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Is “warlordism” an overlooked alternative for Somalia?

Al-Shabaab is comprised of both movers and shakers. Mostly shakers, though.

A recent gathering of Somali and international dignitaries (sans Bono; he had a thing) at a London conference has many people talking again about the future of Somalia and whether the absence of a government for the last couple decades has been the best idea (“London conference backs Somalia terror fight,” BBC News). Well, maybe ‘many people’ aren’t talking apart from that small selection of people who have the fortitude to discuss this pirate-infested, Al-Qaeda-filled, outside-army-attracting, drone-targeted, civil-war-hosting, kidnapping-economy-based, peacekeeper-nightmare-causing, separatist-loaded, famine-stricken failed state without just turning back around and going to the bar or a monastery.

Much of the country is still recovering from the terrible famine of 2011 , which was exacerbated by the difficulty of getting aid to the parts of the country under the control of Al-Shabaab, the Al Qaeda partner and offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union that controls a big chunk of southern Somalia (“OCHA Humanitarian Snapshot,” September 2011). Al-Shabaab is currently on the defensive, both politically due to their actions during the famine (and general tendency towards the crazy) and militarily due to attacks from Kenya, Ethiopia, the peacekeeping force of the African Union (ANISOM), and one plucky bunch of kids that finally worked up the nerve to overcome the odds and fight back. This has many of the 32,797 other military, political, tribal and humanitarian groups operating in the country excited about the possibility of a return to good old locally-run warlordism. If the crazy Islamists of Al-Shabaab get the boot, then maybe the outside world would screw-off and leave them alone! (Upon hearing of such a wish, the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea each chuckle and share a knowing glance, but then realize with whom they are sharing that glance, get flustered, and order new funding for rebel militias in each others’ countries and then, what the hell, send more weapons to their 3 favorite militias in Somalia because why not?)

But is warlordism really the answer? Each warlord thinks, of course, that all the other warlords should give up their gigs and let him (always a ’he’) run the whole show. And each of them is correct. Every competition is better when all the competitors drop out. Or when they are all dead. Works either way, really. And one method involves far fewer conference calls.

Warlordism often involves copious amounts of war and insufficient numbers of lords, (or at least the a-leaping kind) but what is it really? If one does serious research on warlordism (warlords themselves have little time for research), one can find arguments suggesting that an absence of a central state is not necessarily bad since “the nation-state is essentially an artificial construct. Borders were imposed by colonial rule, and the concept of statehood itself was considered a legacy of European imperialism that lacked inherent legitimacy” (“Warlordism in Comparative Perspective,” Martin). Sounds true to me. Also true, I’m sure, are some other things in that article if one were inclined to ready past the 3rd page. We do know that the formation of the modern nation state in the West was an incredibly violent and slow process and that even after the borders are set, there is often a process of adjustment involving those who disagree on the details.

A bit more serious research on warlordism also reveals this psycho. OK, wow. I mean, wow.

Anyway, if Al-Shabaab can really be marginalized, then maybe Somalia could find some new benevolent warlords to take over those bits of the country that haven’t already split off to form Puntland and Somaliland. And then the warlord arrangement could- OK OK…. I have to stop there. Reader, if you didn’t click on that psycho link above, please do. I don’t want to be the only one giving a creeped-out shudder and thinking about calling my loved ones. If that is what warlordism is all about, then I think Somalia should maybe give it a pass. I recommend a dictatorship led by Iman. Her new currency? Hugs. Or maybe the Euro.

The author is The Daily Autocrat’s new correspondent for western Mogadishu and an unabashed fan of this version of K’naan’s Wavin’ Flag. Any readers who want some actually useful thoughts on Somalia best be heading to the ICG.

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