Chickens Come Home to Roost. State Building and the Credibility Conundrum in Somalia

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By Anna Bruzzone

Yet another international donor conference on Somalia. "A history of broken promises" might have been a rather more appropriate title for the Ministerial High Level Partnership Forum (HLPF) which was held in Copenhagen on 19 and 20 November.

The conference was intended to review progress against Somalia's New Deal Compact endorsed in Brussels in September 2013 and chart the way ahead to the implementation of Vision 2016.

This "blueprint for action" entails three main threads, the "democratic formation" of regional interim administrations and Federal States, the revision and adoption of the Constitution and the holding of national elections in 2016. The goals are ambitious, but they seem to be contained within a floating bubble. Blown by the international community, the bubble is growing and may eventually burst.

The HLPF meeting in Copenhagen was supposed to build upon the "current momentum" on Somalia, both nationally and internationally. That sense of "momentum", however, which had made southern Somalia breath more easily for some months after September 2012, is gone.

The federal government's performance has become a concern for both Somalis and the international community, though on different grounds.

The British government's enthusiasm has faded, since it turned out that Somalia was not going to be the political victory that Prime Minister David Cameron was looking for after the intervention in Libya in 2011. Questions are being raised in Westminster about Britain's relationship with Somalia, in the wake of the latest report by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea alleging corruption and activities that may be subverting the arms embargo.

The United States did not send a delegation to the High Level Partnership Forum in Copenhagen, expressing their "deep concern with political turmoil in Somalia". The current turmoil, however, seems to be the result of problems which are inherent in the transition process and may further escalate in the lead up to the 2016 deadline.

Hailed as the yardstick for the implementation of the New Deal, post-transition Somalia has become a victim of its own "momentum" with donors.

The implementation of Vision 2016 has become a matter of international reputation. Western donors are impatient with the slow pace of state building and urging the Somali government to "deliver". The latter, whose credibility and popularity is falling among the Somalis, is increasingly dependent on shrinking external support.

Partly as a result of the pressure to meet external requirements and deadlines, tensions within Somalia's political elite have been deepening.

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Prime Minister Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed have been at loggerheads for weeks, in what seems to be the latest episode of a serial political drama. The current standoff shows once more the volatility of clan-based governments led by a President and a Prime Minister who have overlapping, conflicting prerogatives, thanks to a faulty Constitution.

This stalemate also reveals an underlying conflict over who is going to take credit for Vision 2016. It seems that Somali politicians are already fighting over the elections' preparation, no matter how unrealistic the prospect of holding credible elections in 2016 might be.

A cornerstone of both Somalia's Transition Roadmap and Vision 2016, federalism has been playing a major role in fostering Somalia's political fragmentation. Bringing clan conflict back to the fore, the federalisation process has reignited the debate over autochthony, which pervaded fifteen years of civil war and was only partially appeased by the reassertion of Islamic identities.

Moreover, to respond to Villa Somalia's reluctance towards the implementation of federalism, donors have chosen to support any regional entity going in the "right direction" and able to play with the stability argument. Promoted as a policy to foster "local agency" and mark the paradigm shift from liberal peace to stabilisation, federalism has in fact increased Somalia's vulnerability to regional and international interference, producing further destabilisation.

Federalism is a crucial and controversial issue as it calls the meaning of citizenship into question. This notwithstanding, the donor-driven approach to the implementation of federalism has consisted of a series of ad hoc, partial deals of questionable legitimacy, the Somali public being excluded from decision making.

In the latest episode of the federalism series (farce?), the former Parliament Speaker, Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden, was elected as the President of the South West Administration in Baydhabo, on 17 November 2014, two days ahead of the High Level Partnership Forum in Copenhagen.

The election's results were first dismissed by the current Speaker, Mohamed Osman Jawari, then welcomed by Interior Minister Abdullahi Godah Barre and President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud - although he had previously refused to endorse the South West Administration conference - and finally celebrated by the international community (IGAD, EU, and AMISOM).

Though absent from the conference in Copenhagen, the United States welcomed the "historic election" of Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden. The election was so "historic" that, in less than twenty-four hours, it was contested by a group of MPs, rejected by a Somali politician who claimed to be the bona-fide president of the South West Administration, and mired in accusations of Ethiopian meddling.

There is an uneasy feeling of déjà vu hovering in the air. With a view to meeting the 2016 deadline, donors have been endorsing friendlies against those opposing certain policies funded by the international community.

The competition among Somali politicians for accessing power and capturing financial benefits has been escalating. The New Deal seems, in fact, to be perpetuating some old dynamics, which have contributed to transform Somalia into what Alex de Waal termed a "rentier political market place".

What is at stake here is the credibility of the whole state-building process, which continues to be seen by the Somali public as over-influenced and "contaminated" by foreigners. On the one hand, the "Somali project" supported by Western donors has increasingly been perceived as a never-ending enterprise, with a poor accountability record.

On the other hand, al-Shabaab, which still controls large rural areas and retains the ability to carry out attacks in several parts of the country (and beyond Somalia), has been invoking national sentiments and capitalising on the West's lack of credibility.

Against this discouraging background, one can only hope that the Somali people, often celebrated for their resilience, will follow the exhortation contained in a popular song by a band of Somali singers called Qaylodhaan ("to sound the tocsin"): "Don't tire out until you get your rights".

Anna Bruzzone is a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick.

 

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