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.