Peace conferences are generally good ideas. Talking is always better than fighting and conference rooms are safer than battlefields, for everyone.
So that’s why the talks in London on Thursday to address the vexed and varied problems of Somalia should be such welcome news. There will be plenty of important Somalis present, lots of even more important diplomats and the conference venue is none other than Lancaster House. Britain’s diplomats are so excited about this initiative that they even designated a Twitter hashtag (#LDNSomalia), which was for a few weeks used exclusively and enthusiastically by British diplomats themselves, until it was adopted by a wider audience.
Underpinning all this enthusiasm is the optimism of naïveté. Britain is still on an adrenalin high after its Libyan adventure, which was a boost to David Cameron’s popularity if nothing else. Suddenly, intervention doesn’t seem so scary. And what country is in greater need than Somalia, the two-decade-old basket case on the Horn of Africa? That’s right. There’s no better opportunity. If Britain can solve Somalia, if it can fix a failed state, then clearly it still matters.
But how to fix Somalia? Sensibly ruling out military involvement (apart from anything else, it’s simply too expensive for Britain’s economised army), Britain hit upon a better idea, an idea honed over generations of colonial government: let’s just tell the unruly natives what to do. Bring them all together in London, show them a few of our big shiny buildings to make sure they know how powerful we are and then solve their problems for them. In one day.
There are, of course, more than a few flaws in this possibly noble but definitely misguided plan. Where to even begin?
Look at the composition of the conference. Plenty of natives were invited, but not the most unruly of them all – Al Shabaab, the al Qaeda-linked Islamist militant group that controls much of southern Somalia. Al Shabaab has been the most significant and certainly most violent threat to peace and stability in the past five years. Somalia can’t be fixed without engaging it in some capacity. By ignoring it completely, the conference merely alienates Al Shabaab further, making even more distant the prospect of a negotiated peace in southern Somalia; the group has already pledged to work against the outcomes of the conference. It’s like trying to negotiate an end to World War II and not inviting Germany. Clearly ridiculous, but accepted because Al Shabaab falls under the rubric of a ‘terrorist organisation’, and no one talks to terrorist organisations (except, it should be noted, the Americans, who after a decade in Afghanistan have finally initiated talks about talks with the Taliban. Maybe they’ve finally learnt something).
So no Al Shabaab at the conference, but pride of place given to the Transitional Federal Government, the Somali government officially recognised in the international corridors of power but sadly not in most of Somalia. The TFG was installed by foreigners (after the 2006 Ethiopian invasion) and has been kept in power by the African Union’s fighting force. It is a compromised political entity, but will be calling all the shots – at least, all the shots that haven’t already been called by Britain.
It is hard to ignore that the conference is being organised at the behest of a former colonial power with a less than stellar track record in Somalia. Not that the identity of the colonial power matters all that much – Somalis don’t like any foreigners trying interfere in their business, and historically have not been afraid to make their feelings known. “Foreign intervention and occupation have always been violently resisted in Somalia, as demonstrated right from the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident,” said Abdul Sharif in an interview with Daily Maverick. Sharif is editor of Horn of Africa news, an independent news site that consistently provides some of the best coverage of the area. He knows what he’s talking about. “Many Somalis have told me they are understandably disgusted by these developments because they view them as yet another attempt to ‘colonise’ Somalia… what the British government and its allies must realise is that their top-down, Euro-centric approach in Somalia may look good on paper, but will most likely face fierce resistance on the ground.”
This impression wasn’t helped by the accidental leaking of the London Communiqué, a proposed British draft document that outlines the conclusions of the London Conference. Yes, that is the conference that hasn’t been held yet. It might be standard diplomatic protocol to prepare these things in advance, but it’s been a public relations disaster for Britain because it looks to all Somalia that Britain has already decided what the outcome of the conference will be, and the Somali participation is just window-dressing. Al Shabaab in particular has enjoyed the blunder, delighting in mocking it on Twitter.
Worse, the draft conclusions are a largely meaningless jumble of diplomat-speak that singularly fails to say anything new. Here’s a summary: Al Shabaab is terrible, pirates are bad, the interim government should be abolished and replaced by a caretaker government (the difference being?), and everyone should be peaceful. Crucially, it provides overwhelming support for the ongoing African military operation in Somalia, which includes soldiers from at least five African countries: Burundi, Uganda and Djibouti as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), the Kenyan army invading from the South and now incorporated into Amisom, and Ethiopian troops in the east. The communiqué ends on a bitterly ironic note, proclaiming, “The responsibility for stemming Somalia’s decline rests with Somalis and in Somalia”. Oh yes? Then maybe Britain should allow Somalis to write their own conclusions, instead of using this conference as a pretext to justify an African invasion that is far from welcomed in Somalia.
There have been dozens of peace conferences for Somalia over the years. So far, none has produced the desired result. All the signs point to the London Conference being no different. There is, however, one interesting development. For the first time, the autonomous (not independent, as much as they want to be) breakaway region of Somaliland is participating. Somaliland has historically avoided these kind of international events because it has never been given the sovereign recognition it believes is just reward for 20 years of stable democracy in the midst of the Somali chaos. Somaliland’s government is participating in this conference against the wishes of most of its people, but perhaps thinks the time is right for the international community to take note of its undeniable success. “Somaliland’s message in London is simple: If the definition of madness is repeating the same action again and again yet expecting a different result each time, then we are your sanity pill,” commented Sharif.
Still, Somaliland is unlikely to find many sympathetic ears at the conference, not among the other Somali participants who cling to the idea of a pan-Somali state, and not from the international community wary of balkanising the country, and that Somaliland’s success is the exception rather than the rule. All indications point to another frustrating, inconclusive talk-shop, dominated by international agendas and producing more of the same. This approach hasn’t worked before, in fact it has failed abjectly, and there’s no reason to think that this time will be different. Madness indeed. DM
Photo: A government policeman walks at the scene of an explosion in Hodan district of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, February 17, 2012. A car bomb exploded next to a police department building in the Somali capital on Friday, wounding two police officers, the latest in a wave of attacks in Mogadishu. REUTERS/Feisal Omar.
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