Somalia: Manifestation of stealth trusteeship

Somalia is being run by many masters with irreconcilable agendas, but this exploitation must end if peace is to prevail.

somalia: manifestation of stealth trusteeship
External powers with different agendas are currently making the decisions on behalf of the Somali people [EPA]

Somalia is currently under what James Fearon and David Laitin of Stanford University call “a neo-trusteeship system”. Various external powers, while disagreeing among themselves, make the important decisions for the Somali people.

On January 30, 2011, the Ethiopian-dominated Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional organisation comprised of seven East African states, called for an extension of the Somali parliament’s mandate. The dysfunctional Somali parliament duly understood the message sent by Addis Ababa and within three days unilaterally extended its mandate for three years.

The US and UN rejected the unilateral extension, with James Steinberg, the US deputy secretary of state, arguing that it would strengthen al-Shabab and Augustine Mahiga, the UN special representative for Somalia, joining in the chorus of criticism. The disagreement within the international community over Somalia was exposed, with Ethiopia and IGAD lining up on one side and the US and UN on the other.

The fact that agencies within the US have at times pursued different policies in Somalia adds another layer of complexity. The defence department views Somalia through the lens of the ‘war on terror’ and, as a result, allies itself with Ethiopia, while the state department is aligned more closely with the rest of the international community.

Two months on, the Obama administration is still insisting that the decision to extend the mandate be reversed. As a compromise, Washington has suggested a one-year extension of the parliamentary mandate and two back-to-back presidential elections in August 2011 and 2012.

But the Obama administration has condemned neither IGAD nor Ethiopia for triggering and defending the Somali parliament’s decision at international forums. Logic dictates that if Washington is so serious about this it should direct its concerns to the source of the latest political entanglement – Ethiopia. And, as bizarre as this may seem, Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister, could deliver a reversal of the decision much more promptly than the Somali parliament.

Meanwhile, the UK is positioning itself to lead Somalia’s post-transition period after August 2011 – a role it sought to kick start during a conference it hosted in February. Unsurprisingly, besides some general recommendations, nothing substantive came out of the gathering.

Although Mahiga participated in the UK conference, he failed to influence its outcome and therefore called for another conference to be held in Nairobi in March. Both the Djibouti government and the TFG rejected this, arguing that it would not advance peace in Somalia. Obviously, this will further exacerbate perceptions that Mahiga, like his predecessors, is micro-managing Somali affairs as though he is the governor of the country. 

Perhaps a reconciliation conference for Somalia’s external patrons is in order.

Missing Somali voices

In all of these discussions the one thing that is missing is the voice of the Somali people. And this politicking does nothing to advance peace or state-building in the country.

Somalis have not elected the members of their parliament; Ethiopia and its proxy warlords selected half of them in 2004, while the rest were selected by Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the president, and Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan, the speaker of parliament, in 2009, when the parliament was expanded to feature a staggering 550 members.

In the more than six years that the Somali parliament has been in place it has not fulfilled its basic functions, failing to produce a single piece of legislation. In addition, it has not linked the government to the people it claims to represent; many of its members do not even visit, let alone seek to advance the long-term interests of, their constituencies.

In general, the assumption, although this is not stated publicly of course, that drives these external, paternalistic and, at times, counterproductive initiatives is that Somalia is not ready to become a nation again.

There is a widespread belief among members of the international community that Somalis are too divided and too clannish to lead their own state. Some even employ economic arguments to question the viability of a Somali state.

The most important decisions, such as the type of constitution it adopts or who represents the people, are therefore taken with minimal input from the Somali people themselves.

Seeking support

Of course, one may argue that Somalia is not alone in its trust status. The international community has used similar arrangements in a number of cases, including East Timor, Sierra Leone and Liberia. But, at least, the powers that be (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) were open about their approach to those countries. In these instances, the Security Council deliberated over the available options and then tasked one country with leading the transition process; Australia in East Timor, the UK in Sierra Leone and the US in Liberia.

In Somalia, that is not the case at all.

For the last 20 years, the international community, as divided as it is, has chosen to create or facilitate transitional governments and/or regional administrations. In one way or another, these administrations have been undermined by some members of the same international community. For example, a transitional government was created in 2000 in Djibouti. But, Ethiopia and IGAD undermined it by inviting warlords loyal to them to another conference where a parallel process was set up to torpedo the existing one.

