Issue 17 - Article 13

Forgotten, not Forgiven: Somalia's Painful Transition from War to Peace

June 5, 2003
Sean Deely
11 min read

Investing in the transition from war to peace and relief to development has increasingly been advocated as the way forward in rebuilding war-torn societies. By providing opportunities for people to rebuild their lives and engage in constructive activity, the chances are greatly improved that people will be persuaded to disengage from conflict and discontinue active or passive support for war. But too often, agencies lack the institutional courage, practical expertise and financial backing to deliver on their rhetoric. As a result, they continue to do what they know best, based on what limited thinking, limited resources and limited donor support allow: quick fixes and project-driven relief programmes.

What is needed is a proactive, targeted and carefully designed approach to rehabilitation, which rewards peace, promotes a return to normality and presents concrete prospects for a conflict-free future. Agencies can use the local knowledge and understanding they have gained during the emergency phase, together with their post-emergency presence and their access to resources, to make the transition from emergency to rehabilitation programming and provide incentives for sustainable recovery. Regrettably, the noble ideals and cutting-edge developmental theories we frequently read – and write – about in project proposals, progress reports, programme evaluations and academic journals, find little foundation in the day-to-day reality of aid programming in places like Somalia.

Somalia in transition

Occasionally, this truth comes to light, only to be quickly attributed to lack of confidence in a country’s fragile stability and uncertain security situation. The security of aid workers in conflict-affected countries is of grave concern to all agencies. But in Somalia, the situation is more complex than the clichéd security pretext would have us believe. In the warring south, occasional kidnaps, together with sporadic security incidents in Puntland or Somaliland, are frequently cited as evidence that any meaningful investment or medium-term aid strategy is inappropriate. This apparently obviates the need to construct a coherent programming response for the two-thirds of the country which has been firmly on the path to recovery for most of the past five years. Meanwhile, local efforts at rehabilitation go unreported. Those images of a US Marine being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu have not been forgotten, nor Somalia forgiven.

In southern Somalia, fighting has continued since 1991. A five-clan alliance maintains a precarious peace over Mogadishu, but faces opposition from two other faction leaders with artillery in range of both the port and the airport. Also in the south, fighting between the Digil-Mirifle and Habr Gedir sub-clans escalated in mid-1999, as Ethiopia and Eritrea injected new resources into the conflict. In the north-west, Somaliland was subjected to a two-phase conflict in the 1990s: initially in the run-up to the 1991 conflict when the Somali National Movement defeated the forces of Siad Barre, and again in 1993–94, when internal fighting split the newly declared, though as yet unrecognised, republic.

By contrast, with the exception of the area south of Galcaio, security conditions in the north-eastern Puntland State and north-west Somaliland are probably better than in Kosovo or East Timor. But despite the relatively peaceful conditions and the favourable environment for development, longer-term potentials have not been systematically identified, let alone harnessed by donor countries and implementing agencies.

The situation in Puntland State

Puntland State was declared in 1998 following an announcement by the UN Political Office for Somalia that it would support peaceful regions and emerging regional administrations as the building-blocks for a peaceful and federated state. Three months of consultation, involving community elders and political leaders, preceded the declaration.

Puntland encompasses the regions of Mudug, Nugal, Bari, Sool and the eastern part of Sanaag. Although it has its own government under a president, former Somali army colonel Abdullahi Ahmed Yousef, Puntland was established as a state within what was hoped would eventually become a federal nation. Unlike Somaliland, Puntland considers itself part of Somalia.

Efforts to construct government ministries are making progress. There are currently nine: interior; social affairs (including health and education); finance; livestock and agriculture; trade and industry; religion and justice; commerce, information and culture; water and transport; and fishery and ports. However, public-sector services are minimal at best. Government income depends heavily (80–85 per cent) on customs duties, the majority of which come from Bosaso port. The remaining 15 to 20 per cent is raised through airport tax, and the licensing of motor vehicles and businesses such as restaurants. According to the Ministry of Finance, overall revenue for the first quarter of 2000 is estimated at 20.9bn Somali Shillings (SS), equivalent to US$2.09m, giving a total average income of SS83.6bn ($8.36m) in 2000.

Livestock rearing, in which the majority of the population is engaged, dominates the local economy. There is a thriving enterprise culture and informal sector. Those with sufficient means can obtain a range of medicines and services from an ever-increasing number of general practitioners (some of whom may be operating in Puntland without necessarily being qualified to do so). In Galcaio, Garoe and Bosaso, scores of building projects are under way; in Galcaio alone, 40 private construction firms are registered. Much of the large-scale investment in Puntland is financed by remittances from overseas Somalis, or by the earnings of Somalis returning after a period overseas. Investment is particularly noticeable in electricity generation, water supply, banking and telecommunications; private firms such as Galkom provide more than 1,000 of Galcaio’s 15,000 inhabitants with international telephone access (local calls are free). The Amal and Barakat banks provide financial services, maintaining a vital link for Somali diaspora remittances. Remittances amount to as much as $5–6m a month in Puntland, and $1.5m a month in Garoe alone. Although the government has yet to introduce a tax on such income, plans to levy a charge calculated on a percentage basis are being prepared.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs), mainly from the south, present both opportunities and challenges to the emerging Puntland administration. On the one hand, many are industrious, and are taking advantage of Puntland’s stability and opportunities for work and trade. In towns like Garoe, Galcaio and Bosaso, they are the driving force behind rehabilitation. On the other hand, many are destitute and vulnerable, and have had to sell their household assets. Their coping capacities have been eroded by a decade of conflict, and they need the administration’s help. Given the limited resources and enormous demands on the new government, supporting this caseload will not be an easy task.

