updated 7:33 AM MST, Nov 17, 2017

The London Conference on Somalia: Rhetoric and Reality

  • Published in Opinion

by Muuse Yuusuf

British prime minister, David Cameron, standing in front of world leaders at the London conference as though he was a colonial master marshalling his troops and subjects. The Somali president Sheikh Sharif is excluded from the photo group hence symbol of Somalia’s sovereignty is missing!

Since the collapse of the central government in 1991, over 17 conferences have been held to reconcile Somalia’s different stakeholders and factions. Most of these conferences, sponsored mainly by the international community, have failed to resolve the seemingly never-ending Somali conflict. The question is will the London conference make any difference this time?

From the outset, I cannot help but to compare the London conference with previous reconciliation conferences held in foreign countries. Just like the past ones, the London conference seems to be a top-down process in which some powerful foreign leaders took the lead to “coerce” Somalis to reach some form of a political agreement. The 1993 UN-sponsored Addis Ababa conference, held at the height of the civil war, was one of those top-down conferences, which failed Somalis. While different Somali factions were negotiating political settlement, the United Nations’ Secretary General, Boutros-Boutros Ghali, supported by president Bill Clinton, both determined to make the UN a peace-enforcing organisation in the post-cold war era, was threatening to place Somalia under a UN trusteeship unless Somali factions reached a political agreement. The conference failed for the following reasons.

Firstly, sponsors of the conference wrongly assumed armed factional leaders were representatives of all sections of the Somali society in a war torn country where representation and legitimate authority were bitterly contested issues. Indeed, while self-appointed factional leaders enjoyed the comfort of luxury hotels in Addis Ababa, as Somali leaders did in London, the nitty-gritty business of resolving daily clan conflict at village, district and regional levels were left to traditional leaders who were marginalised from the process. This was at the height of the civil war when society was disintegrating into fiefdoms, and powerful clans or factions easily manipulated and intimidated fearful and weaker communities.

Secondly, a pressurised time frame-work of a few weeks with foreign led agenda was allocated to the conference to force factional leaders to come up with a comprehensive political roadmap of nation building. In fact, while factional leaders were discussing the huge issues of state building, the Security Council adopted resolution no. 814 in March 1993, which authorised the United Nations Mission of Somalia, known as the UNOSOM II. The resolution made the UN effectively the highest authority in the country. The fact of the matter was that the UN leadership hurried up the process because it wanted a political agreement to coincide with the authorisation and deployment of the UNOSOM-II forces in Somalia to replace the earlier UN missions (UNOSOM-I). In other words, to say to the world, here is an agreement reached by Somalis to be supported by the UNOSOM II. The pressurised time factor destroyed any hope of a real reconciliation among Somalis considering the importance of allocating plenty of time to traditional Somali conflict resolution process.

The main outcome of that conference was an “agreement” document signed by unscrupulous “leaders” with no intention of implementing them for their parochial interests. They had even exploited flaws in the process to undermine it, claiming that it was “forced on” them by external forces, although this was true to some extent. Regrettably, any hope of implementing the Addis Ababa agreement, which was to establish a transitional national council, was destroyed by the massacre of the Pakistani peace-keeping troops by General’s Mohamed Farah Aideed’s faction. This led to the manhunt operation to arrest the belligerent general, who was an obstacle to the UN’s mission. The huge and ambitious nation-building mission was aborted prematurely and the UNOSOM-II was terminated after some American helicopters were shot down and a few UNOSOM soldiers were killed in the fighting involving General Aideed’s militia and the UNOSOM forces.

Another reconciliation conference, known as the Mbagathi process, held in Kenya, was more or less similar to the Addis Ababa one because regional powers, such as Ethiopia supporting different Somali factions, were accused of dictating the outcome of the conference. Daniel Arab Moi, former president of Kenya, was reported of admitting that the reconciliation process could not be entrusted with Kenya and Ethiopia because of the two countries’ fear of Somali nationalism and a Greater Somalia. The outcome of the two-year long or so conference was the formation of a government dominated by warlords, which was unpopular among Somalis who saw Ethiopia as the long hand behind the Mbagathi process. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG), rather than promoting peace and reconciliation among Somalis, became a war mongering government which led to the Ethiopian invasion of southern Somalia in 2006 after a political out between the TFG and the Islamic Courts Union over power sharing.

