali National Movement (SNM), which had been fighting against Barre’s government since the 1980s. The SNM declared Somaliland’s independence and created a transitional government that lasted until 1993.

Somalilanders believed the SNM was only representative of one tribe and wanted a more inclusive government. From 1991 to 1997, Somaliland held more than 30 peace conferences. These conferences happened at the local, district, and national levels and were largely funded by the local business community. They used indigenous conflict resolution techniques to build political institutions that were acceptable to the majority of the population.

By 1997, Somaliland had a basic government structure — a presidency, a judiciary and a bicameral legislature. The legislature had a house of elected representatives, and a house of tribal elders, called the Guurti. The Guurti was meant to provide a link between traditional governance structures and the state structures of Somaliland.

In 2001, Somaliland ratified a constitution, and in 2003, it held presidential elections that were decided by a margin of 214 votes. The outcome was not contested.

Somalia experts such as Ken Menkhaus believe the formation of Somaliland’s government was able to happen because it remained unrecognized by the international community and thus ineligible for foreign assistance. Since 1997, Somaliland’s annual budget is estimated at $20 million to $40 million for a population of 2.5 million to 3.5 million. By comparison, Somalilanders receive at least $200 million a year in remittances.

Running a government on a shoestring budget has drawbacks. The government has focused its investment on maintaining security, not economic development. Somalilanders remain poor. However, they are better off than the rest of Somalia. Though development statistics are extremely limited, available data shows modest improvements in health, education and income indicators since 1991.

Further, the limited budget might be what has held Somaliland together. In a Center for Global Development working paper, Nicholas Eubank argues that in the absence of foreign aid, Somaliland had to depend on local sources of revenue and thus, it had to consider voices outside the government. Somaliland’s business community has been instrumental in the formation of political institutions; it has lent money to the government, funded the security forces and financed peace conferences.

More than that, it’s possible that Somalilanders have greater trust in their government because it is not the beneficiary of large foreign aid flows. Somalis associate state predation with foreign aid, according to Africa analyst Alex de Waal. When Somaliland’s political institutions were established, preventing a powerful centralized government was very important to the population. As a result, Somaliland has a decentralized governance structure that allows individual districts to retain 10 percent of their customs collection. Districts are also allowed to impose their own taxation.  

Somaliland’s government is still flawed, however. As Human Rights Watch has documented, it is somewhat repressive. Security committees operate outside the formal judicial system and journalists are persecuted.

But Somalia is much worse. The transitional federal government, which is almost completely funded by international donors, has been trying to assert its authority since early 2007, with no signs of permanence. It hasn’t even managed to ensure basic security in Mogadishu. Whether Al Shabaab is growing more powerful is up for debate, but the group has certainly convinced those outside Somalia that it is.

The transitional federal government has not been able to do the same. I recently met a government official from Somalia’s Ministry of Public Works. He was a civil engineer, trained in England, who had returned to Somalia from abroad to take a government position. Was he building any roads, I asked. No, he said. There was no money, and in any case, if he was able to build anything, it would just be bombed. He was on his way to a conference in Kigali about infrastructure development.

Outsiders continue to believe, most likely because of the fear of a more powerful Al Shabaab, that they can influence the messy political situation in Somalia. It’s time to adopt the lessons of Somaliland to Somalia. The formation of political institutions will only work through an iterative process that involves all ethnic groups at the community level. This process should not be funded by the international community. The transitional federal government tried to form a parliament that represented all ethnic groups, and now has an unwieldy and ineffective body of over 500 people. Somaliland shows that the construction of political institutions is a slow process, one that needs local buy-in and most importantly, local funding.

Of course, the threat of Al Shabaab cannot be ignored. In a March report for the Council on Foreign Relations, Bronwyn Bruton recommends that the United States adopt a policy of “constructive disengagement” in Somalia. Such a strategy would focus on limiting Al Shabaab’s influence and containing the flow of money and arms to the organization. Such a policy, in combination with giving Somalis the space they need to muddle toward their own governance structures, is the most pragmatic way forward for the international community.

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