A precious chance for Somalia

Past conferences were never followed up by sustained, sufficient and systematic material and moral support.

Turkey''s PM Erdogan and Somalia''s President Ahmed walk from the podium after their national anthems were played in Mogadishu
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is reportedly increasingly well received in Somalia [REUTERS]

Minneapolis, MN –
In February, the British government hosted a one day conference in London to help chart a new agenda for Somalia. Many leading politicians from the US, Africa and the UN attended the meeting and promised to help Somalia regain its dignity and nationhood.

Unfortunately, there were few fresh or bold ideas introduced at the gathering, and the invited Somali personalities were the same clients of the international community who have been part of the mess in Somalia. Respected Somalis who could articulate a strategy that mutually served the interests of the Somali people and the international community were black-listed by the organisers of the conference. Strangely, the conference endorsed the very political project and actors which it “desired” to abort.

Nearly three months later, the UN, AU and IGAD are in the midst of dressing up the same tired political formula that brought Somalia to its current grief. Their project is an apartheid-like formula which partitions the population into exclusive political entities. Recently, these international actors threatened the Somali democratic movement, who peacefully opposes this agenda, with sanctions. Unfortunately, it appears that the London conference merely reinforced a divisive agenda, the core idea of which is Somalia’s fragmentation into Bantustans that serve no Somali interest and which could foster more misery and violence. Will the world instead rally behind the very promising agenda of the Istanbul conference?  

Mr Erdogan landed at the airport and used his own security while driving around visiting the famine victims. This made a lie of the UN claim that Mogadishu was too dangerous for it.

The journey to Istanbul

Earlier, while the international community debated whether or not to declare famine in Somalia, nearly 150,000 Somalis perished, and another million were displaced and in desperate need of food. At this time, the Turkish prime minister audaciously flew to Mogadishu to see the disaster for himself. Unlike other international visitors who visit the presidential palace in Mogadishu in the belly of an armed carrier, Mr Erdogan landed at the airport and used his own security while driving around visiting the famine victims. This made a lie of the UN claim that Mogadishu was too dangerous for its presence.

Everywhere, the Somali people watched each step of the prime minister with admiration and gratitude, while the Nairobi mafia (aka “the international community”) watched his movements with dismay. In fact, a Westerner – unconscious of Western neo-colonialism and a senior member of the international community in Nairobi – asked this writer whether the Turks were trying to resuscitate the “Ottoman empire”. 

Soon after the prime minister’s visit, large numbers of Turkish NGOs and humanitarian workers came to provide sustenance for the indigent population. In addition, they carried out reconnaissance work in order to help Somalis rebuild some hospitals, schools and other infrastructure. A few months later, they secured the Mogadishu airport and Turkish Airlines began flying twice-weekly commercial flights to the city.   

Ever since Erdogan’s visit to Mogadishu, Turkish humanitarian, development and commercial people have been active in many regions of the country. Meanwhile, Turkish authorities have been thinking carefully about how to best help Somalis, and recently released documents articulating their thoughts – which underscore the urgent need for a new roadmap that includes few of the elements of the UN’s unpopular agenda. The documents make clear that the military effort in Somalia will only succeed if a legitimate political process and strategy to create a national government is put forward. Here is how the Turks articulate their thinking about the road ahead:

Turkey’s growing interest in Somalia

Bringing a durable peace to Somalia does not rest on a military victory. That is why the new political dispensation has to start the new period in Somalia with a new programme, which will encompass the former roadmap elements still in need of being concluded – and pave the way to the period leading up to the elections. The new programme/roadmap, among other priorities (security, constitution, reconciliation, domestic reform, good governance etc), will ensure the restructuring and building of state institutions and ministries – both in material terms as well as in capacity building and personnel training. Turkey would be willing to appoint a team of advisers for the bureaucracy and the ministries.

This is the first time that a member of the international community has become so involved in Somalia, unguided by the contradictory agendas of regional and international actors that have dominated the country. The proposed Istanbul conference will host Somalis and members of the international community. It is timely and has the real promise of producing a progressive, Somali-friendly strategy for helping Somalis help themselves.

