Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Solutions in Somalia: “When will they ever learn?”

By David Leonard

In late February the British government convened an international meeting in London to discuss the challenges that Somalia poses to the Horn of Africa. The last fully functional government of Somalia fell in 1991 and no genuinely credible successor is yet in sight.

Focussing on Somalias governance issues - not Somali piracy

Originally Britain proposed to focus the conference on Somali piracy in the Indian Ocean. (I’ve blogged elsewhere on the piracy issue.)

But the international community felt that was too narrow and a broader agenda on governance and development emerged. What I find most striking is that nothing new was proposed.

Is it a mistake to favour the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia?

On broader governance issues, the London conference pledged continued support for the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia. The TFG controls only a few modest parts of the country’s former territory.

The conference also endorsed continuation of African Union troops (from Burundi, Ethiopia, Uganda and now Kenya) to protect the TFG, called for additional donor assistance, and proposed national elections to renew the government's expiring mandate.

Save for elections, none of this is new. And after 21 years of international effort there is little to suggest that such a strategy is going to work this time around.

The TFG is an internationally facilitated elite pact of militia and other factional leaders whose financial interests are advanced by donor assistance and who enjoy little popular support. In a country at war, an election to replace or legitimate this government is a fantasy. It is true that the Islamist militia of al Shabaad is affiliated with al Qaida and has diminished popular support because of its failure to deal adequately with the recent drought in the substantial portions of southern Somalia it controls.  

But Islamic terrorism is a western concern, not a Somali one and it is highly unlikely that armies from Christian countries (even if African) can find lasting support in a deeply Muslim country. In other words, more of the same efforts will produce more of the same failed results.

Top-down approaches in Somalia will fail - local and regional polities are a better option

Scholars who work on the country, Somali and Western alike, are strongly of the opinion that top-down efforts to rebuild a national government in the country will fail. Bradbury, Hagmann, Hoehne, Menkhaus and Inter-Peace as well as Samantar and myself, to name a few observe that the only things that have worked among the Somalis have been the extended bottom-up negotiations by local elders. These efforts have created Somaliland, Puntland and other sub-national entities in order to provide some kind of governance and legitimacy.

A TFG ‘government’ that claims sovereignty over the UN recognised territory of Somali, but which in fact can’t govern it, is much inferior to a patch-work of city states and regional polities that have clan legitimacy and govern moderately effectively.

Italy was populated with city states until the late 19th century and nonetheless mothered the Renaissance. Why should the expectations of the contemporary international system of ‘nation states’ force Somalis to do otherwise?

Could regional polities in Somalia help to control terrorism?

It is true that the realities of Somali politics mean that at least one such Somali mini-states will be Islamist. All Somali polities (even the TFG) claim adherence to sharia law; the only issue is which version of it. (And the question of which sharia law is hugely important).

Might an Islamist regional polity be willing to trade control of international terrorism in its territory in return for de facto recognition and international aid?

This approach is at least worth a try. It has a better chance of success than diplomats and generals continuing to bash their heads against the wall they have been facing for 21 years.

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