Foreign Policy Blogs

The Enigma of the London Conference on Somalia

Somalia's transitional prime minister, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali and David Cameron. Peter Macdiarmid/EPA

If there is any consensus on the nature and the outcome of the London Conference on Somalia – that brought together representatives of over 50 nations that included a number of Muslim nations – it must be the fact that it was a puzzling event that raised much speculation.

Now that the fanfare has ended, it is time for an objective appraisal. However, I must confess it would not be easy to remain steadfast in that quest when most—nations, groups, and individuals—already espoused one preconceived notion or another. Their notions were fueled into skepticism by traceless non-papers by UK and Italy that made their way to the public domain and had certain objectionable propositions. Whether by design or otherwise, the conference’s would be communiqué was subsequently leaked days before the actual event, an act that surely defused any potential for drama or manage emotive political impulses of the stakeholders and the populace.

Was the conference a success? Would it go down in history as the “turning point” on the seemingly endless Somali political and other related crises?

The answer, of course, depends on one’s perspective and expectations. Therefore, success remains fluid, both in definition and impact. However, it is fair to say that the outcome of the conference is a mixed bag of positives and negatives, though the former outweighs the latter.

International Community (IC) seems to have finally decided to reclaim its legitimacy from those whom it outsourced to since early 90s when Somalia was left to deal with its own problems, a dysfunctional outfit made of countries and interest groups with zero-sum interests that I call the Ghost-lords.

The conference, which by far was the largest gathering of nations to address Somalia’s political problem and the subsequent symptoms, gave the IC the right platform to reassert its moral authority. Furthermore, to underline its collective will to streamline the leadership piloting this direct engagement process and maintaining its momentum.

How is this new approach any different than the previous ones?

First, at least in theory, there seems to be a change in the method of operation in dealing with Somalia. “We are not here to impose solutions on a country from afar. Nor are we here to tell you, the Somali people, what to do. But rather, we’re here to get behind your efforts and help you to turn things around,” said UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

The agency or the catalyst force towards lasting peace and reconciliation must be indigenous. The aim must be to marshal all parties to the conflict into a new threshold and a new frame of mind that requires holistic inclusiveness, positive thinking, sincere negotiations, and benevolent compromise. It must be a genuine effort lead by Somalis for Somalia.

Second, the conference brought Somaliland as a stakeholder. While it was granted the recognition it very well deserved for its accomplishments in the past two decades since it declared secession, it (as well as all other Somali political actors) was reminded that the fate of the Somali people within the broken State known as Somalia is interdependent. And the onus to reach out for dialogue rests upon the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

It is time for the TFG to step outside its comfort zone and seek political dialogue with their brethren in Somaliland. This could be done through direct engagement, or by way of mutually agreed upon peace facilitating committee. The committee must be made of credible, non-partisan men and women of impeccable record.

The conference is, at best, a skeleton and an initiative with great potential, though not without certain weaknesses. For example, the conference down played the importance of rebuilding the Somali security apparatus. It created a Joint Financial Management Board, but limited its duty to guard the crumbs and not the cookies. They are charged to “eliminate diversion of revenues” by internal corrupted individuals (good news), but are not to scrutinize how the notoriously corrupted international institutions charged in the Somali affairs handles the $1 billion donated to Somalia each year in foreign aid. Corruption must be dealt with in all levels, regardless of the perpetrators.

The conference calls for ending the charcoal trade and highlighted the importance of dealing with the piracy and investing in building the judicial system of Somalia, but made no mention of the illegal toxic waste dumping and hyper-fishing by international profiteers.

Furthermore, in a decision that clearly contradicts its reaffirmation that the political process should be left to the Somalis, the conference took a clear position declaring the Transitional Federal Parliament members who exercised their authority and followed the democratic process to vote out their Speaker are considered “Spoilers” of the peace process who should be sanctioned.

And lastly, the conference rejected any possibility of making a space for al-Shabaab to join the political dialogue, thus giving endorsement to the continuation of the current military option lead by AMISOM, Ethiopia and the TFG force along with the US’ “Drone Diplomacy”.

Understandably, from the modern day military strategic perspective, you do not engage your enemy in a dialogue when they are at their weakest point (al-Shabaab has been on a losing streak for several months now). However, this surely flies in the face of the Islamic perspective that keeps the space for dialogue and peace negotiation readily available for any group or nation ready to fill that space. And this could trigger an internal backlash that could undermine the holistic peace process that the conference was to inspire.

In order for the London Conference to reach its potential, certain level of tweaking must be applied between now and the second phase conference scheduled to take place in Istanbul on June. And Turkey, as a nation that delivered the most tangible services and earned profound public confidence and political capital in Somalia should lead the facilitation effort.

