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Sunday 14 July 2024


Where Intimacy Makes State: Dr Matthew Gordon on the challenges facing Somaliland

26 March, 2024
Photo: Alamy via The Economist

Dr. Matthew Gordon speaks to Geeska about how Somaliland has transformed since the "republic" was declared and the dangers centralization poses to peace across the territory.


Matthew B. Gordon is a longtime researcher of Somali politics with a specialisation on Somaliland. He completed his doctorate titled “The Somaliland Social Covenant: An Experiment in Non-State Coexistence” in 2023 at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London exploring Somaliland’s unique socio-political culture. Gordan’s thesis combines the knack for detail of a sociologist with an appreciation for what theory can tell us about the world we inhabit.  

His work has shed light on the ways power is brokered in Somaliland, how clans relate to each other in a system of voluntary association, and how that has changed across the territory as it transitioned from an improvised peace-building process to a greater focus on state-building.  

This shift, he argues, undergirds many of the issues Somaliland faces today. “It has unsettled the precarious balance of the peace agreement, as certain individuals, factions, and clans are increasingly able to draw upon the power of state institutions and arms,” he tells Geeska in an interview. Gordon argues that Somaliland today finds itself at a crossroads facing “dark times.”  

President Muse Bihi, the incumbent, has spent two years in office beyond his mandate; opposition political figures are fidgeting; Hargeisa has lost control of the largest eastern city of Las Anod, and a recent memorandum of understanding with Ethiopia has polarized the public.  

Bihi, in some ways, has failed to articulate a compelling vision like his forebears who relied on innovative, non-hierarchical, and more localized forms of co-existence in Somaliland. As Somaliland centralised, Gordon explains, it simultaneously began to marginalize clans on the peripheries and became increasingly reliant on foreign patrons, “sometimes with violent consequences,” Gordon warns.  

He believes a back-to-basics approach – tapping into the region’s reservoir of built-for-purpose local solutions – might provide a robust framework to rethink modes of governance steeped in western statecraft, toward a new horizon which builds on people’s live realities. With his PhD dissertation now publicly available, he speaks to Geeska in a wide-ranging interview about his intellectual journey, current affairs in Somaliland, and how he thinks Somaliland’s “non-state co-existence” can contribute to re-imagining politics elsewhere.  


Abdiaziz Mahdi (AM): Firstly, I am intrigued by your intellectual journey and how you came to study Somaliland. Could you provide us with more insight into this topic? 

Matthew Gordon (MG): I fell into the world of Somaliland by accident. After doing a master’s degree in conflict studies, I took a job with an organisation called Independent Diplomat (ID), whose headquarters are in New York. ID supports communities such as Somaliland that have a stake in global politics but are left out of the decision-making process, by being excluded from multilateral forums such as the UN. I ended up working a lot on their Somaliland project in New York and was captivated by the nation’s story of building peace and coexistence in the absence of foreign intervention. When ID eventually needed someone to be based in Hargeisa to facilitate a better working arrangement with Somaliland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was able to seize the opportunity. That set off a three-year stint working alongside various governmental and civil society institutions in Somaliland, where I learned a lot about how governance and politics worked from the inside. I later shifted to the other side of the table and began working with international organisations on their Somaliland (and to a lesser extent Somalia) development projects, including local governance and land policy.  

Over the course of those five total years, I developed a sense that Somaliland had a story to tell that was buried beneath the existing literature, one that wasn’t a simple story of peacebuilding and state-building, but of improvised, decentralised governance that looks very different to how a state functions, yet works despite (or, rather, because of) this statelessness. It was then that I decided to pursue a PhD, where I investigated the mechanics of how Somaliland’s non-state governance operates. 


AM: Can you assist our readers in grasping the essence of your research? What are the key findings and takeaways from your work? 

MG: What I found through the year of field work I conducted in Somaliland—but which built on my prior experience observing the country as a professional—was that much of the elements simply dismissed as ‘clan politics’ or ‘traditional authority’ in Somaliland was instead a sophisticated and functional, but wholly modern, system of interclan cooperation. While Somaliland has more recently (from 2001 or so onwards) attempted to build a state on top of this system of interclan cooperation, the state is not at all what holds society together, nor does it serve as the main arbiter of political affairs. Instead, it is the terms of the peace agreements forged in Somaliland’s early transition from war that continue to guide social relations between [clan] communities. These relations, I argue, are governed by three main principles. Horizontality, that each clan engages with all others directly, without appealing to a higher authority to decide on their behalf. Second, conditional association; which means clans coexist with each other not because of any timeless sense of shared national identity, but based on the practical benefits of cooperation, which they can cease if those practical benefits no longer apply. And finally, intimacy, which involves kin relations, shared history, and face-to-face negotiation as the basis of interconnectivity between communities, rather than abstract ideas of citizenship.  

