Somaliland and the London Conference on Somalia
By Ahmed M. I. Egal
The upcoming London Conference on Somalia, and the UK's urging of the Somaliland Government to attend, has understandably generated a lot of debate and comment within the Somaliland community, both within and outside the country. One of the stated objectives of the conference, according to Matt Baugh, Senior Representative for Somalia, is to "…reinforce the relative stability in areas of Somalia, such as Somaliland and Puntland and in the south…" This statement has, again understandably, aroused the ire of the people of Somaliland since they recovered their sovereignty from the erstwhile Republic of Somalia in 1991, and have steadfastly maintained their distance from the anarchy, state collapse and war that have engulfed Somalia ever since, despite repeated attempts (often involving violence, e.g. Al-Shabaab's attacks in Hargeisa and upon expatriates in Somaliland) to drag them into this unending maelstrom.
Somaliland and its people expected more from their former colonial protector, and it is either a reflection of the insensitivity of the current Foreign & Colonial Office to the aspirations of the people of Somaliland, or simply of their lack of knowledge of the politics of the Horn of Africa, that they refer to Somaliland as a region of Somalia, as Puntland is. The interpretation that many hard line, anti-Somaliland politicians within Somalia have given this British insensitivity or ignorance, is that the British have coerced the Somaliland Government to attend the conference as a regional authority, just like Puntland, Galmudug etc. Whatever the explanation for this impolitic language and it is likely to be a combination of all three outlined herein, the fact is that the British Government has put the Silanyo administration in a very difficult spot indeed. If they attend the conference, as they have stated they will, then they will reap the wrath of the vast majority of their people; if they don't, and they may yet be forced to a volte face, then they will look weak and will reap the wrath of Albion through curtailment of aid and a downgrade of bilateral ties.
Leaving aside the issue of Somaliland's attendance for the moment, it is instructive to consider what this latest conference on Somalia is meant to achieve and the likelihood of it achieving its stated objectives, which have been set out as follows:
• Security: sustainable funding for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), and support for Somali security and justice sectors
• Political Process: agreement to what should succeed the transitional institutions in Mogadishu in August 2012 and the establishment of a Joint Financial Management Board
• Local Stability: a coordinated international package of support to Somalia's regions
• Counter-terrorism: renewed commitment to tackle collectively the terrorist threat emanating from Somalia
• Piracy: breaking the piracy business model
• Humanitarian: renewed commitment to tackling Somalia's humanitarian crisis
• International coordination: agreement on improved international handling of Somalia issues
This is quite a challenge and it is clear that no single conference can be expected to achieve these gargantuan goals, so we must question what the British Government actually hopes to achieve at this conference. According to Chris Allen, UK Deputy Ambassador to Ethiopia, more than 40 senior government officials and multilateral organizations, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, are expected to attend the conference. Clearly, Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague have invested considerable political capital and much personal credibility in this conference.
The fact is that there have been some 17 or 18 conferences (depending upon one's criteria on what constitutes a conference) held to effect reconciliation and establish a credible, effective government for Somalia since 1991, including the latest one earlier this month in Garowe. All of these conferences can be said to have failed miserably since Somalia remains the very definition of a failed state with no central state authority in control of the country. Yet, the British Government has raised expectations internationally and within East Africa by hosting this conference and prevailing upon heads of state and government, the foreign donor community and the current Somali leadership, such as it is, to attend. On the face of it, given the near debacle of abject failure at the recent Garowe conference, which was only avoided by the UN acceding to the opposing demands of the two camps into which the participants divided regarding the basis upon which a future government of Somalia would be formed, the prospects for success seem rather dim.
So what do the British have up their sleeve, as it were, that leads them to believe that this conference will bear the sweet fruit of success where all the others have failed? Firstly, they have been dangling the enticing carrot of increased international aid for 'peaceful' regions, which has resulted in a sudden proliferation of regional states announced by aspirant Diaspora would-be 'leaders' seeking their fleeting fifteen minutes of fame (or perhaps infamy might be a more apt term) on the world stage, or in this case, the London stage and a briefcase of money – courtesy of the foreign donors. This opportunistic gold rush of regional statehood has even infected the peaceful parts of the erstwhile Somali Republic, i.e. Somaliland and Puntland, with the recent moves to legitimise the dangerous, Diaspora-driven, political mischief-making disguised as Awdal State and Khaatumo 2. Thus, while the direct responsibility for the recent deaths of security personnel and civilians in Buhoodle in Somaliland can be laid at the door of the naked ambition and greed of the Somali Diaspora carpetbaggers seeking a place at the London conference, the British Government must accept its indirect, if unintentional, culpability. To quote a much misused political axiom of our times, actions have consequences.
