The London Gathering and the Future of Somalia

by Mpako Foaleng · May 4th, 2012.

Written by Professor Medhane Tadesse who is a Senior SSR Advisor to the African Union, as well as the ASSN's Regional Coordinator for the Horn of Africa.

The stories of most conferences on Somalia, however different their sponsors and colloquium, are basically the same. They start with great hype and optimism and finish precariously. In the last two months, much international policy has focused on the idea of supporting Somalia. This is of concern to the international community for numerous reasons, including the humanitarian crises that it generates, and the propensity to export problems to its neighbours and globally, including piracy, refugees, armed conflict and terrorism.

Until recently, many would have considered Somalia as a manageable crisis. But this is now changing. The UK-led London Conference on Somalia that took place on 23 February 2012 has persuaded many that the international community, particularly the Western powers, has finally realised that it cannot afford to ignore the crisis in Somalia. What is certain is the persistent but parochial nature and narrow focus of external actors. International responses have been half-hearted at best, with serious efforts directed only at the economic interests of the international community in stopping piracy. This is quite depressing, considering that the original impetus for the conference was thought to be the rising costs of piracy. Equally important is (Somali) Diaspora radicalisation and the upcoming London Olympics.

Despite this grave shortcoming, the London conference has been extremely useful in providing a high profile status for the crisis in Somalia, creating a consensus on the political transition, and strengthening the African Union (peacekeeping) Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Most importantly, the conference brought Somali, African, Middle Eastern and Western players together. The conference moved the Somali crisis out of the hostile corners of the Horn of Africa onto the centre stage of world politics. Hopefully, the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) will no longer decide the fate of Somalia alone. Everyone concerned with Somalia from the international community was present in London – a success of sorts.

International approaches to Somalia have had mixed success. The value of the London Conference should be measured against three major principles that could help to facilitate the transition in Somalia. These principles are widely known and widely supported, and it should not be difficult to bring about an international consensus in their support. They include a consensus on the transition itself, support for AMISOM and the post-transition political reconstruction of Somalia. The conference agreed that the mandates of the Transitional Federation Institutions (TFIs) must end in August 2012. Instead, a new authority will be established with the sole role of facilitating the creation and development of local administrations all over the country.

This is understandable since TFIs have been ineffective and dysfunctional since their formation. The conference welcomed the UN resolution expanding AMISOM`s mandate and raising its troop ceiling.

However most of the decision points are ambiguous, to say the least. In some cases the outcome of the Conference threatens to destroy the gains made to date. The main insurgent group, Al Shabaab is marginalized from the whole process while Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has been relegated to a sideshow. In actual fact the London Conference ended up de-legitimising the two major players in the Somali political and armed conflict. And yet the road map requires the TFG executive to make good-faith efforts to facilitate the transition. This will not happen soon. To be sure, it is highly unlikely that the main insurgent group would agree to any peace plan. Neither the TFG nor Al Shabaab will seriously consider the provisions that emerged from such an international conference. International actors have not gained leverage with either the Government or the opposition, and the conflict will continue to be ugly and costly.

Obviously, such an internationally endorsed framework of principles is not self-implementing, and will be rejected by Al Shabaab, ignored by the top leaders of the TFG and compromised by the unrelenting rivalry among local administrations, as is evident by the proliferation of local entities with minimal relevance to the realities on the ground.

The Somali people, too, may object to the continued presence of foreign forces, particularly the provisions allowing troops from neighbouring countries to be integrated into AMISOM and act with impunity. The London Conference, it should be clear, no longer holds any hope of ending the conflict in Somalia. It was not a peace conference. Piracy and counter-terrorism concerns are still dominant in many governments, including that of the UK. Despite the optimism expressed by many in relation to the London Conference, the political and military conditions for a ceasefire, durable peace and the beginning of a robust process of state building do not exist and do not appear imminent. Somalia is unlikely to see the establishment of a functional national unity government in the months, if not years, following the August deadline. State collapse, a complex insurgency and violent conflict are likely to continue to define Somali affairs.

This article was first published in the ASSN Quarterly April 2012, No. 3 /2012.

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