An international peace conference for Somalia last weekend, hosted by the Turkish government, generated cautiously optimistic statements from top U.N. officials. But nearly 3,000 miles away from the conference in Istanbul, in the streets of Mogadishu, the militant group al-Shabaab made a particularly audacious move: firing mortars at the presidential palace. The attack spurred a response from African Union peacekeepers and sparked a battle in which as many as 20 people died.
The timing of the attack underscored the challenge that Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, and the international community propping it up, face. Al-Shabaab controls much of the country, save a few blocks in the capital, and has recently set its sights on the few symbolic and strategic institutions controlled by the government. Earlier this month, Shabaab launched mortars at the Parliament during its first session of the year, killing at least seven people and wounding dozens more. The group has also attacked the capital’s airport and seaport.
The head of the A.U. peacekeeping mission AMISOM dismissed Shabaab’s vow to overtake the presidential palace, saying the insurgents are “blowing hot air,” but he added that the mission wouldn’t take the threat lightly.
Meanwhile, in spite of the events unfolding in Somalia, U.N. special representative for Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah called the Istanbul conference a “major breakthrough.” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon commended the Transitional Federal Government for “some progress toward stability” and said that the fragile government represents the “best chance in years to escape from the endless cycle of war and humanitarian disaster.”
One unique feature of the conference was the presence and significant attention given to the Somali business community. The U.N. representative for Somalia noted that one of the key aims of the conference was “to begin building viable economic structures in Somalia that will sustain peace and stability.” But here again, the disconnect with the reality on the ground in Somalia is notable.
The participation of so many high-ranking diplomats (the U.S. sent its top diplomat for Africa, Ambassador Johnnie Carson) signaled a promising level of commitment from governments and international institutions to confronting Somalia’s challenges, but as always, the follow-through on pledges made in the culminating Istanbul Declaration remains a significant open question. Even in the declaration’s bland diplomatic-speak, the frustration over unfulfilled commitments from previous high-level forums came through:
The Conference noted the existence of several outstanding commitments made in previous forums on Somalia and urged the Transitional Federal Institutions and the International Community to implement them.
And a few lines down:
[The conference] emphasized the importance of coordinated, timely and sustained support from the international community and appealed for the prompt and timely disbursement of funds pledged in support of the Somali security institutions.
In related news, a piece in today’s Washington Post puts a spotlight on another set of religious warriors in Somalia, the Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa, which has recently logged some military successes against al-Shabaab. In March, Ahlu Sunna signed an agreement to work alongside the fragile Somali government. At the conference in Istanbul, this arrangement with Ahlu Sunna was often held up as a potential model for the government to pursue with other armed groups.
Photo: Somali militiaman (AP)