In 2004, another transitional government was established. Even though President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed was willing to work with the international community and sought its assistance, Washington chose to empower Mogadishu warlords while ignoring the government it recognised as legitimate. Within that same modus operandi, when Islamists defeated the warlords, the Bush administration ignored the Somali government, supporting and encouraging the 2006 Ethiopian invasion.

Similarly, the current Sheikh Sharif Ahmed-led government has been struggling for the last two years to secure genuine support. It is true that the TFG has failed to control corruption and has not delivered on the tasks set for it. But it is equally true that while the international community chooses to support, empower and fund – to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars – the AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) forces, it has not provided timely and substantive support to the transitional government.

In 2006, the Islamic Courts Union pacified Mogadishu with a militia of less than 1,000 people. Now, in theory at least, the AMISOM has close to 10,000 troops in Mogadishu, while the TFG claims to have more than 15,000. But even with these forces at their disposal they have failed to pacify Mogadishu, let alone the rest of the country.

It is a public secret that there are many ghost soldiers in the Somali forces and the tribal militias they use. But what about the AMISOM forces – are all of the 8,000 to 10,000 peacekeepers in Mogadishu also ghost soldiers?

Ethiopian meddling

Ethiopia’s meddling remains one of the principal obstacles to attaining and sustaining peace in Somalia. Addis Ababa, as it did in the past, has now created proxy militias, which it supports financially and militarily. It is openly involved in the war against al-Shabab in the central and southern regions of Somalia. And while there is wide opposition to al-Shabab, Ethiopian involvement in these operations does not have public support.

If Ethiopia’s past role in Somalia is anything to go by, Zenawi is essentially interested in establishing his proxy groups in those regions so that he can use them to sabotage efforts to re-establish the Somali government.

Both the TFG and the international community must expose and reject Ethiopia’s harmful interventions. If the TFG remains silent about Addis Ababa’s military interventions or attempts to justify them, it will lose twice. Firstly, any territorial gains will have been made by Ethiopia’s proxy groups and not by the government. And secondly, the government will lose credibility by jeopardising its greatest achievement – removing Ethiopian troops from Somalia.

Like the government, the international community has not learned from its past mistakes. Outsourcing the Somalia war to Ethiopia backfired, empowering al-Shabab at the expense of other groups. When Ethiopia was removed from the country, al-Shabab dramatically lost the support of the people and communities began to organise themselves against the group.

The lesson here is that the best way to defeat violent extremism or piracy in Somalia is by helping to build a powerful central state, not via the dysfunctional trusteeship of many masters or clan fiefdoms. The sooner we understand and act on this, the closer we will be to establishing durable peace in the country.

Formal UN trusteeship

To put it bluntly, the Somali people deserve better than to have external parties micromanaging their internal affairs. But, until the current web of political confusion, frustration and exploitation is untangled, one approach is to be straight with the Somali people and to formalise the harmful practice that is currently in place.

As happened in East Timor and, to some extent, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, the US and UN should seriously think about placing Somalia under some form of ‘trusteeship’. If this is done, the current contest between the Ethiopian-controlled IGAD and US-controlled UN will end. The Security Council could assign Somalia to one country – preferably a state like Turkey or China – which will then assist in rebuilding.

There are two benefits to such an arrangement.

Firstly, the Somali people will know when this trusteeship period will end and what the final result will be – a Somali-owned state. With the current arrangement, nobody knows when the de facto external control will come to an end and what the final outcome will be.

Secondly, any country tasked with assisting Somalia will have to be transparent and accountable to the Somali people and to the UN. There are already performance benchmarks in place for this.

Helping Somali institutions

Another option for the international community is to help existing Somali institutions to deliver context-appropriate and workable structures within a specified time and then provide them with the support they need.

This would involve establishing new legal and governance structures, reducing the number of members of parliament (to between 120 and 160) and the number of people in government (to about 15 to 18 ministers), the separation of the executive and legislative branches and the introduction of a second chamber (of about 60 members) to represent the clans.

Once workable institutions are in place, the international community should give more support to Somalis than it provides to AMISOM.

Somalia is run by many masters, who have multiple and irreconcilable agendas. None of these have the support of the Somali people and none have been mandated by the UN to manage Somalia. This freewheeling and political exploitation must end.

Afyare A. Elmi teaches international politics at Qatar University and is the author of Understanding the Somalia Conflagration: Identity, Political Islam and Peacebuilding.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.