Previously, the collective wisdom of the international community involved in Somalia was to host conferences that selected transitional governments, and then asked those regimes to perform without having essential institutions. Those engaged in such projects have never thought of the necessity to help those regimes rebuild the institutions of government before attempts were made to deliver services. Similarly, Somali regimes’ leaders were more interested in government portfolios and looting whatever little resources the public had, rather than thinking about what they needed to do to make government work for the population. This combination has been the source of failure in Somalia over the past two decades. Now Turkey has put forward an imaginative proposal to help rebuild key institutions in Somalia, and has demonstrated the will to move forward.    

Sectarian political tribalism must not be allowed to replace civic and political commonalities of the population. Confounding cultural identity with political identity has not worked for the past 30 years and will not work now.

Will major Western powers and their African and Somali clients support the daring Istanbul vision? Given the commitment of the UN, AU, IGAD and the USA to an apartheid-like Somalia, and their recent threats against the Somali democratic movement, it appears unlikely that these actors are ready to endorse a pro-Somali agenda. The pomp and the grandiose speeches from London have faded and matters have reversed to failed policies that accentuate minor cultural differences among Somalis rather than enhancing their deep commonalities. The progressive struggle to reverse this mindset must be unrelenting, as that is the only just and decent thing to do. What must the Istanbul Conference aim for, then, and what it must avoid to induce a new dawn for Somalia?   

First, the agenda of the meeting should be guided by civic ethos anchored on the inclusive Somali traditions of equality, justice, and a common destiny. Second, it should also be grounded on the most generous interpretation of Somalis’ Islamic faith (in the spirit of Arahman Arahim). We are certain that these two Somali traditions can bring the population together and pave the way for the nation’s rebirth. Third, sectarian political tribalism must not be allowed to replace civic and political commonalities of the population. Confounding cultural identity with political identity has not worked for the past 30 years and will not work now. The UN roadmap, the fundamental intent of which is to impose its own apartheid-like constitution on Somalis and in the process kill their nationhood, must be superseded by a serious civic vision and strategy in Istanbul.

The just alternative from Istanbul

Recent releases of documents from Turkey suggest that hard thinking has gone into some of the proposed programmes which Turkey hopes the international community will rally behind. Among these are the security and political strategies which are laid out. It appears from the documents that Turkey realises the interdependency of these two sectors and the importance of gaining legitimacy from the population for the project to bear fruit.

This is something the international community has so far failed to heed. Unilaterally and militarily focusing on Al-Shabaab and manipulating Transitional Federal Government leaders without coherent national political/economic programmes that can give hope to Al-Shabaab’s child soldiers and others like them has been costly and ineffective. It is as if the Turkish government comprehends what many Somalis and other thoughtful people have known for a long time. Now, we confidently think that a real opportunity is here to put forth a sensible strategy which can realise the stated claims of the London conference.

We proposed a scheme that could put Somalia’s humpty dumpty back together, but the London conference side-stepped the issues. Here is a second rendering of the five major pillars of that programme:

  • a civic political agenda that is in contrast to the Bantustan dispensation which the UN is pushing on Somalia
  • a three year government of national reconstruction
  • a constituent assembly, consisting of 100 most eminent Somalis from all regions and walks of life
  • the establishment of professional police and defence forces that must replace AMISOM within two years
  • a substantial, carefully accounted for and sustained international community commitment

Good governance

An alternative to the TFG, and the UN’s proposed apartheid-like system is one whose core values stress civic commonality, justice and effective delivery of services to Somalis. Our experience in different parts of the country has taught us that the vast majority of the population cares less about political tribalism, and is deeply concerned about the absence of conditions conducive to national belonging and socio-economic development.

The first step, in this reform, is to replace the current TFG parliament with a small constituent assembly of 100 people whose sole mandate is to guide a constitution-making process that will lead the country towards a democratic election in two years.

Obviously, to create such an environment presupposes institutions founded on merit/ethics and competence – the antithesis of both the current political formula and the draft constitution which the UN designed and that TFG leaders have endorsed. Thus, at this opportune moment in Istanbul, it is necessary to thoroughly 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 which have already begun. The material effect of such reform will mean fewer political representatives, a smaller, legitimate and efficient government and demonstrably skillful civil service.

