Somalia: From 'Failed State' to Fixed State?

The Dawn of a New Somalia? Photo Credit: Tristan McConnell of Global Post

Today marks a landmark in Somalia’s recent history. Since Siad Barre’s government collapsed in 1991, Somalia has had no formal government and has been the victim of civil war, insurgent groups, piracy, and warlords – and because of this, Somalia has been the poster child ‘failed state’.

The country has had a pretty ineffective Transitional Federal Government (TFG) for eight years, which has been backed by the UN and other Western states, but has been largely unable to exercise control outside of the nation’s capital, Mogadishu. Today marks the end of this rather long ‘transition’, and the beginning of a (hopefully) new era for Somalia.

Formal Parliament: Check
For the first time in 2 decades, a formal parliament is being sworn-in in Mogadishu’s airport (considered one of the very few secure places in the capital).

Somalia’s new parliament will consist of two houses: a lower house with 275 members and an upper house with at most 54 members.

Unlike most countries, the new MPs have been chosen not by vote by the general Somali citizenry, but rather by 135 clan elders – 120 of whom represent Somalia’s main clans (Hawiye, Darod, Rahanweyn, and Dir) and 15 of whom represent Somalia’s sub-clans. The new MPs have also been “vetted by a technical selection committee to eliminate people accused of war crimes”.

The criteria to become a Somali MP included the following:
·         Must be a citizen of Somalia and be “of sound mind
·         Must not be convicted of war crimes or have connections to warlords
·         Must possess a high school diploma

Somewhere around 70 MP candidates were rejected because they failed to meet these basic requirements.

And the process has not been without flaws. Somalia is often considered among the most, if not the most, corrupt country in the world, so it comes as no surprise that there have been reports that many candidates have “influenced, bribed, and coerced” the elders in selecting them for their parliament positions.

Women’s role in Parliament remains an issue. Although initially it was agreed that “30 percent of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) would be set aside for women, elders have now taken a step back by stating that this decision would be “a step too far for Somalia’s culture”.

In Sierra Leone one of my favorite phrases is: “small small”. It means the equivalent of “baby steps” in English. So perhaps Somalia’s progress towards creating a more equal, democratic, and stable government is coming “small small” – I suppose Rome wasn’t built in a day, so why should we expect that of Somalia?

New Constitution: Check
The road to agreeing upon a new Somali constitution has also been long. The outgoing President of the TFG, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad, "prime minister, parliamentary speaker, two regional presidents, and a leader of a Sufi militia" all had to agree on this one document before it was accepted.

Nothing in Somalia is quick and easy – but it shouldn’t be. If this is truly going to be the start of Somalia’s recovery from ‘failed state’ status, and the beginning of its road to a more democratic and stable government, then issues such as deciding on MPs, drafting a constitution, and electing a President should take a while, be questioned, be doubted, be revised, and then finally be widely accepted – because if they are not, then this government may be just as short-lived and toothless as the previous ones.

New President: Not Yet
Although the plan was to have the new Parliament convene today to elect the new President as long as two-thirds of the lower house was present, the vote has now been delayed and is expected in one to two weeks time.

There are around 24 candidates for President, many of whom are “are keeping a low profile because of security concerns”.

However, some known candidates include the current TFG “President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali and the parliament speaker Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden”. President Ahmed’s reputation is controversial among both the international and Somali community, and all three of those candidates listed above have served in the TFG which has been “hammered by corruption allegations”.
Current President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed
Photo Credit: Yasuyoshi Chiba of AFP 

And although average Somalis cannot vote for their new President, it has not stopped them from being political active. There have been reports that “political campaigns are…in high gear” and that “election posters hang on buildings and from cars” and that “Women draped in turquoise…line Mogadishu's streets, clutching placards proclaiming their faith in Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.

There are those who believe President Ahmed will be re-elected, but then there are also those who argue that given his dismal track record for ‘governing’ Somalia and his history of warlordism, he will not be the favorite candidate.

What happens if Ahmed is not re-elected? Will there be a peaceful transition or will things fall apart? According to the Development Newswire, the African Union has a “contingency plan” in place that will handle any situation should it arise.

Once the President is decided by Parliament, it will then be the President’s job to choose a Prime Minister.

The Skeptics
But despite this landmark occasion, there are still those who are rightly skeptical.
…for most Somalis, especially those living outside Mogadishu in areas controlled by religious groups and clan militias, life is unlikely to change for some time to come. They are used to living without effective central government, and it is unlikely that the new administration will be able to immediately exercise power much beyond the capital.

And the International Crisis Group, whose analysis I always respect, critically examines the potential negative outcome that could result from this entire process:
The current political process has been as undemocratic as the one it seeks to replace, with unprecedented levels of political interference, corruption and intimidation. The end of the transition roadmap process…may fail to bring stability. Convening an incomplete parliament and electing a contested, tainted leadership in Somalia’s polarised political environment could easily unravel the painstaking humanitarian, political and security progress made in the past three years. The extremist Islamist movement Al-Shabaab is down but not out, and it is evolving, and plots to take advantage of the resulting chaos to regain power.

