Somalia has long been the quintessential African problem, the epitome of everything that is wrong and doomed in Africa. But new efforts – ironically – spearheaded by ancient conquerors and more recent colonialists show glimmers of a new drive to save Somalia from itself. Now South Africa feels the need to step up to the plate too. By KHADIJA PATEL.
Somalia has long been the quintessential African problem. Bedevilled by lawlessness, food shortages and a never-ending civil war, Somalia was never quiet; it was easy to ignore it as another pocket of political instability in Africa. Somali piracy has become one of the greatest threats to international shipping, prompting Nato to launch an anti-piracy operation.
Navies from more than 20 different states are currently patrolling Somalia’s seas. Somali piracy is after all one component of the greater problem of a malfunctioning state. While the UN estimates Somali piracy costs the world economy between £4-billion and £7-billion each year, the best efforts of the international community will continue to go unrewarded if the underlying problem of lawlessness is not remedied.
We’ve reported before that in 2009 Canadian-born Somali rapper K’naan shocked the world when he refused to condemn Somali piracy, but his refusal to condemn piracy outright bears repeating. “Can anyone ever really be for piracy? Outside of sea bandits, and young girls fantasising of Johnny Depp, would anyone with an honest regard for good human conduct really say that they are in support of sea robbery?” he asked. And he went on to answer: “Well in Somalia, the answer is: it's complicated.”
Forcing the pirates out of the waters has failed to confront the aberrant political and social environment in Somalia. As the burgeoning clout of African economies begins to challenge the way Africa is perceived by the rest of the world, Somalia sticks out as a collective African failure. War and famine have been allowed to rage in Somalia entirely unperturbed by the optimistic economic outlook for the rest of the continent.
Yet the last few months has seen a flurry of international activity forcing Somalia to the top of the international community’s concerns.
Turkey for one has paid more attention to Somalia than any other nation in the world. In the past year Turkey has doled out more than $350-million in humanitarian assistance to Somalia. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, boasts that he visited Mogadishu with his family when even armed forces were afraid to venture into the restive Somali capital. And rightly too. His visit to Somalia at the height of the famine in August last year, was the first by a leader from outside Africa in almost 20 years. Somalia, it seems is Erdo?an’s pet project. In the ensuing months, at his behest Turkey has re-opened its embassy in Mogadishu, assigned a new ambassador to Somalia, built refugee camps, promised to build hospitals and schools and last Tuesday, began the first regular commercial flight service to Mogadishu in over 20 years.
Turkey is using its sizeable wallet to entrench its influence in Mogadishu.
International attention has, however, not been restricted to Turkey. Kenya also joined the fray in October last year, albeit with a military exercise that appears to have brought the Kenyans more harm than good. Kenya’s military incursion into Somalia is meant to drive back the Al Shabaab militants who have made themselves a nuisance across Kenya’s porous border with Somalia, but the readiness of the Kenyan authorities to go to war in Somalia, proves as well a political will to confront the harshest of Somalia’s challenges.
There is a new urgency in international discussions on Somalia. An urgency that extends as far as Britain. Last month Prime Minister David Cameron hosted the London Conference on Somalia, bringing together representatives of over 50 nations, to discuss a way forward for the war-torn nation. Significantly, Cameron’s approach to the conference marked a fresh strategy on Somalia. “We are not here to impose solutions on a country from afar. Nor are we here to tell you, the Somali people, what to do. But rather, we’re here to get behind your efforts and help you to turn things around,” he said. Britain also re-established diplomatic relations with Somalia last month.
The sudden eagerness to embrace Somalia’s problems is understandable in the light of established opinion on the lucrative economic possibilities that lie in wait in Somalia. There are thought to be huge oil fields under the autonomous, practically ungoverned region of Puntland. States like Turkey, and indeed Britain have set themselves to be able to better extract the wealth there than any Somali government. But in this rush to secure a solution to Somalia’s many problems, with the added incentive of an economic windfall sometime in the future, South Africa has been a conspicuous absentee. Minister of international relations and cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane attended the London Conference, but the grand “African Agenda”, the premise of South Africa’s international relations, appears to have been undermined by more un-African forces.
