Failed State No More? Somalia Begins to Crawl Out of the Dark Hole of Instability and War
As the classic modern-day failed state, Somalia seems to be finally sailing out of the rough seas of ongoing conflicts and endless political instability on which it has been floating for so long. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia, which was temporarily set up eight years ago to transition the country into permanent statehood, came to an end earlier this month. What remains to be seen is how different the new political dispensation will be considering the enormity of the political, social, and security challenges facing the nation.
Fortunately, unlike its predecessors, the new government assumes office at a time when Somalia has already achieved two critical milestones: the adoption of a national constitution and the formation of a representative national assembly. Both developments are widely seen as bold improvements from the political gridlock of the past. The long and arduous path towards permanent statehood for Somalia has hardly been paved with gold, and thus requires competent and visionary leadership in all branches of government. Chief among these goals is the critical issue of national security.
As of this writing, over 10,000 African Union (AU) forces representing nations such as Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, and Kenya—with Sierra Leone and Nigeria pledging to send more—continue to fight alongside ill-trained and ill-equipped Somali troops in an effort to rid the country of al-Shabab, an extremist group ideologically affiliated with al-Qaeda. Currently, Al-Shabab controls a large swath of territory throughout the south, though its appeal is on the decline thanks to its draconian rule.
Although many nationals as well as outside observers question the role of foreign military forces in Somalia, there is no question that al-Shabab continues to pose a major threat, launching suicide bombings on public installations, popular civilian markets, and government-controlled residential areas. Less than three days after the swearing-in of the new president, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in front of the hotel where the president-elect was temporarily residing, killing innocent civilians and AU and Somali troops guarding the facility. Fortunately, the new president and visiting foreign dignitaries were unharmed.
With al-Shabab and pirate activities on the decline, the new government needs to remain vigilant and immediately train and equip a strong national army by integrating existing clan militias and recruiting new cadets. Equally compelling challenges facing the new government include ensuring a complete review and official ratification of the new constitution by the parliament and initiating a genuine national reconciliation process to pave the way for the parliament to address the hotly contested issue of Somali federalism.
A remarkable atmosphere of new beginnings and a palpable desire for peace has enabled new parliamentarians to usher in a smooth end to the transition period. In retrospect, the transition era is seen as a period in which honest attempts to rebuild national infrastructure and institutions of government were hampered by the constraints of the transitional process, as well as widespread corruption.
Despite the political squabbling of the recent past, Mogadishu—the epicenter of Somalia’s civil war for over two decades—is showing signs of revival and economic vitality faintly echoing the sprawling seaside resort it once was. The banging and hammering sounds of construction workers on rooftops have replaced the deafening blast of gunfire and roving mortar shells that once defined the city. New restaurants, refurbished hotels, and other businesses continue to sprout all over the city, thanks to courageous local entrepreneurs and a huge influx of Somalis returning from the Diaspora. Calm is returning elsewhere in the country as well, albeit at a slower pace.
Mogadishu’s relative security enabled it to host historic presidential and parliamentary elections, which enabled the international community—under the direction of Ambassador Augustine Mahiga, a Tanzanian diplomat and the head of the UN’s political office on Somalia—to shepherd Somalia out of its transition period in accordance with the national roadmap. The ensuing process produced a national constitution, disbanded the old parliament after an immense internal power struggle, and selected traditional elders to nominate members of a constituent assembly to adopt the constitution in the absence of a national referendum. The elders also nominated members of the new national assembly.
The new parliament, whose capacity to advance institutions of good governance has vastly improved, includes many academics, civil society organizers, and technocrats. Women’s representation has improved to 18 percent, though it has fallen far short of the 30-percent quota earmarked in the roadmap. Nevertheless, great strides have been made in the march towards a representative assembly able to produce effective national legislation. The mere act of holding presidential and parliamentary elections inside the country signals newfound political maturity and perhaps a new era of camaraderie and compromise. It remains to be seen if the new government will be able to capitalize on these realities.
Bumpy Road to Permanent Statehood
It was widely speculated that the leaders of the transitional government, which had a strong hand in selecting the elders and the technical committee overseeing the transition process, would succeed in reelecting themselves once again. Many anticipated that a meaningful change at the top was not possible. Yet the newly formed parliament, despite allegations of corruption, restored waning public confidence in the national government by electing highly qualified yet relative newcomers to the highest offices of the land.
The new government benefits from three crucial institutional foundations that it can build upon: widespread public support, a new constitution, and an effective national parliament. But Somalia’s new leaders must learn from past mistakes. Foremost among them is that they must learn to collaborate, compromise, and put national interests before their individual or regional agendas. Endless squabbles among those at the helm in previous governments hampered the functioning of the state, which led to the brazen interference of foreign entities in Somalia.
In addition, Somalia must maintain a limited technocratic government of no more than 18 cabinet members if not less, enmeshing a system of meritocracy with the goals of diversity and inclusive representation. No meaningful permanent statehood is possible for Somalia if the new government fails to reconstitute a strong national army that replaces the AU forces currently securing the nation. So long as foreign forces are protecting public figures and institutions, Somalia will undoubtedly move from one form of transition to another.
The end of the transitional period means different things to different people. For the UN and the international community, it is just another step in the process of pacifying Somalia. The international community still expects the new government to advance in the next four years elements not yet achieved in the transition process, including developing a national program to define post-transition priorities, restructuring the Somali security forces, and expanding the rule of law and public services. It also requires visible steps in the crucial areas of reconciliation, transitional justice, transparency, and financial accountability.
On the other hand, for many jubilant Somalis, it is the end of two decades of statelessness and foreign intervention—the beginning of a permanent state able to represent the will of its people and stand firm against unwelcome meddling by foreign entities.
Even though Somalia, as a UN member, never officially lost its sovereignty and territorial integrity, many Somalis at home and in the Diaspora continue to believe that the transitional political arrangement neither enhanced nor elicited the power and prestige associated with an independent free republic. For them, Somalia is finally moving away from the dreadful failed-state status that gave the international community and regional states such sway over Somali affairs.
Whatever the case, the new government should be judged by whether it can show competency in government, preserve the public trust, guide the country toward genuine reconciliation, expand the reach of the government beyond Mogadishu by establishing reputable local and regional administrations, promote the interests of all regions equally, and engage in bilateral dialogue with Somaliland and appoint an envoy to promote North-South relations.
The stakes are high and the challenges steep, but for the first time in years, Somalis are enjoying a renewed sense of hope and optimism. The new government should utilize this to its advantage.