Our engagement policy with the neighboring countries can slide us back into chaos
by Sharif Mohamed Haji
Thursday, July 04, 2013
In the past two decades and so, there was never a consensus on any type of military involvement in the Somalia. The country’s two decade plus of pull-push political discourse was filled up with either proponents of “military support”- as they will call it- that ensures to secures control of strategic resourceful geographical area. Or, opponents of “military intervention” – as they will call it - that are weakened or at risk of jeopardizing its ambitions, political stakes, or economic gains. I don’t think there is a need for me to spell out the chronological history of foreign military interventions or support- whichever name you may give it- in Somalia.
Because of the globalized world, there has been continuous foreign interventions to Somalia (just like any other country), but what makes differences were perspectives of those proponents and opponents use when it comes the reasons behind such an intervention. Ethiopia, being a military giant in east Africa, and an ally with the US and many other western countries had a unique continually changing political position with and against any arising political ally in Somalia. Ethiopia had always placed its efforts to ensure that any political function controlling a geographical area- depending its political and strategic significance- remains a friend to Ethiopia, if this goes to otherwise, Ethiopia’s bulldozing signs in that particular geographical area was a surety. This was never constant but spiraling. Most of the warlords or transitional governments in the past twenty years used revolving political positions of friendship with or hostility against Ethiopia’s political position at any given time. This rotationally had thrown doubts not only on Ethiopia military backed influence, but entire neighboring countries’ role of engagement in Somalia at large. The three neighboring countries (Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti) were equally labeled under the description “Neighboring countries” in may forums, however, the intensity and magnitude of focus was always unequal. Questioning neighboring countries’ military intervention had highly heated up in the agenda of the last two conferences that gave birth to the last two TFGs presided by the late Abduladi Yusuf and Sharif Sheikh Ahmed respectively.
There were quite number of historical and pragmatic issues that led to have the engagement role of the neighboring countries questioned. To point out few, Somalia shares disputed borders with both Kenya and Ethiopia. The late Siad Barre government never recognized the borders with the two countries, and the school curriculum used to teach these border as a “false border”. Recently, there has been a reactivated marine border discussion with Kenyan government that is yet to be resolved. There is homogeneous population of the three countries that are predominantly pastoralist, crossing from border to the other with their livestock. These populations theoretically affiliate to the three countries concurrently irrespective of the border. The situation may overweigh with one country more than the other, however, the neighboring countries’ military and political influence has always been a heated subject in the discourse of Somalia politics and reconciliation processes. This was never resolved, not was deliberated but was let hibernate. Comprehensibly, there were other pressing issues. However, the key-sparking factor that constantly jeopardized peace processes of the last two decades is when one of the neighboring countries’ interests intersects with the national peace process. Will the interest of peaceful Somalia be put ahead of a neighboring country’s political, strategic and economical interest? This question was raised, unanswered and raised! But was it ever deliberated in order to have a clear consensus? The three countries, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti -understandably Djibouti has clear role of engagement and less sensitive interest but still falls under the definition “ neighboring” - have got military presence in different parts of the country. Ethiopia and Kenya are governed under a different mandate of the AMISOM, ironically, their reporting channels differ and the political offices are placed differently than the rest of the AMISOM troops in the country. Unless this is anecdotal, the clarity of the engagement is questionable or has some loops, and calls for an attention.
Just to make use of the latest controversial instances that exposed the lack of engagement policy with the neighboring countries. The removal of the former governor of Bay region who was perceived to be a faithful to the Ethiopian troops in the regions of Bay and Bakool infuriated the harmony of the two countries, leading to the loss of Hudur to Alshabab after Ethiopia troops pull out from the capital city of Bakool region. This reaction of the Ethiopian troops retreat from Huddur was explained by some observers as result of poor clarity of the Ethiopia and Somalia government interface, perceived roles and responsibility as well as the conflicting interest of the two. This was one great piece of case study that could inform the process of future engagement with the neighboring countries. Instead of focusing addressing this, the interior minister celebrated what he called “the democratic transition of the regional authority in Bay region”. This again raised the usual question of the role engagement. The Ethiopian troops in Baidoa threaten to withdraw at the time, which could have put at risk a handful of AMISOM personnel in the region. In addressing the matter, one-year extension of stay was negotiated for the Ethiopian army to cling the regional city of Baidoa.
Few days ago, after lengthy brokered and staged conversation that reached presidential level of the two Kenya and Somalia, the federal government openly condemned Kenyan troops in Kismayo for siding with one of the warring parties in the strategic port city of Kismayo. Why and why not, that is a different discussion, but coming back to the subject, the fuzziness of the neighboring countries’ role of engagement is causing quite number of divisions among the public un-intentionally. The Kenyan army in Kismayo’s engagement with the government is increasingly polarizing the public. The argument here is that, the government is taking a bit longer to work with its parliament and other respective international bodies to come up with a concrete strong piece of strategic framework that guides its engagement with the neighboring countries. I don’t mean that this does not exist nor I mean that a thought was not given at all, but this is not to the knowledge of many Somalis. Such this un-clarity to the public will create a vacuum that may not serve in the interest of the government to realize its goals. It is a bit naivety to blame a neighboring government’s political, economic and strategic interest; of course that is what is expected from any government. They need to serve for the interest of their respective country, why not? The niche here is the government’s strategies and clear policies that help enabling a mutual relationship and win-win situation for the respective interests of each side. There need to be some clarity on this front, not a retrospective engagement policies that are based on perspectives hence polarizing the public. The parliament has a role to address the problem by seeking a clear policy framework that guides government’s engagement with the neighboring countries. Somalia needs its neighboring countries more than they do need Somalia at this period of time. That is true, we need our neighbors. We can’t afford losing them, neither we can surrender our sovereignty. We need a fair balance, and having such a balance require a clear deliberated position that are flexible. If we fail to ensure a well thought strategic direction, we might end up sliding back to the warlordims with clan loyalty era.
So far, the government efforts put into the foreign relationship showed some fruition, however, emphasis were consolidated on other countries, quite a lot of time was understandably spent on countries like UK, Turkey, US and some others. Yes, these countries had appreciatively been willing to support Somalia get back to its feet. For sure, this time spent on these countries is an investment that will yield to a political, social, and economic return. Nevertheless, political investment in the neighboring countries will yield in return to a stronger security and stability; therefore, the need for clarity in our engagement with the neighboring countries should have a priority.
In light to that, the status quo role of engagement is less desirable; it demands a thoughtfulness that will bring a solution on the matter. Engagement with the neighboring countries that have boots on the ground ruined the former TFGs in the country. The recent development in Kismayo is already splitting the country into tribal chaos hence disturbing the gains made in the past few years. Somalia needs a very balanced strategic engagement with the neighboring countries. The recent examples of Kenya and Ethiopia military support did not exemplify a great relationship, yet they are playing a supportive role in the discourse of IGAD and other regional authorities. The time to have a direction is already past, as this political fuzziness can have far more damaging and soaring scars that will take longer to heal, something Somalia cannot afford after years of distraction.
Sharif Mohamed Haji