Will Djibouti Do the Trick?
Will Djibouti Do the Trick?
Somalia: Making the Most of the EU-Somalia Joint Roadmap
Somalia: Making the Most of the EU-Somalia Joint Roadmap
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Will Djibouti Do the Trick?

Peace deals are always enthusiastically welcomed in war-ravaged countries. This has naturally been the case with the June agreement signed by the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia and the moderate minority from the rebel Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia. 

But while this is a significant move for a country suffering nearly a generation of chaos and warlordism, we need to cool our optimism for its overall impact on the situation because it excludes those who have gained much ground in recent months, the Al-Shabaab militant group. This deal may be a first step, but it is only one step.

The result of intense negotiations in Djibouti under the auspices of the United Nations, this agreement is widely acclaimed and has generated much needed enthusiasm for the Somali peace process within the international community, both Western and Arab, and to some extent in Somalia. On June 9, in their first direct encounter, the transitional government and the alliance agreed to stop all armed confrontation within 30 days for an initial period of 90 days, and Ethiopian troops backing the transitional government are to withdraw after the deployment of UN forces. While this is all very cheering, the agreement not only holds considerable flaws, but the reaction to it also demonstrates the discrepancy between the political track, which has caused a wave of excessive euphoria among diplomats, and a humanitarian and security situation that is probably the worst on the continent.

Somalia has been in conflict for 17 years. According to the United Nations, 2.5 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, 750,000 of which have been displaced from Mogadishu over the last 15 months, thereby leaving the country with the largest concentration of internally displaced people in the world. Humanitarian access to affected populations is ever more limited, with abductions having become a considerable risk for local and international aid workers in Somalia. Over 380 roadblocks currently hamper their access, increasing security risks and costs, and delaying the movement of goods. In the two weeks following the signature of the agreement, more than 40 civilians were killed in Mogadishu, and another 39 were killed on Tuesday in fresh fighting in the capital and the central region of Somalia. Twelve aid workers currently remain in captivity.

This dire situation is the result of violent confrontation between the transitional government troops backed by their Ethiopian allies on one side and several groups of insurgents on the other. The fact is, the transitional government has failed to establish security in any part of the country, and the signatories do not control the main belligerent forces on the ground. Hence, the Djibouti agreement alone is unlikely to significantly improve security or to contribute to the release of those abducted.

Second, the implementation of the agreement hinges on the deployment of a peacekeeping force within a timeframe that is unrealistic and unfeasible. Volunteer troops will hardly rush to Somalia and, even if they eventually arrived, there is no chance they would be up and running within three months, let alone effectively making a difference to the security situation. If ever they were, a vague sentence in the agreement could still leave the door open to an Ethiopian presence on Somali soil. Indeed, the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops is envisioned to take place only "after the deployment of a sufficient number of UN forces." But what is "sufficient," and who is to judge it? Delays and thus continued fighting will remain a reality.

To be sure, a multinational peacekeeping force is much needed, but it will only contribute to peace if it is part and parcel of a viable inclusive peace process, and if it has a robust mandate, adequate equipment and well-trained troops to meaningfully accompany such a process.

The final weakness of the Djibouti agreement is its absentees: the Islamist Al-Shabaab militants, the remnants of the Union of Islamic Courts movement and the stridently anti-Ethiopian part of the alliance who boycotted the Djibouti talks. It is all the more hasty to celebrate the agreement knowing that these groups' popularity and military power have only been growing over the past months. Al-Shabaab and the alliance-related militias are now moving in and out villages and towns in southern Somalia meeting little or no opposition from transitional government forces. Al-Shabaab is even filling in administrative gaps in areas it controls and is trying to revive its own version of Shariah law and order.

Without these more radical groups, a realistic peace process seems difficult if not impossible. This has become more complicated, however, after the US designated Al-Shabaab a terrorist organization, and the UN delegation subsequently failed to push for more inclusive talks, which would have yielded better chances of success.

The international community has chosen to get involved in Somalia after years of zero strategic engagement. It now has to push strongly to turn this first step into a significant one. For that purpose, pressure is most needed on two fronts. A clear plan and a phased timeline for Ethiopian withdrawal should be top of the agenda. A multinational stabilization force with a revised mandate should therefore rapidly be deployed. This could help on the second front: the inclusion of all actors in the peace process. Al-Shabaab elements might be key to its success or failure, and excluding them would only decrease any chance the process has to succeed.

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