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Can a US-backed gathering of Somali clan elders really rescue the failed state?

by Ali Mohamed
Sunday, July 29, 2012

Can a US-backed gathering of Somali clan elders really rescue the failed state?

LEWIS CENTER, Ohio — This month, the Somali clan elders are convening in Mogadishu for a United Nations-sponsored peace and reconciliation effort to craft a “road map.” Their daunting task: selecting delegates that will try to ratify a new constitution, elect parliament, and form a new government, at the end of the “transition” in mid-August.

Although the gathering is encouraging, most Somalis have little or no faith in the US-backed “road map” process designed to lead Somalia into stability. Instead, the meeting is more likely to bolster and legitimize the nominal Somali government while Somalis are ravaged by violence and self-interested neighbors.

Moreover, Somalis resent America’s counter-terrorism strategy of relying heavily on Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda to stabilize Somalia; Somalis see these front-line countries as perpetuating the Somalia quagmire under the guise of fighting terrorism for their own self-interest.

For example, Uganda contributes to the Somali mission and, in return, receives money, training and weapons. Ethiopia and Kenya, which have a large Somali ethnic and Muslim population, have more strategic aspirations. With American support, they want to keep Somalia fragmented because they view a strong Somalia, as a threat to their own national security.

On the other hand, the recent Turkish government efforts to ease the humanitarian disaster won the hearts and the minds of Somalis, especially Mogadishu residents. Turkish aid organizations delivered aid, drilled boreholes for water, built or renovated, schools, clinics, and did some basic infrastructure projects in Mogadishu.

However, the Turkish humanitarian contributions, along with African Union military gains against al-Shabaab, would be like putting a bandage on a gaping wound. Nothing will change in southern Somalia as long as political actors, warlords, and pirate kingpins continue to squabble among themselves over the spoils of foreign aid or factional differences.

By contrast, Somaliland entity, the northern part of Somalia (former British Somaliland) that declared its independence on May 18, 1991, is peaceful and the level of stability is impressive. The local indigenous clans built pluralistic political institutions that are organic. Two presidential polls took place with a peaceful transfer of power, one in 2003 and another in 2010. Despite its achievements, Somaliland’s independence has been not recognized because the United Nations and the US State Department still pretend Somaliland is a part of the failed state of Somalia.

For decades, the international community made more than 16 attempts, including foreign military interventions, to establish a central government in Mogadishu — the ground zero of the failed state of Somalia. None of those interferences achieved success. In fact, America gave up on Somalia after the death of 18 US Rangers in the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” tragedy. After 9/11, everything changed, including America’s decision to limit involvement in Somalia to a narrow focus on counter-terrorism and more recently, combating piracy.

Somali clans are not religion-based. With their nomadic lifestyle and strong clan-based system, they are more interested in controlling scarce resources: grazing land and water, and political power. The majority of Somalis practice moderate forms of Islam; they are not jihadists and they have little interest in the ideology of the militant Islamist group, al-Shabaab.

In addition, Somalia has become the graveyard for massive aid and many untenable UN political initiatives, including the “road map.” In these international efforts, little attention was paid to the most pressing issues for ordinary Somalis: the need for a sustainable and pluralistic political framework that would satisfy all stakeholders, including the Islamists. A more inclusive and organic peace not only has a better chance of success than political fixes imposed from the outside, but might also lead to long-term stability and good governance.

I have met no Somalis who believe a credible and functioning government would emerge from the “road map,” as it is presently drafted. Most Somalis would view such a new government as a puppet, beholden to foreign governments with its security and survival dependant indefinitely on African troops.

Instead of imposing on Somalis the hopelessly corrupt and incompetent Somali government or its replacement, President Obama should do the right thing: support and recognize the one source of strength, Somaliland. Diplomatic recognition would allow Somaliland to engage the international community, and would offer it increased opportunities for investment, trade and economic growth.

For the rest of the former Republic of Somalia, the best hope seems to be for the international community to support more robust Turkish intervention, including the immensely difficulty mission of fixing Somalia. Somalis view Turkey as a neutral and positive force that could manage the Somali conflict better than the proxy African countries.


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