It was certainly not South Africa’s contribution to the discussions that were most lauded. South Africa as a leader of the continent, saddled with the “African Agenda”, ought to have made similar overtures to the Somali people. If this is indeed a race towards influence over Somalia, South Africa has been lagging.
And so on Tuesday South Africa formally established diplomatic relations with Somalia. Unlike Kenya, South Africa will not be drawn into a unilateral military exercise in Somalia. Instead, South Africa offers its own experience as a model for peace and reconciliation. “We reiterate our view that lasting peace in Somalia can only be realised through negotiations. In this regard, we would like to call on all Somali armed opposition groups including Al Shabaab to lay down their arms and to join the peace process that has already been embarked upon,” Nkoana-Mashabane said.
Al Shabaab was excluded from the London conference, leading many analysts to point out the defeat of the exercise before it even began. Enemy of civilisation or not, Al Shabaab does still rule over vast swathes of Somalia. Surely any negotiated settlement must engage them as well as it engages the transitional government of the country? Nkoana-Mashabane was careful to stress that South Africa did not seek to impose any particular leadership on the Somali people, but added that Al Shabaab had to first lay down its arms before it could be taken seriously as a legitimate partner in a peace process.
Unlike Turkey, South Africa does not have ample cash to throw around in Somalia. Indeed, Nkoana-Mashabane noted that South Africa would not be able to open an embassy in Mogadishu until “finances improve”.
Even though the official “famine” status of Somalia was lifted, millions remain in need of immediate assistance. The dire lack of political infrastructure and authority in Somalia have dissuaded most nations from committing to long-term infrastructure projects that outstrip the occasional aid package. It is then towards this lack of political infrastructure that South Africa has allocated R100-million to the Somali government. “South Africa believes it is imperative that Somalia has adequate institutions of governance that will be sustained beyond the mandate of the Transitional Federal Government,” Nkoana-Mashabane said. “It is in this light that South Africa will work closely with local and international partners to ensure that Somalis are equipped to govern themselves.”
Significantly, the current transitional government in Somalia is preparing to transform into an entirely new political entity in the coming few months, in the hope of finally uniting a deeply fractured country. This is a government that is itself plagued by severe conflict. Somali analysts say these divisions are most apparent when the president makes a speech in Arabic and the prime minister makes a speech in English – they completely contradict each other.
Al Shabaab remains the bogeyman-in-chief in Somalia. The militant group does indeed pose the greatest threat to peace and stability in the country, but the current enthusiasm to embrace Somalia suffers from a failure to acknowledge the effects of tribalism on politics in Somalia. Somalia has suffered from a lack of a formal government since 1991 when Barre was overthrown by opposing clans. They failed to agree on a replacement and plunged the country into lawlessness and clan warfare. It was not until 2006 when Al Shabaab gained control of much of the south, including the capital and kicked out the warlords who had ruled the roost for 15 years, that the Islamists grew in stature in Somalia. Successive attempts at forming a government made little progress in uniting the country and instead divided it further into clan fiefdoms. Attempts then to engage Somalis in dialogue, urging them closer to negotiations will be significantly fraught.
To which Somalis do we speak? DM
- Analysis: Britain's rudderless ride to Somalia's rescue in Daily Maverick.
- Rebranding Africa must begin with fixing African problems in Daily Maverick.
- Who are al-Shabab? On Al-Jazeera.
Photo: Somali government soldiers patrol after fighting against Islamist insurgents al Shabaab in Suqa Holaha village of Horiwaa district, northern Mogadishu. Al Qaeda-affiliated al Shabaab rebels, who want to impose a harsh interpretation of sharia law on the Horn of Africa nation, have waged a five-year campaign to drive Somalia's weak government from power. The shaky Western-backed government is supported by about 9,000 Ugandan and Burundian AU troops and now controls much of the coastal city of Mogadishu. REUTERS/Feisal Omar.