Just like the previous two conferences, sponsors of the London conference assumed that most Somalis were represented at the conference by the leaders of Puntland, Somaliland, Galmudug, the Transitional Federal Government, and Ahlu Sunna Wal-Jama (ASWJ), a religious Sufi organisation, which is fighting the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab extremist group. The reality on the ground is that most regions in central and southern Somalia are under the control of the Al-Shabaab who have not participated the conference. Therefore, once can assume the views of the Somali people under their rule are unknown and were not taken into consideration at the conference. The question that imposes itself is then how one could pretend that most Somalis were represented in the conference? Even, for the sake of argument, if we accept the argument that members of the current transitional parliament, which was formed through a selection criterion represent all Somalis regardless of whey they live, the fact of the matter is that these MPs do not have any real presence or constituencies on the ground. They are merely a bunch of people who are being holed up in some office buildings in Mogadishu, tormented by the Al-Shabaab’s daily attacks. The point here is that the issue of representation was not really addressed in the conference, although leaders of Somaliland who have been boycotting reconciliation conferences attended the conference.

Despite rhetoric statements made by the leaders of the conference, that the future of Somalia lie in the hands of Somalis, looking the conference closely, it would seem that it was dominated by foreign powers from Kenya and Ethiopia with their national interests at heart where their forces are deeply involved in Somalia to other foreign powers whose warships are in the Red Sea, chasing Somali pirates. The few Somali leaders in the conference seemed to have been sandwiched between powerful world leaders, in which the British prime minister, in a photo opportunity, was filmed standing in front of these mainly third world leaders as though he was a colonial master marshalling his colonial troops.  And worse of all, president Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, simple of Somalia’s sovereignty, was missing from the photo group, perhaps he was deliberately excluded from the photo group!

Somali leaders were treated as good guests and some of them were welcomed by the prime minister himself who entertained them at no. 10 Downing Street. However, the burning question is whether the ownership of the conference was really in the hands of Somalis, or they were just listening to a political dictate by some foreign leaders, including USA’s foreign secretary, Hillary Clinton, who clearly stated that the current Transitional Federal Government’s term in office should not be extended beyond August 2012.

Let alone respecting Somalia’s sovereignty where Kenyan and Ethiopian forces are violating the country’s territorial integrity on a daily basis, by telling Somali leaders what they can or cannot do, the conference  breached one of the basic principles of international diplomacy which is not to tell other heads of states directly what to do. The message to instruct another world leader is subtle and not direct. Given Somalis’ notorious factionalism and their non-ending squabble over power, it was probably right to tell them bluntly that the TFG’s time was over. However, the way the message was conveyed was like telling a child they have to go to bed by 10 pm! This was a disastrous diplomacy, and in international diplomatic language, it normally means war between the concerned heads of states. After all Somalia, although is going through difficult and testing times, is still a sovereign state and its territorial integrity are protected by international laws and conventions. In case you have forgotten, Somalia was once a respected leader in Africa’s diplomatic and military fields. From 1960s, Somalia enjoyed a relatively stable democratic system where governments were borne out of legitimate elections. Indeed, Somalia was one of the first few African countries which had an elected president who then retired from politics and lived in his country peacefully until his death. This was president Aden Abdulle Hersi, the first Somali president. At the regional diplomatic stage, Somali leaders played a leading role in ending the white minority rule in Rhodesia and South Africa as they campaigned for the self-determination of the peoples of Mozambique and Angola. They were also good mediators and Samaritans and played an important role in resolving conflicts between some African states. A classic example of this was when Somali leaders averted an imminent war between Julius Nyereere of Tanzania and Idi Amin of Uganda in 1972 through diplomacy.

Furthermore, if you did not know, at the height of its national pride, the proud Somali Republic once severed its diplomatic relationship with the United Kingdom in 1963 as a protest against Britain’s draconian decision to annex the Somali region in its former east Africa colony to Kenya, although the overwhelming majority of Somalis voted to be united with their brethren in the Somali Republic. This could have happened at the London conference when Somali leaders were told what to do with their future, which was interference in their internal affairs, but the only difference this time is that Somalia is a broken country that has no political, economic and military clout. Sadly, any country can bully Somalia.

Despite world leaders’ rhetorical agreements on actions intended to defeat terrorism and eradicate piracy and their support for the African Union’s peace-keeping forces in Somalia, the loudest message that came out of the conference was not to extend TFG’s term in office beyond August.  However, the question is what next? Although it was agreed to convene a constituent assembly that is representative of the views of all Somali regions, which will then select a parliament based on clan representation to replace the current transitional assembly, the reality on the ground may suggest otherwise. For example, although leaders of the break away region of Somalia (Somaliland) have agreed to the principles concluded at the London conference, Somaliland leaders have not signed to the Garowe Principles which laid down the foundation of convening the constituent assembly. Indeed, Somaliland leaders have not participated in any of the political agreements mentioned in the conference’s communiqué, including the Djibouti Agreement under which the current TFG was formed, the Roadmap, and the Kampala Accord, which reconciled Somali leaders. Although the assumption was that peoples in Somaliland were represented in these political agreements by the members of the current transitional parliament who hail from Somaliland, the reality on the ground is that peoples in the break away region have their own elected parliament. It is therefore one thing to make or “coerce” Somaliland leaders sign to an agreement, which includes agreements that they have never been part of it, but it is entirely different thing to implement such agreement on the ground for obvious reasons. One can only speculate why Somaliland leaders have accepted the London principles; this may include their wish to please the British government in the hope that Britain will be sympathetic to their quest for recognition as an independent state, although the British government, defending the United Kingdom against secessionists in Scotland, have categorically said no to such request.

