Election day is payday
Misguided external engagement in Somalia and South Sudan show it’s time to rethink political interventions
After repeated delays and massive wrangling among politicians and their supporters, Somalia finally held its parliamentary and presidential elections in May 2022. Elections in South Sudan, initially planned for 2015, have been repeatedly postponed, with the current date set for the end of 2024. Both countries have long suffered the damage of war and political fragility. At the same time, efforts on the part of international and regional actors to bring peace and stability to the region have failed. A careful analysis of political developments in both countries shows that international interventions have mostly perpetuated and even fueled the violence and political instability found in southern Somalia and South Sudan alike – something which many of the intervening actors are well aware of. Given this state of affairs, a fundamental rethink of political interventions in the region is needed.
Since the late 1960s, the dynamics of the conflict in Somalia have been influenced by the political and military strategies pursued by global or regional powers. The contexts in which this has taken place have shifted from the Cold War to more recent efforts on the part of external powers to intervene militarily and/or establish stability through peace conferences. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Somalia as a predominantly Muslim country and a so-called failed state once again became the focus of European and North American foreign policy. From 2002 to 2005, the US and its regional ally Ethiopia cooperated with Somali warlords in an effort to capture or eliminate suspected Islamist terrorists and extremists in southern Somalia. However, these measures only strengthened popular support for Muslim actors in Somali politics who, in early 2006, formed the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which included the militants of al-Shabaab as an elite force. The UIC defeated the warlords and took control of much of south-central Somalia in mid-2006. In reaction, the Ethiopian military intervened in December 2006 to expel the UIC. This intervention led to even more violence. While the UIC dispersed, al-Shabaab stayed on the ground, regrouped and soon became the strongest Somali force challenging the intervention forces and subsequent Somali governments supported by external powers. From 2009 to 2011, al-Shabaab was the de facto ruling power in south-central Somalia. Thousands of Ugandan, Burundian and Kenyan soldiers sent to Somalia as part of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) eventually managed to drive out al-Shabaab from the capital Mogadishu and other urban centers. Remaining in control of the rural hinterlands in the following ten years, the militant group enjoyed some popular legitimacy since it provided ordinary Somalis basic security and access to Islamic justice, which a series of externally supported governments in Mogadishu had failed to deliver. At the same time, forced recruitment, some heavy taxes and a harsh regime of corporal punishment based on strict interpretations of Shari’a occasionally alienated locals. In mid-2022, local resistance in central Somalia developed into a regional uprising. In early 2023, clan militias, aided by Somali soldiers, drove al-Shabaab forces from many of their positions, marking the first time in a decade that the group suffered a substantial defeat. It nonetheless continues to retaliate by attacking political and military targets, particularly in southern Somalia.
Over two decades, international actors – primarily the United Nations, but also neighboring states and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) as a regional organization of northeast Africa – have initiated several peace conferences for Somalia attempting to establish a government in Mogadishu. Foreign political and legal actors played key roles in the making of the federal constitution of Somalia in 2012, which has since served as a transitional constitution. For many years, Somali governments have been accused of misappropriating funds on a vast scale (e.g., embezzling up to 70 percent of government finances, including donor money). The indirect elections (through electoral delegates representing clans and lineages) in 2012 and 2017, held on the basis of the transitional constitution, were accompanied by allegations of positions being sold and purchased on a grand scale. Not only did money in this context come from (transnational) Somali elites, but it was channeled into the election process from Arab countries, in order to promote those countries’ geopolitical and socioeconomic interests.
The UN has been pushing for general (one person, one vote) elections since 2018, although the Somali government has little influence beyond the urban centers of southern Somalia, which is due to the fact that, until recently, al-Shabaab controlled large parts of south-central Somalia. Moreover, northern Somalia is divided into two autonomous regional states, Somaliland and Puntland, which are not accountable to the government in Mogadishu. Elections originally scheduled for February 2021 were not held as all sides failed to adequately prepare for them. In mid-2020, the government under President Abdullahi Farmajo (2017–2022), the opposition and the UN agreed to hold indirect elections. However, preparations for the elections did not proceed swiftly enough and, in February 2021, President Farmajo decreed the extension of his mandate by two years. This led to violent clashes in Mogadishu. Under UN pressure, an agreement was reached in July 2021 that parliamentary elections would be held by the end of February 2022. The constitution of the upper and the lower houses of parliament by electoral delegates took until April 2022 and was again overshadowed by a lack of transparency and allegations of corruption. On May 15, 2022, the parliamentarians elected Hassan Sheikh Mahamoud, who had already served once as Somali president (2012–2017), as their country’s new leader.
