Stateless in Somalia

open quoteWere there such a category, Somalia would hold a place in Guinness World Records as the country with the longest absence of a functioning central government. When the Somalis dismantled their government in 1991 and returned to their precolonial political status, the expectation was that chaos would result — and that, of course, would be the politically correct thing to expect.

Imagine if it were otherwise. Imagine any part of the globe not being dominated by a central government and the people there surviving, even prospering. If such were to happen and the idea spread to other parts of Africa or other parts of the world, the mystique of the necessity of the state might be irreparably damaged, and many politicians and bureaucrats might find themselves walking about looking for work.

If the expectation was that Somalia would plunge into an abyss of chaos, what is the reality? A number of recent studies address this question, including one by economist Peter Leeson drawing on statistical data from the United Nations Development Project, World Bank, CIA, and World Health Organization. Comparing the last five years under the central government (1985–1990) with the most recent five years of anarchy (2000–2005), Leeson finds these welfare changes:

* Life expectancy increased from 46 to 48.5 years. This is a poor expectancy as compared with developed countries. But in any measurement of welfare, what is important to observe is not where a population stands at a given time, but what is the trend. Is the trend positive, or is it the reverse?
* Number of one-year-olds fully immunized against measles rose from 30 to 40 percent.
* Number of physicians per 100,000 population rose from 3.4 to 4.
* Number of infants with low birth weight fell from 16 per thousand to 0.3 — almost none.
* Infant mortality per 1,000 births fell from 152 to 114.9.
* Maternal mortality per 100,000 births fell from 1,600 to 1,100.
* Percent of population with access to sanitation rose from 18 to 26.
* Percent of population with access to at least one health facility rose from 28 to 54.8.
* Percent of population in extreme poverty (i.e., less than $1 per day) fell from 60 to 43.2.
* Radios per thousand population rose from 4 to 98.5.
* Telephones per thousand population rose from 1.9 to 14.9.
* TVs per 1,000 population rose from 1.2 to 3.7.
* Fatalities due to measles fell from 8,000 to 5,600.

Another even more comprehensive study published last year by Benjamin Powell of the Independent Institute, concludes: “We find that Somalia’s living standards have improved generally … not just in absolute terms, but also relative to other African countries since the collapse of the Somali central government.”

Somalia’s pastoral economy is now stronger than that of either neighboring Kenya or Ethiopia. It is the largest exporter of livestock of any East African country. Telecommunications have burgeoned in Somalia; a call from a mobile phone is cheaper in Somalia than anywhere else in Africa. A small number of international investors are finding that the level of security of property and contract in Somalia warrants doing business there. Among these companies are Dole, BBC, the courier DHL, British Airways, General Motors, and Coca Cola, which recently opened a large bottling plant in Mogadishu. A 5-star Ambassador Hotel is operating in Hargeisa, and three new universities are fully functional: Amoud University (1997) in Borama, and Mogadishu University (1997), and University of Benadir (2002) in Mogadishu.

The Call to “Establish Democracy”

All of this is terribly politically incorrect for the reason I suggested. Consequently, the United Nations has by now spent well over two billion dollars attempting to re-establish a central government in Somalia.close quote (Read more from


open quoteSomalia is in the news again. Rival gangs are shooting each other, and why? The reason is always the same: the prospect that the weak-to-invisible transitional government in Mogadishu will become a real government with actual power.

The media invariably describe this prospect as a “hope.” But it’s a strange hope that is accompanied by violence and dread throughout the country. Somalia has done very well for itself in the 15 years since its government was eliminated. The future of peace and prosperity there depends in part on keeping one from forming.

As even the CIA factbook admits:

“Despite the seeming anarchy, Somalia’s service sector has managed to survive and grow. Telecommunication firms provide wireless services in most major cities and offer the lowest international call rates on the continent. In the absence of a formal banking sector, money exchange services have sprouted throughout the country, handling between $500 million and $1 billion in remittances annually. Mogadishu’s main market offers a variety of goods from food to the newest electronic gadgets. Hotels continue to operate, and militias provide security.”

To understand more about the country without a government, turn to The Law of the Somalis, written by Michael van Notten (1933-2002) and edited by Spencer Heath MacCallum, sheds light on the little known Somali law, culture and economic situation. Somalia is often cited as an example of a stateless society where chaos is the “rule” and warlords are aplenty.

The BBC’s country profile of Somalia sums up this view as widely publicized by the mainstream media: “Somalia has been without an effective central government since President Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. Fighting between rival warlords and an inability to deal with famine and disease led to the deaths of up to one million people.”

The first sentence is indeed true: when the president was driven out by opposing clans in 1991, the government disintegrated. The second sentence, however, depicts Somalia as a lawless country in disorder. As for disorder, Van Notten quotes authorities to the effect that Somalia’s telecommunications are the best in Africa, its herding economy is stronger than that of either of its neighbors, Kenya or Ethiopia, and that since the demise of the central government, the Somali shilling has become far more stable in world currency markets, while exports have quintupled.

As for Somalia being lawless, Van Notten, a Dutch lawyer who married into the Samaron Clan and lived the last dozen years of his life with them, specifically challenges that portrayal. He explains that Somalia is a country based on customary law. The traditional Somali system of law and politics, he contends, is capable of maintaining a peaceful society and guiding the Somalis to prosperity. Moreover, efforts to re-establish a central government or impose democracy on the people are incompatible with the customary law.

Van Notten distinguishes between the four meanings of the word “law” — statutory, contractual, customary, and natural law. The common misunderstanding is that legitimate rules only come from formally established entities and that therefore a country without a legislature is lawless. Refuting that misunderstanding, van Notten explains that a perfectly orderly and peaceful country can exist when people respect property rights and honor their contracts. While natural laws denote peace, liberty, and friendly relations, statutory laws represent commands. Statutory laws reflect the preferences of legislators, who impose “morality” on those they govern and regulate their ability to voluntarily enter into contracts. This, according to van Notten, is wrong from the standpoint of both morality and law.close quote (Read more from

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