After two decades of political mayhem, Somalis and more perspicacious foreign diplomats are intensely sceptical about high-level conferences. Many approach the London Conference on Somalia on 23 February with muted hopes of any political advance and say that its most important contribution will be to raise the profile of Somalia’s internal political and social crisis, plagued by intermittent conflict and chronic food shortage.
British Prime Minister David Cameron and his Foreign Secretary William Hague have evidently succeeded on the promotion front. Thanks to the Foreign Office’s invitations to Arab countries, it is the first big Somalia meeting in which several Muslim states are seriously involved.
The challenge to the London conference will be to go beyond the recent International Contact Group (ICG) on Somalia or the United Nations Security Council. Both those meetings endorsed policies decided elsewhere and seemed unable to assess why those policies are not working. Delegates in London could start the search for a strategy. Announced by Cameron in late November 2011, the London Conference was supposed to offer fresh thinking on Somalia’s current political dynamics. It promised to broaden the international representation in efforts to tackle Somalia’s crisis and to strengthen the role of the UN there. Central to that is Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG), veteran Tanzanian diplomat Augustine Philip Mahiga.
Mahiga has held the fort in difficult times but is reticent about spelling out any vision of an eventual solution. He may take comfort from the support he receives from the East African Community but he is prisoner of a dysfunctional UN Political Office on Somalia. UNPOS suffers from internal inefficiencies and rivalries, we hear. The Deputy SRSG, Austrian diplomat Christian Manahl (who worked in Congo-Kinshasa and Sudan), attempted reform but was outmanoeuvred and recently recalled to UN headquarters in New York, says a diplomatic source.
The UN Office is also obliged to pursue a political strategy that cannot survive the end of the transition period, when the writ of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) ends on 23 August. What happens after that should – but may not – be central to discussions in London. Neither UNPOS nor the SRSG have spelled out how the future institutions might work nor have they publicly identified the emerging leaders who could manage the political transition.
The dual-track approach
There seems to be a deep ambiguity about the ‘dual-track’ approach in Somalia. Pushed strongly by the United States, it involves recognising the so-called central authority of the TFG in Mogadishu but also showing a willingness to work with the local and regional entities in Somaliland and Puntland. Although the devolved authority of those two entities is widely accepted, UN officials have been slow to engage with them. It is diplomatically delicate: Somaliland is petitioning the UN for statehood but cannot get the African Union to recognise it, despite open support from South Africa and Ghana, and covert support from Ethiopia.
Most critically, the UNPOS lacks a political strategy to confront the Haraka al Shabaab al Mujahideen and translate recent military advances into political gains. Nor has it got a clear policy toward the encroachment of Kenya’s and Ethiopia’s armies in Somalia. Neither Nairobi nor Addis Ababa saw fit to tell the UN that they were sending their armies into Somalia, and have no interest in coordinating their plans with the UN.
The London Conference is not going to change any of that. The draft final communiqué, we understand, is nearly identical in substance to that of the ICG meeting in Djibouti on 5-6 February. The Conference appears to have been prompted by concern over the recent famine in Somalia and the Horn of Africa and by worry about the radicalisation of one of Somalia’s largest diaspora communities just before the Olympic Games in July. The Conference lacked the preparatory groundwork needed to generate a new direction for international policy on Somalia, say its diplomatic critics. As Africa Confidential went to press, the 53 delegations expected will discuss the future of Somalia up to August, with little idea of what is to happen afterwards.
There is no strategy on how to confront Al Shabaab beyond the usual military and security policies. This includes a proposal to raise the number of troops in the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) to 17,000. Nothing has been said about the unhealthy polarisation between the West and the Muslim countries (Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates) which are being put forward as new sources of funding. They complain they are under pressure to endorse strategic priorities that favour Ethiopia and the USA.
Although the preparatory meetings may not produce a groundbreaking conference, they did table important issues and obliged states to make their positions clear. The most striking example was the debate on Al Shabaab. Qatar, Turkey, the UAE and Scandinavian countries favoured engagement, and Britain and some other European countries looked interested. The USA, however, firmly opposed any further discussion of the idea, with strong backing from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD, where Ethiopia has great influence). As has happened before, Britain immediately lost interest and the debate closed. Therefore, countries such as Qatar (which has been accused by UN investigators of covertly arming Al Shabaab via Eritrea) may be moving towards negotiation but in the absence of any international framework.
