When History is Not Made: The End of Somalia's Transition

The news of Ethiopian Meles Zenawi's death may have eclipsed the inauguration of Somalia's new parliament - an event the UN has called a 'watershed moment' in Somalia's history. But with political and security challenges still unaddressed in Somalia, the end of the transition may turn out to be forgettable for other reasons too.

It is being called a time of change in Somalia. For so long the country has been appended with the words 'world's most failed state'.  Now, there is optimism - both from within and without the country - that the years of state failure are over.

Only a few weeks ago, Mogadishu residents commemorated a year of relative peace and stability, the first in a long time. Twelve months since Al-Shabaab's withdrawal, the wave of reconstruction reshaping the battle-scarred capital has challenged the image of Mogadishu as a place of violence, poverty and despair. As Susan Schulman's photo essay in this month's RUSI Journal shows, Somalia's business community - a canary for stability - has set its mind on transforming the city. New hotels and restaurants are opening on the shorefront; there is street lighting courtesy of donor-funded solar cells and private generators; Bakara market, formerly the seat of Al-Shabaab, is abuzz with the sounds of everyday life.

Yesterday was another key milestone for the Somalia. Over two decades have passed since Somalia last had a functioning state infrastructure, more on some accounts. Now Somalia stands at the moment of reckoning. On Monday 20 August, a new parliament was sworn in during a twilight ceremony at Mogadishu's international airport. Presided over by the UN special representative, the ceremony symbolised the huge turnaround in the capital's fortunes. Twelve months ago, such a congregation would not have been possible. The city's improved security following Al-Shabaab's withdrawal heralded a tide of optimism that helped the transitional federal government (TFG) hobble to the end of its extended mandate.

From today, then, Somalia formally has a permanent political system. In reality, of course, little will change over the next few weeks. Monday was a guillotine on the TFG, but the 'transition' is far from over. The UN-brokered roadmap, which fleshed out essential targets due before the expiry of the transitional period, was not completed, and significant challenges - alarming in scale and number - have been deferred to the 'post-transition' period. Other cases, such as South Sudan, illustrate that the postponement of important tasks to an uncertain future rarely improves the terms: it calcifies positions and interests, increasing the costs of negotiation.

Legitimacy Now

Chief amongst these problems is the continuing absence of legitimacy and transparency in the political process, so long the Achilles' heel of efforts to bring peace to Somalia. The provisional constitution, now in place though due to be further examined at a later date, has been criticised for being a document crafted by outsiders, rushed through without sufficient time for debate. Such 'deadline diplomacy' is evident in the roadmap's other critical benchmarks. With ongoing fighting in Somalia's south-central regions, public elections were deemed impossible. The new government is thus being appointed by an assembly of clan elders, themselves the product of an opaque selection process. Many Somalis are asking who these supposed 'traditional leaders' are, questioning their pedigree and local links.

For MPs, a similar body - the National Constituent Assembly - was charged with appointing upstanding Somalis of sound mind and a high school education, according to the contentious 4.5 system of clan apportionment. Most have now been selected but the 30 per cent quota for women has not (yet) been met, and tales of bribery - including the purchase of seats for a just a few thousand dollars - have damaged this process. An oversight committee has reportedly weeded out former warlords, but many career politicians are likely to be reinstated - some of whom have been in ministerial or related offices since the Barre era. And despite the noisy campaigning by some presidential candidates, the possibility of a completely new face - indeed, of one of the female contenders perhaps - is slim. The presidency is now subject to intense politicking between competing clans. 

Rushing the appointment of new parliamentarians was an attempt to meet the terms of the transitional mandate, but the lack of attention to Somalia's complex political dynamics is storing up problems for the future. There was little alternative, however. Though the UN and other donors are calling yesterday's event 'historic', an 'unprecedented opportunity' and a 'watershed moment', the truth is that they made it clear that they would brook no further slippage and certainly no shift to the right on the deadline. Earlier in the year, the UN Secretary-General's special representative spoke strongly against unidentified 'spoilers', those who would threaten the process of change, a warning echoed by the new UK ambassador in recent weeks. Such language was partly in response to increasing international scrutiny of Somalia's state income: a controversial report by the UN Somalia Eritrea Monitoring Group, leaked in advance of its hearing by the Security Council, estimated that 70 per cent of monies to the TFG are unaccounted for.[1] Tackling corruption in Somalia is important, but the report put the TFG, particularly its president, on the back foot; and the charge of spoiler behaviour has constrained the space for legitimate dissent and constructive criticism, undermining inclusive political decision-making and representative leadership, two things that are integral to Somalia's next steps.

No Progress without Security

The fanfare for the new parliament also disguises the weakness of other vital elements of Somalia's forward trajectory, not least security. Though Mogadishu might be flourishing, there is still a war going on in Somalia. Not long after Al-Shabaab's withdrawal, it became clear that reports of a devastating split in its leadership had been exaggerated, and that the front line had not evaporated but shifted to the rural Shabelle and lower Juba regions still recovering from famine. Today, Al-Shabaab remains on the offensive, and there have been recent battles in civilian areas with Kenyan forces that are trying to clear and hold the south.

Al-Shabaab has reportedly welcomed Meles' death, anticipating that this will lead to the swift removal of Ethiopian troops that were instrumental in securing towns like Beledweyne and Baidoa during recent months. Though Ethiopian forces are not formally part of AMISOM, their withdrawal would be a propaganda coup for Al-Shabaab, and may also affect Kenyan operations, which have been conducted in a pincer-like movement, with Ethiopian soldiers on the northern flank. Kenya made the taking of Kismaayo, Al-Shabaab's final stronghold, its central objective, but Al-Shabaab has proved more difficult to dislodge than anticipated. It is no match for Kenyan, Ugandan and Burundian firepower but it is the unparalleled local expert of asymmetrical warfare. Somalia commentator Roland Marchal has warned that Al-Shabaab has used the last few months to and strengthen internal discipline, secure sanctuaries and reinforce supply lines in preparation for a re-launched insurgency. This is likely to take place both in the countryside and in Somalia's urban areas: Al-Shabaab's ability to infiltrate Mogadishu remains.

The government's troops are not ready to tackle Al-Shabaab alone, but AMISOM is becoming increasingly bogged down in local politics and mission overstretch. More generally, a climate of enmity and impunity prevails, with TFG troops accused of human rights violations, and general criminality slipping through the gaps in the justice system. Indeed, the fragility of law and order in Somalia is evident in the climate of distrust in which arrests are made on suspicion of links to Al-Shabaab. Somalis say that no one knows who is a member. Disarmament of the civilian population and demobilisation of both local militias (and perhaps eventually Al-Shabaab) are not proximately possible, however, calling into question the durability of any current political developments. Until there is security and justice in the south-central regions, there can be neither the return of Internally Displaced Persons nor the extension of the government's writ beyond the capital. Those are the real litmus test of progress in Somalia, and it is then that history will be made.

Anna Rader is an associate fellow of RUSI.

[1] ‘Letter dated 27 June 2012 from the members of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea addressed to the Chairman of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 751 (1992) and 1907 (2009) concerning Somalia and Eritrea’, available at Somalia Report.


Anna Rader

Associate Fellow

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