26/08/08 (B462) New York Times / En Somalie, tout est affaire de clans ! In Somalia, it’s all about the clans (En Anglais – Info lecteur)

Analysts say West’s push for central power fails in decentralized society

Nothing seems to be able to lift Somalia’s curse of anarchy.

After 17 years, 14 transitional governments and $8 billion in foreign aid, the country is as violent, lawless – and many say hopeless – as ever.

Part of the problem, a rising number of Western academics and Somali professionals argue, is that the bulk of outside efforts have concentrated on standing up a strong central government, which may be anathema in a country where authority tends to be diffuse and clan-based.

The United Nations and donor countries are plowing millions of dollars into the Transitional Federal Government, an entity essentially created by the United Nations, with the idea of bringing order to Somalia from the top down.

But the transitional government is effectively on life support. Its presence in Mogadishu, the capital, is limited to a few blocks that are constantly shelled. It is unpopular and, by extension, weak. Its leaders are consumed by yet another round of infighting.

Ken Menkhaus, a professor at Davidson College in North Carolina who specializes in Somalia, likened the transitional government to « an hourglass, » with no professional class or civil service at its core. Instead, there are « a whole bunch of ministers at the top, a whole bunch of soldiers at the bottom and nothing in between. »

But there may be another answer: going local.

Somali intellectuals and Western academics are pushing an alternative form of government that might be better suited to Somalia’s fluid, fragmented and decentralized society. The idea, is to rebuild Somalia from the bottom up.

It is called the building-block approach. The first blocks would be small governments at the lowest levels, in villages and towns. These would be stacked to form district and regional governments. The last step would be uniting the regional governments in a loose national federation that controlled, say, currency issues and the pirate-infested shoreline but did not sideline local leaders.

« It’s the only way viable, » said Ali Doy, a Somali analyst who works closely with the United Nations. « Local government is where the actual governance is. It’s more realistic, it’s more sustainable, and it’s more secure. »

But the building-block approach has its challenges. The UN tried to encourage representative district councils in the early 1990s, but the warlords in Mogadishu felt threatened and torpedoed the effort.

There are « always going to be spoilers from the centre, » said Hassan Sheik Mohamud, the dean of a small college in Mogadishu. « Ideally, bottom-up is very good for Somalia. But the problem is the warlords. To make any government work, they have to be included, in some way. »

There are also bureaucratic realities. Western diplomats, foreign donors and the UN prefer to deal with one government, not 26.

« I don’t think the transitional government is so effective, » said Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the top UN envoy for Somalia. « But it’s what we have. »

In weekend violence, Canadian freelance journalist Amanda Lindhout and her Australian colleague, Nigel Brennan, were abducted while travelling to Elasha, some 20 kilometres south of Mogadishu, on Saturday. They remained missing yesterday.

Somali officials confirmed the pair were kidnapped along with their Somali driver and two guards, The Associated Press reports.

Lindhout, from Sylvan Lake, Alta., is a television and print reporter normally based in Baghdad.