If brinkmanship is a feature of big political changes, then it is certainly a part of the fraught, high-stakes process to end Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government.
The government has been in “transition” for the past eight years. Diplomats adopted the term as a way of showing the warlords and rival political factions that the current arrangements remained open to negotiation, and so there was no need to fight about them.
But now the transition is supposed to come to an end, to be replaced with permanent political institutions, on August 20th.
That is less than two months away and the key political players still can’t agree on the process by which it should happen.
In September last year, the most powerful figures in the country – including the president, the prime minister, the parliamentary speaker, and a host of district leaders – finally agreed on a roadmap to steer the country through the end of the transition.
They came up with a nine-page list of dozens of steps that had to be taken to get there – complete with deadlines for each.
Like any working plan, it has changed as they’ve gone along. But now, those leaders have convened in Nairobi for crisis talks intended to make sure the plan doesn’t fall apart so close to the finish line.
The talks were scheduled to take just one day. Then they were extended to a day-and-a-half.
Now, it’s two-and-a-half days – either a sign that they are making such good progress that they’ve decided to keep going, or a sign that they are finding it far harder than anyone imagined to move past the sticking points. Sources close to the talks suggest it is the latter.
One of the key sticking points has been over Somalia’s traditional elders.
Nobody seriously suggests that it is possible to hold elections in the war-ravaged country where half of it is under the control of rebel movement al-Shabab.
So in the absence of anything approaching democracy, the elders have been accepted as the best way of measuring public opinion and maintaining public support. They are part of a deeply ingrained and widely respected system of clan leadership that should be beyond political manipulation.
But in the Nairobi’s meeting rooms, some of the fiercest debates have been over who exactly is an elder, and who is not.
The issue is vital because the council of elders forms the basis of everything that follows. They should have appointed a National Constituent Assembly to vote on a new constitution by now (already way behind schedule) the elders should also nominate a new parliament that will then elect the prime minister and president.
And that is where the next complication emerges.
Even as they are trying to work out the best way of moving the country forward, all of the leaders in the Nairobi talks are themselves politicking, lobbying and jockeying for the top jobs in whatever new administration emerges after August 20th.
There is no indication that the talks will collapse, but diplomats trying to shepherd the process through on time say the Constituent Assembly is inevitably going to be delayed, and any further complications risk derailing the road map all together.
Any delay beyond August would trigger a constitutional crisis that nobody is willing to contemplate. Because in Somalia, history has shown that a political breakdown is usually followed by a military one.