Somalia's rare window of hope
- 13 December 2011
- From the section Africa
The BBC's Barbara Plett accompanied UN secretary general Ban ki-Moon to the Somali capital, Mogadishu and found a rare mood of optimism that a solution to the country's numerous problems could be on the way.
After two decades of war, beset by drought and famine and home to both the lucrative piracy industry, which threatens shipping across the Indian Ocean, and Islamist militant groups, Somalia is perhaps the ultimate failed state.
But with Islamist militants now ousted from the capital, Mogadishu, there is a brief window of opportunity to set up a working government, which is the only way to tackle these problems, UN officials say.
As well as the humanitarian situation, the world's worst food crisis which has forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes, and the threat from pirates, the UK is also concerned that Somalia is becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda-inspired militants who are playing an increasing role in the radicalisation of young Britons.
It is convening a conference on Somalia in February to co-ordinate an international response.
In August the 9,000-strong African Union force cleared Mogadishu of most al-Shabab fighters, who have been battling the UN-backed government.
Recent military incursions by Kenya and Ethiopia have also taken the war to al-Shabab strongholds in the south and centre of the country.
With al-Shabab on the back foot, the UN is pressing the government to speed up the implementation of a political plan agreed in September, known as the roadmap.
This sets out a one-year timeline for creating a constitution, reforming an unwieldy clan-based parliament and tempering rampant corruption, which has alienated donors.
Already there have been delays. Sceptics doubt that anything can invest the government - a weak and divided administration set up by the international community in 2004 and propped up by it ever since - with the political legitimacy to govern effectively.
But for the United Nations, the current administration remains Somalia's only government, and diplomats claim there is a chance it can be reformed.
The UN plans to closely monitor the roadmap by returning its political office to Mogadishu from Kenya's capital, Nairobi, in January.
Its head, Augustine Mahiga, called this a step "beyond symbolism. Daily contact with key stakeholders is crucial, where a difference of 24 hours could be critical in getting results" on a decision, he told the BBC.
Even so, the UN envoy expects "tremendous resistance" from vested interests in Somalia's business and political elite, which gain from the state of permanent war.
"Somalis are good businessmen," another UN official observed wryly. "They just have to see that a functioning state is good for business, not bad."
Mr Mahiga believes a mix of carrot and stick can prod the government into performing and being accepted by Somalis.
Sticks include diplomatic isolation, travel bans and other sanctions on individual "spoilers". These are still only proposals that need to be presented to the AU and the UN Security Council, he said, but "there is a readiness, I've detected, to consider such measures to ensure this time around this narrow opportunity is not lost".
He cautiously welcomed the Kenyan incursion because, he said, it is aimed at "degrading" al-Shabab militarily and opening up more territory for the government to extend its authority - he is less sure about what Ethiopia, Somalia's traditional rival, is up to.
Critics, however, warn that such interventions risk balkanisation, with the African states installing proxy forces to serve their own interests and agendas. They say this could reinvigorate al-Shabab as a national resistance movement - something that happened during Ethiopia's 2006 occupation of Somalia.
The incursions may also feed a dynamic of fragmentation that has been at play ever since the fall of the central government in 1991 and aided by the ineffectiveness of the current government. There are now between 14 and 20 "mini-states" of various types and credibility in the country, according to UN officials.
Mr Mahiga believes these facts will have to be included in any new federal political set-up.
"Rather than being pessimistic and cynical about regional entities [in Somalia] breaking away or balkanisation, we should look into constructive political arrangements and a constitutional dispensation that will accommodate the regions with a fair measure of autonomy," he said.
But what about al-Shabab which, even if weakened militarily, still controls many central and southern areas of the country?
"Shabab is composed of moderates and extremists. We have to rehabilitate and accommodate the moderate ones and fight the extremists," said Somali MP Awad Ahmad Ashare quoted in the Kenyan Daily Nation newspaper.
Mr Mahiga agrees: "We cannot wish them away. These are Somalis and they have particular political ideas which may need to be reconciled with the other prevailing ideas."
And even though al-Shabab is down, it is not out. It may now hold almost no territory in Mogadishu, but it continues to hit back with bombing attacks: UN officials said there are on average eight improvised explosive devices discovered or detonated every day in the capital.
So while this may be a "moment of fresh opportunities", as declared by UN chief Ban ki-Moon on his recent visit to the city, few regard it as anything other than precarious, and many believe it may be as fleeting as the secretary general's stopover.
He was whisked through his historic visit in a speedy four hours while the capital was put under security lockdown.