Somalia: New Team, Old Hurdles
Andrews Atta-Asamoah, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Pretoria
Barring any significant opposition in parliament, Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon’s ten nominees for Somalia’s post-transition cabinet could be the ones to promote and sustain the achievements of the just-ended transition in the country. Their nomination has already been greeted with optimism in certain circles, amid public relief that the post-transition government, despite delays, is gradually taking shape. Others regard the inadequacies of the nominees and the imbalances in the proposed cabinet as indicative of the character of the new leadership and of the concessions they will be ready to make in the interests of peace and the development of the country.
Whether the list passes as is or with modifications, reflecting emerging political intrigues, the entire process clearly communicates the thinking of the new crop of leaders in Villa Somalia in steering the country in a direction that breaks with certain aspects of the past and looks to a future sensitive to the political and identity nuances of their constituency. This thinking towards breaking with the past, on one side, and the entrenched realities and challenges on the other, portray a typical case of a new team facing old hurdles. The team in Villa Somalia may be changing but the odds are daunting.
The first of the hurdles is the management of the existing stakeholders’ interests. In politics there are always vested interests, and Somalia is no exception. These interests are entrenched in the many identity poles that have been key to the conflict history of the country, as well as the many stakeholders who have characterised both the push for and sabotage of the quest for peace. The composition of the political leadership is thus a delicate balancing act difficult to master if only ten positions are available. This is even more so if there is no reserve bench to calm the expectations of all the interest groups. Crafting an acceptable cabinet is critical to the task ahead. A failure to map out the various power bases and their associated interest groups will be a ticking time bomb against sustaining recent achievements.
Already, a number of concerns are emerging around the proposed cabinet, centred on its inability to fully satisfy all of the political, regional and identity interests. As a result, notable imbalances are expected to be a bone of contention in parliament in the coming days. Closely related to that is the fact that the proposed cabinet does not reflect the interests of the northern parts of the country, as it is dominated by people from the south-central areas. This could be a recipe for failure in resolving the issues surrounding the secession of Somaliland.
After having scuttled the hurdle of balancing interests, the cabinet has yet to face the hurdle of a depleted bureaucracy and institutional base. The years of uncertainty and insecurity have forced the majority of Somalia’s most valuable human resources to leave the country. Worse of all is the lack of equipment and incentive for the few remaining to fully contribute towards sustaining state structures. Government ministries therefore exist without the capacity to operationalise efforts towards delivering on state functions. Consequently, while the expectations of the masses are high, the delivery base is weak. This leaves the new crop of leaders with a will without means and ultimately no deliverables. Without these, relevance and legitimacy will be difficult to create and sustain after more than a year in office. This thus calls for balancing capacity and interests. As much as accommodating stakeholder interests are important for sustaining peace in Somalia, the capacity of the nominees to deliver is also crucial for viability.
Given the context, no Somali leaders can afford the cost of an erosion of legitimacy resulting from the inability to deliver on the expectations of their constituency, whether due to incapacity or to inherited realities. An erosion of delivery capacity invariably undermines relevance and will legitimise forces like al-Shabaab that are waiting to cash in on the weaknesses and inabilities of the new team.
Al-Shabaab may be down but it is certainly not out and, apart from piracy, is the nucleus of the security hurdle that stares the new crop of leaders in the face. As improvised explosive devises (IEDs) and suicide attacks continue to claim lives in the country, it is clear that extending security beyond Mogadishu cannot be over-emphasised. In the midst of the shaky mandate of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a dwindling funding base and the threat by Uganda to withdraw its troops amid allegations of support for the M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the pressure for Somalis to take ownership of efforts to extend security beyond Mogadishu is considerable. Yet that will take time. Until enough local capacity is built and adequately resourced, an untimely withdrawal of AMISOM forces will be an open invitation for the return of al-Shabaab and lead to the deterioration of the achievements made during the transition period.
The other issue that should be under discussion is whether it is time to make friends with the enemy. Al-Shabaab has lost bargaining power as a result of its combat losses. An outright victory in these circumstances could bring peace, but a negotiated settlement does so as well. In a situation where the driving force behind the mobilisation of saboteurs of the peace is jihadism, talking peace is important since the logic of deterrence through defeat may not wholly apply. Keeping the peace in post-transition Somalia through making friends with the enemy should not be completely discounted.
Another important issue that will have to be dealt with circumspectly involves the management of the Somali pull and the international push. In the past, the inability of some leaders to balance Somali expectations for independence in decision making and local ownership with the role of the international community led to perceptions that certain leaders were the puppets of the international community. The current crop of leaders cannot afford to allow such a perception, since it will erode their legitimacy and create citizen disengagement from existing processes. It is one area that past leaders were not adept at managing and it is one hurdle that the new leaders will have to swiftly confront and surmount. In the midst of these hurdles and high expectations, what is on the minds of many is whether Somalia’s saviours have finally arrived and whether the proposed team (or the modified version) is a winning squad. The answer is the sum of all the above factors and the resolve of the Somali people to make it work this time. While the hurdles are many, resolve could make all the difference.