If there is any consensus on the nature and the outcome of the London Conference on Somalia - that brought together representatives of over 50 nations, including a number of Muslim nations, it must be the fact that it was a puzzling event that raised much speculation. Now that the fanfare has ended, it is time for an objective appraisal. However, I must confess it would not be easy to remain steadfast in that quest when most—nations, groups, and individuals—already espoused one preconceived notion or another. Skepticism was fueled by British and Italian position papers that made their way into the public domain.
Whether by design or otherwise, the conference’s, would be communiqué, was subsequently leaked days before the actual event, an act that surely defused any potential for drama. Was the conference a success? Will it go down in history as the “turning point” in the seemingly endless Somali crises?
The answer, of course, depends on one’s perspective and expectations. Therefore, success remains fluid, both in definition and impact. However, it is fair to say that the outcome of the conference is a mixed bag of both positives and negatives, though the former outweighs the latter.
The International Community (IC) seems to have finally decided to reclaim its legitimacy from those whom it outsourced to since the early 1990s when Somalia was left to deal with its own problems. A dysfunctional state comprised of interest groups with zero-sum interests that I call the Ghost-lords. The conference, which by far was the largest gathering of nations to address Somalia’s political problem and the subsequent symptoms, gave the IC the right platform to reassert its moral authority and to underline its collective will to streamline the leadership piloting this direct engagement process and maintaining its momentum.
How is this new approach any different than the previous ones? First, at least in theory, there seems to be a change in the method of operation in dealing with 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,” said UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
The agency or the catalyst force towards lasting peace and reconciliation must be indigenous. The aim must be to marshal all parties to the conflict into a new threshold and a new frame of mind that requires holistic inclusiveness, positive thinking, sincere negotiations, and benevolent compromise. It must be a genuine effort led by Somalis for Somalia. Second, the conference included Somaliland as a stakeholder. While it was granted the recognition it deserved for its accomplishments in the past two decades since it declared its independence, it (as well as all other Somali political actors) was reminded that the fate of the Somali people within this broken state are interdependent on one another. And the onus to reach out for dialogue rests upon the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).
It is time for the TFG to step outside its comfort zone and seek political dialogue with their brethren in Somaliland. This could be done through direct engagement, or by way of a mutually agreed upon peace facilitating committee. The committee must be made up of credible, non-partisan men and women. The conference is, at best, a skeleton and an initiative with great potential, though not without certain weaknesses. For example, the conference down played the importance of rebuilding the Somali security apparatus. It created a Joint Financial Management Board, but limited its duty to guard the crumbs and not the cookies. They are charged with “eliminate(ing) diversion of revenues” by internal corrupted individuals (good news), but are not to scrutinize how the notoriously corrupted international institutions charged in the Somali affairs handles the $1 billion donated to Somalia each year in foreign aid. Corruption must be dealt with effectively, regardless of the perpetrators.
The conference calls for ending the charcoal trade and highlighted the importance of dealing with the piracy and investing in building the judicial system of Somalia, but made no mention of the illegal toxic waste dumping and hyper-fishing by international profiteers. Furthermore, in a decision that clearly contradicts its reaffirmation that the political process should be left to the Somalis, the conference took a clear position by declaring the Transitional Federal Parliament members who exercised their authority and followed the democratic process to vote out their Speaker, considered “Spoilers” of the peace process, should be sanctioned.
And lastly, the conference rejected any possibility of making a space for al-Shabaab to join the political dialogue, thus giving endorsement to the continuation of the current military operation lead by AMISOM, Ethiopia and TFG forces along with American “Drone Diplomacy.” From the modern day military strategic perspective, you do not engage your enemy in a dialogue when they are at their weakest point. Al-Shabaab has been on a losing streak for several months now.
However, this surely flies in the face of the Islamic perspective that keeps the space for dialogue and peace negotiations readily available for any group or nation ready to fill that space. And this could trigger an internal backlash that could undermine the holistic peace process that the conference meant to inspire. In order for the London Conference to reach its potential, certain levels of tweaking must be applied between now and a second conference scheduled for June in Istanbul. And Turkey, as a nation that delivered the most tangible services and earned profound public confidence and political capital in Somalia should lead the facilitation effort.