The 11 May London Conference on Somalia comes at a time when prospects for peace and stability have substantially improved, even as the threat of famine looms. The meeting aims for a surge in humanitarian aid, a recommitment of international political support and to review a Somali National Security Plan that could increase the army’s numbers to 18,000 troops, reform the chain of command, and set a budget. But overall progress towards ending the country’s 25 years of conflict will require the new President Mohammed Abdullahi Farmajo and his government to display resolve in promoting better governance, tackling corruption, restarting the stalled national reconciliation process, facilitating dialogue among federal states to tackle territorial- and resource-driven conflicts and conduct a constitutional review.
Farmajo, elected amid a surge of hope in February, inherits a corrupt and dysfunctional state, riven by deep clan and factional divisions, and hemmed in by Al-Shabaab, a ten-year-old violent Islamist insurgency that is still the greatest threat to the country. Farmajo is therefore subject to the same pathologies that have undone previous administrations. But his situation is not entirely bleak. His predecessors established rudimentary institutional structures of a viable state and his administration comes into office with high public approval ratings. It is more diverse and relatively inclusive, with several effective specialised army units and significant progress in the federalisation project.
National and sub-national state-building cannot occur without a comprehensive political settlement and reconciliation. True, every government since 2000 has paid lip service to reconciliation, but all have balked at crucial implementation stages. National reconciliation shouldn’t be about restoring a romanticised, organic relationship among clans. Rather, it is about fostering peaceful resolution of conflicts, rebuilding cohesion and mutual solidarity, encouraging inclusive local governance, addressing disputes over resource and, where possible, seeking creative ways to address past crimes. To achieve this, the federal and state governments should be co-facilitators of a bottom-up reconciliation process, providing resources, security, strategic guidelines and oversight, even as it steers clear of controlling the process.
Progress has been made toward finalising a federal structure. But the process was initially both contested and designed to lock out certain minority clans from power. The federal government came late to the game, at times legitimised a flawed status quo and at others manipulated the process to benefit certain factions. Territorial claims, if addressed poorly or not at all, are liable to provoke armed conflict. The government now needs to do more to facilitate dialogue among federal states to resolve inter- and intra-clan power and address grievances regarding resource allocation, as well as to support the committee created to resolve border disputes. As important, it should finalise and make permanent the constitution that will formally delineate the division of power and resources among the federal government and the states.
Of course, Al-Shabaab lies at the core of the security crisis. While the movement has been dislodged from many of its south-central strongholds by regional troops serving in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), it remains resilient and adaptable – combining rural guerrilla insurgency tactics with a violent terror campaign that now extends beyond Somalia’s borders. It owes its longevity and resilience not so much to its military genius as to its capacity to exploit Somalia’s protracted disorder, deep social divisions and fractured politics. As long as these conditions persist, the group will be able to rebound. In addition to addressing those circumstances, the government, with the support of international allies, should devise a strategy aimed at persuading less hardline Al-Shabaab elements to abandon jihad – in particular by proposing a well-structured amnesty program among other incentives. Somalia’s partners should signal they will not veto any such initiative.
This is all the more important insofar as AMISOM troop contributing countries have signalled they are seeking an exit. In 2011-2015, they dislodged Al-Shabaab from most urban centres in a series of costly offensives but the mission cannot pacify the entire country. Its biggest setback was its Somali allies’ failure to backfill and stabilise liberated territories, much of which remains plagued by localised conflict and discontent. The drawdown, which could start in 2018, should be orderly and synchronised with implementation of a coherent Somali National Security Plan. These reforms to the security sector are under negotiation among AMISOM troop contributing countries, donors and the Somali government but could take years to negotiate and implement if they lack full support from both the federal government and federal states, or if they are not carefully coordinated by all the country’s security partners, particularly the “S6” – Turkey, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), European Union (EU), U. S., UK, and UN.
The government has drafted a national security strategy barely three months after coming into office. President Farmajo has staked his reputation on reform and upgrade of the Somali National Army. There are positive signs: recruitment and clan diversity within the army and police are improving; forces belonging to the federal states increasingly are being offered training placements and the army’s competence and combat effectiveness generally are improving. Yet the proliferation of parallel bilateral training programs has inadvertently created a number of challenges. Skill levels among the troops are inconsistent; some units are better paid and equipped than others, provoking frictions and undermining cohesion; structures designed to achieve greater coordination between national and federal state troops are deficient; and, despite attempts to ameliorate troop integration, unit cohesion, loyalty and morale, they remain far from optimal. All of which is compounded by old problems – indiscipline, perceived clan bias, desertions, corruption, including pilfering of fuel, equipment and ammunition, as well as a weak command chain.
These are but some of the many challenges facing Somalia. If the new government fails to fulfil hopes of better governance, less corruption, more work on reconciliation and addressing conflicts among federal states, it should come as no surprise were London to host another conference, with precisely similar aims, in 2023.