Becoming Somaliland; Understanding Somalia and Somaliland

In This Review

Becoming Somaliland
By Mark Bradbury
Indiana University Press, 2008
200 pp. $22.95

Understanding Somalia and Somaliland

By Ioan Lewis
Columbia University Press, 2008
208 pp. $45.00

Somaliland provides a remarkable and mostly unreported contemporary example of nation building. A British colony that constituted an independent state for a week in 1960 before choosing to unite with a neighboring ex-Italian colony to form a single Somali state, it more recently took advantage of the collapse of that state to renew its claim to statehood, declaring independence in May 1991. Even as costly international efforts to rebuild Somalia have entirely failed, the northwest area claimed by Somaliland has emerged as peaceful and prosperous, and the new state has been legitimated by several reasonably democratic elections and relatively effective administration. This record has come even though Somaliland has received little aid from the international community, which continues to refuse to recognize its statehood. These two timely books offer useful introductions to Somaliland. Bradbury's account is the more comprehensive, providing both a history of the region and a fairly complete assessment of recent state-building efforts. Lewis, a longtime observer of Somalia, has written a shorter and more pointed account of recent events, grounded in his deep knowledge of Somali culture and history.

Both authors emphasize the clan-based logic of politics in Somalia and attribute the failure of the central Somali state to the attempt by westernized elites to impose ill-suited European systems of governance that did not encourage political collaboration among the main clans at the grass-roots level. Both also suggest that Somaliland's decision to recognize the centrality of clans and to rely on traditional clan elders to forge compromises represents a model for the reconstruction of Somalia. What will happen to Somaliland? Some in the international community appear to hold out the hope that a reconstructed Somalia will reintegrate it, perhaps in a confederal entity. Lewis concedes that possibility, but he is withering in his critique of the effectiveness of international efforts. Bradbury is far more explicit in presenting his view that Somaliland has proved it can be a viable state with real popular legitimacy and should now be recognized as such by the international community.

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