Last Thursday’s London Somalia Conference has been dismissed as having broken no new ground, and recycling the same tired old rhetoric. Wrong. The big story at the conference was precisely in the photo opportunities, and the actions that the regional players in the region took so that they could look strong on the world stage in London.
The pictures of the London meeting tell the story. The “high table” and front row in the photos was given, in addition to British Prime Minister David Cameron, to the regional power brokers in Somalia. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, and Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, the “big boys,” were always together to the right in the front. Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza, was often in a row or two back — by fact of his shyness, not lack of clout on Somalia. And to the left edge, the leader of one of the newer members of Amisom — Djibouti’s President Ismael Omar Guelleh.
In most of the photos, Museveni wears the arrogant bored look of someone who has nothing to prove. It was his moment of vindication.
The June 2011 Somalia Conference in Kampala that extended by one year the life of the Transitional Federal Government, and from which Abdiweli Mohamed Ali emerged as the new prime minister, was definitely more important than the London meet. So was the April 2011 9th Extraordinary Summit of the East African Community heads of state in the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam, that signalled a shift to a more aggressive posture toward the Al Shabaab militants, and was the first high level group anywhere to suggest that the TFG should get an extension.
Nevertheless, the London Conference was significant, because for the first time it brought together all the international players who have a stake in Somalia, but have been hiding their hand.
Secondly, it was an acknowledgement of an important fact — the African Union through its peace-enforcement force Amisom (comprising Uganda and Burundi forces), Kenya, and Ethiopia, had broken the back of what the world had come to view as an intractable problem. And though, as Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni once said, London represented the continued attempt by the Western powers to grab the glory from a Somalia promise that has been brought about through an “African solution,” it is important that Africa can offer leadership.
At the end of the conference, Oxfam International issued a statement that, while correct in evaluating the outcome in bread and butter terms for the Somalis, curiously failed to note how it would not have happened without the actions by African forces on the ground.
“While we recognise the huge efforts of the UK government to make the conference a success, what we had hoped for was a recognition that 20 years of internationally imposed solutions have failed. However, what we’ve seen once again are externally driven solutions that haven’t worked, aren’t working and will not work.
“We anticipated the conference would offer hope to the millions of people hit by drought and conflict, and support to build a peace process that included a wide section of Somali society. What we got was the rhetoric of Somali inclusion but you cannot go forward with a new constitution and elections in such a troubled country without a wide and inclusive political engagement within Somali society.”
A sarcastic and dismissive report in the New York Times said, “Here on the ground, in scorching-hot Somali villages like Tabda, where people live in twig huts and stagger from shady spot to shady spot to avoid the wrath of the sun, there is laughing disbelief that any conference 4,000 miles away will solve anything.”
On the ground, though, the belligerents were fighting to milk the approaching conference for good headlines, and to position for a good seat at the table in a year or so, when optimists say most parts will “at least be half-stable.”
The Shabaab, who were pushed out of all districts of Mogadishu by the Ugandan and Burundian Amisom troops last year, made a spirited attempt to retake the city with their boldest offensive in months, and a string of terrorist bombs to make it seem ungovernable. President Museveni and Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza, not wanting to show up in London with egg on their faces, threw everything they had back at the Shabaab — and prevailed.
The TFG, especially Prime Minister Ali, went into a flurry of activity to show they were on top of the situation. Mr Ali also seems to have been aware that how he played his moment on the stage in London could secure him a future job as Somalia’s CEO. For the first time in 20 years, roads were marked and new street signs put up in Mogadishu. The government and Amisom then put out statements that, together with things like making the beaches safe enough for Mogadishuans to go and frolic for the first time in many years, were evidence that the city had finally returned to normal.
But it was Ethiopia, Kenya, and US President Barack Obama who perhaps played the most interesting game. Having lost face in the 2006 Ethiopian invasion, and having re-entered the fray late after Kenya’s foray in October 2011, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi sought a victorious entry in London. Two days to the start of the conference, Ethiopian troops in Somalia, together with some TFG forces, took the approaches to Baidoa, an Al Shabaab stronghold, and once the base of the TFG parliament.
A few hours before the conference started, the Ethiopians blitzed the city; the Shabaab scattered, and Zenawi had his triumphant headlines of the capture of Baidoa. He could afford to be cocky in London. Kenya did the opposite. It avoided capturing Kismayu port, inviting snide comments about the “snail’s pace” at which its campaign was proceeding. However, the Kenya army had been applying the squeeze on this most precious of Al Shabaab’s prizes, having choked off exports of charcoal to the Middle East and snuffed out the militant’s last source of rich resources, days after it had announced that it had formally joined Al Qaeda.
But Kenya was seeking an even bigger trophy. Afraid of being financially bled by holding down Kismayu for a long period and paying for it from its own pocket, Nairobi all but blackmailed the UN. It showed it could control events in Kismayu, and by actions suggested, “We can take Kismayu, but we need to know that the international community will pay for it. So how much do you want it?”
Though the African Union had voted to “re-hat” the KDF as Amisom, that was not enough, because the AU doesn’t have money to pay for Amisom. It gets it from the UN and Nato. The UN blinked first. On the eve of the London conference, the UN Security Council voted to unanimously authorise an increase in the Amisom force, from 12,000 to 17,700 and expand its areas of operation.
As the icing on the cake, it followed the Kenyan lead and also ordered a ban on the export and import of charcoal from Somalia, calling the fuel “a significant revenue source” for the Shabaab. The Somalia government banned the export in January 2011, and a few weeks later arrested 14 Indians in Mogadishu whom of it accused of breaking the export ban. With the UN ban, for the first time charcoal has become an international issue.
With the UN Security Council vote secured, Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon could travel to London, comfortable in the knowledge that he would not be embarrassed by criticism that the organisation was dragging its feet on Somalia.
The morning after the conference, reports came in from Kismayu that about eight boats had docked there, and taken out 300 foreign Al Shabaab militants to Yemen. Whether that signalled that Kenya had started the final onslaught on the port city, now that the UN vote was in the bag, will soon be clear.
Days earlier, Kenya Defence officials told The EastAfrican that Nairobi was planning to enter into talks with the US to let it have some of the weapons from its recently ended Iraq deployment. When late news came that US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was travelling to London for the conference, and that the usually reticent President Kibaki, who is not a great fan of travel to the UK, was also going, speculation broke out that he and Clinton were to negotiate the “Iraq deal.”
For Clinton, President Obama had taken care of a difficult matter in Somalia at the end of January. An American aid worker, Jessica Buchanan, together with a Danish colleague, Poul Hagen Thisted, had been held hostage by militants inside Somalia since October 25, 2011. Obama authorised an operation in which US special forces, the SEALS, stormed a hideout in which militants were holding the hostages, killed nine of them, and flew them out to safety in waiting helicopters.
In 2007, in an action that was both hailed and denounced as the move of a crazy despot, Museveni became the first African president to send troops into Somalia under the Amisom hat. Burundi surprised even more when some months later, it also sent in a contingent. The price in lives for Burundi and Uganda’s troops has been high, but Museveni’s gamble has paid off.
Bigger and many times richer, continental powers like Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt remained frozen into inaction as Burundi stole the glory. Little wonder then that in the London photos, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan is not in the front row with the Musevenis, Kibakis, and Zenawis. He is in the second. The line-up at the conference gave a brief peek of what part of the present Africa power A-list looks like.
Without the February 23 date for the London conference, many of the things that have happened around Somalia in the past three months, would have taken another six to 12 months; if at all.
By Charles Onyango-Obbo
The East African
February 25, 2012