Saving Somalia? – upcoming “˜London Conference’ triggers reflections on the last 20 years – By Richard Dowden

Foreign Minister William Hague visits Mogadishu in the build-up to the London Conference on the future of Somalia

If I were a Somali I would thank Allah for the pirates. For more than 20 years the world has stood by while successive civil wars destroyed the country, killing hundreds of thousands of people by bullets, disease and starvation and reducing what was once a prosperous land to a war zone. But the seizure of more than 200 ships by kids with guns in small craft has changed all that. Britain, for whom shipping and trade around the Red Sea and the Gulf are vital national interests, has decided to take action. Pirates, the government has realised, cannot be stopped as long as their land bases are not ruled by a government. But on land the government is under attack from Islamic fundamentalists who are recruiting and training terrorists. So a political solution must now be found for Somalia. So declared William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, clad in flack jacket and helmet, in Mogadishu last Thursday. The search will begin at a conference in London on February 23rd. At last.

And what a conference it will be. Some 40 heads of government have been invited to Lancaster House. This was where traditionally former British territories negotiated their independence, but in a curious irony of history, this conference will instead discuss the take-over of Somalia. At least that is what the Italians, the former rulers of southern Somalia, want.

Somalia has been at war since the late 1980s when rebel movements fought the government of Siad Barre. He fled, but then they fell out with each other and the country broke up. The North West, the old British-ruled Somaliland, re-established that state and declared independence. The rest of the north, Puntland, is also relatively peaceful and rules itself but awaits the re-establishment of a Somali state. So does some of the centre. But in the south and the capital, Mogadishu, there have been only two periods of peace. One followed the American invasion in 1992 after the first famine. But after losing 18 members of special forces – the Blackhawk Down incident – President Bill Clinton pulled out the US force and stopped supporting UN peacekeeping there. Somalia was left to stew.

The second peace period was a few months in 2006 when a united mass uprising threw out the warlords and their rapacious armies. Governance was taken over by local Islamic courts which gradually formed themselves into the Islamic Courts Union. For a few months people were able to walk the streets safely. Peace reigned and trade and investment began to flow. But with US support, the Ethiopians, who have no interest in a strong united Somalia, invaded, broke up the courts and installed a warlord as president. The wars resumed.

The cost of neglect has been immense. According to a recent report from the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank, the death toll from the wars is between 450,000 and 1.5 million and some 2 million displaced. The accumulative cost of Somalia’s collapse has been more than $55 billion, including $22 billion from piracy. $13 billion has been spent on humanitarian aid which is almost matched by
the estimated amount Somalis outside the country send back in remittances.

After the Ethiopians were forced to withdraw, the world handed Somalia over to Africa. Never has the phrase “African solutions to African problems” been used so cynically. Ugandan and Burundian troops under an African Union flag, died protecting a few square kilometres of Mogadishu in the pretence there was a government there to protect. There wasn’t. The so-called government lives in luxury hotels and apartments in Nairobi. According to a recent audit of the Somali government in 2009 – 10, 96% – yes Ninety Six per cent! – of direct bilateral assistance disappeared, presumably stolen by corrupt politicians and officials. An official report by the UN Monitoring Group said: “The endemic corruption of the leadership of the Transitional Federal institutions… is the greatest impediment to the emergence of a cohesive transitional authority and effective state institutions.” But it is these people who will be coming to Lancaster House on February 23rd. At the same time we know that in much of Somalia there are very strong civil society organisations led by highly respected men and women. They however will not be invited.

So perhaps the first thing this great conference should do is apologise to the people of Somalia for ignoring their plight for so long. The second is to usher Somalia’s professional politicians into the garden or off to smart hotels and bring in some Somalis who really represent the interests of the country and its long-suffering people.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society.

A version of this article was previously published in The Times newspaper

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8 thoughts on “Saving Somalia? – upcoming “˜London Conference’ triggers reflections on the last 20 years – By Richard Dowden

  1. Nice piece. As Richard Dowden points out – the arrival of the American-supported Ethiopians in 2006 ended a short period of hope for Somalia. The TFG probably would have disappeared long ago without propping up from DC, London, Addis, and increasingly Nairobi. There will come a time when the Somalis who have not been invited to the London conference will be able to implement a Somali solution to a Somali problem. May it come sooner rather than later.

