The Warsan

Is there an antidote for Somalia’s Federalism?

By Absiwali M. Sayid

In order to have a consensus on Somalia’s national issues, finding a legitimate and robust government is crucial for tackling challenges and the negative impact of the global geopolitical rivalry

Besides numerous daunting challenges, Somalis have been struggling with establishing an effectively functioning federal system for almost 20 years. The relations between the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) and its member states are invariably tumultuous; thus, instead of integrating and cooperating on matters of importance, mutual suspicion is the norm. The FGS administration spends unnecessary resources and energy to contain the dissident Federal Member States (FMS), while the FMS, in conflict with the FGS, fortify defenses to protect themself from what they consider an encroachment. Let alone the constant disputes between the FGS and FMS; there are a plethora of socio-political hurdles within each state, which appear in the form of power struggles among the local political actors. Based on the hard-earned lessons, it is time to discover a useable federal system.


Federalism is a hierarchical system of government under which at least two levels of government exercise a range of control over the same geographic area. The system is complex in nature. Unlike the centralized government, it involves federal and state levels with exclusive and concurrent powers. As a result of the overlapping authorities, inter-governmental conflicts are commonplace even in the most developed countries, albeit with mild effects on the institutions’ work. Like any other system of governance, the federal system has pros and cons. On one side, the system divides the sovereignty of a nation with prospects of unending conflicts, while on the other hand, it could be a bulwark against dictatorship through the creation of a balance of powers.; also, when well-designed, the federal system can be a tool for the entrenchment of justice in sharing resources and power.

Given the homogeneity of the Somalis besides the prevailing mistrust, at least on the political side, a middle ground between loose federalism and a centralized state will be indispensable. Whereas a centralized state is not a plausible option for the time being due to understandable factors, on the other hand, loose federalism or “functional federalism” in which member states are stronger at the national government’s expense certainly will lead to a dysfunctional structure. That cannot deal with the tremendous challenges that face the Somali people who are yearning for sustainable peace and prosperity. In addition to that, such a system puts national unity in jeopardy.

Cooperative federalism

Cooperative federalism, a system interconnecting the national government and its member states, is the most viable and effective option for Somalia’s post-conflict situation. It is a constitutional arrangement that recognizes the existence of at least two layers of governance. Although the exclusive jurisdictions for each, they share power in many areas and work together to solve problems. Under such a system, the constitution grants the national government broader legislative authorities, where states will be responsible for implementing the laws and policies set by the federal government; hence, the member states are accountable to the center.

As a devolution approach, cooperative federalism is used by developed countries such as Germany and the United States of America. In Germany, the federal government has the legislative authority and states implement the federal government’s directives per each state’s local context. Likewise, since the 1930s, cooperative federalism has been the norm in the U.S. It came with the New Deal Initiative brought by then-president Franklin Roosevelt and unleashed sweeping federal-state cooperative policies to contain the havoc of the great depression. Since then, cooperative federalism continued to be the standard in the U.S. throughout World War II and the Cold War.


Admittedly, the warlords were the only political power at the scene when the current federal system was embraced during the reconciliation conference in Kenya. The voice of the Somali intellectuals from the civil society and academia that could have been impactful was intentionally excluded. Therefore, a considerable number of people are not satisfied with the idea of dividing the country into clan fiefdoms euphemistically labeled federal member states. Based on that moral dilemma, cooperative federalism will have a dual function; it will appease the aspirations of the elites promoting the federal system. At the same time, the system will mitigate the legitimate concerns of those on the opposite and yearning for a strong Somalia.

Cooperative federalism coincides partially with the ethos of the current provisional constitution. Article 52 states that “the Federal Government and FMS governments shall ensure that meetings between the Presidents of the FMS and high ranking officials be held regularly to discuss issues that affect their territories, including water resources, agriculture, animal husbandry, pasture and forestry, the prevention of erosion and the protection of the environment, health, education, relations and dialogue amongst traditional leaders, and the protection and development of traditional law, relations amongst religious scholars and youth.”. Also, Article 111f orders the establishment of commissions to facilitate inter-governmental workflow. It states that “inter-state commissions shall be composed of members appointed by the Prime Minister and at least an equal number of members appointed by each government of the FMS.”

Indeed, after a quarter century of a slow political process, Somalia cannot afford a sort of a federal system that segments the country, makes the national government impotent, and throws it into a narrow space. Dividing a nation that has already been divided does not safeguard from a dictatorship similar to one that led to the collapse in 1991; contrary, such a system only prolongs the confusion and mayhem. Hence, one way or another, dictatorship will recreate itself from the ashes of chaos. Those who peddle such kind of a disastrous system on the bases of preventing the re-emergence of a dictatorial regime are not more than self-centered individuals going behind parochial interests. A fair system could be based on inclusive, accountable institutions that deliver service to the disadvantaged majority, not for the good of the glutted political entrepreneurs.

Because the mindset plays a pivotal role in any system’s success, the political leaders and the public should first abandon the half-hearted acceptance of federalism; this necessitates the conclusion of the protracted process of the federal constitution within the shortest time. Establishing the independent commissions stipulated by the provisional constitution, such as; the Interstate Commission, Judicial Service Commission, Truth, and Reconciliation Commission, and Boundaries and Federation Commission, will be too helpful. It is sad to say that after nearly two decades since the adoption of the system, the vast majority of Somalis are misinformed about not only federalism but also other systems of governance. So, there is an urgent need for a civic education campaign about the nature and essence of the federal system.

Certainly, finding a legitimate and robust national government is vital to tackle the grinding multifaceted hardships from politics and security to the economy and livelihoods and the negative impact of the unfolding global geopolitical rivalry. Thus, to create the atmosphere that leads to a consensus on Somalia’s national issues, it is indispensable to have political leadership that combines farsightedness, pragmatism, and dynamism.

About the author
Researcher at East Africa Association for Research and Development (DAD)

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