Somalia: The London Conference’s Opportunity
Somalia: The London Conference’s Opportunity
Somalia’s Stalling Fight Against Al-Shabaab and America's Wobbly Strategy
Somalia’s Stalling Fight Against Al-Shabaab and America's Wobbly Strategy
Commentary / Africa 3 minutes

Somalia: The London Conference’s Opportunity

After more than two decades of conflict in Somalia, renewed international interest, led by the UK, has created a rare window of opportunity to bring peace to this troubled country.

At the London Somalia Conference this week Prime Minister David Cameron will host senior representatives from over 40 countries. Delegations from Somalia, its neighbours Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, and from new global players like Turkey and the Gulf states, together with high-level officials from the United Nations, African Union (AU), European Union, World Bank, the East African regional organisation Inter-Governmental Authority for Development, the Organisation of Islamic Conference and the League of Arab States, will try to forge a unified response to the instability wracking Somalia and a political framework for when the current transitional government’s mandate expires later this year.

Leaders are seeking to capitalise on the recent weakening of Al Shabaab, the Islamist group allied to Al Qaeda. They also hope to take advantage of increased international attention on Somalia due to ongoing piracy and last year’s famine in the Horn of Africa, which is only slowly relaxing its grip and has thus far left 3.2 million in need of life-saving assistance.

Expectations for the one-day event are high. British Foreign Minister William Hague has said the conference comes at a “moment of opportunity”. Somalia’s Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali wants the conference to produce a “Marshall Plan” for the war-torn country. High hopes for a grand political, security, or development strategy for Somalia’s complex problems are, however, bound to be dashed. More likely to emerge is an incremental strategy that leaves the door open for further engagement and, hopefully, an eventual political solution.

International consensus is coalescing around a refusal to extend the mandate of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) – a body long riven by internal divisions and corruption – when its current term ends in August. What happens when TFG disbands, and the political structures that replace it, will be critical to whether Somalia can lift itself out of chaos.

A plan setting out how to stabilise the south and centre of the country is a priority. Al-Shabaab has been weakened but not eliminated. It can seek to regain strength by exploiting popular discontent with the TFG, its lack of progress, corruption and unwillingness to genuinely reach out and reconcile with other groups and sub-national entities. Ensuring that those areas newly cleared of Al-Shabaab are administered by legitimate local leaders, rather than corrupt TFG or abusive clan warlords, can further cripple Al-Shabaab, by sapping a major source of its support. Finalising discussions in London on a joint financial management body to promote transparency and accountability will also be crucial in building durable peace and a functioning state.

Somalis, persistently preyed upon by central authorities, don’t support state building from Mogadishu. Devolving power must therefore be a centrepiece of any successful agreement. But pushing disparate regions into a single decentralised framework would be unwise. Somaliland, a region autonomous since 1991, remains committed to independence –and Puntland, which also enjoys considerable de-facto autonomy, is unlikely to agree to join a federal government any time soon. Likewise, local authorities that emerge in the south and centre of the country will need to be accommodated once they have developed into viable sub-national governments.

Direct international support for these emerging local authorities is necessary to help them fill the vacuum left by advancing AU, Kenyan, and Ethiopian troops. A proposed local stability fund, if agreed, would serve to strengthen fragile local administrations. It could also help overcome their suspicion of a national government in Mogadishu and encourage their engagement in cooperative dialogue with other local entities.

Many Somalis fear that centralised security forces, including military, police, intelligence and the coast guard, would be dominated by a single clan and used to enforce its rule. Rather than concentrating on the central government’s military and intelligence services, donors should instead aim to professionalise local police and paramilitary that are accountable to legitimate subnational authorities.

While the Al-Shabaab threat brought a degree of unity to local and international efforts, the challenge now is for all participants in London to agree on a new political framework and principles for governing Somalia to go into force in six months time.

Neighbours Ethiopia and Kenya have important security concerns in the country. But representatives from various Islamic countries are uncomfortable with AU leadership they claim is dominated by Ethiopian and “Western” agendas at the expense of Somalia’s other partners in the Middle East and the Arab and Islamic worlds. The UK’s increased involvement reflects growing Western concern over the protracted crisis and its wider international implications. All parties must resist jockeying for influence if a comprehensive solution is to be agreed and successfully implemented.

The six months leading up to the expiration of the TFG’s mandate in August 2012 are crucial. If the international community can agree on a few core policies, the London Conference can lay the foundation for peace. If it cannot unify, however, Somali spoilers, who benefit from continued conflict and lawlessness, will exploit its divisions to maintain the status quo.

For more on this topic, see our Africa Briefing N°87 Somalia: An Opportunity that Should Not Be Missed or visit our Somalia Country Page

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