Interview with Katrin Seidel about Her Work on South Sudan and Somaliland

February 26, 2021

Katrin Seidel received her Habilitation (post-doctoral qualification) from the Faculty of Law, Economics and Business at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg on 10 February 2021. Following her public lecture, she was awarded her venia legendi (teaching credentials) for legal anthropology, legal sociology, and comparative law. Her Habilitation thesis was on the topic of “Internationalised Constitution-Making as a Tool for Negotiating Statehood and Rule of Law: South Sudan’s and Somaliland’s Constitutional Genesis in the Context of Plural Legal (Dis-) Ordering”.

From late 2012 through the end of 2019 Katrin Seidel was a research fellow in the Department ‘Law & Anthropology’ of the MPI. During this period she conducted fieldwork on the Horn of Africa and examined processes of state-building and constitution-making in South Sudan and Somaliland. The results of her research are presented in her Habilitation thesis, which will soon be published in book form. We talked with Katrin Seidel about her field of study.

First of all, Katrin, congratulations on the completion of your Habilitation!
Thank you very much! I am pleased that everything went so smoothly and I can now concentrate on preparing the manuscript with my research results for publication.

Can you briefly summarize what your book is about?
I look at how local, national, and international actors in South Sudan and Somaliland engage in the process of negotiating statehood and the making of a constitution. Following many years of civil war in both countries, there was (and in South Sudan still is) no consensus about how the functioning of state and society should be configured or about what processes need to take place to work through such matters. It also requires the strengthening of political processes and participation, which can take a long time. My study focuses on the tension between international political and legal interventions and local conceptions of ownership, which emphasize that post-conflict settlements must be grounded in or reflect local social realities. Ultimately it is about self-government, local control and accountability, and the negotiation of legitimacy and participation – in other words, about the fundamental values and character of a political community. It also examines whether international efforts to promote the rule of law in conflict settings are effective in practice – that is, whether the rule of law encourages the production of societal consensus or, to the contrary, may actually hinder efforts to establish legal certainty, stability, and peace. The comparison of South Sudan and Somaliland is particularly interesting and instructive because the processes of negotiation in the two states have taken such different courses and led to very different results.

Different in what ways?
South Sudan was accepted as the 193rd member state of the United Nations only a few days after it declared independence from Sudan in July 2011. Since then, as a member of the international community, the country has received massive amounts of support from international organizations and NGOs helping to, among other things, establish legal and democratic frameworks and institutions.

Has this support been successful?
So far the results of this support fall far short of what was hoped could be achieved. The situation in South Sudan is an example of how well-intentioned efforts to create a constitution and a state according to predefined international concepts, programmes, and projects may come to nothing if there is no prior consensus about what broader societal developments should look like. As a rule, the instruments of external state or international actors are insufficiently adapted to local contexts on the ground. This approach may sometimes be able to show quick results on paper – but when applied to the concrete legal practices locally, they turn out to be ineffective or even counterproductive, because the legal reality is highly complex and external interventions fail to adequately take into account the various normative orders and the structures that support them.

What are the consequences of this failure to consider local conditions?
It creates resistance and obstacles. And local elites protect their interests not only by political means but, if necessary, by military means. The frequently invoked idea of “unity in diversity” – which is supposed to be the foundation of the newly formed sovereign state of South Sudan and is written into its transitional constitution – is in reality a matter that is still very much being negotiated. Neither top-down production of the transitional constitutional documents nor the established negotiation tables to draft a permanent constitution has succeeded in increasing the legitimacy of the state. Although recognition of the independent state was preceded by a several-year transition period following the Comprehensive Peace Agreement after the end of the Sudanese civil war in 2005, the case of South Sudan demonstrates that the recognition of sovereign status is not enough to safeguard peace and stability. On the contrary, an alternation between periods of violence and periods of relative peace is a frequent feature of state formation processes, particularly when power remains in the hands of former military actors. In addition, wealth from oil resources has enabled those in power to secure privileged positions against the resistance of marginalized political and military actors.

