(Photo: Reuters / Ismail Taxta)
A boy sits looking over the Seyidka settlement for the famine-stricken, internally displaced people in Berkulan near Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, Sept. 6, 2011.
On Wednesday, a group of high-ranking Somali politicians concluded talks that could shape the future of their war-torn country.
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Somalia's interim leaders agreed on a schedule to end the current transitional period. By August 20, they hope, a newly elected government will lead a unified Somalia away from its tumultuous past.
Although the schedule is tight, the formation of a new government cannot be done hastily. The challenges facing Somalia have persisted for decades; it is one of the most chronically unstable failed states on earth, and new leaders will be tasked with uniting a country whose divisions are deeply entrenched.
Somalia, a country of nearly 10 million people, has been burdened with famine, drought, civil war, widespread poverty, and a divided population. In the South, the Islamist terrorist group Al Shabab has pursued a campaign of terrorism and kidnapping for the past several years. In the North, which is comparatively stable, a high degree of autonomy has prompted talks of secession.
If national unity can be achieved, other problems like food shortages and national security will be more effectively addressed. But those who win this summer's scheduled elections will have to contend with a long history of failed attempts at forging solidarity.
Learning Long Division
Segmentation is nothing new for Somalia; its land was split by British and Italian powers during the colonial era.
The formerly Italian-controlled South first consolidated political power during a constitutional conference in Mogadishu in 1960, the year of Somalia's independence. This engendered disillusionment in northern Somalia, which was formerly controlled by the British.
Tensions came to a head during the 1980s when dictatorial president Mohamed Siad Barre violently suppressed opposition in the north, and rebel groups united to fight back. Over several years, northern forces grew stronger and pushed farther south, progressively limiting Barre's sphere of influence. In 1991, Barre was officially overthrown.
The power vacuum left by his ouster was filled by competing warlords, and the situation was exacerbated by outside forces vying for control. So began twenty years of failed statehood, during which numerous Somali politicians and members of the international community attempted to broker peace.
Creating a stable government has so far proved an impossible task -- even before Al Shabab advanced its control over the south in recent years, and before a 2010-2011 famine killed tens of thousands of Somalis.
Today, Al Shabab appears to be on the decline and food shortages are easing. But both scourges are far from eliminated, and both have taken in immense toll on the economy and vitality of Somalia.
Now the UN, the African Union, and several high-ranking Somali officials have agreed on a plan to institute a post-transitional government over the next three months. It's an urgent timeline, and some logistical details remain vague.
What could make this go-round more successful than all the others that have taken place over the last two decades?
Jigsaw and Jihad
After decades of division, unity is the key. In order to bolster security and prevent more food crises, the federal government will need to exert control beyond Mogadishu for the first time in 20 years. That requires cooperation from other regions, some of which are essentially independent from the central government.
The northern regions bordering the Gulf of Aden are removed from the turmoil that plagues the south. The region of Somaliland, for instance, has been effectively autonomous for years. Puntland is getting there too, as is the smaller region of Galmudug.
While southern regions are far less stable, they are just as divided. The southernmost region of Jubaland has been a base for Al Shabab, although troops from neighboring Kenya have made inroads there in the fight against the Islamist group through cross-border raids.
Ethiopia has done the same in the west, where they now occupy a large swath of territory that includes the city of Baidoa, formerly an Al Shabab stronghold. The capitol city of Mogadishu sits on the eastern coast in a kind of sequestration, patrolled and protected by African Union troops from Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti.
It is no wonder the transitional government under Interim President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed has struggled to exert any influence beyond the coastal capitol.
The Conference Calls
Somalia became the focus of international attention in February, when world leaders gathered in London to find a way forward.
The event was attended by representatives from 55 countries and international organizations, according to the Guardian. These included UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and members of Somalia's transitional government.
The UN conference resulted in recommendations that were positive but vague. Though millions of dollars in aid were promised, some international humanitarian organizations lamented a lack of resolutions to take a stronger role in Somalia's recovery.
Still, the gathering was significant in that it marked a more unified international approach to working with Somalia, a country that swung from Soviet to Western alliance during the Cold War and has struggled to develop amid competing international interests ever since.
The most concrete pledge from the London conference was an increased commitment to the fight against Al Shabab; the number of African Union troops in Somalia will be boosted from about 12,000 to over 17,000. This was welcomed by technocratic Interim Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, who said that the Islamist terrorism in Somalia represents "a global problem, and it needs to be addressed globally."
In the end, this fight against Al Shabab may be the initiative that unites the fractious country more effectively than ever before.
The militants have so far been pushed outside of Mogadishu, which is showing signs of recovery since it was torn apart during the worst years of warfare. Markets for contraband weapons and forged passports have been replaced by meat, grain and produce stands, and residents are lately feeling more freedom to walk the streets without fear. But assistance from foreign troops is not the only reason Al Shabab's presence has been diminishing in recent months, in Mogadishu and elsewhere; the battle is being won on psychological fronts as well.
Al Shabab is now officially linked to al-Qaeda, which often wins over populations of unstable regions by offering food and other aid when official governments fail to do so. But Al Shabab has not delivered in the same way; in fact, their vehement opposition to Western influence and humanitarian aid cost them and their victims dearly during the famine that struck the Horn of Africa two years ago. As tens of thousands of Somalis died of malnutrition, the groups' leaders refused Western aid, worsening the food shortages and turning popular opinion against them.
With Al Shabab as a common enemy, the various semi-autonomous regions of Somalia may yet find reason to work together.
Setting the Tone
Some early signs suggest cause for hope.
On Wednesday, Somali political leaders finished three days of UN-sponsored talks in Addis Ababa, where they agreed to pursue the implementation of a permanent government in accordance with fast-approaching deadlines, which will require unified action.
It won't be easy. Somalia must now form a Constituent Assembly within coming weeks and adopt a provisional constitution by July 10. By July 20, a streamlined new parliament should be sworn in. And by August 20, the deadline for a full governmental transition, a new president should be elected.
For the next couple months in Mogadishu, it's all pistons firing.
The Addis Ababa talks were attended by several dignitaries, including the Somali interim president and prime minister, leaders of the transitional parliament, representatives from northern regions, and African Union Special Envoy to Somalia Jerry Rawlings, the former president of Ghana.
These leaders know that installing a government will be only the first step in a very long journey to restore stability to Somalia. The challenges are great and the struggle for even a relative peace is likely to continue for many years. Al Shabab is still active, food is still scarce, regions are still divided from one another, and poverty is rife.
But a solid first step is no small thing, and all participants spoke encouragingly of the discussions that took place during their seminal meeting in Ethiopia.
Prime Minster Ali was cautiously optimistic.
"Most of the issues are agreed upon," he told Voice of America. "There are contentious little things that there [are] some disagreements on ... These are things that are not insurmountable. We can agree. And if you have honest and open dialogue, we will be able to reach a consensus on these issues."
President Ahmed seemed even more confident.
"All road map signatories came with goodwill and good faith and open mind and we have done good work together. And we have made new commitment to work closely for the remaining time of transition," he said.
Rawlings too spoke of a newfound resolution to pull together. He has long witnessed the incessant back-and-forth of politics in fractious Somalia, but his words in Addis Ababa hinted at a new solidarity going forward.
"Some kind of chemistry, as I've described it, some kind of dynamics seems to have taken place that is bringing the body politic together," he said to VOA. "They seem to be jelling, and the only way I can describe it in one word is that the political process has finally given us some hope."
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