Civil society continues to operate in Somalia under complex circumstances and with different requirements in three separate regions: Somaliland, Puntland, and South Somalia (Mogadishu). To some extent, it seems civil society is working in different countries altogether.
Civil society plays an active role in public life and has been effective in mobilizing the public through building awareness, advocating for policy reform, and, to some extent, performing service-related functions. During the country’s civil wars, aid agencies relied on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to help deliver relief to people in need in remote areas. The military ruler, Said Barre, abolished civil liberties and freedoms in Somalia in 1969, but civic space re-emerged after the collapse of the government in 1991. At the time, the country was fully destroyed and national institutions ineffective. Groups came together voluntarily to assist in delivering relief to people in need in areas such as education and health. Later, social groups, such as youth, women, and people with disabilities, advocated for their rights to be respected.
Currently, professional associations, social associations, community committees and clan committees, policy dialogue think tanks, relief organizations, and foundations exist and operate throughout Somalia. Interest groups, such as business groups supporting the political agendas of the political parties, have also had an impact, including in the election in 2017. Since 2017, a number of policy institutes and think tanks have joined Somali NGOS and have focused mostly on research, policy analysis, and public discussions. As the political situation in Somalia has become more stable, policy discussion, in particular, has become more widespread. The use of Twitter Spaces, Zoom, and other social media platforms by policy institutions has assisted policy institutes and think tanks to disseminate their findings widely and reach a larger audience.
While there has been some political progress in Somali state-building initiatives, little governance progress has been made, and security remains fragile. Civil rights activists and human rights defenders operate in a climate of fear. The risk may come from state authorities or non-state actors, such as terrorist groups in South Somalia.
Somaliland and Puntland, however, are mostly at peace, and civil rights and freedoms are generally more respected than in South Somalia. However, political repression is increasing. Specifically, there has been a rise in targeted arrests of writers, poets, activists, and journalists, several of whom have been charged with inciting instability and undermining national security.
The fact that national laws are not yet harmonized and the country is transitioning from a unitary to a federal system places pressure on civil society operations across the country. For instance, an NGO may have to undergo multiple registration processes in different regions.
The laws of the three regions include pro-unitary Somali laws enacted after independence in 1960 and still in force and pro-decentralization laws developed since 2012. South Somalia has a civil law legal system, but there are also uncodified rules that govern the country in its post-conflict state. The transition from a unitary system of governance to a federal structure has created confusion and conflict of law; any dispute on the application of the various laws may adversely affect civil liberties and NGOs.
In Somalia, it is, therefore, difficult to harmonize the legal frameworks of all sectors, including the laws governing NGO operations, across federal member states and the federal government. Since 2017, federal member states have established ministries and agencies responsible for the coordination and management of NGO work. However, the federal Parliament and federal level bodies have failed to effectively coordinate and harmonize procedures and regulations at different levels. Uncoordinated systems have forced all NGOs in Somalia to adhere to distinct internal laws created by federal member states.
At times, disagreements between the federal government and federal member states have a negative impact on NGO operations. For instance, Jubaland and the federal government disagreed over the Jubaland state election in 2019, which had a negative impact on NGO operations. The federal government went as far as restricting flights to Kismayo, which is the capital city of Jubaland.
Constitutions and Legal Frameworks
The fundamental rights and basic freedoms enshrined in the international bills of human rights, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR) are formally incorporated in the transitional national (federal) constitution of South Somalia and regional constitutions/charters. However, application of these rights is limited either by law or practice.
The national Constitution and national legislation of South Somalia are the supreme laws of the land, while Somaliland and Puntland have their own constitutions/charters, which must be in line with federal laws. Some of the legislation required by the national Constitution has been developed, while other legislation has not yet been formulated or is pending in the lawmaking process.
In general, the current overall legal frameworks provide a supportive environment for the establishment and operation of civil society and for the recognition and protection of civil liberties and fundamental rights. Nevertheless, Somalia’s draft NGO law, which would include provisions supportive of NGO operations, is still not in effect. Moreover, there are challenges with respect to implementing constitutional provisions, which undermine an otherwise legally supportive environment.