Somalia: victim of war, famine and a pestilence of policy: my latest Guardian "Power and Nations" column, 28 July 2011
Somalia: victim of war, famine and a pestilence of policy
Facing starvation and instability, Somalia needs the international community to stop propping up a failed status quo and rethink
The news from Somalia is grim. Last week, the UN declared a famine in two southern areas, calling the food crisis Africa's worst since 1991-92 (which was also in Somalia). The UN estimates that a staggering 3.2 million people need urgent assistance.
The immediate cause of the crisis was the recurrent failure of seasonal rains across the Horn of Africa. But it will be exacerbated by the continuing instability in Somalia, where the internationally recognised (and appointed) government controls but a few blocks of the capital, Mogadishu. The rest of the country is under the sway of various other groups, including the al-Shabaab militia. For most Somalis, the famine represents a deeper trough of an already existing and perpetual misery of abject poverty and instability.
International policy to stabilise Somalia has been a total failure. Yet, the same policies persist. In 2000, the "international community" set up what it thought was a legitimate government in Somalia, in an attempt to create a political consensus where none existed. Today, the so-called Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is neither transitional nor federal, nor even really a government, in that it offers no prospect of a transition to a more durable alternative, does not represent the rest of Somalia in a meaningful way, and, as a government, provides no services to its people, who did not elect it, in any case. The TFG is, in the words of a recent International Crisis Group report, "incompetent, corrupt and hobbled by weak leadership" and should be given a deadline to shape up, or be removed. Very few observers expect it to shape up: the current system pays the cabal who control it far too well.
Given the total absence of effective central authority, it cannot be a surprise that Somalia is fracturing into different statelets, some of which have existed as separate – and peaceful – entities for some time. In the north, Somaliland (which, for full disclosure, Independent Diplomat advises) declared its independence at the end of the civil war in 1991. Since then, it has built its own democratic institutions, held respectable elections and is governed peacefully by a new government that is widely respected. To Somaliland's east, Puntland appears to be establishing itself as a separate state. And in the more lawless south, smaller self-governing enclaves are springing up, in Galmudug, and in Jubaland, along the Kenyan border.
Offshore, vast resources (worth an estimated $1.2-2bn) have been expended, building an unprecedented international naval fleet, including the EU's first ever maritime operation, to combat piracy. This policy, too, has been an expensive failure. There have been more ship hijackings this year than in any previous. One senior UN official lamented to me recently: if only they would spend as much on shore, where real solutions might be found.
Experts on Somalia have been saying the same thing for some time: that encouragement needs to be given to local efforts to build new political agreements from the grassroots up, as Somaliland did, to produce its successful and stable political system. Success, not failure, in building stability should be rewarded. No one pretends that this would be easy, or produce a quick solution. But such a bottom-up approach might just work, in contrast to 11-year failure of the internationally designed top-down TFG process.
There are signs of change. Earlier this month, after meeting the president of Somaliland, British Foreign Secretary William Hague tweeted (yes, tweeted!): "A glimpse of what Somalia could be – stability in the region is possible." The US has begun talking about a "twin track" policy to support stability in the north – in Somaliland and Puntland – while addressing the chaos in the south. An influential thinktank recently delivered to Congress this devastating assessment of American policy. But US interests are mixed in Somalia, as this recent Nation report on its shadowy counter-terrorism efforts suggests.
This may be one factor stifling much-needed debate on international Somalia policy. "Security interests" have a habit of trumping others. But I suspect that simple inertia and the inherent conservatism of international policy-making is a better explanation. It's easier just to crank out the routine statements, tweaked a bit for current circumstances, than to engage in deeper thinking about what might work.
A further obstacle to the necessary policy is more deepseated, and has bedevilled policy-making elsewhere, including Yugoslavia during its collapse. This is the innate commitment of states to the territorial integrity of other states: states don't like to encourage the demise of their kind. Somalia, however, ceased to exist as a state in any meaningful way over 20 years ago, if not much longer. One European diplomat said to me the other day, "We do not want Somalia to break up." But it already has!
In the face of all the evidence, a recent meeting of the UN security council, which has been discussing Somalia as long as anyone can remember, agreed (pdf) with itself that international policy was on the right track. In such forums, inertia and handwringing hold sway, even while anarchy rules most of Somalia. Suffer the people to have their fate in such hands.
- guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011