The impending expiry of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has occasioned an unseemly rush to establish a ‘permanent’, and therefore ‘legitimate’, administration in the country. This forms a severe test for the Somalia Policy of the Western Powers. That is, if we can use the term ‘policy’ to describe the alternating bouts of inertia/neglect and hyperactivity focused upon ill thought-out conferences at which donor representatives deliver bromides exhorting Somali ‘ownership’ of the ‘transition process’ and engage in earnest hand-wringing at the suffering of the people. The salary men TFG officials (paid by the donor countries) nod obediently and promise to deliver governance, even as they jockey for position at the trough of donor contributions.
The simple fact is that the Western Powers would dearly love the Somali Problem to just go away. 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. Thus, the West is forced to seek some sort of ‘solution’.
The current manifestation of the TFG was created in 2009 under the guidance and design of the Western Powers from the detritus of the Ethiopian invasion and occupation of Somalia (2006-2009) which they backed. In 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 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 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 when the late Abdullahi Yusuf acceded to the Presidency. It is therefore 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.
The principal actors of this political farce – erstwhile warlords, Siyad Barre henchmen, self-appointed civil society leaders, newly minted clan elders and Diaspora carpet-baggers – will take their usual places in the drama. They choose the members of parliament and elect 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 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 from 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 was established. 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 Al-Shabaab, while the organisation itself is experiencing slow-motion disintegration from within. Hemmed in by Kenyan forces in the south, Ethiopian forces in the west and increased AMISOM forces from Mogadishu (not to mention American drone attacks from the air), the terrorists are being inexorably forced to cede territory and retreat from urban centres to the bush.
It is also a result of the widespread fatigue among the people with the Shabaab’s harsh and foreign strictures against all forms of social interaction, e.g. music, poetry, dance, theatre. Additionally, the organisation’s own miscalculations – the banning of aid agencies providing famine relief and its growing political incoherence as long-simmering divisions between its various factions come to the fore – have made it less effective as an organisation.
Secondly, there is a two-pronged dynamic within civil society that is feeding a growing momentum towards the establishment of a genuine, grass-roots driven process of national reconciliation and the establishment of a truly legitimate government. Such a widespread mood of cautious optimism among the public has not been witnessed in Somalia since the brief, but heady days of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) back in 2006. The military demise of Al-Shabaab, specifically their expulsion from Mogadishu and its environs, has created a space wherein normal life can be re-established. 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. Somalis are instinctively entrepreneurial, and the re-emergence of commerce in the capital has had a big effect upon the psychology of the public.
On the other hand, there is a genuine, widespread and irreversible fatigue not only with the brutal feudalism of Al-Shabaab, but also with the endemic corruption and cynical machinations of 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. With respect to the TFG, contrast the euphoric welcome afforded Sheikh Sharif Ahmed when he arrived in Mogadishu in 2008 with the cynical, contemptuous amusement with which he is widely viewed today. He is seen to have evolved from a humble, unworldly cleric to a designer-suited politician desperately manipulating all the levers at his disposal in order to hang on to the Presidency.
This positive public mood and hope for the future 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 votes with cash payments, appeals to tribal solidarity and promises of patronage and disbursements of aid monies in the future.
It is 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 continued to ignore, is that the disintegration of the state in Somalia is due principally to the collapse of political consent in the country.
The ex-British Protectorate in the north had succeeded in defeating the national army, ejecting it from their territory and recovering the sovereignty they had voluntarily surrendered in 1960. In the ex-UN Trust Territory in the south, the majority tribe (the Hawiye) delivered the coup de grace to Siyad Barre’s wounded regime and chased the aging tyrant ignominiously from the country. The unifying dream and ethos of Greater Somalia was dead and lay in tatters among the debris of the tribal autocracy that had poisoned the dream and turned it into a nightmare.
Siyad Barre may have been chased out of Somalia, but he left an inheritance of anarchy, tribal enmity and violence. This history 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 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 Siyad Barre’s regime, it is 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 unattainable.
Such a process of genuine reconciliation and national re-birth cannot be achieved through the self serving machinations of 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 a helpful as guide. The situation in Somalia is made more difficult by the fact that the majority clan there (the Hawiye) is fractured and subject to as much division within it as between the clans. Thus, the reconciliation process must be undertaken on an intra- as well as inter-clan basis. This will require much traditional diplomacy, thoughtful confidence building between the parties and patience.
Somaliland could be of great assistance in facilitating and promoting such a genuine process of reconciliation. 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.
Turkey is a new entrant in the group of foreign powers that have involved themselves in stabilising Somalia, and as an emergent regional and economic power as well as a predominantly Muslim country it 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.
Ahmed Egal was educated in the UK and holds a BA in Economics & Politics from Warwick University and an MA in Area Studies from the University of London. He has worked as an international banker in London and the Gulf Region for over twenty years, and is presently engaged as an independent financial and business development consultant.