A constituent assembly

A decisive move 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 – instead of 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 TFG parliament with a small constituent assembly of 100 people whose sole mandate is to guide a constitution-making process that will lead the country towards a democratic election in 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 the plan is sufficiently supported. One way to jumpstart this process is to identify three outstanding citizens of three progressive countries, such as Turkey, South Africa and Norway.  Immediately after this, a system should be put into place through which Somalis from various regions could nominate individuals whose CVs and public records would be rigorously scrutinised by the three-person committee. A small technical team to develop the basic selection criteria would support the committee. A transparent assessment of the candidates would be conducted by the three-member panel and could produce a regionally representative shortlist of 100 individuals, plus a reserve list of 50. The final list would be carefully vetted and then announced in Mogadishu early in August 2012.

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

A technocrat cabinet

For more than a decade, various transitional governments have had huge cabinets simply to accommodate a dysfunctional political tribalist formula. Because of their size – and the culture of ineptitude that the formula engendered – administrations 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 11 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 will consist of the following:

  • Security and Defence
  • Economic Development and Planning
  • Justice and Islamic affairs
  • Education
  • Health
  • Public works and Transport
  • Foreign Affairs and International Relations
  • Interior
  • Water resources and Environment
  • Commerce, Industry and Mining
  • Agriculture, Live Stock and Marine Issues

In tandem with other reforms, the individuals occupying these posts would be selected on the basis of a combination of merit/ethics and regional representation. However, competence/ethics would trump representation whenever the two criteria collide. Moreover, those who would be asked to serve in the time of reconstruction would 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 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 for AMISOM to leave the country within two years (July 1, 2014). Meanwhile, Turkey can lead training of Somali defence and police forces. It is vital that the training of Somali forces be done in one place and under one command. There are enough young Somalis from all regions who have a secondary school level education that could be recruited to the forces to populate lower and mid-level cadet and officer roles.

Similarly, there are sufficient university educated Somalis who would 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 were to be initiated in August, 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 would mentor and monitor the forces. The size of the national police force must be at least 20,000 strong, and the sum of the defence force (including the coast guard) should not exceed 10,000.

A sustained international commitment

The people of Turkey contributed $450 million during the famine, and in so doing have demonstrated their generosity. Similarly, the Turkish government has established a large number of feeding places, has started to rehabilitate hospitals, schools and other types of infrastructure. In addition it provided significant number of scholarships for Somali students who are now studying in Turkish schools and universities.

These efforts have been a prelude to the gathering in Istanbul and demonstrate Turkey’s sincerity to help Somalis help themselves. Enabling Somalis to transform their country 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. It appears the Istanbul conference is designed to jumpstart an ethical and determined strategy whose centre of gravity is a national civic union and justice for the Somali people. Such a change would turn attention to work on economic growth and development, the peaceful transformation of conflicts, and a renewal of tolerant, if not cosmopolitan, Somali culture at its best.

“Past conferences held for Somalia were never followed up by sustained, suficient and systematic material and moral support for the country.

Regrettably, past conferences held for Somalia were never followed up by 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 Istanbul conference is set to radically break with that syndrome. For starters, recent Turkish intervention and thinking indicate that much can be achieved if the new agenda is guided by a pro-Somali ethos. Then the first step is the establishment of a small and unified council, consisting of Turkey, South Africa, and Norway, that is empowered materially and politically to orchestrate international support for Somalia.

Finally, Istanbul must be free from self-serving agendas – as it is high time that civic ideas are supported and tested, given the past failures of sectarian agendas. Unfortunately, immense pressure has been exerted on Turkey so that it would allow Istanbul’s civic agenda to be impregnated with apartheid. It is clear that Turkey is trying to deflect such pressure but it is also troubling to see that the “Istanbul II Declaration” being prepared in advance of the conference is laced with failed ideas and the language of difference rather than common Somali citizenship. Further, the final communique that has been released is cleansed from all things political – and the forum has been turned into technical discussions pertaining to development.

Without a progressive political architecture for the country, no amount of technical development talk can “fix” Somalia and this approach might come to naught – much the same way the “security-alone” agenda has failed. One wonders if the Turkish government has succumbed to Western pressure. The hope was that Istanbul will remain true to its original principles, with a commanding objective to assist Somalia to re-emerge as a peaceful, democratic, productive country.

The promise of the Istanbul 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 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, Professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota and Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria. He is a founding member of the new Somali political party, Hiil Qaran.