10 Oct 2012

Can 2012 offer a happy ending for Somalia?


Think of Somalia as a child ruled by irresponsible parents, with the UN as its social services. Jamal Osman asks if the strife-torn country can convince investors it is now ready to look after itself.

Think of Somalia as a child ruled by irresponsible parents, with the UN as its social services. Jamal Osman asks if the strife-torn country can convince investors it is now ready to look after itself.

Since the beginning of the year, Somalis have been saying: “This is our year.”

They wanted a change, saw the chance, and overcame the first obstacle. With a new president, prime minister and parliament in place, the situation looks promising for the first time in over two decades.

Somalis are tired of the conflict and are generally willing to solve their differences peacefully. More importantly, the timing couldn’t be better.

For decades, with the help of the west, neighbouring countries – especially Ethiopia and Kenya – have been working against the interest of the Somali people. After all, they funded, trained and armed the rebel groups that overthrew the last functioning government of Somalia, in 1991.

And they continue their obstruction by supporting various warlords and clan militias. Simply, they want a weak and divided nation, and to some extent have achieved that. You may ask yourself: why?

Legacy of European colonialism

It’s primarily a territorial dispute and the legacy of European colonialism. The artificial boundaries created by colonial rulers had a devastating impact on the region. The Somali territory was divided into different countries.

Apart from their current military presence in the country, Ethiopia and Kenya both “occupy Somali territories”. The Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia is inhabited by Somalis. Equally, the north eastern province of Kenya is inhibited by Somalis.

It means members of the same family were kept apart by the border demarcations. And the natural struggle to bring the Somali society under the same flag has proved disastrous.

Somalia went to unsuccessful wars against the neighbours to reclaim the territories.

Yet Somalis have never given up the dream of a greater Somalia (though they now realise it could be achieved through peaceful means), and the neighbours are fearful of a powerful Somali nation, which may attempt to fight again. So it’s in their interest that Somalia remains ineffective, politically and militarily.

To Somalia’s advantage, Ethiopia and Kenya are currently facing their own internal difficulties.

Ethnic power struggle

We may not hear much about it, but there’s a power struggle within the country’s various ethnic groups. With the Kenyan election next year and reports of ethnic clashes, it’s a sign of a trouble to come. The in-fighting will distract them from Somali affairs.

In addition, the western powers, who were giving unconditional support to Kenya and Ethiopia in keeping Somalia at bay, are now flexible with their policies towards the region. The rise of Islamism, piracy and the influence of the Somali diaspora have all played part.

Unlike Ethiopia and Kenya, the international community seems to have now realised that it’s in their interest to have a stable Somalia.

In particular, due to the rising influence of Muslim nations like Turkey, America and Europe want to have their dominance in this strategic corner of Africa. Considering these prospects, the new Somali government should make the most of it.

Need to negotiate

But in the immediate term, it needs to start negotiating with the Islamists, al-Shabaab.

While the group has been weakened, it’s not been defeated. And continuing the fighting would cause years of bombings, destruction and the loss of Somali lives. That must stop.

Government leaders are related to al-Shabaab commanders, grew up with and are in regular contact with them, on a personal level.

To find ways of convincing everyone, Somali leaders need to be shrewd politicians and clever operatives. It’s just a matter of being pragmatic and having the interest of the Somali nation at heart.

Reaching a ceasefire with the Islamists should be the priority. One of the first conditions al-Shabaab would demand is the withdrawal of the African Union (AU) troops. This puts the Somali government in a tricky situation.

Struggles without foreign help

On the one hand, it cannot survive without the support of the foreign forces. On the other, to reach a lasting peace the president has to face the AU and say: “Thank you very much for all your help. Can you please now leave us to solve our differences?”

If a timetable is set for the withdrawal, bringing al-Shabaab on board should be the next move. This could be really a bonus for the government. It has no effective public servants including police forces. And to build the national force will take years.

However, the Al-Shabaab group operates like a functioning state.

Well-trained members

It has formed all the different departments a country should have. Its members are well trained, disciplined and less corrupt. Thousands of them could just walk into their respective positions.

I would even go as far as offering them ministerial posts (except foreign and justice) because they will do a better job. Many of the Somali parliamentarians are qaat-chewers, a stimulant drug. Imagine if drug users were running your country. Would they make the right decisions while on a high? In contrast, al-Shabaab fighters lead a drug-free lifestyle.

Finally, the new government has to deal with the mighty UN.

Various UN agencies have been camping inside and outside the country for many years. Donor nations channel their funding through the UN Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS).

The organisation acts as the intermediary and, in reality, runs the country.

Like a bad child

Somalia is like a child with bad, abusive and irresponsible parents (leaders).

The UN is performing the role of social services and it took custody of the child (Somalia). It gets funding from the central government (international community) to look after the child.

Therefore, running Somalia is a big project for UN workers. For many, they don’t want to lose the custody of the child.

It’s as if the conflict is never going to end.

In order to remove the middleman from the scene and to have that child back, the Somali government needs to convince donors that it’s capable of using the donor’s money properly and eventually looking after its “family”.

Once the middleman is out, more money will fall directly into the hands of Somali authorities.

More Somalis will return to the country to make a positive contribution in rebuilding the nation. International investors will follow. Somalia will be peaceful forever after. We all love a happy ending story. Why not for Somalia?