Somalia and the London Conference: the wrong route to peace – By Richard Dowden

David Cameron and assorted African leaders gather together to 'solve' Somalia's political problems.

At first I withheld judgment on the British government’s decision to hold a major international conference on Somalia. It was so good to hear the government at last taking an interest in this battered country, so I thought it would have been perverse to pour cold water on it.

From the start it was clear that piracy and the subsequent cost to the City of London’s marine insurance business, as well as the fear of terrorism, were the main drivers for David Cameron’s concern. The interests of the Somali people were always going to be secondary. Since Britain had done nothing during the past 20 years of war and suffering, it seemed unlikely that concern for Somalis would be the top priority.

But I am shocked at the government’s lack of understanding. Reading the reports of the conference, one would think that the cause of the war was Al Shabaab, the Islamic fundamentalist movement. Hilary Clinton spoke as if this was simply an extension of the American war or terror.

But the roots of Somalia’s state failure lie in its social structure not in Islamic extremism. When the civil war, or rather wars, started back in the late 1980s Shabaab did not exist. The wars were clan-based uprisings against a domineering dictatorship in a centralised state and against the dictator’s clan. That fragmentation of Somali society still exists beneath the surface. But this was hardly mentioned.

As order, security and hope were obliterated by clan warfare, leading to impoverishment, hunger and death, people turned to religion. Saudi funded fundamentalism spread rapidly throughout Somalia. It is hardly surprising that many young people who had never know anything but war and misery felt the appeal of the simplistic answers of fundamentalism.

Furthermore, Cameron does not appear to have learned from Britain’s own experience in Northern Ireland and the decolonisation process of the 1960s. In both cases Westminster tried to build coalitions of moderates and exclude the extremists and “men of violence”. But in the end in Northern Ireland peace came when the extremists were brought into the process, just as Britain 40 years earlier had been forced to release the jailed “˜terrorists’ throughout its empire and hand power to them.

Not inviting elements of Shabaab to London (and threatening to continue bombing them) has ensured that the war will continue. Excluding the Eritreans, major players in Somalia was also a mistake.

This conference was predicated on persuading the present but ineffective Somali politicians who form the Transitional Federal Government to step down. This is a nice dream, but Somali politicians are not known to commit hari kiri. They are better known for living in luxurious Nairobi hotels, talking at internationally funded conferences and chewing khat. A recent audit of aid money given to them said that 96% was unaccounted for.

The agenda of the Somali politicians at Lancaster House on Thursday was clear: to get the British and Americans to fight their war for them or pay others to do it and bomb their enemies. That will enable them to hold office – even though they have little power – and keep stealing the aid.

The parts of Somalia that work and are safe have evolved their own structures and agreements with their neighbours and rivals. Somalia’s social structure is unique and still very powerful and the systems in Puntland and Somaliland are built on them. No such system has emerged in the south of the country which includes the capital – the only part of Somalia still at war.

This conference should never have attempted to deal with anything more than helping to establish effective local government in the ports along the eastern seaboard and thereby providing a base for controlling piracy.

The attempt to reestablish a strong Somali state was a mistake. It will fail.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society.

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6 thoughts on “Somalia and the London Conference: the wrong route to peace – By Richard Dowden

  1. We need one, great and united Somalia. And we need the whole world should to assist with us for building a “Federal Somalia” if they are our friends.
    When one Europe of that size and that number of population is fighting to be one in terms of military, money and policy , why the West are arguing to divide this tiny state of Somalia as canteens?
    Where is the logic here? Or is it matter of, we do we want but the rest of world cannot do?
    Sorry our formers sirs. It seems we have learned from our mistakes and our eyes are wide-open to build a new country with modified configuration based on our interest.

    So thank you for being with us accordingly.

  2. I’m not sure this analysis gets us very far. It’s a bit absolute to say that the roots of Somalia’s state failure lie in its social structure. On that basis everyone should all give up straightaway. But we know it isn’t the whole story because how then could you account for the thriving state that emerged in Somaliland, built on broadly the same social structure?

    No, the problem is not Somalia’s social structure, which Somalis themselves can handle without difficulty. Rather it is the bizarre and perverse consequences that always seem to erupt whenever the international community – in almost any shape or combination – tries to engage with this Somali social structure to achieve its own ends. So I do agree with your proposition that only Somalis can produce stability.

    But I disagree with you about the purpose of the London Conference. It was not supposed to bring together all the multiple factions in Somalia to produce a peace settlement. It was supposed to develop a new international approach to Somalia, one that was more helpful than those of the past. Considering the track record that is not a bad goal. But I am not sure what purpose it would have served if, as you propose, elements of Al Shabab had been invited. If Al Shabab is going to start talking to anyone it is surely fellow Somalis, preferably inside Somalia, rather than fifty odd Heads of State and Government in London. What the conference might have done better was to signal that a political process that included Shabab was not something that the international community would rule out. Who can doubt there were difference of view on this one?

    On another point, the message I read from the conference was not that the international community was going to carry on regardless to “re-establish a strong state”. Much as the beneficiaries of this approach would have liked that (and for the reasons you mention), the multiplicity of Somali representation surely signalled a shift away from the strong state model and in the direction of de-centralisation and diversity. Somalis, in my experience, are still very much divided as to whether this is a good thing or not. But if they want to avoid the fragmentation that many of them fear they are going to have to work very hard indeed to get some credible national representative process established by August.

  3. Did this London Conference enhance the possibility for dialogue and diplomatic civil capacity consideration progression involving all the actors which must be understand as being a long term work in progress?; if so then the London Conference could be considered a success in the conceptual sense where at least the international community along with that of their African Counterparts recognize and appreciate that for Somalia—a failed state in the classical definition is in dire need of external assistance quite possibly to be coupled with force in order to enhance the outsiders in Somalia to attend the civic civil capacity development negotiating table.
    Much more has commenced with less and I am of the opinion that it would be imprudent to pour cold water on this conference———let us see whether stronger action other than words will be implemented.

  4. Pingback: Bringing Eritrea In From The Cold |

  5. I would say Somalia would be build one day and could be the best place to be as i know Somalia was distraught number of reason due to that Somalis will see one day The West would see and do nothing until they get Intrast.

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