What are the consequences of this development in South Sudan?
In recent years there have been recurring power struggles over control of resources, violence among the fragmented political and military actors has escalated, local armed conflicts have broken out, and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. The president’s response relies increasingly on amendments to the transitional constitution, presidential decrees, and emergency laws. The international community and its envoys have repeatedly initiated and supported peace processes, constitutional negotiations, and efforts to strengthen the civil state, but at present it is impossible to say whether these arbitration efforts will produce more stability, or how long it might take.

And Somaliland? What have the state-building processes there been like?
Completely different from South Sudan. Here, too, independence was declared in 1991 after many years of civil war in northern Somalia. But unlike South Sudan, after the local guerrilla army assumed power and declared the territory to be independent from Somalia, it was not recognized as its own state by the international community. And this is still the case today. This means that Somaliland is largely isolated and must make do without assistance – not particularly good conditions for social and political reconstruction after violent conflicts. But in my study I was able to show that, particularly during the early phase of state formation, this situation actually had a stabilizing effect.

What were the advantages of this isolation?
I wouldn’t describe it as offering advantages per se, but one significant effect of the isolation was the fact that local actors had to rely on their own resources and were directly accountable to the local population. There were scarcely any international interventions, no extra financial support, and of course no external demands about rule of law or other political principles. The negotiations were successful because they depended on local conflict resolution mechanisms and had to immediately prove their effectiveness. As a result, after nearly a decade of negotiation, the discussions about the political foundations of the country resulted in a constitution. It was adopted following a popular referendum in 2001 and remains in effect to this day. The political order of Somaliland thus has substantially greater legitimacy than the governance structures that have so far been established in South Sudan.

And the military was willing to simply give up its power?
It was not quite like that. But yes, one remarkable feature of the state- and constitution-making processes in Somaliland is the fact that the former armed Somali National Movement handed over its power in 1993 to civilian political actors. The guerrilla army responded to internal fragmentation and pressure from the population and gave up its claims to rule in the name of peace. Somaliland’s isolation surely contributed to this development, since it meant that would-be leaders could not rely on external support to seize power against the will of the people. It’s true that even under the civilian government there were renewed armed conflicts in 1994 and 1995, but these were settled largely by means of local mediation processes. Somaliland is one of the few cases in postcolonial Africa in which the leaders of a successful independence movement gave up power of their own volition – and even did so quite quickly, within two years after declaring independence.

But the isolation surely does not offer particularly rosy prospects over the long term.
That is true. The isolation is a source of significant discontent, particularly among young people who feel trapped and feel that their options for socioeconomic advancement are very limited. Today, external support in the form of loans for development measures and infrastructure projects would be welcomed by many Somalilanders. Recent years have seen the initiation of some cooperation projects, but never to the degree that would happen if Somaliland had been granted international recognition. And politically active women feel that the lack of international support has limited their success in advocating for their interests. Traditional patriarchal structures were able to prevail from the very beginning of the constitution-making process. This would probably have turned out rather differently if there had been more international legal and political pressure.

You conducted extended fieldwork multiple times in the Horn of Africa between 2013 and 2017. How risky was it to travel to a region embroiled in civil war?
It is not easy to move around an area like South Sudan where violence and danger is an everyday experience. A crucial factor in being able to ensure my safety was the advice provided by local contacts and colleagues. The reliability of my contacts was invaluable and I was able to draw on a stable informational network. But of course, it is never possible to anticipate all possible eventualities. There is always a certain degree of risk; it’s unavoidable. I am not sure whether or to what degree I would have been able to conduct the fieldwork in these challenging environments without the continuous support of my contacts, for which I am deeply grateful.

And your conversation partners? How was their safety maintained?
Concern about the safety of my contacts and interlocutors was an additional factor that guided my actions. For instance, I could leave the country at any time – the local residents could not. The political situation necessitated extreme care and discretion when arranging access to the field site. Managing their safety and my own, and protecting the data, confidentiality, and anonymity of some of my informants required a lot of flexibility, adaptability, and learning by doing. Emotionally it wasn’t always easy to deal with the constant uncertainty and lack of security.

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