History repeats itself in Somalia

From a tragedy to a bloody farce.

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.

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

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.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.