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Taking stock in Somalia

by Lawrence Gitonga Mwongera

On 20 August 2012, 217 out of an expected 285 delegates to the Somali parliament were sworn in at the Mogadishu International Airport under the heavy guard of African Union (AU) troops.

The new parliament did not vote in a president as widely expected. Once this is done, it will effectively bring an end to the Transitional National Government put in place eight years ago. The parliament is also expected to ratify the new Somali constitution created with the assistance of the AU, the United Nations and other interested players, including Kenya.

The constitution has been hailed by many as a huge step in the right direction for Somalia, and there is a sense of optimism among native Somalis as well as those in the diaspora. However, some doubt remains as to whether it will, in fact, be widely accepted.

Regional instability

Regional states affected by the instability in Somalia are also watching developments at this point with keen interest. Kenya has borne the brunt of the instability by receiving the majority of Somali refugees into its Dadaab refugee camp. Kenya already has a significant number of documented Somali nationals among its population, in addition to a large number of illegal Somali refugees. This has created a complex and expensive problem for Kenyan officials to manage.

In recent times, the Dadaab refugee complex has been a major source of insecurity in the region, since it has slowly been turned into a conduit and a “lie low” area by the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab militant group.

Ethiopia has been at conflict with Somalia on and off since the fifteenth century and in the last decade it has invaded Somalia twice. It presently has troops in Somalia involved in the current war against al-Shabaab. Uganda and Burundi are also interested in the current military initiative. According to reports, fleeing al-Shabaab militants have been turning up in Djibouti and Yemen.

International involvement

The international community has not been spared. Lack of government control in Somali has resulted in escalating piracy in the Indian Ocean. Somali has also been a fertile breeding ground for terrorism for some time and Washington is concerned by the link between al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda.

However, factors on the ground now indicate that the time may be ripe for international engagement on the stabilisation of Somalia.

During the recent African Union summit in Ethiopia, the AU made it clear that it intends to engage the anticipated new Somali government in reconstruction efforts. The AU, partnering with the European Union, USAID and other agencies, is also committing greater resources to the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

The United States has supported Kenya and Uganda in the military action in Somalia, as evidenced by the recent donation of drones to the two governments. In fact, Somalia was top of the agenda during Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Kenya. The US Secretary of State reassured officials that the United States would continue to offer financial support and expertise to help stabilise Somalia.

The EU is already involved through the naval force that has been patrolling the Indian Ocean. More importantly, other countries have been involved unilaterally and bilaterally. Turkey has been advancing many initiatives in Mogadishu, especially on the infrastructure front. Turkish Airlines was one of the first international airlines to re-establish direct flights to Somalia in October last year and has stuck with it even at times when it did not make economic sense to do so. Several European countries have offshore prospecting licenses through companies including Total and ENI. Iran is also establishing quite a presence in Mogadishu. The British High Commission is already showing interest in the recovered territories through its stabilisation unit in Nairobi. Rwanda and Kenya have both been involved and continue to show interest in helping to improve the capacity of the Somali police and military.

A note of caution

There are of course some misgivings. Some critics feel the constitution will not be binding because it is considered too foreign to win the support of Somalis. Some see it as too “western,” others consider it an imposition. Furthermore, the new parliament consists of clan representatives and not elected officials, calling into question just how representative it is. Some have accused Kenya and Ethiopia of trying to influence the final choice of president by the assembly. In fact, some analysts feel that these machinations are the real reason that the presidential vote was delayed.

The AMISOM force has made great strides in uprooting al-Shabaab. It is clearly a force on the run and its main lifeline port of Kismayu is under siege and expected to fall to AMISOM forces soon. Regional players such as Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, have developed or are in the process of developing effective mechanisms to ensure that the group – or any of its derivatives – does not settle down in their jurisdictions. However, it would be a grave error of judgement to assume that AMISOM will succeed in destroying al-Shabaab in the final expected attack on Kismayu. Many of its key players are either on the run or in hiding until the heat is over. The fact of the matter is that al-Shabaab is likely to survive in some form or another even after the taking of Kismayu and the change of government in Mogadishu.

When Ethiopia attacked Somalia four years ago it left in its wake a power vacuum that eventually led to the birth of al-Shabaab as we know it today. The risk is that the current “coalition of the willing” will repeat the same mistake.

A stable Somalia?

Somalia has been a failed state for the last twenty one years. During that time, many international, regional and bilateral initiatives have been put in place but none has been as successful as the initiators would have wished. The decision by the Kenya Defence Forces to pursue al-Shabaab into Somalia last October has either inadvertently or by design created a combination of factors that are favourable for placing Somalia on the path of lasting peace. Most important of these is the wide ranging support the current initiatives enjoy among Somalis – far more than any previous initiatives. Is Somalia on the eve of an historic turn of events?

This article by Open Briefing contributing analyst Lawrence Gitonga Mwongera was originally published by openDemocracy on 30 August 2012.