Somaliland is frequently considered an exceptional case of state-making. Having allegedly engaged in “[c]onstructing a state from scratch”, the Somali Republic’s offspring is generally judged “a good example of how fragile society can become an effective state”. According to existing literature, the polity established a functional administration, brought forth visible signs of sovereign and democratic statehood, and, despite or possibly because of the absence of significant international aid, developed accountable political institutions. Given these and other achievements, numerous policymakers and academics suggest that international recognition should be extended to this ‘little country that could’.

By Dominik Balthasar

The London School of Economics and Political Science


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Although the conundrums of why states falter, how they are reconstituted, and under what conditions war may be constitutive of state-making have received much scholarly attention, they are still hotly debated by academics and policy analysts. Advancing a novel conceptual framework and analyzing diverse Somali state trajectories between 1960 and 2010, this thesis adds to those debates both theoretically and empirically. The core issues examined are why and how Somaliland managed to establish state-run structures of governance, how far its development paralleled or diverged from past Somali state trajectories, and under what conditions violent conflict advanced or abridged the polities’ varied state-making projects.

Drawing on diverse strands of literature on state-building, nationalism, and warfare, the thesis develops an original analytical frame to better understand processes of state-making and state-breaking. It argues not only for the need of ‘bringing the nation back in’, but proposes to conceptualize state trajectories in terms of changing levels of institutional and socio-cognitive standardization. Scrutinizing received wisdom, the empirical research presented finds, amongst others, that Somali state trajectories have been less unique than commonly claimed, and proposes that Somaliland’s alleged state-making success between 1991 and 2010 hinged at least as much on autocratic governance, top-down policies and coercive means as on frequently emphasized elements of grassroots peace-making, ‘traditional’ reconciliation and ‘home-grown’ democracy.

Conceptually, the project is located at the intersection of political-economy and historical and institutional approaches to state-making. Applying qualitative research framed in comparative case studies the thesis not only advances the theoretical debate surrounding issues of state fragility and state-making but also offers novel insights into Somalia’s history and presents new empirical findings on the frequently romanticized case of Somaliland. Yet, the research results are significant beyond Somali boundaries as they provide relevant insights for our general understanding of state trajectories and the role of conflict in state-making and state-breaking.

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