Post-conflict Somaliland: the commercial factor in state building practices and territorial integration. An ethnography of commercial routes

As elsewhere in the Horn of Africa, Somali social and political panorama is undergoing complex changes, under the pressure of the last decades of war and instability. Conflicts are producing new political projects and a general reconfiguration of state structures, boundaries included, as well as of territories, identities and subjectivities.
With respect to this, Somaliland has followed a very specific trajectory. It has declared itself independent from the rest of the country early in 1991 and has since proceeded along a road of internal pacification and institutional re-building which has eventually led to the full reinstatement of state institutions. Yet, some issues have remained unresolved: the new polity is not internationally recognized and is still involved in an intricate border dispute. Furthermore, it has got a very limited financial strength. For this reason, social political and economical dynamics often by-pass the State itself and follow autonomous pathways. State building intersects and is accompanied by the strengthening of both competing and collaborating forms of power and social forces within a plural political arena. The emerging equilibriums reside upon such junctions.
Purpose of this research project on post-conflict Somaliland is to focus on such social forces and forms of power nowadays pivotal in shaping groups and collective identities.
In particular, among such forces (descent and genealogy, nation and state, traditional authority, diaspora, development aid, etc.), I will concentrate on the “commercial factor”.
With this expression, I refer to the social and political relevance of the economic circuits and networks which link Somaliland with Gulf and Arabic States (namely Dubai as well as Yemen and Saudi Arabia).
On a broad perspective, this link represents a long term historical relationship with the Arabic peninsula involving cultural, religious and economic exchanges (the “Arab factor” in Somali history stressed by A.A. Hersi) and it corresponds to an historical role of northern Somalia: being the economic interface between Arabic region, Ethiopia and Eastern Africa. Economic exchanges – labour migration, export of livestock vs. import of food and goods, remittances – became particularly relevant in the 20th century in correspondence with the Gulf’s oil boom and had a significant role in effecting local social change.
In the 1980s, against the central state predatory attitudes and violent repression, commercial networks represented a sort of parallel and “shelter” economy, on which a parallel political organization and community was equally built. In such a way they played a pivotal role in the northern struggle to oust the central regime.
Nowadays the commercial exchanges represent the pillar of local economy. Besides diaspora’s remittances and development aid, the quite impressive economic development currently underway in some Somaliland regions (actually those along the commercial routes) stems from this trade. Import of goods from the Gulf (building materials, electronics, clothes) has actually become a booming activity capable of sustaining the bone of local economic activity.
Though a clear emphasis has been given to the role of the so-called private sector in the reconstruction and social stabilization of Somaliland, its articulation within the current social and political dynamics and the extra-economic relevance of the connections with the Gulf have not been highlighted yet. My hypothesis is that focusing on such a linkage may give original insights on the dynamics of creation of the new political territory (Somaliland) and on the shaping of collective identities and authority positions both within state politics and the tribal realm.
Besides economic relevance, such networks convey in fact other kinds of transformation. Economic circuits for instance develop a specific integration of points and places on the ground or support urban growth, thus transforming territory and social landscape. Their protection and the control of important centers along these routes represent a lively issue. As transnational corridors, such routes reveal the way by which international linkages contribute to shape the local panorama. Insofar as such circuits are embedded in a frame of social and kinship networks which facilitate and regulate the exchanges and wherein redistribution occurs, they also play a role in shaping the same social groups dynamics and power positions.
Commercial networks and routes thus can potentially illuminate various key issues related to the Somaliland present evolution.
The analysis may further address broader issues: had and have such networks a “political” role in producing a local order? To what extent these networks and circuits may represent the material bases of the Somaliland national claims? Which relationships does Somaliland have with surrounding states and is the picture of Somaliland as an emerging entrepôt-area or buffer zone correct?
In sum, major topics to be dealt with will regard (1) the production of a specific territory; (2) the shift from economic accumulation to other fields: social, symbolical and political; (3) the forms of social redistribution of wealth and their relevance to the integration of social identities and social groups; (4) the construction of social and political relationships.
On the empirical level the focus on trading networks leads to the development of an ethnography of commercial routes, considered in their physical dimension (a road; the villages along the road, trucks drivers etc.) as well as a transit of goods, people, social values, behavioural patterns etc. In this respect a road is a scarce resource, a geo-political project, an opportunity for many, a cultural transformation and many other things.
The analytical tools which will be employed range from anthropology of space, reflections on social landscape and material culture, theories of value and of social and economic exchange, social networks. As a final result the research should provide an in-depth reflection upon the intersections between economic networks – space/territory – social and political identities.

Go to Editor View