Although I sincerely hope that none of the aforementioned scenarios occur, it is necessary for us to consider the possibility of this landmark process failing. Analysis of Somalia’s new situation needs to be nuanced – there is space for neither Afro-pessimism nor Afro-optimism. We owe it to ourselves, and more so to the Somalis, the right to know what to expect in all possible outcomes, whether that is Somalia turning a new, democratic corner or whether than be the process crumbling under the hand of corruption and factionalism. 

Issues to Consider
Can the New Government Better
Control Somalia? Photo Credit: BBC
If this entire process works out as planned and a new President is elected and has control on an area larger than Mogadishu, then there are several key issues that need to be considered for Somalia to put a new foot forward and step out of its reputation, whether warranted or not, as a ‘failed state’.

Security and Stability: Somalia security situation is pretty dismal, although it has been improving slowly.  However, the nation still battles piracy off its coast and since last year, “19 aid workers have been killed and eight others seized, with four remaining in captivity…". Clearly there is much room for improvement. But if the new government puts fighting piracy atop its list of priorities, along with regaining control of land now claimed by warlords, local militias, and foreign armies, then Somalia might well incentivize those living in the Diaspora to return. This has already been happening, and the returned Somalis have helped to “invest in their battered homeland”. Their efforts will be facilitated if this new government proves to be committed and effective.

Growth and Development: With improved security and stability, which would lead to many in the Diaspora to return, comes inevitable economic growth and social development.  There is currently a high unemployment rate, which needs to be dealt with as soon as possible so that youth do not become disgruntled and join a militia or take up piracy because of lack of other options and opportunities. Somali Prime Minister and Presidential candidate Abdiweli Mohamed Ali explains, “We need a paradigm shift, a new way of thinking, and a sound, tangible plan for competing in the global market place in the near future”. And he is right. If those in the Diaspora return and work with those already living in Somalia to invest in the betterment of the country’s businesses and institutions, then employment rates will rise, foreign investment will increase, and, dare I say, perhaps Somalia will begin to develop a tourism industry. All this will bolster the government’s legitimacy and effectiveness as well as improve the quality of life and standard of living of average Somalis. 

A Brighter Future
Although regular Somali citizens cannot vote for their new Prime Minister, President, and MPs, they are nonetheless essential towards forging a new Somalia.

The Guardian recently ran a piece which interviewed Somali change-makers, including a woman activist, a banker, a mayor, and an urban planner. They all recognize their role in helping Somalia turn a new page of history.

One area that particularly intrigues me about Somalia’s hopeful future is in urban planning. In that same Guardian piece, an urban planner named Mohamed Abdulkadir Ahmed states that Mogadishu needs a quasi facelift. Buildings, such as the former parliament, which are now dilapidated and scarred with bullet holes, need to be restored. The same thing goes for the colonial era architecture since they are a part of their “cultural heritage” and shared history as a nation-state.

Community planned and aid blogger, Mitchell Sutika Sipus of The Humanitarian Space, notes that the world often negelects to see the immense progress being made in Somalia since news coming from Somalia tends to focus on the negative. He says that people “don't get a chance to learn about the dynamic change abreast, the massive return of Somalis, the economic explosion taking place from new investments and the visionary work of the municipal government”. He also notes the bright future for Mogadishu, whose improved image can be attributed in part to 200 youth volunteers who, knowing their city inside and out and through good times and bad, have realized the large impact they can create by “picking up trash, cleaning out overgrown brush, and burning rubbish". These seemingly small acts have a large impact on a city with such a bad international reputation. Groups such as these youth volunteers show the desire of average Somalis to improve their tarnished international image and their war-stricken city. As Sipus rightly observes, “If the people of this city can continue to dedicate themselves to the common good like these kids, then the future looks bright [for Somalia]”.
New Face of Mogadishu
Photo Credit: 
Tristan McConnell of Global Post

Like I said, analysis of these coming landmark occasions for Somalia need to be balanced. We need to take into consideration Somalia’s complicated history, the events and people that led it to where it is today, and remember that many things can go awry with the plan to establish this new government. 

However, I think we all need to have a bit of optimism and look at the improvements made by the Somali citizenry who have become tired of war, destruction and poverty,  who have said ‘enough is enough’, and who have taken their country’s improvement into their own hands. 

I think Somalia’s future is bright – or at least brighter than it has been in the past 2 decades. I might argue that the collective Somali will to finally shed themselves of their bad reputation is strong enough to make this new government work, so long as other factors do not interfere. I hope that I am not eating these words a few months from now and I sincerely hope that these coming weeks really do mark the end of a rough era of Somalia’s history and the beginning of a new, brighter, and more successful chapter for this beautiful and far too often misunderstood nation.


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