Secondly, with the support of the US and UN Security Council (UNSC), the British hope to revisit the agreement reached at Garowe wherein all things were promised to all parties. At Garowe, a further interim period of four years was agreed, during which Somalia would be 'governed' by a new interim government formed on the basis of the 4.5 clan model upon which the present TFG was formed. Thereafter, in 2016, a permanent government for Somalia will be formed based upon regional representation and not the 4.5 clan structure. The foreign donor community had intended that the Garowe conference would form the permanent government that has been pushed back four years, although any rational observer with knowledge of Somali history and politics, particularly during the period since the collapse of the Siyad Barre dictatorship, would have seen the chasm between these intentions and the hard reality on the ground. What, in effect, the foreign donors were attempting to effect was to construct the edifice of a permanent government upon quicksand, since the basis upon which a new Somali state was to be formed had not even been addressed.
The London Conference seeks to revisit the political agreement on the formation of a permanent government for Somalia, because the issue was ducked at Garowe, and the prospect of another four years of anarchy and political stasis under yet another interim government is unpalatable to the foreign donors. However, since the core issues underlying the collapse of the Somali state have not been addressed and are not tabled to be addressed at the conference, it is destined to fail. These issues revolve around the rationale for the existence of the state itself, i.e. what is the underlying basis for political consent in Somalia? The rationale for the creation of the erstwhile Republic was the irredentist dream of Greater Somalia, and this dream has been consigned to the dustbin of history for a whole host of reasons, both internal and external, which are beyond the scope of this paper to delve into. However, despite the lingering passion of some Somalis for this mirage of the past, and the false, in-name-only adherence of some regional powers seeking to advance their own self interested, political calculations, this discredited and empty irredentism can no longer further the political aspirations and hopes for a better future of a new generation of Somalis.
Succeeding generations of young Somalis, which have been robbed of any and all opportunity for betterment while observing both their own misery and the changing world around them are no longer inspired by dreams of Greater Somalia. The call to their political loyalty is to their sub-clan and the call to their faith is to a medieval nihilism masquerading as Islam. They demand a life and the chance for betterment now and a faith that connects them to humanity and human progress, not one that not only denies it, but cuts them off from it in the name of piety. The lucky few that can muster the necessary payments, vote with their feet and join the millions of illegal migrants that are preyed upon by human traffickers each year, while the unlucky are forced to choose between death, beggary and fighting for one side or the other in the interminable war that has come to define Somalia. This conference will, as did all of its predecessors, focus upon the symptoms of Somalia's malaise, i.e. the anarchy, lack of governance, corruption of the self-serving and self-appointed leadership, the nihilist menace of Al-Shabaab and maritime piracy, without ever addressing the root cause of the disease.
Addressing the root cause of the disease requires asking the question: In the absence of the irredentist dream, what is the basis for the existence of a Somali state, and on what terms will the people of Somalia, particularly the young, accord to such a state their political consent? This question cannot be sensibly or productively debated and concluded in a couple days at a swank conference hall in London by unelected and unrepresentative Somali 'politicians' in the pay of the UN, senior representatives of the foreign donors (however well intentioned), and senior members of the international aid nomenclature. These questions can only be sensibly and productively debated and concluded by the people of Somalia through their genuine, indigenous socio-political and cultural leadership. Such a genuine, grass-root, Somali-owned process does not lend itself readily to Western notions and perceptions of structured political debate and negotiation. Rather, it harks back to traditional Somali culture of clan meetings, dispute settlement and peacemaking under the galool tree that has endured for hundreds of years. These meetings and discussions are open to all, although respect and deference is afforded to the elders, however to quote a Somali adage pertaining to such meetings, participants are urged to "daa' ha raadininee, dunta raadiya", or seek and follow wisdom, not longevity.
To return to the issue of Somaliland's attendance of the London conference, it is accepted wisdom among most Somalilanders, that attendance should be rebuffed. This is largely an emotional, knee-jerk reaction to the arrogance/ignorance of Britain in referring to the country as a region of Somalia and then exerting strong pressure for attendance upon the Silanyo regime, which it has successfully inveigled into attending previous meetings for Somalia to Silanyo's domestic political cost. The overwhelming majority of Somaliland citizens, and especially the young who have much less attachment to Britain and no fond memories of the relatively benign colonial protectorate administration, would like their government to cock a snoot at Albion's perfidy and shun attendance. However, this would be a mistake since an emotional response to another's slight (intentional or otherwise), while often satisfying, is rarely wise and almost never in one's long term self interest.
