The Politics of States and Nations

Members of the Somali Parliament Meet at the Mogadishu Airport.

Members of the Somali Parliament Meet at the Mogadishu Airport.

Monday marked the first official meeting of the Somali Parliament in more than two decades. The new parliament replaces the internationally-backed transition government, which had been forced to meet in neighboring Kenya due to political unrest in Somalia. The new parliament is not necessary a democratic institution. Its members were selected by clan chiefs and tribal leaders under rules laid out by international observers. It is hoped that the new institution will be more stable and less vulnerable to corruption than previous governments.

The status of the Somali government does raise some interesting questions, illustrating the challenges of understanding states, nations, governments, and sovereignty in global politics. Recall that in international relations, a state is normally defined as a territorial entity with both a population and a government. Ideally, that government should possess sovereign control (supreme decision making authority) and a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within that physical territory. Canada, the United States, and China are all examples. Each has a government capable of making legitimate and binding decisions for a population in a given territory.

However, in many cases, the ability of the state to make such decisions becomes less clear. In the case of Somalia, for example, the internationally-recognized government was not even able to operate within the boundaries of the country. Its authority was contested by warlords and pirates, who claimed supremacy over specific regions of the country. Even today, the reach of the Somali government is largely confined to the capital, Mogadishu, and the ability of the government to enforce its decisions is contingent on the African Union peacekeeping forces in the country.

This illustrates the contested nature of sovereignty in global politics. While the formal defining of sovereignty is easy to state in theory, its application in practice becomes much less clear.

Nevertheless, the fact that the Somali government is able to meet in Somalia at all is a clear indication of progress. For too long, the country has effectively been lawless, leading to domestic conflict between warlords and international tensions as pirates attack international shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden.

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