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London’s Somalia Conference: A Turning Point?

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London’s Somalia Conference: A Turning Point?

Posted by Laura Heaton on February 23, 2012

London's Somalia Conference: A Turning Point?

Just six months remain before the Somali Transitional Federal Government’s time is up to ready the country for more permanent governing structures and institutions after more than 20 years of civil war. Marking the start of that countdown, British Prime Minister David Cameron convened a high-profile conference today in London to map out plans for concluding the transition and rally support for the many costly initiatives currently underway inside Somalia.

The conference also comes at a significant moment militarily in the long war. African Union peacekeepers, working alongside the army of the Transitional Federal Government, or TFG, have chalked up some important recent victories against Somalia’s al-Qaeda linked al-Shabaab militia. Shabaab still controls large swaths of central and southern Somalia, but A.U. peacekeepers and the TFG now hold the capital of Mogadishu. While the threat from Shabaab has morphed—from street battles to guerrilla tactics like roadside bombs—and is far from defeated, control of Mogadishu carries significant value because it’s the place where all Somali interests and grievances converge.

“For decades, the world focused on what we could prevent from happening in Somalia—conflict, famine, terrorism,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who represented the United States in London. “Now, we are focused on what we can build.”

But what’s the good of a ‘transition’ that primarily focuses on surface-level tasks—in and of themselves no small feat in Somalia—like replacing the current leaders and building more representative, streamlined institutions? To Somalia expert Ken Menkhaus, such a process would produce little more than new names and faces but with “the same frustrating outcome.”

“Changes in political leadership and decision-making structures will have limited effect if no effort is made to weaken the political cartels and networks that work behind the scenes in Somalia to divert funds and stymie effective rule of law,” Menkhaus, a professor at Davidson College, wrote in a briefing paper published by the Enough Project today.

After seven years and with little to show for its tenure, the TFG has provided ample illustrations of how not to garner support of Somalis or build institutions and credibility to extend security and services beyond the limited areas controlled by foreign peacekeepers and government-aligned armed groups. The past several years have also showcased the apparent lack of understanding by many international-led efforts of the necessity for an inclusive, transparent process to ensure that Somali people—long wary of outside interventions—feel represented.

The delegates at today’s conference broadly acknowledged these pitfalls, firmly noting that “there must be no further extensions” of the TFG’s mandate and of the need to “spend more time on the ground in Somalia in order to work more closely with Somalis on the challenging tasks ahead.

So moving beyond Somalia’s big day in the spotlight, international efforts to help prepare for the end of the transition in August 2012 and pave the way for a government with a stabilizing effect on the country will have to strike a balance between keeping an eye on the calendar and encouraging dialogue and inclusivity to ensure Somali initiative and buy-in.

“Back-room deals and decisions driven by expediency and deadline-induced panic have been the norm over the past two decades of diplomacy in Somalia and have consistently produced failure,” wrote Menkhaus. Certainly, with just six months to go, the temptation to look for shortcuts will be strong.

Meanwhile, the London conference appeared to be a motivating factor for the United Nations Security Council to approve an African Union proposal to expand the AMISOM peacekeeping mission, raising the troop strength from 12,000 to nearly 18,000. After deliberating the expansion since December, the Security Council signed off on the plans yesterday, which, with a price tag of about $300 million, more than double the mission’s current budget. This move, too, consolidates pressure on the TFG and its successor, for as peacekeepers from an array of African countries risk their lives to roll back al-Shabaab, the Somali government must be ready to quickly step in and fill the void.

Photo: Two women and a boy walk in a residential neighborhood in Mogadishu (Enough / Laura Heaton)