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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Africa > Horn of Africa > Somalia > Somalia: The Trouble with Puntland

Somalia: The Trouble with Puntland

Africa Briefing N°64 12 Aug 2009


The semi-autonomous north-eastern Somali region of Puntland, once touted as a success of the “building blocks” approach to reestablishing national stability and widely viewed as one of the most prosperous parts of Somalia, is experiencing a three-year rise in insecurity and political tension. At its roots are poor governance and a collapse of the intra-clan cohesion and pan-Darood solidarity that led to its creation in 1998. Intra-Darood friction has eroded the consensual style of politics that once underpinned a relative stability. The piracy problem is a dramatic symptom of deeper problems that, left untreated, could lead to Puntland’s disintegration or overthrow by an underground militant Islamist movement. A solution to the security threat requires the Puntland government to institute reforms that would make it more transparent and inclusive of all clans living within the region.

Puntland’s founding a decade ago was an ambitious experiment to create from the bottom up a polity that might ultimately offer a template for replication in the rest of the country, especially the war-scarred south. But Puntland is no longer a shining example, and its regime is in dire straits, with most of the blame resting squarely on the political leadership. In a major shift from the traditional unionist position officially adopted in 1998, an important segment of the Majerten elite is pushing for secession. If a wide variety of grievances are not urgently tackled in a comprehensive manner, the consequences could be severe for the whole of Somalia and the Horn of Africa.

The new president, Abdirahman Farole, and his government promise many reforms and say they will eradicate piracy in “a matter of months”. Since the beginning of April 2009, there has been a crackdown on the gangs; a few members have been put on trial and sentenced to long jail terms; and the security forces have raided suspected hideouts. These measures alone are likely not enough, however, to cope with an entrenched criminal enterprise. Criminal gangs in Puntland are involved not only in piracy, but also in other illicit activities, including arms trafficking, kidnapping and the smuggling of both people and contraband. There is evidence of state complicity, and doubts remain that the government has the political will to move against the powerful gangs, since that could spark fighting between sub-clans. Officials know this and are prioritising what they call a wa’yigelin (sensitisation campaign) rather than use of force.

Clan elders and clerics are talking to youth groups in coastal villages about the immorality and dangers of piracy, but the practice is widely tolerated and even described as a response to the “plunder” of Somalia’s marine resources and the reported dumping of toxic waste on its shores. Youth unemployment, poverty and worsening living conditions fuel the problem.

The government must take advantage of the piracy-driven international attention to mobilise funds and expertise to carry out comprehensive political, economic and institutional reforms that address the fundamental problems of poor governance, corruption, unemployment and the grinding poverty in coastal villages. The international community needs to refocus on the long-term measures without which there can be no sustainable end to that practice or true stability. Equipping and training a small coast guard is obviously a necessary investment, but so too are other steps, such as to improve the general welfare and help impoverished fishing communities. International partners should encourage and support the government of Puntland to do the following:

  • suspend implementation of the new constitution and redraft it in a more inclusive process involving consultation with civil society and key clan stakeholders, as well as expert help to meet international standards;
  • draw up and implement a credible security sector reform strategy with input from domestic stakeholders and foreign experts, key elements of which should include civilian oversight and professionalisation of the state security agencies, and recast the general amnesty for pirates who surrender so leaders and their financial backers do not have impunity to enjoy their profits;
  • implement comprehensive electoral reform, including an independent electoral commission whose members come from all clans, are endorsed by the elders and parliament and enjoy secure tenure and autonomy; an independent cross-clan committee of experts to redraw parliamentary boundaries; and a special court to handle election petitions and arbitrate disputes;
  • set up an independent anti-corruption authority competent to investigate and prosecute officials;
  • open serious talks with Somaliland, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and clan elders in the Sool and Sanaag regions, and if necessary seek external arbitration to determine the final status and ownership of the disputed territories; and
  • build consensus around these measures by convening a region-wide conference of clan elders, political leaders and civil society groups, modelled on the 1998 Garowe Conference that launched the Puntland experiment.

Nairobi/Brussels, 12 August 2009

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