  • Les Stansbery

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts in auch a timely manner.

    It isn’t clear from the paper whether anything worthwhile was accomplished by the London conference. Everything now seems to be on hold until June in Istanbul. An historical analysis of Somaliland and a projection of what might be its futfure relationship with Somalia and other nations – – at least those in the neighborhood – – could provide a small measure of hope in an otherwise dismal perspective.

    • Abukar Arman

      Thank you, Les. Considering the 6 or so hours that was allotted to deal with one of the most complex political cases in the 21st century, some might argue that a lot has been accomplished in the changing of the guards, redefining the Somali political dilemma holistically, allowing the Somali people to rekindle their traditional judicial system of peacemaking or Xeer (pronounced as heer). It is part of what Prof. Ali Mazrui was describing as “Governance without government”. It was great seeing you at that CCWA event.

  • Yusuf

    Great layman’s perspective of the conference. As a representative of the TFG what was your plan for the conference and how are you going to implement its reolutions? I would have loved to hear the position of the Western backed government that is representing Somali…what is the Somalis agenda in the meeting should be the other question – shade more light on the core objective of going to London. Hopefully, you will address these questions in the future as an insider!!!

    • Abukar Arman

      Dear Yusuf, the plan was made by UK and IC, and the agenda was strictly limited for obvious reasons (time being one). Key participants were given a few minutes to say a few words. The official position of the TFG is to continue the current process and to uphold the Kampala Accord, the Road Map, Garowe and Garowe II outcome. Though the conference symbolically recognized these steps, it made it clear that the process was not complete, as it did not include Somaliland.

      Whatever objective that the TFG had, the rules of the game seems to have changed.

  • AA

    “In order for the London Conference to reach its potential, certain level of tweaking must be applied …”

    Pray tell, who you think ‘must’ do this????

    • Abukar Arman

      I suppose those who have the authority to speak and act on behalf of the IC.

  • Khalif Ahmed

    What was the objective of the conference for Somalia? what were the top 2-3 substantive goals achieved for Somalia ? who is going to do what and when?
    The Objectives were as follows:
    a) The International community engagement with “sub-national” (1) entities or “local-entities”, the British code for tribalism, and the these entities role at the Somali nation level. The “sub-national entities” level is a diplomatically polite, sugar coated clan-oriented exercise. This is equivalent to the US state department “dual-track”(2) policy, a similar code word for tribalism. Both policies are counterproductive and enhance perpetual conflict and diminish national Somali cohesion and inhibits emergence of national political leadership. There is no evidence such a divisive clanism have worked for the Somalis at any time during the past two decades or prior to independence of 1960 for centuries. So why sugar coat a trail as destructive as clanism for the Somalis in the 21st century?
    b) The second objective in the conference presented two mutually exclusive troubling and conflicting “policies” : to nurture “local-entity” or “dual-track” as well as “national government”. it is suffice to say that this is a road map for the dissolution of the Somali Political State as we know it and reduces the Somalis to a voiceless cultural community among the world community. This Policy was illustrated to show case prior to the conference the “divisions” among the Somalis by inviting over three hundred Diaspora participants in a four hour televised show in London coupled with a blog. This violates the basic fundamentals of holding an effective meeting to find a solution to a vexing problem. We have never seen any meeting in the world where a problem with such a magnitude is resolved in such a manner. There was no feedback on any of the blog inputs were considered either.
    c) The” leadership” invited was not inclusive by any stretch of the imagination, but it was justifiably a segment of the Somali Society; the perception of the general Somali population is: theTFG “President” , “Parliament Head” and “the Prime Minister” are happy for being allowed to attend the meeting only.

    c) lastly , the conference declined to build the Somali Defense Forces to stand against the extremist religious groups. This perpetuates the dependency of Somalia on the bordering aggressive proxy states and the poorly trained Africans; and civilian casualties will continue growing. The Mayhem will persist and 450,000-750,000 defenseless Somalis have just starved to death or killed for the past 9 months.
    The Somali people are generally thankful for the British Prime Minister efforts to spearhead the conference of 23rd Feb 2012 on Somalia and to the world communities participants but the bleeding of Somalia is continuously not mitigated. There are my questions and apprehensions about what is in store for Somalia than this conference indicated.

    2) USAID under the Somalia Dual Track Policy

    • Abukar Arman

      Dear Khalif,

      You raised interesting points. And judging from the conversations that I have been having with various Somali individuals of all ages, your concerns are shared by many.

  • Yusuf

    Thanks for your timely response, Arman. I think that’s where the problem lies exactly – the usurping and steering of Somali problems by non-Somalis. And of course the failure of the Somali leadership including the one you represent to come up with a Somali road-map. I still maintain that all the accords that lack a Somali creation – by Somalis for Somalis will end nowhere – as all govts before Sheikh Sharif’s. I will leave the inclusion of Somaliland to another discussion.

