The Good, Bad and Ugly of the UK-Somalia conference


AMISON soldiers patrol the city of KismayoBy Samira Sawlani

Attendees included British Prime Minister David Cameron, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, President Museveni and recently- elected Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, along with representatives from numerous international organisations and foreign governments.

Having undergone a 20-year-long civil war, Somalia is now being led by its first widely-recognised government for more than 20 years and is showing vast signs of improvement.

There has been a reported rise in Somalis from the diaspora returning to the country, an increase in the availability of education for children and a sign that the government is extending its influence beyond the capital Mogadishu, a city which is starting to show signs of economic recovery despite continued terror attacks.

The conference involved much discussion regarding possible strategies for the way forward in Somalia. However, it has left more questions than answers and unveiled the numerous issues, actors and topics of debate which can be posed when it comes to what was once known as the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean.’ As was expected, a total of £50 million was pledged by nations including America, Britain and China to be put towards building the Somali army and police force. Britain then went on to pledge an additional £35 million (approximately $54 million) to further strengthen security forces and protect the Somali coastline from pirates.

The European Union committed to providing approximately $57 million to train and strengthen the police and judiciary. In terms of the humanitarian crisis which has occurred due to famine, Britain also committed to provide $225 million. Cameron emphasised the interests of the Somali people. “After two decades of bloodshed and some of the worst poverty on earth, hope is alive in Somalia, now it is time to fulfil the hope for the people of Somalia. That is what they have been living and waiting for, and we must not let them down.”

As wonderful as it would be to believe that the actions and involvements of the British and their fellow contributors are entirely altruistic, perhaps it is best not to delve into such idealism. Western governments have always been honest about the threats posed to them by the rise of ‘terrorism and extremism.’

The British premier himself has stated: “These challenges are not just issues for Somalia. They matter to Britain – and to the whole international community, because when young minds are poisoned by radicalism and they go on to export terrorism and extremism, the security of the whole world is at stake.”

Some cynics would go a step further and acknowledge the natural resources which Somalia harbours. It is in a strategic location and its recovery from a 20-year war means it is a welcoming prospect for large British companies. Perhaps this too is reason for Britain’s continued interest and involvement in the country. The greater cynics among us suggest that Turkey’s surprising involvement in Somalia has also motivated increased British interest.

So busy have Western states been in watching China in Africa that they may have not expected Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan’s visit to Somalia in 2011. The Turkish approach to aid in Somalia has boosted its popularity with the people and provided Turkey with the opportunity to expand economically in Africa, which perhaps is a worrying prospect for competing governments.

In terms of the extremist threat particularly from al-Queda linked al- Shabab, one wonders if participation in such a conference may just worsen the situation. A statement by al-Shabab leader Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr expressed disapproval of the conference. Much of the grievances held by the organisation, stem from the continued involvement of Western countries in Somalia.

Zubeyr stated that the aim of the conference and the international community at large was to undermine Islamic Law in Somalia, gain access to the country’s mineral wealth and impose Western ideals under the guise of morality and cooperation. He encouraged further acts of terrorism and the following day seven people in Mogadishu were killed as a result of a suicide attack.

Though there is no negotiating with terrorists, the above brings about two issues for debate; firstly, the continuing suicide attacks and the number of young people subscribing to al-Shabab views, suggests dissatisfaction within parts of the Somali populace which cannot be ignored. Secondly, is growing relations with the West the solution for this?

Furthermore, is strengthening the army and fighting violence with violence, necessarily going to bring about the change so required in the country?

When looking at the success of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), it seems that Western government assistance with funding African troops has proven to be a success in Somalia. Uganda, Burundi and Kenya are just some of the countries who have led the fight against al-Shabab and brought stability to the region. America along with a number of other states has continued to contribute millions of dollars and weaponry to the African Union Mission.

Figures released by the UN suggest that almost 3,000 AU peacekeepers have been killed in Somalia in recent years. The alleged sidelining of President Museveni and President Kenyatta at the conference makes one wonder whether the British government have acknowledged the contribution of Somalia’s neighbours in this process. This then brings us to what was perhaps the most neglected issue at the conference and can be considered key in creating an environment of peace and stability in Somalia, that of internal dialogue and domestic relations within the country and its autonomous regions.

In 2012, a similar conference was held in Turkey which encouraged dialogue between representatives of Somalia and Somaliland. Somaliland is considered by much of the international community as an autonomous region of Somalia; it has, however, functioned as an independent state for a number of years. No representative of Somaliland was present at the UK- Somali a Conference, partly in protest at the UK government not recognising it as a separate country.

The lack of encouragement in involving Somaliland in this conference is baffling at best. Surely, domestic unity and relations should be priority in the case of a country like Somalia which has suffered internal tensions for years.

Also, Somaliland has largely enjoyed a peaceful and perhaps good level of stability for a number of years. Part of the reason for this was the 1993 Conference of Elders which involved a council of 150 elders representing each clan meeting to create institutions, vote on issues related to governance and disarmament and ensure inclusive political representation. Surely, this example is enough proof that any conference regarding peace in Somalia must emphasise actions which need to address internal challenges.

There are a number of clans and semi- autonomous regions in the country which have held back from openly supporting and openly challenging the new government. Promises of federalism, decentralised power and equal distribution of resources and authority have allowed for a fragile environment of peace and cooperation. In order to strengthen this, it is as important to encourage the usage of localised conflict resolution mechanisms as it is to deal with terrorists, pirates and external threats.

In the case of Somalia, as with other conflicts, the real victims have been the civilians caught in the crossfire, as goes the famous saying ‘when two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.’ If channelled in the right way, perhaps the funding and commitment of cooperation will finally bring peace to the Somali people, many of whom have perhaps experienced hell on earth.

However, in this situation another African proverb comes to mind, ‘Cross the river in a crowd and the crocodile won’t eat you.’ One can only hope that in the case of Somalia, clarity prevails in terms of who the crocodiles are.