A rushed political process in Somalia now risks undermining the very unity government it seeks to promote and may inadvertently give momentum to radical Islamists.
Somali political figures are meeting this week in Djibouti in an effort to select a new, more inclusive Transitional Federal Parliament and a new President to replace Abdullahi Yusuf, who resigned under pressure in December 2008. This is a positive development, and if successful would represent an important step forward in promoting reconciliation and strengthening the role of political moderates while helping to marginalize hardliners and jihadists.
Given the importance of this exercise, it must be done properly and on the basis of intensive consultations with Somali civil society, traditional authorities, and military commanders on the ground. This consultative process is the only means to ensure greater buy-in from these important groups and create a new government that actually enjoys sufficient support that it can exercise genuine authority. Unfortunately, a range of both internal and external pressures are pushing to rush this process which will likely have very negative consequences.
Without the hard work of genuine political consultations among traditional leaders, civil society, and the different armed factions, any new government will lack legitimacy, and its selection will only further deepen divisions within Somali clans and other groupings — weakening their ability to mount a united front against the radical shabaab insurgency. Clans and military commanders who feel their views have not been considered could well switch allegiances and join the shabaab in an effort to defeat the new government. Rebuilding governance in Somali is fundamental to restoring peace, and the international community should understand that taking short-cuts will only undercut this important long-term strategy. The current Djibouti talks must avoid replicating the destructive pattern where the international community has lurched from short-term tactic to short-term tactic without an effective long-term strategy.
Enough calls on the UN and United States to press Somali political figures in Djibouti to set aside proposals that would create a new government in the next two days, and instead focus on reaching a limited agreement to amend the existing transitional charter to allow for a short extension of the current parliament and term of the temporary President. Although this is certainly not an ideal arrangement, it would buy vital time for leaders of moderate wings of both the Transitional Federal Government and opposition to engage in essential consultation with Somali constituencies over selection of new parliamentary members. Once adequate consultation has been undertaken, a newly formed transitional federal parliament will enjoy a level of legitimacy and support that is essential if its selection of a new President is to enjoy broad acceptance among the Somali population.
The Obama Administration has an important opportunity at the Djibouti talks to demonstrate a new approach to making peace in Somalia, one that values a culture of consultation and durable long-term solutions over the flawed logic of expediency.
The US also has important security interests at stake. At present, local clans and movements are actively fighting back against the jihadist shabaab movement in Mogadishu, preventing them from taking over real estate vacated by departing Ethiopian forces. From a US national security perspective, nothing should be done to weaken this trend. More precisely, nothing should be done to provoke tensions within Somali groups that are currently resisting shabaab. A rushed political process in Djibouti risks doing exactly that.