Furthermore, these relations all rely on a relative balance of power between clans in which no specific clan configuration can overpower the others, and so all sides have decided that the only way they can feel safe, secure and economically viable is through cooperation and consensus, at least to a certain degree. My research also looks at how this relationship between clan associationalism (what I call Somaliland’s Social Covenant) and the State has changed over time. Unlike the horizontal, balanced relations between clans that define the peace agreement, State politics attempts to concentrate power and authority within a small elite. This has occurred in Somaliland, and it has unsettled the precarious balance of the peace agreement, as certain individuals, factions and clans are increasingly able to draw upon the power of state institutions and arms. Much of the recent violence we have seen in Somaliland, I argue, is related to these imbalances, with the Somaliland leadership no longer feeling compelled to seek compromise and cooperation with their clan neighbours, instead relying on foreign patrons and technologies of statecraft to subordinate challengers, sometimes with violent consequences.  


AM: Numerous non-Somali academics and writers have delved into the Somali experience, often facing accusations of bias or a lack of understanding. However, I find your work standing out as distinct, as you strive to maintain objectivity. Given the controversial nature of studying something like the case of Somaliland, what sets you apart from the mainstream? Or do you perceive yourself as fitting within that characterization, to begin with? 

MG: That is a very kind assessment, although I do think that it is impossible to not be beholden to certain subjective biases, no matter how hard you try. I guess what I would say is that, unlike a lot of foreign researchers into Somaliland, especially among those from think tanks or international organisations, my biases are not linked either to crude self-interest or to making Somalis ‘governable’—i.e. making them non-threatening to the west. As a result, I have been able to move beyond overblown topics like terrorism, piracy, state failure and displacement that haunt the imagination of many western researchers and try to see Somali politics for what it is—i.e. how Somalis themselves interpret their social structures—without prejudicing my own findings by confining them to narrow themes.  

Somalis have made this slow and difficult learning process so much easier, not only by welcoming me into their lives and sharing their thoughts and stories, but also by being such a politically savvy and self-aware community, in which all conversations seem to touch upon the latest political gossip and manoeuvres. I firmly believe that all societies are best understood by a combination of insider and outsider perspectives, and that no actor has a monopoly on the truth and that collaboration between foreign and local researchers can be very mutually beneficial. The issue is that we live in a world where power and resources are distributed unevenly, so that foreign and local actors are not operating on the same footing, leading to many instances of knowledge extraction, hierarchies of status and legitimacy and distortions in the narratives that are presented. As an individual, I cannot operate outside this or fundamentally change it (in the short term at least), but I can do my best to mitigate its most corrosive effects. This means providing fair compensation for labour done in support of my project (whether interviewees or research assistants), mutually aiding Somali academics when they attempt to get things published, being accountable to my research subjects by giving them an opportunity to challenge my interpretations and generally treating knowledge production not as a zero-sum competition over whose voice gets heard above others, but as an expansive, generative process in which the more voices heard the better.   


AM: You have extensively explored the concept of “an experiment in non-state coexistence.” What does this mean? And how does this concept manifest within the context of Somaliland and the broader postcolonial Somali arena? 

MG: As described above, I believe that what has held Somaliland together and what accounts for its comparatively high levels of peace and democratic life (not only elections, but more so the freedom and autonomy felt by many political actors up until recently), is a form of coexistence founded not on the state but on clan cooperation (a ‘social covenant’). It is an “experiment” because this was not intended from the outset—no one said, ‘hey let’s build a political system where clans use nation-wide conferences led by traditional leaders to deal with all matters of justice, security and political contestation’—but emerged in an ad-hoc and creative manner as those who wanted peace used the cultural, social and political resources at their disposal to stop the violence and reintegrate society. It is only after the fact, when Somaliland’s elites were attempting to legitimise their own quest for statehood (and international recognition of that statehood), that these experiments came to be seen as nothing more than peacebuilding transitioning to state building, rather than as the creation of something completely novel and interesting. 

The erasure of this alternative, more interesting story has done a disservice to Somali politics, whether in Somaliland or amongst the broader Somali population. It has made statehood seem the answer to all problems, and has excused all the hierarchies, power distortions, violence and so on done in the name of “state building.” It treats all “statelessness” as disorder, even though Somaliland has become more violent and unstable as its central government has become stronger (and thus more unaccountable and reckless), and it has created a zero-sum relationship between Somaliland and Somalia, whose competing visions of sovereignty and territorial integrity have exacerbated divisions between communities whose realities are much more fluid, intertwined and hospitable. Through colonial and postcolonial influence of western policymakers and academics and the technocratic Somali elite, Somali political imagination and discourse has been confined mostly to discussions over what kind of state is best—unitary or federal, centralised or decentralised, “western” or hybrid—rather than taking stock of forms of cooperation and exchange that govern everyday life in the Somali territories and then building from there. Only al-Shabaab has put forth a formidable alternative, but one that is even more violent and oppressive than Somali state politics—it is maybe time for new, more peaceful postcolonial alternatives to emerge. 