  2. Great piece – from the heart of someone who cares.
    While Somalia did enjoy a brief interlude of peace and hope during the brief reign of the Islamic Courts Union, it is important to remember that the nihilists (as I call them), or militant Islamists to use the language of the Western media, hijacked the ICU and wrested effective control of it from its original founders to rule over the country with their peculiar brand of feudal brutality. Thus, since 1991 the people of Somalia have been the victims of ex-dictatorship warlords, feudal nihilists (domestic & foreign), corrupt Diaspora carpet-baggers masquerading as politicians as Dowden so clearly describes, and African ‘peacekeepers’ who often do not distinguish carefully between their terrorist enemies and the civilians they hide among.
    I have little hope that the London Conference will result in a solution to the continuing nightmare that Somalia has become because, as Dowden states, the true representatives of the Somali people will not be there, and also because the conference is focused upon establishing yet another ‘government’ from the top. Instead, it should be seeking to establish the terms upon which the people of Somalia agree to live together and re-establish the state in their country.
    Perhaps this fundamental issue can only be addressed when the ‘right’ people are called together.

  3. Very interesting piece. The author writes about realities in Somalia politics, which is country without leadership. London conference is opportunities for Somalis, if true Somalis get the invitation, not those those who ruin the Country and still wants to rule.

  4. Somalia is one nation that has been poorly served by the political elite who in the past history have demonstrated little regard or concern for their fellow citizens of this small African State.
    For the most part, the citizens of Somalia are an intelligent people who have been afforded little opportunity in developing positive and constructive social interaction with the political class. This nation has been witness to much strife and disorder resulting in a social ethos prevalent in the social orientation of civic order and proper ‘commonweal’. Life in Somalia is harsh and the political leadership class have been grossly deficient in ameliorating this social deficit in a living/working style.
    In the children I can see their eyes glowing with anticipation and joy—for Aristotle, the eyes offer a glimpse into the soul of an individual. In the adults, their eyes are dull, listless and vacant—in classic Hobbes—life has been brutal, short and violent.
    There exists in Somalia a distinct and real lack of what I term the “political/social connexion” between the governed and those who govern. This lack of a mature social political ethos in Somalia is a major contributing factor to the failure of a Civic Educational Program being successfully implemented. The Somalians I have observed conducting civic educational seminars are enthusiastic, articulate and respectful to their audience. However, the civic/electoral message is not taking—not getting through—not reaching the mind and soul of those Liberians I have witnessed passively listening to the message.
    A true and valid civic/electoral message ought to commence in school with the very young and continue on until the completion of secondary school. Obviously, this will take time and money which for in Somalia are considered very scarce commodities.
    Unfortunately, we do not have this luxury of time in generating within the citizens of Somalia a reason to become fully engaged in the civic electoral process entailing sound prescriptive good governance. What is needed is a critical civic/electoral mass creating a “tipping point” in the promotion of a non-violent civic/civil social coheisive society. The past civic/electoral bromides are not working and furthermore are proving to be grossly ineffectual when grafted to the Somalian citizen as a civic/electoral metaphor.
    However, there is a prescription to help these people become more involved in civic affairs.

    Monte McMurchy

  5. Finally, someone says it like it is. Honest, visionary and dedicated Somalis will never be invited to events like these. They are a threat to the career politicians that make up most of the TFG and the UN/NGO army comfortably camped in Nairobi, making careers out of misery and hiding their incompetence in elaborate reports. The only people interested in a real and lasting solution are too hungry and weak to speak up and they are not welcomed to take part of the search for a solution.

    This will be another pointless and wasted talking shop attended by former dole-dependents turned ministers, only in Somalia!

  6. Everyone trying to talk about Somalia while do not have enough education about it.Sometimes when I remember how Somalia used to be and now, I hate America and our boardring countries.America is the one who was supporting warlords against Somali people,Ethiopia our number one enemy against somali people,now supporting Kenya to finalise the matter from bad to worst.I do not know what we did to America and American.Somalia was trying to stand up again on its feet but America made and making to fail when America said each and every tribe and states in Somalia must get recognision and our stupid so called leaders making alot of flags, and this is divide and rule. Europe is uniting and small country like Somalia is disunited shame to Somalis.come up with somethig.I would like to tell America if there are something intresting in Somalia we are the owners not Ethiopia or Kenya lets discuss, so we can drink with same cup.


  8. Begs the question are we all somalis and 3rdworld countries alike merely marching 2 the drumbeats of the unseen yet so effective dissecting hands of a sinister few. Time for the masses to topple them I say for countless conferences and endless dialogues are but another knot woven in a so intricately designed sweater of death that we are forcibly having to wear.

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