Instead, the Silanyo administration should attend the conference with the aim of telling truth to power and challenging the international community to honestly address why the Somali state collapsed in the aftermath of the Siyad Barre dictatorship and in doing so return ownership of the process of reconciliation and establishment of a new, 21st century rationale for the state to the people of Somalia. Somaliland has unique experience of this type of genuine, grass-root, democratic peace making and reconciliation rooted in local culture, traditions and religious faith. The Borama Conference of 1992, which laid the foundations for the re-emergence of Somaliland as a peaceful, democratic and free republic lasted for over four months, was rooted in local culture and history, ensured that all sections and groups within society, including those historically not accorded a voice, were represented and were heard. In addition, this conference called upon the skills, experience and knowledge of those from the Diaspora as equal citizens and not as fortune or position-seeking carpetbaggers. The representatives/participants at this conference included clan elders and leaders, traditional Sultans, intellectuals and poets, business people, professionals, e.g. doctors and lawyers, politicians and civil society leaders.
The conference had no formal agenda, but everyone knew that the central topic of discussion was the terms upon which the people of this country were prepared to live together in peace and fraternity in a post-dictatorship, post-irredentist future. The first item that was agreed, which set the tone and stage for the subsequent reconciliation and agreement to form a representative government, was that all previous political and clan disputes between the peoples and clans of Somaliland, whether rooted in the defunct dictatorship or in the subsequent liberation war, were null and void, were consigned to history and that it was 'xaraam', i.e. a sin, to ever raise them again. The people of Somaliland have a lot to offer in assisting the international community in developing a workable road map for genuine reconciliation in Somalia, and they are prepared put this experience, expertise and their good offices as an honest broker between the warring parties on the table.
However, the international community has to come to the realisation that the continued failures of its efforts towards re-establishing a viable Somali state over the last two decades are neither accidental nor due to any bad luck or lack of effort. Rather, they have been doomed to failure because they have sought to paper over the cracks of a political edifice that cannot be resurrected because its very foundation has disappeared. Somaliland's willingness to play the role of peace broker, impartial adjudicator and host of the reconciliation process for its brothers to the south is genuine and heartfelt. Equally, its commitment to its sovereignty and independence is unconditional and also genuine and is not subject to question or debate by others. Somaliland won back its independence and freedom at the barrel of a gun, after a long war, and with the precious blood and treasure of its people. Somaliland's freedom and recovery of its sovereignty was neither negotiated at a conference table nor granted by fiat, and it will not be surrendered on any terms. International recognition may not come today, or this year, and the powers represented at the conference may choose to ignore the will of the people of Somaliland for as long as they wish, but this will neither deter them from their chosen destiny nor dismay them from their choice.
It does not often come to pass that a leader is presented by history with a chance to represent the wishes of his people and the justice of their cause to the international community by issuing a challenge, so honest, so heartfelt and so rooted in the basic humanity shared by all peoples, that it marks a turning point in international diplomacy and modern history. Such a moment was presented to Emperor Haile Selassie at the League of Nations in 1936 and the challenge he issued to a world community dominated by European colonial powers on behalf of the Ethiopian people suffering under a brutal onslaught by fascist Italy, brought a destitute, backward and impoverished African country into the League as a charter member and changed the course of history. In 1974, Yasser Arafat went to the UN and said "today I come bearing an olive branch in one hand, and the freedom fighter's gun in the other. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand. I repeat, do not let the olive branch fall from my hand", and the world never saw the struggle for Palestinian rights and the creation of a Palestinian state through the same prism again.
President Silanyo has such an opportunity at the London conference. He must challenge the world to deny the self evident will of the people of Somaliland and their unique achievement of creating a democratic, post-irredentist Somali state, imperfect as it may be, adjacent to the longest-running failed state in modern history. He must point out that the denial of Somaliland's rights and the continued consignment of the people of Somalia to a never-ending nightmare of anarchy, terrorism and war are two sides of the same coin. The Somali people have the ingenuity and the will to solve their seemingly intractable problems if provided by the international community with the means. The missing ingredient is the imagination and creativity to step back and let the Somalis do it for themselves. Somaliland's message to the London conference is simple: if the definition of madness is repeating the same action again and again yet expecting a different result each time, then we are your sanity pill; ignore us at your peril.
The world may ignore Somaliland's right to recover its sovereignty, but we have the solution to our brothers' troubles, and we stand ready with an open hand to offer it, if you will let us. The prolonged misery of Somalia and Somaliland's continued prodigality are linked and both the result of the lack of imagination and creativity on the part of the international community, which has for too long consigned the 'Somali issue' to the back burner. If the world is now serious about finding a solution for the problems of the Somali people of the Horn of Africa, then it should open not only its heart, but also its mind and its ears, because Somaliland has been shouting the solution for years with to deaf ears. Somaliland's attendance of the London Conference must challenge the status quo not only with respect to its own situation, but also with respect to the situation in Somalia. Somaliland, as the first post-irredentist Somali nation-state, must deliver this message and deliver it emphatically. Who knows, forcing the world to properly address the 'Somali Issue' may just save the conference and save the credibility of Albion.
Ahmed M.I. Egal