Will the London conference change Somalia’s future?

The upcoming summit may put the country on the road to peace, stability and democracy.

The upcoming summit has the chance to set a new strategic agenda for transforming Somalia [GALLO/GETTY] 

Minneapolis, MN – The upcoming London Conference on Somalia is, potentially, a promising occasion to finally put the country on the road to peace, stability and democracy. Whether this opportunity is realised will be largely contingent upon the willingness and ability of the participants to chart a new course that takes full stock of the genuine and long term needs of the Somali people. Only through a just course and able order can terrorism and piracy in Somalia be defeated, and regional security restored.

Thus, so far, more than a dozen conferences on Somalia have produced unsustainable, incompetent and costly transitional dispensations that had ill-served the Somali people or those members of the international community in solidarity with it. The key political strategy of the past 20 years has been anchored on this flawed assumption: the cause of the Somali political disaster has been due to the neglect of clan identity in political affairs of the country.

Consequently, it has been argued that political injustices of the past can only be remedied by formally deploying political tribalism as the sole paradigm and means of structuring political representation in government and the distribution of public service posts. This approach was formalised in the 2000 Arta Conference and has marked all subsequent political developments in Somalia.

More than two decades of practical experience has demonstrated the acute dysfunctionality of the political formula, and all transitional governments have been severely shackled by it. This tribal political agenda injects four most serious maladies into the political process. First, it closes off the usable memory of exemplary lessons from times of national unity and collective dignity; second, it degrades and then marginalises competence and merit by artificially equalising the capacity and integrity of all individuals from the same genealogical community; third, it transforms a minor cultural difference within communities and among Somalis into major political rifts, and, finally, because of such division, it encourages endless retailing of identity which then demands political representation.

Consequently, every small “identity group” insists on being represented in parliament, government and the civil service. Such demands have led to outrageously oversized parliaments and cabinets and a bloated civil service. Tribal representation, then, has become an end in itself. This ambience has made tackling the critically needed delivery of services, such as security, education, health and infrastructure, virtually impossible. Instead, a significant portion of the meagre resources of the country and aid continue to be consumed by such unsavoury operations.

The priority of the international community over the past two decades has been to stabilise Somalia by supporting such a tribalist or clientalist political agenda and proxy regional interventions. However, this strategy continues to destabilise the country, concreting divisions among the population, enabling pirates and terrorists, and encouraging corrupt officials to flourish – at the cost of the wellbeing of the population and the genuine investment of the international community. 

But the situation need not stay as it is. On the contrary, there is a clear alternative – one that can at once eliminate all forms of piracy and terrorism, revive and invigorate civic unity among the population and lead to a democratic and peaceful Somalia. 

A most plausible alternative

Informed people report that the London conference might not get away from the sectarian political formula in order to jumpstart Somalia’s post-transition era. It would be extremely tragic and most unfortunate if this opportunity were squandered, particularly given the population’s hunger for a just and competent government, as well as the opening that the withdrawal of al-Shabab forces from Mogadishu has created.

Repeating failed political projects of the past two decades, such as political tribalism, warlordism, sectarian Islamism and clientialist Somali regimes engineered from outside are certain to meet the same fate. Equally dismaying and disheartening will be to allow the current transition to continue or to reinvent bankrupt scenarios that are a grotesque parody of what can and ought to be.  

Now, there is a most plausible alternative that can produce a win-win outcome for all concerned. There are five pillars of such a strategy: 

  • Establishing a civic political agenda that can subvert the sectarian tribal dispensation
  • Building a three-year government of national reconstruction
  • Instituting a constituent assembly consisting of 100 eminent Somalis from all regions and walks of life
  • Training and deploying a coherent and professional security and police force that can replace the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) within two years
  • Guaranteeing a substantial, carefully accounted for and sustained commitment from the international community.

A civic political strategy

An alternative to the current destructive degeneration is a plan whose core values stress civic commonality, justice and effective delivery of key services to the population. Our experience in different parts of the country has taught us that the vast majority of the population cares less about tribal representation, but is deeply concerned about the absence of conditions conducive to socio-economic development.

Somalia’s global diaspora

Obviously, to undertake the pursuit of effective delivery of justice, order and services presuppose institutions founded on merit and competence that are the antithesis of the current political formula. Thus, at this opportune moment, it is necessary to revise the political logic of the past two decades and transform representation into a means of activating democracy, justice, and good governance. This will recharge common civic sentiments. The material effect of such reform will mean fewer political representatives, a smaller, legitimate and efficient government, and a demonstrably skillful civil service.

A constituent assembly

A decisive decision to turn representation into a means for producing democratic and able government will immediately translate into a much smaller national parliament and government. In this scenario, the new parliament must not exceed 135 MPs, rather than the current 550. As a result, parliamentary constituencies will be fewer and will cover larger geographical areas, with inclusive rather than exclusive communities.

The first step in this reform, is to replace the current Transitional Federal Parliament with a small Constituent Assembly of 100 people, whose sole mandate would be to guide a constitution-making process that will lead the country towards a democratic election within two years. Members of this assembly will be barred from standing for the first parliamentary election or becoming part of the post-election government.

