Britain leads talks on Somali crisis

2012-02-28 00:00

THE London Conference on Somalia last week was a significant development towards finding a lasting solution to the crisis there and its ramifications for all countries bordering and using the Indian ocean. But it is hard to imagine how it will work without key African states taking responsibility.

A few years ago the impact of the Somali crisis could only spread as far as East Africa; however, today there is a possibility of militants infiltrating refugees who move south and settle in South Africa. There is also the threat of Somali piracy impacting our leisure industry and sea-based commercial trade.

The conference convened by the British government and attended by representatives of 50 countries discussed solutions to the Somali crises. Special reference was made to co-ordinating efforts by the region and the international community to tackle insecurity, piracy and governance failure in Somalia.

The host hoped for firm agreements on the fight against Al-Shabaab and the strengthening of the United Nations and African Union joint mission, known as the African Union Mission in Somalia or Amisom. The transitional Somalia government wanted the conference to turn its civil war against Al-Shabaab into an international war carried out through targeted air strikes.

While the Americans hoped for resolutions that would bolster its drone-based military strikes against Al-Shabaab and the boosting of the Amisom as a sort of a back-up force for this, the Europeans placed emphasis on the humanitarian situation, the support for existing navy forces fighting piracy and support for the Kenyan incursions into Somali territory in search of Somali militants and criminals. But the Europeans did not want new financial obligations.

The conference was preceded by a rushed UN Security Council resolution calling for a raft of measures to respond to the Somali crises, most of which would be on the conference agenda the next day. This was a piece of smart diplomacy on the part of a conservative British government largely overshadowed by France and Germany in European affairs as well as France and the U.S. in the UN.

The conference raised public interest and attracted the attention of the international community to a long-standing crisis in which there has been little interest until recently. The undertaking by the conference parties to commit to establish a new and inclusive government through an open process is a crucial decision, as all have accepted that the Somali challenge is primarily a political problem that cannot be solved militarily.

The decision to bolster the military response through the strengthening of the Amisom and by indirectly allowing foreign powers to help tilt the balance of power in favour of whoever fights against Al-Shabaab, a classic case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, should work if the political process takes off.

It has been the position of South Africa and the AU that there must be peace before they contribute to security programmes in Somalia. But, hamstrung by divergent national interests pitting countries like South Africa against the likes of Ethiopia, the AU has not made a serious effort to start such a political process.

This has left a vacuum of leadership on Somalia that has allowed individual states from Ethiopia to Eritrea, Qatar to the U.S. and now the UK to lead the world towards a common position, especially as the global shipping industry, tourism and cross-Indian ocean commerce feel the effects of piracy.

But a major challenge for Britain is what smart diplomacy would be used to get the parties to implement its decisions when the conference had no legal status. Second is whether this country has sufficiently rooted interests in fixing Somalia to enable it to maintain the momentum that the process might require. The third challenge is how the host would shift interested actors from narrow self-interest to the common good of stabilising Somalia.

There would need to be a reduction in military strategies currently employed by interested neighbours and the U.S.

A key step for Britain to take now should be to build strong partnerships with the AU and key states like South Africa to avoid this process being soiled by the narrow interests of major actors on Somalia.




• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.

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