Qat addiction is draining resources in Puntland to the tune of at least $45,000 a day. In Bosaso alone, the Ministry of Finance estimates that $10,000 is lost daily. This is a conservative estimate, since it does not take into account informal-sector trade. Young men, traumatised by war, unemployed, and with few prospects seek solace in qat chewing, which begins as early as 2pm, and typically continues late into the night. The social consequences are disastrous, affecting people’s ability to work, and even to function normally. This is a significant obstacle to any return to normal social life in Somalia.

Rewarding peace?

The relative security in north-east and north-west Somalia has allowed gradual post-conflict rehabilitation. In essence, however, this is a ‘negative peace’: unexploited, unrewarded and marked by a lack of confidence in its durability. There are at least five prerequisites to an effective response by international agencies and donors that will reward peace and make the most of the opportunity to support Somalia’s painful transition to recovery.

The first is competence. While many agencies have considerable experience in responding to emergencies, this is not necessarily complemented by equivalent expertise in reconstruction and development programming. For example, community participation as a development concept is widely advocated, but not necessarily well implemented. Moreover, the depth and breadth of the response required to constitute a meaningful approach to rehabilitation needs in a region such as Puntland, where there is little international support and limited local capacities, present enormous obstacles. Gearing activities towards a more developmental outcome will require a coordinated approach from agencies and the regional administration to clarify objectives; reach consensus; change attitudes; genuinely enable local communities; build local and institutional capacity; and ensure sustainability.

The second prerequisite is presence and legitimacy. Restrictions on expatriate staff numbers due to poor funding; limited travel opportunities to and within Somalia; and a reluctance to negotiate the relatively primitive conditions prevailing in most of the country mean that many agency staff spend less than a quarter of their time on the ground in Somalia. They have little opportunity to experience first-hand the extent to which reconstruction and recovery is under way in places like Galcaio. What local authorities and community leaders perceive as ‘remote-control’ aid programming from agencies’ Somalia offices in Nairobi has resulted in a failure to keep in touch with developments on the ground in Somalia. Vague, unsupported, second- and third-hand reports, often from questionable sources, make up a large part of the weekly and monthly ‘situation reports’ submitted by some agencies, underlining the importance of a presence on the ground in ‘assisted’ areas.

Third is knowledge. The coping capacities of communities are neither well-researched nor understood, and are often underestimated. The paucity of reliable statistics about health, social, demographic, economic and commercial conditions, particularly outside the few major urban centres, presents significant obstacles to planning medium- and long-term rehabilitation programmes. Contradictions abound in Puntland, where estimates of the population vary from 850,000 (UN Development Office for Somalia) to 2.5m (UNICEF and Puntland government figures). Even under normal conditions, accurate population figures would be hard to calculate given that around 60 per cent of the population are nomadic; in Puntland, the embryonic Ministry of Planning is without even a photocopier.

Confidence is the fourth prerequisite. Reluctance at institutional level to transfer real responsibility and control over resources to local employees, communities and officials is an oft-noted obstacle to genuine recovery planning. Communities should be recognised as the main partners in service-rehabilitation projects. Community participation ensures more effective management, and that the services provided are relevant. The aim of these projects should be to allow the communities to own, manage and support the service. A parallel aim should be to build the capacity of the emerging local and central administration to supervise and regulate services, and provide the necessary support to sustain them.

Fifth is political will among donor countries, whose memories of UNOSOM’s experience have yet to fade. While the international community has legitimate concerns as to the character of the administrations they are called upon to support, it also needs to be aware that procrastination and short-termism will in the long run undermine the very processes it is striving to establish. There is an urgent need to develop a coherent, long-term strategy that will provide consistent support to regional and local efforts to establish democratic forms of governance, and to provide services.

Towards a proactive approach

The importance of lending a hand to societies making the frequently slow, and invariably painful, transition from war to peace should be obvious, and all the more so when it is made as a result of people’s determination to restore normality in the midst of upheaval, and against the odds. A proactive approach to rehabilitation, based on providing incentives to local people to disengage from conflict and return to a normal, peaceful way of life, can identify opportunities for resettlement and recovery that can become the platform for stable peace.


Mary B. Anderson, Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace or War (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1999).

Sultan Barakat, Sean Deely, Ahmed Mohamed Hassan, Raymond Martin and Hakan Sandbladh, Health Sector Rehabilitation in the Puntland State of Somalia, unpublished report for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2000.

F. C. Cuny and V. Tanner, ‘Working with Communities to Reduce Levels of Conflict: “Spot Reconstruction”’, in Disaster Prevention and Management, vol. 4, no. 1, 1995.

Sean Deely, Lead Agency? The Role of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Post Conflict Rehabilitation, unpublished MA dissertation, University of York, 1998.

Sean Deely, Senior Officer, Disaster Policy, IFRC, Geneva; Sultan Barakat, Director, Post-War Reconstruction and Development Unit, University of York, UK.































Comments are available for logged in members only.