Destination oblivion: the failure of Western policy in Somalia

By IndepthAfrica
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Jun 7th, 2012
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Ahmed M.I Egal

The impending expiry of the term of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Sheikh Sharif Ahmed in August this year has occasioned an unseemly rush to establish a ‘permanent’ and therefore ‘legitimate’ government in Somalia by the Western powers.

The simple fact is that the Western powers would dearly love the ‘Somali problem’ to just go away and for that ill-fated country and its people to be consigned to the oblivion to which other peoples and nations that are peripheral to Western interests and designs have been consigned. However, the emergence of Al-Shabaab (the Al-Qaeda affiliate in the Horn of Africa) and the pirate gangs prowling the international sea lanes in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean have put paid to the easy option of consigning Somalia and its people to political oblivion in the international arena. Thus, the West is forced to seek some sort of ‘solution’.

The current manifestation of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was created in 2009 – under the guidance and according to the design of the Western powers – from the detritus of the Ethiopian invasion and occupation of Somalia (2006-2009) which they backed, if not actively instigated. In the light of the glaring failure of the TFG to establish effective governance even in the small parts of the country under its control, the Western powers have come up with the Somalia End of Transition Roadmap (the ‘Roadmap’) which purports to outline the steps necessary to establish a permanent government for Somalia, and end the cycle of successive transitional ‘governments’ which has prevailed since the collapse of the Siyad Barre dictatorship and the republic it ruled in 1991.

The Roadmap procedure, under which the permanent ‘government’ is to be established, mirrors that under which the TFG was originally established in 2004 at the Embagathi Conference when the late Abdillahi Yusuf acceded to the presidency. So it is unclear why the ‘government’ to be established in accordance with the Roadmap will be any more permanent and legitimate than the TFG which it will replace.

Further, the principal actors of this political farce, i.e. erstwhile warlords, Siyad Barre henchmen, self-appointed civil society leaders, newly minted clan elders and diaspora carpet-baggers, or ‘the usual suspects’ as I prefer to refer to them, will take their usual places in the drama, choosing the members of ‘parliament’ and ‘electing’ the president through a market process whereby the highest bidders win the auction of the parliamentary seats and so secure the presidency. The pretenders to political position in Somalia and their backers are past masters at this market-driven process of government formation, while the people for whom the ‘government’ is supposedly being formed find the process a welcome and most entertaining diversion from the Somali-dubbed Turkish and Latin American soap operas and European football that comprises their normal TV entertainment fare.

The truly galling thing is that the situation in Somalia is very different now to that which pertained during 2000 when the ill fated Transitional National Government (TNG) was formed at Arta; during 2004 when the TFG was formed; and during 2008 when the current manifestation of the TFG under Sheikh Sharif Ahmed was formed.

The present situation lends itself much more to the establishment of a truly national and legitimate government for several reasons. Firstly, the newly expanded AMISOM force is achieving sustained military success against the nihilists of Al-Shabaab for the first time, while the organisation itself is experiencing slow-motion disintegration from within. It is an undeniable fact that with all of Mogadishu liberated from Al-Shabaab forces and its significant degradation as a military force capable of seizing and holding territory, the military campaign against the nihilists in Somalia looks much better than it has done during the last decade.

Secondly, there is a two-pronged dynamic within civil society that is feeding a growing momentum towards the establishment of a genuine, grass-root driven process of national reconciliation and the establishment of a truly legitimate government. Such a widespread mood of cautious optimism among the public, pregnant with the tantalising possibility of an end to two decades of anarchy and untold misery, has not been witnessed in Somalia since the brief, but heady days of the rout of the warlords by the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) back in 2006. This is evidenced by the inflow of diaspora savings into the country, particularly in the real estate sector in Mogadishu where there is a small construction boom as people have begun to rebuild their homes.

On the other hand, there is a genuine, widespread and irreversible fatigue not only with the brutal feudalism of the Al-Shabaab nihilists, but also with the endemic corruption and cynical machinations of the TFG and the political class. This can be seen in the evolution of public perception towards the AMISOM forces from the resistance and hostility reserved for foreign invaders/occupiers a couple of years ago, to the resigned acceptance prevalent today as most people have come to view them as a necessary evil to defeat the nihilists and so stabilise the country militarily.

This positive public mood needs to be harnessed in the service of a genuine Somali-driven process of nation-building and state reconstruction. Yet, this is precisely what the so-called Roadmap ignores and precludes in favour of establishing yet another bogus ‘parliament’ composed of members that have either bought their seats or which have already been bought and paid for. This ‘parliament’ will, in turn, ratify a constitution that has not been put to the people it purports to govern and ‘elect’ a ‘president’ that has succeeded in buying the largest number of votes with cash payments, appeals to tribal solidarity and promises of patronage and disbursements of aid monies in the future. This is the time-honoured process that has been the mark of every conference convened to establish a government for Somalia from the Arta Conference in 2000 to the Roadmap. It’s time to break this sterile and corrupt mould of nation-building in Somalia in favour of a process that may actually re-establish political consent and so produce a truly legitimate government.

