At long last, the fragile state of Somalia seems to be slowly resurfacing from a searing bout of violence and humanitarian crisis. Interestingly, the light at the end of this decades-long tunnel is not burning at the behest of the United States or the United Nations; rather, it burns because Somali leaders, both within the government and without, have banded together. Frustrated by failed foreign interventions, they are now seeking sustainable Somali-based solutions.
The key to success, going forward, is to keep it Somali-led. Further intervention from neighboring Ethiopia or the United States will be ruinous. Leaders in Addis Ababa and Washington would do well to withdraw completely, then wait and watch — returning only if summoned by the new Somalia.
Recent talks between Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the latest iteration of an opposition movement, the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS), indicate the solution to the country’s conflict lies in internal, decentralized negotiations.
Somalia hasn’t been well served by the centralized system established by the Ethiopia-friendly, non-representative TFG in 2004. By 2006, local Islamic leaders were beginning to fill the void, much to the chagrin of America’s “War on Terror” camp (led by State Department Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazier). In response, rather than examining the successes of local Islamic leadership — enhanced security, increased attention to health care and education, reduced drug-trafficking — U.S. fighter planes and Ethiopian troops chose instead to pummel them. The attacks, a combination of airstrikes and aggressive ground raids, were so devastating that in 2007 the TFG’s deputy prime minister accused Ethiopian troops of committing genocide.
One year later, after another unsuccessful run at good governance by the Ethiopian-controlled TFG, the Islamic opposition has returned — under the guidance of moderate Sheikh Sharif Ahmed — and is busy brokering agreements with the TFG in nearby Djibouti. The talks have produced a unity government, complete with a new parliament and a new cabinet. Time will test the true mettle of the TFG on this commitment: Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein promised the new cabinet would be activated this month. Key additional components of the agreement included a cessation of hostilities, a ceasefire, and the removal of Ethiopian troops — all of which, it is worth noting, wouldn’t have been possible under the watchful eye of Washington.
Healing Political Wounds
Who then ushered in the collaborative climate necessary for a TFG-ARS consensus, if not the United States? The tragic and enduring humanitarian crisis — triggered by violence that killed 10,000 civilians and displaced over one million in two years — certainly helped to begin the healing of political wounds. Nearly half of Somalia’s population is starving and the stage is set for a famine on par with the horrific hunger that ravaged the Horn of Africa in the early 1990s. The TFG and the ARS likely recognized that the governed would soon be ungovernable due to burgeoning insecurity. Although politically undesirable, drastic measures like compromise were necessary.
Eastern Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) also no doubt created the climate for compromise by leaning heavily on the TFG and the ARS. IGAD heads of state from Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, and Eritrea not only helped broker the aforementioned peace deals but are now pledging, as they did in the Burundi peace process, to monitor the implementation of their decisions, meeting every six months to review progress made.
Largely ineffectual as a dealmaker in previous talks, IGAD has taken a welcome initiative to try to fill the present security void in Africa. The continent’s more appropriate security broker, the African Union (AU), failed Somalia almost entirely, mustering a mere half of the 8,000 troops promised, and neglecting the Horn’s smoldering humanitarian crisis. Sudan’s genocide, and the weak international response to it, has gutted Somalia in other ways too, as lackluster United Nations troop response in Darfur has made it more difficult to muster might for Mogadishu.
If the UN, the AU, and the United States can’t provide a helping hand, better then that Somalis look inward. If Somalis themselves can manage this process, the recent pirate raids for which Somalia is now infamous will also subside. The surge in ship seizures in the Gulf of Aden and elsewhere was largely due to a legacy of interminable lawlessness under the TFG, extreme poverty, and a desperate drive for resources and quick remedy. Here again, the United States and the UN must not foul this up by foisting another heavy security scheme on the seas offshore Somalia. Enhanced patrolling is fine, but let the locals sort this out. The tide is turning within the TFG and the ARS, and new sea raids by foreign forces will be feckless and ineffective.
Turning the Horn around is no easy task; the TFG and the ARS know this. Much hard work lies in store for the new unity government as Somalis are famished, forlorn, and fed up. It is an unenviable task to rebuild the country but no one but the TFG and the ARS can do it, with some ongoing oversight and accountability from the IGAD. And if the UN, U.S., or AU are to be of use, then let them be at the beck and call of the new Somalia, not the other way around.