World attention is on the war-torn Horn of Africa nation once more, with analysts saying the London Conference on 23 February could mark a turning point in the country’s quest for peace and stability.
Somalis from across the country and the diaspora – including for the first time a delegation from the self-declared autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland – are expected to attend the conference, hosted by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, together with representatives of 44 countries, the UN and Arab League, among others.
Al-Shabab is not invited, but countries such as Turkey and Qatar, which have urged engagement with the militia, will be there.
Regional analyst Nuradin Dirie, once a presidential candidate in Puntland, says “success” for this meeting would be the achievement of a better international coordination of help and support for Somalia.
“We also need a better focus on the international engagement in Somalia, not just seeing it through the eyes of security, but through reconciliation and strengthening what is already succeeding in Somalia. But it all depends on how Somali leaders will respond to this opportunity.”
Rashid Abdi, an independent Horn of Africa analyst, told IRIN, “[Somalis are by and large] wary of foreign-led peace initiatives. The current scepticism about London on the Somali streets is understandable considering past failures. However, there is hope too that London can be different and must be different. That is the only way to restore Somali faith in the internationally led peacemaking and state-building processes.”
The UK Foreign Secretary William Hague has called the conference a “moment of opportunity”. He recently told a gathering of Somalis living in the UK there were “compelling reasons why the time was right for a major push”: the success of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in taking control of Mogadishu, the pressure exerted on Al-Shabab, the progress against piracy and the fact that the mandate of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was due to end soon.
“The current transitional institutions in Mogadishu run out in August. After seven years of minimal progress, they must not be extended. The Somali political process must become broader and more representative,” Hague said.
The agreement signed in Garowe, Puntland, on 18 February means there is a now a proposed framework for what could succeed the TFG.
The deal foresees a role for the semi-autonomous Somali regions, something likely to be welcomed in London, where preliminary meetings have emphasized the need to build on the successes achieved by these quasi-states.
Piracy and Al-Shabab
One of the suggested ways to use these regional islands of relative stability is to encourage them to become more involved in the battle against piracy.
Participants will consider plans for internationally supported special courts to try pirates in Mauritius and the Seychelles and special prisons in Puntland and Somaliland where they will serve their sentences.
The meeting takes place against the background of a new offensive against Al-Shabab in the south of the country. People who took part in preliminary meetings say Britain hopes to persuade the UN Security Council to agree to an increase in AMISOM troop numbers, which would allow the Kenyan soldiers already in Somalia to be join them, with new contingents from Djibouti and Sierra Leone. Along with that would go pledges of more financial support, to put AMISOM funding on a more sustainable basis.
The various initiatives on the table will cost money, but this is not a pledging conference, despite the Somali Prime Minister’s optimistic call for a “Marshall Plan”, with a trust fund and a complete reconstruction programme.
Nor is it primarily about humanitarian funding, although there will be a side-event about these issues. But NGOs will not be involved.
This distancing of the humanitarian issues is a relief to those organizations struggling to work on both sides of the lines, especially since Al-Shabab has made its hostility towards the London Conference very clear. A representative of one such group told IRIN it had been worried about being co-opted into the political- and security-based agenda of the meeting.
Roger Middleton, who leads Somali policy for Oxfam, told IRIN there were still huge needs in Somalia, and it was important that the international community recognized that and did not do anything to compromise it.
“There are some things we are very clear about. We are not calling for the international community to negotiate on our behalf in terms of access. We are not calling for military support for our humanitarian actions. It’s very important that we continue to operate, as we do operate at the moment, as impartial actors, neutral to any side in the conflict, and deliver aid to the people who need it, when they need it and where they need it.”