AM: Some argue that Somaliland, as a political project, is currently in free fall. Your study focuses on the social covenant, its underlying principles, and the role of intimacy in the reconciliation process. After examining these intricate and interconnected intercommunal relations, where do you believe Somaliland is headed both as a political project and as an experiment in intercommunal dynamics? 

MG: It is true that the Somaliland project is facing dark times in certain regards, some of this outside of anyone’s control, such as issues related to climate change, civil war within neighbouring countries and increasing geopolitical interference in the Horn of Africa’s affairs. However, as you rightly note, the Somaliland state has increasingly undermined the intimate, interconnected relations between clan communities that has safeguarded Somaliland’s peace. Indeed, elections, elite power struggles, competition over resources and land have all polarised and divided communities, transforming a politics based around ‘clan’ (qabiil) into one based around ‘clannism’ (qabyaalad or qabiilnimo). Clan identity is now less a marker in a complex set of cooperative and conflictual histories and now more so a marker of exclusion and competition solely. We face a situation where the mutual dependence of Isaaq and non-Isaaq clans on each other is completely eroding and that the Isaaq elite are seeking to use cooperation with countries like the UAE and Ethiopia to build a narrow, rump state concentrated on its pro-independence heartland. I fear that not only will this lead to more conflict between the centre and the peripheries, but also within the Isaaq itself, as they lose the balancing moderating force of communities in Awdal, Sool and Sanaag and increasingly turn on each other without anyone to mediate. 

I think the issue of Somaliland recognition, which the recently announced memorandum of understanding with Ethiopiahas now brought front and centre, is a false dawn. It involves Somaliland trading its de facto self-governance for a chance at de jure status as a state. I personally do think that despite all my criticisms, the people of Somaliland deserve to govern themselves and should not be forced by either Mogadishu or the international community to remain as part of a failed federal Somali project. At the same time, the timing, and how Somaliland has garnered this increased possibility of recognition is one that does little justice to their cause. As Africa is increasingly abandoned by humanitarian actors, colonised by Gulf actors, and splintered by war, displacement and environmental change, the meaning of self-determination and sovereignty is becoming ever less valuable. Maybe, given the volatile and divisive time we are in, Somaliland has no choice but to make painful strategic alliances with powerful actors such as Ethiopia and the UAE, even if it means placing their fate in the hands of reckless and unaccountable actors, but it is a shame to see it happen, nevertheless. 


AM: It is widely known that Somaliland’s pursuit of statehood was a response to the Somali dictatorship, the absence of democracy and respect for human rights. However, we have witnessed a deviation from the founding ideals within the ruling elite. Where do they find themselves today considering the challenges you mention that they face? 

MG: As we see in both Israel and Somaliland, the genocidal suffering of a people does not leave them as permanent victims and that sometimes those who experience human rights abuses and oppression go on to inflict the same evils on others. I do not think this is because these communities do not learn the right lessons, or that they are hypocritical, but instead that unbridled power is seductive, intoxicating and inherently violent and conflictual. So long as the oppressed merely change places with the oppressors, rather than fundamentally transforming the hierarchies of power that distinguish the two sides, we will never move past these cycles of oppression. This is what I found so heartening and hopeful about the Somaliland Social Covenant, as it was a way to approach forgiveness and a future together that placed all sides on a morally and politically equal footing, with each side having an equivalent stake in the Somaliland project (Somaliland la wada leeyahay – A Somaliland for all). But the state does not operate on those principles, at least in practice. It creates divisions between rulers and ruled, authority and obedience, which has mapped onto clan difference to reproduce new forms of clan-based domination. The situation in Las Anod is merely the violent reckoning with the consequences of the abandonment of these forms of forgiveness and equalisation. 


AM: In conclusion, as an esteemed academic and student of political science, what lies ahead for you? Do you plan to delve deeper into this subject matter and explore related issues through further research and writing endeavours? What do we have to expect from you? 

MG: I am hoping to take my concept of the Social Covenant and build it into a broader theory of how to think about politics beyond the state. This would involve writing a book on how the lessons I learned when studying the Somaliland case could potentially be used in addressing issues of democratic backsliding, increased inequality and institutional and moral failure that characterise today’s politics across the world. I would love to collaborate with my Somali colleagues in academia, policymaking, and literature further, especially to explore even more of the insights that can be learned from Somali political history. 


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