In order to develop such a process, it is necessary to shift the focus from the creation of a ‘government’ to establishing the basis for political consent to a national state. The simple fact, which the Western powers have stubbornly and incomprehensibly continued to ignore, is that the disintegration of the state in Somalia after the collapse of the Siyad Barre dictatorship is due principally to the collapse of political consent in the country which had predated the collapse of the dictatorship.

The ensuing savagery and violence in the wake of the collapse of the dictatorship, as old grievances were settled and new vendettas were initiated, was testament to the divisiveness and social toxicity of the regime’s politics and system of rule. Siyad Barre may have been chased out of Somalia, but he left an inheritance of anarchy, tribal enmity and violence. This history is important to understand, since it underlies, informs and indelibly colours the political zeitgeist of Somalia to this day, and it is not possible to address the issue of political consent without a clear appreciation of this history and its impact upon political and social dynamics. The notion that the adoption of a federal model of government with a relatively weak centre and strong, autonomous regions will adequately address the corrosive effects of this history is not only facile and uninformed, but in fact misses the point altogether.

The principal and fundamental unit of socio-political organisation in Somali society is the clan, and political interaction and intermediation is undertaken at the level of the clan and sub-clan. Subsequent to the disintegration of political consent with the collapse of the tribal dictatorship of Siyad Barre, and the ensuing anarchy and score-settling violence over the last two decades, it is ridiculous and dangerously naïve to assume that a ‘government’ and state can simply be grafted on to the body politic of Somalia without addressing the underlying grievances, hostilities and blood claims of the different communities, both inter-clan and intra-clan, occasioned by pre- and post-collapse history. Until these deep and fundamental issues of recent history are addressed openly and settled between the parties; until the crimes and atrocities of the past are confronted and claims of blood and honour are acknowledged and satisfied; genuine reconciliation will not be achieved and political consent for the re-establishment of the state and national government will remain an unattainable dream.

Such a process of genuine reconciliation and national re-birth cannot be achieved through the self serving machinations of the Roadmap and most certainly cannot be promoted by the motley crew of self appointed politicians, newly minted and paid-for clan elders, diaspora carpet baggers and their financial backers (both Somali and foreign) conjured up to effect the Roadmap. The experience of Somaliland, which pioneered this approach to national reconciliation and attendant re-birth of political consent through an ad-hoc, pragmatic, hit-and-miss process evidenced by the Burao Conference of 1991 and the Borama Conference in 1993 is very helpful as a guide. The situation in Somalia is made more difficult by the fact that the majority clan there (the Hawiye) is fractured and is subject to as much division within it as between the clans. Thus, the reconciliation process must be undertaken on an intra-cland as well as inter-clan basis. This will require much traditional diplomacy, thoughtful confidence building between the parties and patience. Nevertheless, the conducive public mood in Somalia and the political space afforded by the military demise of the nihilists provides a unique window for such an exercise to bear fruit.

Somaliland could be of great assistance in facilitating and promoting such a genuine process of reconciliation and re-establishing political consent for a new state in Somalia. However, the Western powers continue to regard formal engagement with Somaliland as an impediment to the effort to stabilise Somalia, rather than as the essential requirement for, and logical consequence of, such an effort that it actually is. The AU, for its part, views Somaliland’s success in nation-building and democratisation as a threat and challenge to the status quo on colonial borders despite the precedents of Eritrea, South Sudan and Western Sahara. Thus, it continues with its ostrich-like policy of ignoring the self-evident truth of Somaliland’s nationhood. In consequence, and unfortunately for the people of Somalia, this opportunity to seek a genuine Somali-driven solution to their anarchy and suffering will go wanting. Instead, we will be treated to yet another political farce where the usual suspects will posture, pontificate and establish yet another bogus ‘government’ which will be illegitimate, incapable of providing effective governance, but which will continue to enrich the political class while providing a fig leaf for the abject failure of the Western powers.

Turkey is a new entrant in the group of foreign powers that have involved themselves in stabilising Somalia, and its entry as an emergent regional and economic power as well as a predominantly Muslim country is to be welcomed. However, Turkey must and should avoid falling in step with the barren and myopic mindset of the Western powers if its intervention is to bear fruit. Turkey has not been party to the failed efforts of its Western allies over the last two decades to find a solution to the collapse of the Somali state, so it is not invested in this history of failure. It must reject the conventional wisdom of its Western partners and use its fresh eyes to chart a new path; otherwise its intervention will serve only to aggrandise its own status as a leading Muslim power, while contributing nothing of consequence to the stabilisation of Somalia and the rescue of its people from continued misery and international oblivion.

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