updated 7:33 AM MST, Nov 17, 2017

Istanbul Conference: A Workable Solution

  • Published in Opinion

By Ali Osman

The London Conference was an attempt to extend a helping hand to Somalia. The coming-up Istanbul Conference is hailed as the conclusion of the grand plan to stabilize Somalia. This brings both good news and bad news. The good news is, a helping hand is what Somalia needs and the bad news is its neighbors are not enthusiastic about stable Somalia.

After Somalia’s central government collapsed, decades of civil war followed- leading different tribal groups unable to feel bound by provisions of international agreements. What exasperated the divide between the tribes is the history of Somalia itself. Somalia, unlike many African countries has no proper defined borders based on ethnic and linguistic distinctive lines. It is based on division of European powers that contested and divided Somalia based on regional alliances. The countries that annexed portions of Somalia have always hoped a weak government or none at all. The collapse of the central government of Somalia provided an opportunity to achieve that end.

The world has vital interest the long-term stability of Somalia. Piracy has enormous negative impact on world commerce and trade. The cost associated with Somali piracy is expected to reach $15 billion this year. Turkey is genuinely interest in ending the famine and suffering. Turkey has restored some essential services in food distribution, healthcare, education, sanitation and vocational training and rebuilding critical government administration buildings. UK has significant number of British/Somali nationals and has critical interest that Somalia does not become breeding grounds for Islamic extremists.

Neighboring countries Ethiopia, Eritrea and Kenya are defining Somalia’s regional security role, each major neighbor is supporting rival factions; a prescription for wider conflict. Global oil companies hungry for oil, which Somalia has abundance are jostling for drilling rights. The need for security, trade, economy, energy and humanitarian interests have made Somalia at the epicenter of diplomacy.

The challenges faced by the international conference on Somalia have always been: How to create a government that has legitimacy in the eyes of Somalis and align that with the interest of major stakeholders such as UN, neighboring countries and wider international community.

The previous governments failed either of two reasons. For one, the government was a puppet that served the interest of a particular stakeholder. A popular uprising against such a regime made it to fail. And two, the government was one that had legitimacy in the eyes of Somalis but did not satisfy the stakeholders and they make it fail. An examples, is Ethiopian intervention of 2006.

Future Somali government must have two key elements for it to work. One, it has to have a military power that makes overthrowing the government difficult and costly. Secondly, it has to have legitimacy. That means that the majority of Somalis must believe the government is fundamentally just.

The London conference participants decided to change the stalemate in Somalia. What is worth debating is the process by which that changes is to come about. The choice is between (A) Solution imposed by external forces (UNISOM and Somali Contact Group Members) and (B) Consultative solution where Somalis negotiate a settlement.

The quest to stabilize Somalia led to:  An external forced solution based on coalition government with division of “territories” among the tribes and UNISOM as an enforcement mechanism. This solution will not be a long-term workable solution.  Diving Somalia into territories based on tribal divisions is not a good solution. The tribes are nomadic and do not have specific regional demarcations. The tribes crisscross regions that are overlapping. An example is Somaliland, Khatumo State and Puntland and vice versa. And rest of Somalia is in similar situation. Therefore, creating Somali government based of territories will lead to civil war and any government based on semi-autonomous regions will not last.  The recently conflict flare-up in Somaliland is clear indication that such a territorial division is not sustainable for the long term.

But this should not mean the international conference on Somalia is doomed. There is a better alternative. The better solution is to modify the current tribal division of power the so called 4.5 formula. First, fix the injustice within the formula by making five (5) full member formulas and create a coalition government based on five (5) formulas.

Secondly, the government must be anchored by strong national army based on tribal diversity- the formula five (5). We mean complete diversity in soldiers, officers and commanders. The “strong national army” will be the balance of power that makes overthrowing the government difficult and costly. Secondly, it will have the legitimacy of the entire Somali people. The result will be- the majority of Somalis will feel, their government is just, and no single tribe or region will be able to monopolize it at the expense of another. Such a government will be extremely difficult to be overthrown by extremists or tribal junta.

The greatest impediment to such an alternative will be Ethiopia and Kenya. For historic border disputes between Somalia and neighboring countries, they see strong Somali national army as a quintessential threat. Therefore, Ethiopia and Kenya are the chief architecture of the Somali “territorial” power division that is currently gaining traction at the London Conference, Garowe Principles and Kampala Accord.

It is this quintessential fear they supported rival warlords and factions across ancient tribal lines for last two decades. It was Ethiopia’s hasty decision under pressure that caused the birth of Al-Shabab and overthrow of moderate Islamic Courts Union.

The world has vital interest in stable Somalia, they should be careful in endorsing “territorial” division plan that will not work in the long run. What they rather should do, is to bring Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Eritrea to the table.   They must be frank with and tell in an unambiguous terms that their own interest is served by having a strong and viable government in Somalia.

Kenya for example, witnessed the havoc that few kidnappings could have booming tourism industry. Ethiopia is attracting European and Asian investments and having lawlessness in Somalia is not good for business. Their interest is best served in stable and strong Somalia that is in peace with itself and its neighbors.

Ethiopia is arming Ahlu Suna a religious group and other rebels to position herself another round of destructive misadventures. Ethiopia is doing this in parallel with the current conferences to hedge against any outcome, not agreeable to their long held foreign policy on Somalia. To change that policy, London and Istanbul need an elbow twisting and frank discussion with Kibaki and Meles Zenawi.

Extremism, piracy, and famine are real problems that are not only affecting Somalia but also the global community. There is a lot at stake in Somalia and there is a positive momentum but if the Istanbul conference does not get it right it will be lost.

Any future Somali government will need a strong national army and legitimacy from the people of Somalia. Territorial division will create government with significant number of the population against it and will leave the government without enforcement mechanism. This will lead Al-Shabab to comeback whose forces still remain while UNISOM will leave.  And the Somali government will eventually collapse. That scenario will have catastrophic consequences for the Somalia and world.

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