This is a guest post by Jim Sanders, a career, now retired, West Africa watcher for various federal agencies. The views expressed below are his personal views and do not reflect those of his former employers.
Somalia is clawing its way out of twenty years of war-torn chaos. Some are proposing initiatives that use innovative technology to assist in state building and recovery, but they face a struggle against Somalia’s warlord-dominated past. Many former warlords remain in power at various levels of government and civil society. This dynamic of warlord versus technology is therefore becoming a lively discussion.
In the June 2013 issue of Wired Magazine, Adam Rogers’s article “Life After Warfare: How a Digital Map Could Revive A Devastated Mogadishu,” examines urban planner Mitchell Sipus’s effort to digitally map Mogadishu. With no birth certificates, no business registrations, and no tax collection system, Sipus hopes to encode businesses, infrastructure, and people.
By creating a database for businesses and projects, Sipus’s “map could be a means to measure problems and redistribute resources.” The project “isn’t just about reinforcing city government;” it is also “about creating new markets…people have to have jobs, livelihoods.” Sipus believes that the mapping project could provide a foundation for this effort.
But there are problems. Sipus notes that “many of the local-level politicians were warlords two years ago. It’s the same people. What are they going to do if suddenly they have a map that outlines tribal distributions in the city or what markets are more successful?” Such a map could “make the city go back” to conflict as much as it could nudge it toward development and governance.
Katrina Manson’s piece, “Welcome to Mogadishu,” in the June 1-2, 2013, weekend edition of the Financial Times, deals with a similar issue. In effect, she picks up where Sipus leaves off, taking the dilemma of modernizing and democratizing warlords deeper.
Manson quotes writer Nuruddin Farah as saying that “Somalis do every possible lawless activity that will get them an extra penny…you cheat institutions but you keep your trust with persons and individuals.” In reference to this moral code, Manson argues, “that’s one reason why personal bonds shape politics.”
And so while issues of federalism and constitutionalism, staples of conventional theories of democracy, are often discussed (especially perhaps by Somalia’s foreign friends); the driving dynamics in the country do not seem to have changed much in decades. As Manson notes, “al-Shabaab is only the latest reason the country isn’t working…” With a substantial number of warlords now in parliament, yet another patronage state with a thin veneer of democracy seems to be forming. It is as yet unclear whether technologies such as digital maps of Mogadishu will aid or hinder the reconstruction of the city, and nation.