Will the London conference help Somalia?

African Union peace keeping force and Somali government forces near Mogadishu
Image caption Pro-government forces have now taken control of Mogadishu

UK Prime Minister David Cameron's announcement of a London Conference on Somalia initially led to widespread scepticism.

People recalled that there have been some 20 international conferences on Somalia since the collapse of central authority in 1991, and that they have achieved very little. Not another big, expensive talking shop, many Somali-watchers thought.

But since then, there are a couple of signs that this one might be different.

First of all, unlike most of the others, this conference is not about sorting out the internal political problems of Somalia. It is not another of those two-year-long excuses for Somali politicians to stay in expensive hotels in foreign countries, while people at home carry on killing each other and starving to death.

The London Conference is a one-day meeting where some of the world's most powerful people will sit down in one room and try to co-ordinate the international approach towards Somalia. Leaders from more than 50 countries and international organisations will focus on seven key issues, including terrorism, piracy, humanitarian assistance and, crucially, what Somalis could do after the transitional government's mandate expires in August.

Secondly, the British have been doing a lot of groundwork ahead of the conference. They have been reaching out to all sorts of Somalis, at home and abroad.

I was in the house of an extremely senior Somali politician when he received a long phone call about the conference from UK Foreign Minister William Hague.

The UK is engaging members of the Somali business community, civil society, the media, the diaspora and others, explaining to them what the conference is about, seeking their opinions and genuinely appearing to listen to them.

'Every man his own sultan'

Senior British officials have, at times, had to show extraordinary patience in these discussions.

I attended a meeting for the Somali diaspora at the London think-tank, Chatham House, where, despite strenuous efforts to focus the conversation on well-defined, important issues, many of the Somalis talked about whatever they wanted, straying off into irrelevant issues, and occasionally trading insults with each other.

This meeting brought into focus one of the main problems of Somalia, where, as a Ugandan visitor to the country once famously said: "Somalis - no good. Every man his own sultan."

Mr Hague, who gave a speech at the Chatham House gathering, was realistic about the London meeting, saying: "We cannot turn Somalia around with one conference."

He recognised past mistakes, saying "the international community has not always got it right" about Somalia.

"We can help get Somalia on its feet, we cannot do the running for it," said Mr Hague, acknowledging the limited role outsiders can play.

"Our engagement with Somalia is not a luxury, it is a necessity," said Mr Hague, stressing that the country has become a global problem that directly threatens British interests.

He described the scale of the challenge as "phenomenal". Somali pirates cause destructive and expensive mayhem in the Indian Ocean.

The al-Shabab movement, which has now officially merged with al-Qaeda, has attracted foreign fighters and perpetrated attacks abroad, in Kenya and Uganda. Somalia was also home to the world's first 21st Century famine.

Another pressing reason for a more co-ordinated international approach towards Somalia is that a growing number of countries are getting involved, some with diverging agendas.

One of the newcomers, Turkey, has stolen the limelight, particularly in terms of humanitarian effectiveness. I detected a smidgen of concern in the voice of a senior UK foreign official as he described Turkish flags on every street corner of Mogadishu.

And there is even more concern that another relative newcomer, Qatar, may support negotiations with al-Shabab.

Africa's Second World War?

There is also the challenge of Somalia's more immediate neighbours. The situation in Somalia is reminiscent of that in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the late 1990s when several countries were dragged into a conflict that became known as "Africa's First World War".

A potentially deadly cocktail of countries is now involved in Somalia. Kenya and Ethiopia have intervened directly.

Image caption Many thousands of Somalis have fled their homes over the past year

American drones and special forces have also played a part, as have the French and the British. Uganda, Burundi, and Djibouti have contributed peacekeepers. Eritrea has been accused of supporting al-Shabab, which also has fighters from Yemen, South Asia, the Arab world, Europe and the United States.

Although some key players from Somalia's transitional government and more stable regions have been invited to the conference, al-Shabab, which holds most of south-central Somalia has not. I asked al-Shabab whether it would have gone to the conference if it had been invited:

"With representatives from countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and the US - countries still blatantly carrying out heinous atrocities against the people of Somalia - making the list of attendees, Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (HSM) would not, at any given condition, attend the London conference. HSM will not negotiate whilst under invasion," a spokesman said.

"The increased British involvement will not only exacerbate the conflict in Somalia but plunge the country deeper into the bottomless abyss of Western-led oppression against innocent Somalis. The Tories shouldn't be deluded by their recent Libyan adventure; Somalia is not Libya."

Well-meaning communique?

Mr Hague says now is the right time for the world to come together on Somalia because there are what he describes as "glimmers of hope" in the country.

These include what he called the "liberation of Mogadishu" by African Union peacekeepers, a successful counter-terrorism policy which has put pressure on al-Shabab, progress on piracy, and the opportunity to create a broader, more representative government once the transitional government's mandate expires in August.

But it is uncertain whether these "glimmers of hope" can be built on to achieve peace in Somalia, and whether the conference will lead to any progress on the ground.

Despite the energy the UK has put into the preparations, it is possible that little more will come out of the meeting than a well-meaning final communique and pledges of more aid.

And those attending the London Conference had better start packing their bags for another grand meeting on Somalia, as there are reports that Turkey is planning to hold one in the summer.

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