The international actors who had initiated and pushed this clearly misguided process bear partial responsibility for these conflicts surrounding elections. In an internal UN consultation in November 2021, a leading official mentioned that the elections would not improve the situation in Somalia regardless of its outcome. Others wondered aloud how the international community should deal with a future president likely to come to power through vote-rigging and who enjoys only minimal legitimacy.
It is clear that the political interventions carried out in Somalia have not facilitated the development of a stable state. None of the governments established with external help over the past decades has provided effective security for its citizens, not to mention services in the areas of education, health care or public transport. Improvements in these areas depend primarily on the Somali diaspora and humanitarian engagements.
Why are elections nevertheless being organized at great expense? “Election day is payday,” as a German employee of a non-governmental organization active in Mogadishu pointed out in January 2022. In order to continue carrying out projects in Somalia, international aid organizations need partners in the government who officially endorse their projects. Elections, even if misguided, serve to create a minimum of (external) legitimacy in this context. Against this backdrop, it is no wonder that most aid projects do not benefit the Somali population officially deemed to be “beneficiaries,” but rather the actors carrying them out and some local elites.
In South Sudan as well, external actors have been instrumental in building new state structures. Officially, South Sudan’s state formation began in 2011 with a popular referendum agreed upon as part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. This referendum showed that the vast majority of the South Sudanese population wanted independence from Sudan. On the occasion of the international recognition of South Sudan on July 9, 2011, immediately following its declaration of independence, then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared: “Like any newborn, South Sudan needs help.”
Referring to South Sudan as a child in need of help is an indication of the development paradigm of the Global North. Efforts to establish peace, stability and the rule of law are associated with parental care and are thus quasi-naturalized. External actors claim a high degree of influence and leeway in shaping state formation in South Sudan. On the ground, state-building is a rocky process that involves violent, less-violent and more peaceful phases, and is characterized by numerous broken peace agreements. A good decade of independence resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths through violence, hunger and disease, along with about 2.3 million displaced persons. Ongoing international presence and the establishment of an aid-dependent state have become the hallmarks of emerging South Sudan (similar to the situation in Somalia).
The violent negotiations over the state as a resource bluntly demonstrate that South Sudan’s fragmented authority structures and its highly militarized society are not a solid foundation on which to construct a European-style territorial state. International support is often based on flawed premises and on rather technical and static support models and templates. Under the dictum that state-building primarily involves establishing institutions that mirror (originally) European models – which certainly includes a (democratic) constitution – a political matrix was implemented that pays little regard to local conditions, such as frequently shifting political and military alliances. Without social consensus on the basic pillars of statehood, the hastily revised Interim Constitution of Southern Sudan (2005) entered into force behind closed doors as the Transitional Constitution of South Sudan (2011). The political rules it articulated are in line with international constitutional models that presuppose the existence and interplay of state institutions which, in the assumed form, however, are not present in emerging South Sudan. Redefined along local power constellations, the transitional constitution has become a powerful instrument in the hands of a small political elite. In recent years, President Salva Kiir, in office since 2011, has repeatedly made use of extensive emergency powers enshrined in the constitution. Since 2013, he has undermined the separation of powers by repeatedly replacing elected state governors with appointed “caretakers,” thereby helping to secure his own rule. Alternative ideas for a political and legal order beyond the model of the European territorial state attract hardly any attention at the international level. State-building (including formal democratization) continues to be carried out in a template-driven manner from the outside, even though the localized foreign models have already become weaponized in the hands of local rulers. The international programs convey state-centered notions of the rule of law, despite the fact that in everyday life, customary laws of the more than 60 local communities are more relevant for the people in South Sudan. The failure to incorporate local realities and concepts of statehood into planning and decision-making processes frustrates efforts to win local support and ultimately results in widespread disappointment.
While the discourse on the “newborn” from the Global South in need of external “help” persists at the international level, demands among the South Sudanese for global cooperation on equal footing are growing louder. In a powerful condemnation of international engagement practices, a prominent member of the Bar Association of South Sudan stated: “The so-called international community has become defunct in the sense that they are used to do things wrong without being corrected…. They don’t see things from another angle […] They don’t know where to start in Africa.”
There is a simple answer to the question of why external interventions fail to build stable and legitimate states in Somalia and South Sudan: They apply the wrong concepts. International actors adhere to an essentially colonial perspective that reproduces Eurocentric approaches to the rule of law and political order. This is accompanied by imperatives of care and development that are deeply rooted in a sense of superiority of the “Occident” over the “Orient.” These ideas can be traced back to philosophers such as Hegel (1770–1831) and Kant (1724–1804), who viewed pre-colonial Africa as part of the world without history and reason which, in turn, justified the colonization of Africans (considered to be children and/or servants) by law-abiding peoples.
