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Gordon, Matthew (2023) The Somaliland Social Covenant: An Experiment in Non-State Coexistence. PhD thesis. SOAS University of London. DOI:

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Somaliland, which emerged from the collapse of the Somali Republic as a self-governing territory, is today considered one of Africa’s success stories, an experiment in locally-owned reconciliation and bottom-up democratisation that confounds scholars’ views of the African State. But why conceive of Somaliland as a State in the first place? This thesis presents the Somaliland experiment in a new light, shifting focus beyond administrative institutions, drawing attention instead to the continued political salience of the horizontal inter-clan reconciliation compact on which Somaliland was founded. This compact, I argue, which established regulations for coherent, equitable and stable relations between clans, was more than an intermediate peace arrangement on the way to a State, but a self-contained and selfreproducing constellation of political logics in its own right. I designate this alternative, parallel political system the ‘Somaliland Social Covenant’. Drawing on in-depth interviews and immersive observation, the thesis builds an empirical picture of the Covenant and its continued operability within Somaliland’s mainstream political culture by demonstrating its role in shaping three political controversies which captivated society between 2018 and 2019. These three cases, which cover a land dispute in El Af-weyn, a power-sharing tussle between centre and periphery, and a businessman’s fight for citizenship protections against a capricious State, provide evidence of political environment where dual, contending systems—that of the State, and that of the Social Covenant—interact with each other. The research builds a methodological framework from anarchist theory and historical sociology, which enable the reader to peer beneath the analytical confines of peacebuilding and statebuilding literature to understand the historically-situated role of the State and inter-clan relations within the Somaliland context. It highlights three features of the Covenant as determining its qualitative distinctness from the State: that of direct, horizontal relations between a plurality of actors (horizontality); the localised, contextually-embedded roots of agency and social power (intimacy); and conditional, consensus-based decisionmaking (conditional association). The primary aim of the research is to recentre the political ingenuity of Somaliland’s founding inter-clan arrangement, and to demonstrate its lasting impact on Somaliland’s peace and stability, in parallel, and often opposition, to the influence of the State. It builds this alternative account of the Covenant from the interpretive contributions of local stakeholders themselves, as captured in 299 interviews conducted during fieldwork. A secondary goal is to offer up the Social Covenant as a potential model for those seeking to ‘think beyond the state’, through demonstrating the concrete and historically proven ways in which a society can shape power relations and institutionalise political principles that promote order, political participation and non-domination without mediation through a State. In this, it does not seek to romanticise the Covenant, but merely present its strengths and weaknesses vis-à-vis the State. Lastly, it is hoped that the Covenant and its mechanisms can inspire better practice in future statebuilding and peacebuilding endeavours, offering safeguards to counteract the centralising, alienating tendencies of the (African) State.

Item Type: Theses (PhD)
SOAS Departments & Centres: SOAS Research Theses
Supervisors Name: Meera Sabaratnam, Julia Gallagher and Alastair Fraser
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):
Date Deposited: 10 Jan 2023 16:41

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