They must also be men and women of outstanding civic credentials who have consistently demonstrated their commitment to justice, competence, and the collective wellbeing of the Somali people. To be sure, selecting such people will not be simple, but it is quite feasible if enough commitment and wise energy is forthcoming from the international community.

One way to jumpstart this process is to identify three outstanding citizens of three countries which have not been, heretofore, involved in Somali problems. Among such countries are South Africa, Norway and Turkey. Immediately after this, a system will be put into place through which Somalis from various regions could nominate individuals – individuals whose CVs and public records would be rigorously scrutinised by the three-person committee. A small technical team that will develop the basic selection criteria will support the committee. A transparent assessment of the candidates will be conducted by the three panel committee and can produce a regionally balanced short list of 100 individuals, plus a reserve list of 50. The final list will be carefully vetted and then announced in Mogadishu by July 30, 2012.

The task of the assembly will be to act as a quasi-legislative (caretaker) authority that will select a small constitutional committee to draft a national charter, based on the 1961 democratic constitution. In addition, it will have the authority to protect Somali sovereignty and territorial integrity during its tenure; and will be responsible for overseeing the election of a national parliament at the end of two years – as well as watching over the shift from the government of national reconstruction to the democratic state. 

The African Union mission could be replaced with a professional domestic police force  [GALLO/GETTY]

A technocrat cabinet

For more than a decade, various transitional governments have had huge cabinets (with more than 50 ministers and their deputies), simply to accommodate a bizarre tribal representational formula. Because of their size and the culture of ineptness that the political formula engendered, the regimes were not equipped to do the least bit of work, such as rebuilding the machinery of the state and, consequently, had little capacity to affect positive change.

In contrast, the heart of the national government for reconstruction would be a more nimble and smaller structure consisting of ten ministries, whose main assignment over the next two years would be to focus on rebuilding the capacity of each department and make them ready for takeoff, once a democratic government is elected. These ministries should comprise the following:

  • Security and defence
  • Economic development and planning
  • Education
  • Health
  • Public works and transport
  • Foreign affairs and international relations;
  • Interior
  • Water resources and environment;
  • Commerce, industry and mining;
  • Agriculture, livestock and marine.

In tandem with other reforms, the individuals who will occupy these posts will be selected on the basis of a combination of merit and regional representation. However, competence will trump representation whenever the two criteria collide. Moreover, those who are asked to serve in the time of reconstruction will not be eligible to compete for the post-reconstruction government.

A professional security force

Somalia’s many transitional regimes failed to build a security force that had the capacity to restore order and gain the quick respect of the population. Without the establishment of such a force, there is no chance that a peaceful and democratic Somali government could re-emerge. It is, therefore, imperative that utmost attention should be given to this institution. There is a feasible way to start rebuilding a national police force and a small, mobile and effective defence force.

To start with, a clear and fixed date must be set, within two years, for AMISOM to leave the country. During this period, Turkey and Norway could be given the lead to train Somali defence forces, while Germany could lead the police training project. It is vital that the training of the Somali forces be done in one place, such as Djibouti, and under one command.

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There are enough young Somalis from all regions who have a secondary school level education that can be recruited to the forces to populate lower and mid-level cadets and officer cadres. Similarly, there are sufficient number of university educated Somalis who will be attracted to join the forces and be trained for senior level posts. How the recruitment and the training process is done will determine the fruitfulness of the project.

If such a programme is initiated in July, the earliest recruits should be ready for deployment within a year and should be able to replace AMISOM in the more secure areas of the country. For these forces to be successful, it is necessary that there be an independent commission of Somalis, coupled with experienced others, who will mentor and monitor the forces. The size of the national police force must be 20,000 strong and the sum of the defence force (including the coast guard) should not exceed 10,000.

A sustained international commitment

Transforming Somalia is pivotal to changing the fortunes of the Horn of Africa from a region known for endless wars, dictatorship, and overall wretchedness to a zone where people’s talents and natural resources are deployed to improve the quality of life of ordinary citizens. If the London conference pursues an ethical and determined strategy whose centre of gravity is justice for the Somali people, then it will trigger a regional civic and political spirit.

Such a change will turn attention to work on economic growth and development, peaceful transformation of conflicts, and a renewal of tolerant, if not cosmopolitan, Somali culture at its best. Regrettably, past conferences held for Somalia were never followed up with sustained, sufficient, and systematic material and moral support for the country. On the contrary, divisive and instrumentalist agendas dominated international community interventions and the consequences have been dire for all concerned.

The London conference must radically break with that pattern. To do so could begin with the establishment of a small and unified council, led by Norway, Turkey and South Africa, that is empowered materially and politically to orchestrate international support for Somalia. This effort must be free from self-serving regional or international agendas.

The commanding objective, then, must be this: to assist Somalia to re-emerge as a democratic, productive, and law-abiding country at peace with its people, its neighbours and the world. The promise of the London conference cannot be over-stated. It is a strategic opportunity and can, unlike other gatherings that preceded it, usher in a humane and democratic era – not only in Somalia, but also across the entire region. This hope can be realised only if the population’s desperate need for civic rebirth and unity is the anchor of the proceedings.  

Abdi Ismail Samatar is a Professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota and a research fellow at the University of Pretoria. He is a founding member of the new Somali political party, Hiil Qaran.

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