The announcement of a conference in Istanbul in June to focus on development issues is a small consolation prize for interested Muslim governments. It risks being as irrelevant as the spring 2009 conference organised by the then SRSG, Ahmedou Ould Abdallah. Conferees were planning the reconstruction of Mogadishu in a five-star hotel in Istanbul as bloody war blazed in the Somali capital.
As daily clashes demonstrate, security in Mogadishu and towns liberated from Al Shabaab may not improve enough to allow ambitious reconstruction. The timing is also problematic. Western states, led by the US and Britain, seem to be rerunning their policies of early 2007 when they celebrated the Ethiopian intervention and the return of the TFG to Mogadishu. Then, Western states were not inclined to consolidate the TFG’s return with the economic help which might have provided it with a sliver of legitimacy. If progress is to be made, the population needs to see quickly that economic benefits will follow any defeat of Al Shabaab. Complex institutional and political developments will not enthuse Somalis: after two decades of mayhem, they want financing for schools and clinics, as well as jobs.
After Al Shabaab
At the preparatory meetings for London, Amisom’s recent military successes were celebrated but European diplomats did not hide their concern that there was no credible plan to fill a political vacuum left by a defeated Al Shabaab. The expansion of Amisom may result in more targets for the enemy than in more security, as in Afghanistan.
IGAD countries have already divided south-central Somalia into zones of influence with little consideration for history or Somali views: military planners do not factor in such niceties. Kenya will hold sway over Lower and Middle Juba, where the Ogaden clan is dominant, as it is in Kenyan Somali politics. Gedo is associated with Bay and Bakool and would constitute the best possible buffer zone for Ethiopia. Apart from Beled Weyne, which is currently allocated to Amisom’s Djiboutian contingent, the least warlike of them, the Central Region will not benefit from an increased Amisom presence.
The proxy forces there get substantial support from Ethiopian and Western security services. Kenyan troops’ inability to take over Kismayo or even Afmadow, plus the many clashes in Beled Weyne, could encourage a fight-back by Al Shabaab. If it successfully takes on the Kenyan and Ethiopian forces, together with their local proxies, Al Shabaab could regain some of the popular support it has lost.
As for the TFG, the sole option offered for discussion is a new constitution. In any other country, the presence of four foreign armies, an ongoing civil war and the lack of a legitimate government – many see the TFG as a gang of looters – would not be the best moment for a highly polarised population to discuss a constitution. The SRSG and UNPOS downplay such limitations. Yet the institutional framework limits interaction with any Somali actors apart from the TFG. The question of who will enforce this new dispensation is unresolved, too. By making the constitution the only option available, the international community risks becoming hostage, again, to a chaotic constitutional process that cannot succeed in such a short time. This will also offer new opportunities to Islamist militants.
The London Conference will announce sanctions against spoilers intent on derailing the processes and corrupt officials. This is likely to fail and will trigger anger in Somalia, since the main targets are the more than 300 members of parliament who sacked the Speaker, Sharif Hasan Sheikh Adan, last December, although UNPOS still invites him to all international gatherings.
For years, the international community has threatened to take action against corrupt TFG ministers and MPs. None have ever come before a court although many pay tens of thousands of US dollars into their bank accounts in Western countries (especially Britain and the US) and buy property. Some of the spoilers may not be Somali but regional states. While IGAD presented itself as unified in the preparatory meetings, beyond the 1964 mutual Defence Pact against any Somali aggression, Ethiopia and Kenya do not share the same view of solutions. Will other governments sanction Addis Ababa or Nairobi because they put their own clients in charge in their ‘liberated areas’ instead of genuinely local representatives?
The Somaliland government is invited but will face bitter criticism if its delegates return with the usual set of pledges and counter-terrorist cooperation projects. Somalilanders and their backers in the UK, may resent that Galmudug (South Gaalkaayo) is ranked in protocol at the London Conference with Somaliland. In her excellent new book, Getting Somalia Wrong, BBC journalist Mary Harper points out that international conferences on Somalia ‘have produced a succession of weak transitional governments which have paid lip-service to federalism but have tended to be highly centralised. They lack popular legitimacy because Somalis tend to see them as entirely foreign creations.’ The London delegates will struggle to buck the trend.