For the past two decades, Somalia has become the supreme example of a failed state with warlords laying waste to Mogadishu and well-intentioned outsiders from bewildered Marines to hapless UN forces intervening at their peril.
Perceptions of Somalia as an international case for intensive care were reinforced last year, when the UN declared famine in parts of the country, where a fierce drought on top of years of conflict between a weak transitional government and Islamist insurgents from al-Shabaab pushed the country over the edge.
Tens of thousands of Somalis are estimated to have died, but the famine is now over, although 2.34 million people – a third of the population – remain in need of food aid and shelter, with 1.7 million residing in the southern regions controlled by al-Shabaab, which has blocked access for many humanitarian groups.
The massive if belated international response to famine has galvanised interest in Somalia, with David Cameron hosting Thursday’s international conference in London to explore solutions to the country’s chronic instability. Security is a big reason for Britain’s interest, with the prime minister describing the security threat from Somalia as real and substantial amid fears that the country will become a training ground for extremists who will attack western targets.
Britain is not alone in expending political capital and money on Somalia. Iran, Qatar and Turkey are also active diplomatically in Somalia, with Turkey to hold a conference of its own on Somalia later in June focusing on humanitarian efforts.
In Somalia, efforts are under way under the auspices of the UN to draw up a constituent assembly, an independent electoral commission, a new federal structure and a smaller parliament with greater representation for women. The UN has tried to draw in all Somalis, including those from the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, although al-Shabaab, which has declared a formal alliance with al-Qaida, remains frozen out politically.
Some analysts wonder whether it is putting the cart before the horse to discuss constitutional matters before reaching a political settlement, which will necessarily have to include al-Shabaab (or at least its lesser hardline elements as it is not a monolithic group.) For the time being, the approach towards al-Shabaab is to hammer it militarily after African Union forces under the Amisom umbrella (African Union Mission in Somalia) drove the group out of Mogadishu.
The UN security council agreed on Wednesday to increase the Amisom presence from 12,000 troops to about 17,700 and expand its areas of operation.
The military track, however, poses its own risks. The International Crisis Group warns of unintended consequences: the operation could reopen old wounds between Somalis and Kenyans; cause new inter-clan discord; radicalise some Somalis living in Kenya; and undermine recent economic and political developments.
Meanwhile, scepticism runs deep as to whether al-Shabaab can be defeated militarily, despite Amisom’s unexpectedly effective performance.
An Amisom offensive launched a few weeks ago has already alarmed relief agencies. The UN refugee agency has voiced fears for the safety of thousands of people who have fled the renewed violence. In the past few weeks, more than 7,200 Somalis have been forced to flee the Afgooye corridor, a 25-mile stretch of road just north-west of Mogadishu that is home to almost 410,000 internally displaced persons living in sprawling settlements and makeshift camps.
Oxfam and other NGOs have called on all parties in Somalia to protect civilians under international humanitarian law, including avoiding the indiscriminate use of force in populated areas. To minimise harm to civilians, NGOs say an independent and impartial commission of inquiry should be set up without delay to help investigate violations of all parties in the conflict and bring perpetrators to account.
Somalis have come up with homegrown solutions in the absence of a strong central authority. For six months in 2006, Somalia experienced a respite from the brutal internecine fighting that had reduced parts of Mogadishu to rubble when the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) surprisingly defeated the warlords.
The UIC had evolved from the sharia courts that had sprung up to establish a degree of order. Some of their actions were unpopular – banning the watching of TV and the chewing of qat, the mild narcotic chewed by most Somali men – but life was safer than it had been for almost two decades. Roadblocks were removed, piles of rubbish cleared, the main Mogadishu airport and seaport were reopened and rehabilitated.
As Mary Harper writes in her book Getting Somalia Wrong: “Because the courts emerged from the grassroots level to perform some of the key functions of government in a stateless society, they were increasingly viewed as legitimate authorities by the communities they served.”
The UIC experiment was cut short when Ethiopia, backed by the US, invaded Somalia in December 2006 as the west looked at Somalia through George Bush’s prism of the war on terror. The intervention destroyed what was the most successful effort to bring order and stability to Somalia since 1991, when the dictator, Muhammad Siad Barre, was ousted.
Amid all the of diplomatic and military activity – including the possibility of UK air strikes at al-Shabaab – analysts caution that too much outside meddling, especially from Somalia’s neighbours, Ethiopia and Kenya, could lead to more harm than good. Somaliland, a former British protectorate which declared unilateral independence in 1991, has developed peacefully left to its own devices.
“By interfering and sponsoring different factions, foreign powers are blocking Somalis from finding their own solutions,” said Sally Healy, a Horn of Africa expert. “Somalis need their own political space. Somalia’s neighbours have to restrain themselves, if not the situation will get worse.”
Healy says the London conference would do well to acknowledge that past efforts to put Somalia on an even keel have failed because of a fixation on building a strong central government, ignoring the country’s fissiparous nature.
- guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 22 February 2012 17.37 GMT