    Basically, I am saying we need a Somali initiative where the people of Somalia are a part and parcel of the road map. The failure of the current govt is running around around and operating without an agenda and a vision – that the normal world calls a plan – is just dangerous to its survival – and its people will continue to suffer. The ingredient for this plan mostly are transparency and accountability – and mostly the believe in a mission – a Somali mission of saying enough is enough.

    I beg to challenge you to hold mini conferences in the US to gauge the tempo of the people. I assume that’s what an envoy will normally do. Hold town meetings and let the people tell the TFG what they feel about it. August is round the corner and of course the IC will hurriedly fund the so called “democratic” elections that will take us back to square one. Please, before such funds are expended on unwarranted elections, make use of this opportunity to “herd” the Somali refugees and IDPs back home, create an environment that basic life can come back, open up Mogadishu to the people, and lastly for God’s sake ask the govt to create a mechanism that’s based on the literal world – write up what needs to be done – I know this is not something the two Sharif’s can deliver, but the gazillion presidential advisers and the PM can easily draft including yourself (Borrow a leaf from Museveni’s 10 point program – that has made Uganda such a power house – you remember Museveni’s 12 minutes or so speech in London?). Bring to the people a tangible plan – something we can tear apart – not hearsay and behind closed door “Arte” meetings.

    I believe with some sacrifice from your generation, something can come out as we embark on 3 decades of being called a failed-state. A visionary leadership that makes its hands dirty is my only call…so far the Somali leadership hasn’t shaded its sunglasses and suits to get down to work. Are you willing to leave a legacy? The ball is in your court…history will harshly judge and condemn you Mr. Envoy.

    • Abukar Arman

      Yusuf, I take your criticism ad counsel to heart. You and I agree on a number of issues and that is very encouraging.
      On the leadership issue: as our problem is not single-faceted, neither is our leadership failure. Our leaders have failed us in the collective sense- political, social, religious, civil society, intellectual, etc. And until we come to accept that, each sector would be engaging in that all too familiar blame game at a time when our dying State needs “visionary leadership that makes its hands dirty” from all of these sectors of the society. Somalia needs all of us.

  • Mohamed F Yabarag

    Ever since I watched your debate with professor Samatar, I am on the opinion that you have the Somali interest genuinely at your heart. On the Somali conference in London, this is really the turning point because Somalia has never been discussed properly at international level. We were always kept in the dark rooms of IGAD. Moreover, this conference has come at a time Somalis, both at home and in the Diaspora, are beginning to realise that the time to save Somalia is now.

    However, I don’t for a moment believe that Al Shabaab should be part of any Somalia reconciliation now or in the future. This lot are simply there to kill, maim and destroy the country. Immediately after Sheikh Sharif was inaugurated as president in Djibouti, he extended an arm of friendship to his former colleagues and they rejected without providing any sound excuse whatsoever. As you said in your debate with professor Samatar, let us save the Somali patient that is still on operating theatre before anything esle. If the country is saved from Al Shabaab, I beleive the rest can agree. Time is running out of Somalis, we cannot affort to waste it anymore.

    • Abukar Arman

      Mohamed, your generous compliment is humbling indeed. To get all readers on the same page, here is the link to the debate that you referenced

      Per al-Shabaab and why I think they should be engaged: Contrary to the common perception, al-Shabaab is not a monolithic extremist enterprise, and to deal with them as such is not only a counter-productive strategy, but a sure way to perpetuate the nihilistic ideology of a few of its members. In addition to these few (who should be dealt with whatever means necessary,) the current al-Shabaab is made of mixture of survival-driven youth, misguided youth, frustrated nationalists, ethnic-enthusiasts, political-opportunists, etc.

      ** If you haven’t read it already, here is a link to an article by Prof. Afyare Elmi and Journalist Abdi Aynte arguing in favor of dialogue with al-Shabaab:
      Negotiating an End to Somalia’s War with al Shabaab

  • Amina Daud (Timayare)

    My dear Somali brothers,

    You talk and talk and talk but you do not walk the talk! What we need in Somalia is a group of people who are honest, reliable and able to lead the people out of this mess! A strong leader….who believes in a renaissant Somalia…have you got one? Who can lead Somalia that is the question for now? We do not need imposed leaders, we do not need shaiks and sharifs who are unreliable and who have a history we all know! We are no fools…..we are fed up and tired of all these talks!

    • Abukar Arman

      Thank you, Amina, for the cogent observation. In principle, I do agree with your assessment, though I wish you would not exclude sisters like yourself from the process of finding competent leadership for every sector (social, political, economic, and religious) of our society.