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 TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.