This article, by and my collegue Daniela Kroslak and me, was published in Reuters comment pages, "The Great Debate", on 10 February 2009.
Pirates, Islamists, refugees, anarchy, civil war — not much good news has come out of Somalia in the last couple of decades. With warlord replacing warlord over the years and transitional governments constantly hovering between extremely weak and non-existent on the ground, the temptation will be to view this week’s election of a new Somali president with an eye-rolling, “so what?”
Yet there is a chance, albeit a slim one, that this moment will mark the start of some small progress for the shattered country. That is, if the international community plays the next few months very carefully and does not let ideology trump pragmatism.
The first reason to feel any hint of optimism is that Ethiopian troops, who invaded Somalia in December 2006, are now leaving. Ethiopia’s occupation was an unprecedented disaster. The last two years have been among the worst since Somalia descended into anarchy in 1991, with huge displacement of civilians, a massive humanitarian crisis and grave violations of human rights.
The Ethiopian military campaign, combined with US bombings of suspected militant hide-outs, also set in motion a chain of events that in mid-2008 culminated in the recapture of much of the country’s south by the hard-line Islamist insurgent group, Al-Shabaab. They used the Ethiopian presence to rally support from and recruit amongst those marginalised by the transitional government, and they radicalised the Islamist movement.
The way Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed was elected president of Somalia — a title representing more hope than actual authority over the fractured country — inspires little confidence in itself. A reformulated Somali parliament in exile, part of UN-sponsored reconciliation efforts known as the “Djibouti process” after the city where it resides, chose him from a list of 14 other bickering leaders, and the vote only happened because of external pressure from the UN, AU, EU and US. These Somali actors have generally been living in a “Djibouti bubble”, out of touch with what is unfolding back home and enjoying little credibility among Somalis.
Still, the situation on the ground hands Sheik Sharif a few good cards to play. As a moderate Islamist himself and former chairman of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), an alliance that ruled southern Somalia for six months in 2006, he could be well placed to win over other Islamist elements outside the process and undercut support for the extremists of Al-Shabaab.
Sheik Sharif’s installation is significant as he is the first Islamist leader to become head of state with Western support in the Horn of Africa, hopefully reflecting a pragmatic shift in Western attitudes towards political Islam and efforts to contain militant jihadism. But Sheikh Sharif is in danger of being outflanked by the radicals in his camp. He will have to strike a difficult balance between Ethiopia’s tight embrace and a still hostile opposition, and he will have to weight carefully Somalia’s complex regional interests and clan loyalties.
If Sheik Sharif had clear and substantial backing from the international community in these efforts, including renewed Saudi support to engage with Al-Shabaab, it would make success more likely. In practical terms, this would mean politically and financially supporting a number of steps and encouraging the UN Special Representative, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, to facilitate them.
First and foremost, Sheik Sharif and the international community have to make use of all intermediaries and back channels to reach out to the insurgent groups currently outside the Djibouti process, including Al-Shabaab, as well as the Asmara-based leaders of the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia. They must be prepared to draw in to the negotiations members of groups which have control on the ground, even if their current leadership refuses.
The point is to get as many more radical groups and individual leaders on board for the negotiation of a comprehensive ceasefire as a step towards expanded Djibouti talks. Once a credible ceasefire agreement has been reached, each faction should be left to administer its respective territory temporarily and be invited to participate in talks intended to lead to the restoration of a legitimate government. The parties could then establish smaller sub-groups to negotiate issues such as: drafting a new constitution; integrating all armed forces into a common army and police force; planning for a national referendum on the new constitution; and establishing transitional justice processes to address the needs of national reconciliation.
If participants in the Djibouti process encourage influential clan leaders, business community leaders, clerics and civil society to create momentum and grassroots support for that process, its prospects for success will be improved.
The biggest obstacle to peace in Somalia this time may in fact not be Somalis’ infamously fractious politics but the reluctance of the international community to engage with the Islamist opposition. However, if there is going to be a lasting settlement that returns even a semblance of stability to the country, Islamists cannot be excluded.
If they are kept out of the process, the extremist Islamists will maintain the upper hand and, quite simply, there will be no process. In that case, peace would, yet again, remain a distant illusion for Somalia’s suffering population.
Daniela Kroslak is Deputy Africa Program Director, and Andrew Stroehlein, Communications Director, of the International Crisis Group.