Furthermore, it is one thing to promise to convene a constituent assembly, but it is entirely a different matter when you examine realities on the ground in a country where competing political factions rule different regions. The biggest question that the conference has failed to answer is how on earth one can expect realistically to organise a constituent assembly, which is supposed to be representative of all Somali views, within 6 months. The time framework is very short and unpractical considering Somalis’ notorious factionalism in which different groups or “spoilers of peace” would do any thing to disrupt any political programme that do not serve their interests. Even to organise elections or other huge political events in mature democratic countries require resources and time, at least six to one year. To expect Somalis to organise such important political event in a six months’ time is asking too much from a country with no good infrastructure and no mature political institutions, a country recovering from a long and protracted civil war.

On the other hand, although their power is being weakened by the combined forces of Ethiopia, Kenya, AMISOM and Somali forces, the Al-Shabaab movement still controls vast areas in central and southern Somalia and its leaders are not willing to talk to the TFG at least as the Taliban in Afghanistan are doing at the moment by talking to the Americans and the Afghanistan government. Therefore, they are a formidable force that can disrupt the process of organising the conference. Indeed, only this week a suicide bomber has killed 4 people in front of the presidential palace in Mogadishu.

If any thing, even if the constituent assembly which will be selected by  the TFG, Puntland and Galmudug assisted by traditional leaders was held successfully, the likely outcome of their political deliberation is to select members of a new  federal parliament which will be based on the 4.5 clan-quota as the case was in the previous parliaments. The only difference this time is the number of parliamentarians, the lower house, will be half of the current 550 members, as there will be an upper house of 54 members, representing federal states. The rhetoric about the emerging federal structure envisioned in the  Roadmap, the Garowe I and II principles seems to be far away as long as the break away region of Somalia insists on its quest for independence although its leaders seem to have accepted some kind of a federal structure by signing the agreement concluded at the London conference.

In conclusion, if Mr Cameron, the British prime minister who is feeling invincible after his military victory in Libya, has decided to do something about the unabating Somali conflict to enhance his country’s national interests, he has succeeded in doing so to some extent. He has re-focussed world’s attention at Somali pirates who are not only threatening his country’s commercial interests, but are also jeopardising the multi-million international trade that passes through the Gulf of Aden every year. Hehas made clear to the world that the Al-Qaeda inspired Islamic extremists in Somalia are not only poisoning young minds with extremist ideologies, but are also exporting their terror activities down to the streets of British cities and towns where young Somalis are being recruited to carry out terror activities inside and outside Somali. He has promised not tolerate such threats coming from what he described a “failed state”. On the other hand, it has also been reported recent oil exploration in Somalia, particularly in the Puntland state of Somalia, might have encouraged Britain to take the lead in resolving the Somali conflict in the hope that a stable Somalia will be a good source of oil for Britain. If that was one of the motives behind his action, then he did succeed on this front as well because leader of the Puntland state of Somali was present at the conference. If Mr Cameron’s decision was to fulfil Britain’s moral responsibility towards Somalia for being a former colonial power, he has demonstrated to the world that Britain is doing something about the Somali conflict. Mr Cameron can now sleep peacefully with a clear conscience feeling that he has done something about the Somali conflict.

However, the real question is whether too much rhetoric from the conference will change realities on the ground? It is unlikely the current statuesque will change soon. Al-Shabaab will probably be a nuisance for sometime; the break away region has already refused to negotiate with other Somalis, and any new parliament/government will be more or less the same, a bunch of MPs selected through a clan-based criterion with no constituents on the ground.

Despite the above short-comings, by making leaders of the break away region of Somalia to come to the negotiating table with other Somali stakeholders for the first time, Mr Cameron has done a favour to the Somali people given how they have been boycotting any reconciliation conference involving wider Somali stakeholders. As a unionist, I welcome the British government’s efforts of supporting Somali unity especially at a time when it is defending the unity of the United Kingdom.
Muuse Yuusuf
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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Dillapress.com editorial policy.