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History repeats itself in Somalia

From a tragedy to a bloody farce.

A member of the Somali National Army during a passing-out parade
A member of the Somali National Army during a passing-out parade at an African Union Mission in Mogadishu. Photograph: Getty Images

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Foreign Secretary William Hague are publicly optimistic that Somalia’s transition is going well. Having just returned from Mogadishu, I can say that the reality on the ground does not meet this optimism. At best, Western powers have a naïve vision of political developments within Somalia, at worst they are showing a wilful misunderstanding of current dynamics and ignoring problems which are being created for the future. International players need to radically reassess their analysis if they do not want Somalia to slide into a new wave of conflict.

Directed by its fight against a Jihadi organisation, al-Shabaab, the "international community" – basically Western States led by the USA and UK – emphasize military successes over the last year against that movement and the timely implementation of a political roadmap that, it argues, provides Somalia with permanent institutions, a better qualified Parliament and a new leadership to move the country into a period of recovery.

Formally, the political roadmap (the process to end the prolonged transition and bring in a more permanent government) is being implemented successfully. 135 elders were appointed and selected a Constitutional Assembly who subsequently adopted a new constitution, while a new Parliament should be appointed by mid August. Yet, there should be no illusion about the many flaws of this apparent success.

One of the strategic weaknesses of the outgoing transitional Parliament and Government (TFG), set up in 2004, was its lack of popular legitimacy. The new institutions are likely to have no more legitimacy since the whole roadmap process appears to be overly-influenced by foreigners, especially through the United Nations Political Office for Somalia, and by corruption. Shockingly, MP seats can be bought for a few thousand US dollars.

Though the country is still at war and public debates are nearly impossible, the USA and UK pushed for a new constitution to be endorsed. The Constitutional Assembly was left with no choice but to endorse a draft constitution (at a cost of $13m) since it would be implemented anyway as a new Provisional Constitution. Many elders saw that debate on the Constitution as very divisive and the whole exercise illegitimate, rather than being a basis to express shared values.

Military successes are not deniable and more are expected in coming weeks. But Britain and the US have fallen for their own propaganda. For months it was announced that al-Shabaab was going to split. Nothing of the sort happened - the current restructuring of al-Shabaab aims at minimising infiltration, not dividing the spoils. For more than a year they have been getting ready to wage an asymmetrical war by securing sanctuaries in the countryside, building supply lines and setting up clandestine terrorist cells in major cities. Support provided by al-Qaeda has helped contain internal dissent and prepare for a new war extending beyond Somalia’s borders.

Most of the military victories to date were obtained by the African Union force AMISOM, not the TFG army. AMISOM have no knowledge of the areas they are capturing and rely on TFG forces or ‘allies’ to take over after the battle is won. But the incompetence, and often criminality (Human Rights Watch has documented the abuses of the TFG army and its allies), of the TFG means that these military victories are hollow.  

This appalling behaviour means that increasingly AMISOM is forced to get involved in local politics and so is seen as a foreign force supporting some against others, which was not the case previously. Lip service is paid to the reconciliation with clans and communities that supported al-Shabaab but nothing concrete is happening on the ground.

From the international community a more realistic frame of mind will allow them to craft an approach that seeks incremental improvements and manages the expectations of Somali people and their international partners. Otherwise we may see a repeat of Afghan history in Somalia. By 2013, we may find the end of the transition has not provided any renewed legitimacy to central institutions and has transformed al-Shabaab from a Somalia centred Jihadi movement into a regional terrorist group with connections in the Sahel and the Gulf and corruption leading all political developments at the centre while new military actors emerge in the regions.

Dr Roland Marchal is a Senior Research Fellow at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), based at Sciences-Po in Paris. He is a specialist on the economics and politics of conflict in sub-Saharan Africa.