Experiments with statehood have been conducted in Africa since the colonial era. The ideal Eurocentric image of the nation-state featuring a demarcated territory, a stable population and a government holding the legitimate monopoly on the use of force has served as the starting point and matrix. In reality, however, colonial states were geared toward the (violent) subjugation of the population and exploitation of resources for the benefit of the colonizers. This legacy has shaped the first decades of the post-colonial period and is partly responsible for the fact that many African states still only rarely work for the benefit of their populations.
It is high time we recognize imposed Western state models for what they are: historically developed Anglo-European structures whose schematic transfer and implementation elsewhere often fail in practice and more often than not generate greater instability, for example, by destroying or corrupting local forms of political and legal order. Nevertheless, the UN and many other external stakeholders continue to insist on the construction of Western-defined political and legal institutions as a panacea against war and conflict in countries such as Somalia and South Sudan. Once again, as was the case during colonial times, the main beneficiaries of such aims are the external “helpers” and some local elites.
Nonetheless, we see some evidence of awareness and understanding of the prevailing misconceptions at the international level. Already in 2004, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s report on the rule of law and transitional justice heralded a rethink: “Too often, the emphasis has been on foreign experts, foreign models and foreign-conceived solutions to the detriment of durable improvements and sustainable capacity […] We must learn better how to respect and support local ownership, local leadership.” And while these calls for decolonial thinking go back to the early 1960s, little has changed in end effect.
Somalia and South Sudan have become laboratories for external political and (sometimes) military interventions. The long-term costs of ineffectual experiments are borne by local populations. The failure of international stabilization and security policies in South Sudan and Somalia suggest that the actors concerned need to fundamentally rethink these approaches. State-centered conceptions of political and legal order as well as security would have to give way to an approach that includes non-state actors, including religious and so-called “traditional” authorities which, in many contemporary African settings, exist in a complex relationship with state actors. Decision-making processes aimed at building consensus, which are often lengthy and require sociocultural embedding, should be taken seriously. In situations of crisis, governance can also be shared; in the process, categorical claims to sovereignty must be softened.
Overall, international actors must acknowledge that constitutions, political institutions and (allegedly) free elections do not automatically establish political stability and the rule of law. Genuine political legitimacy emerges primarily from the bottom up. As demonstrated by the positive example of Somaliland – an internationally unrecognized but operational state – state formation can succeed if the local parties in a conflict can discuss peace and political reconstruction efforts without the massive interference of outside parties. In Somaliland, elders representing groups defined by patrilineal descent, former guerrilla leaders and businessmen negotiated for a decade (1991–2001), building a hybrid political structure that remains viable today. This example shows that less is more when it comes to interventions intended to provide political stability. And, given the ways in which external “care” and schematic development paradigms often frustrate efforts to create lasting stability in conflict settings, measures based on such paradigms should be discarded.
Markus Hoehne, Tabea Scharrer and Katrin Seidel are active members of the Horn of Africa Scientific Working Group (WAKHVA).
 Hoehne, M.V. and M.H. Gaas 2022: Political Islam in Somalia: From underground movements to the rise and continued resilience of Al Shabaab, in JN Bach and A Ylönen (eds.): Routledge Handbook of the Horn of Africa. London: Routledge, pp. 411-427.
 BBC 17 July 2012: Somalia anger at corruption claims in leaked UN report https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-18878272; Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 2111 (2013): Somalia (S/2014/726, 13 October 2014), p. 9.
 Bearing in mind the prevailing “clan logic,” clan and lineage elders appoint electors, who in turn elect members of the Somali parliament, which then chooses the president. Each time (2012, 2017 and 2022), around 15,000 people were involved in this process – out of a total population of around 14 million.
 The Standard 23 February 2022: Somali polls have been marred by graft and outright thuggery. https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/opinion/article/2001438404/somalia-polls-have-been-marred-by-graft-and-outright-thuggery; Haruun, I. 19 March 2022: Somalia’s Electoral Impasse. https://www.theelephant.info/features/2022/03/19/somalias-electoral-impasse/
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 See Seidel, K. 2020: Internationalised Constitution-making as Tool for Negotiating Statehood and Rule of Law: South Sudan’s and Somaliland’s Constitutional Genesis in the Context of Plural Legal (Dis-)Ordering, Habilitation thesis: 13; Seidel, K. 2019: “They cannot influence by remote control bringing money here and there”: Brief reflections on international rule-of-law engagement in emerging South Sudan. Global Cooperation Research 1(3). Centre for Global Cooperation Research, pp. 6-8.
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