By Marius Smith
When a cavalcade of international diplomatic stars, including Hillary Clinton and Ban Ki Moon, sit down in London on Thursday with Somali officials, politicians and business people to discuss the country’s future, a very large elephant will be in the room. The main issues up for discussion include a new government, piracy, terrorism and famine. But one of the biggest threats to Somalia’s political future could be interference by Somalia’s southern neighbour, Kenya.
Somalia has been a political basket case since its central government imploded in 1991. Recently called “the world’s most failed state” by UK Foreign Minister William Hague, most of the country is lawless, with the exception only of the northern provinces of Somaliland and Puntland, which have managed to create stable local governments. The so-called Transitional Federal Government (TFG) ostensibly rules the country, but has failed to extend its control beyond the outskirts of the capital, Mogadishu, and most Somalis loathe its corruption and weakness.
Kenya, to its south, has a genuine interest in fostering a secure political environment in Somalia: lawlessness has a habit of flowing south across the border, and the 500,000 Somalis sitting in its squalid Dadaab refugee camps are an economic burden.
The Kenyans have long taken a central role in Somali politics, but they took their involvement to another level in October 2011, when President Mwai Kibaki authorised a military incursion across Kenya’s north-eastern border (soon after, Ethiopia commenced a smaller operation across its Somali border). In the months leading up to the invasion, the Al Qaeda-aligned Al Shabaab was pushed out of Mogadishu and forced back to its strongholds in the south of the country. Refugee flows soon increased and Al Shabaab waged a terrorist campaign against civilian targets inside Kenya, culminating in the kidnapping of aid workers from Dadaab. That kidnapping was the catalyst for the Kenyan invasion.
Five months later, there is no clear exit strategy. Kenya seems to have two options: first, it could use its military forces to help local groups make peace with one another while also pursuing Al Shabaab; alternatively it could relegate its troops to a peacekeeping role and allow civilians to lead the peace-building efforts.
The United States took the first option in Afghanistan and has spectacularly failed: more than a decade after the US invasion, a military-led operation with military-defined goals still grapples with how to build peace there. In short, military commanders are poor at building civilian institutions and negotiating peace because they have no experience in that field and their attempts are subordinated to their mission’s military goals. If Kenya continues to allow its military commanders to define the goals and run the process, a durable peace in southern Somalia is unlikely.
The second option seems within reach: Kenya wants to be “re-hatted” as part of the Mogadishu-based African Union force (mainly for financial reasons), which will, at least officially, make its role a peacekeeping one. This development would allow civilian organisations to take on roles such as brokering peace and creating a civil administration in areas where Al Shabaab has been dislodged. The International Crisis Group and Ken Menkhaus make excellent recommendations about how these tasks could be done, including roles for international governments and organisations. This approach would be a wise move considering Somalis’ contempt for the TFG.
As the parties to the London conference discuss options to promote peace in the southern region, they will inevitably seek inspiration from Somaliland and Puntland, which have built relatively successful, stable societies in recent years. Both provinces have done so without overbearing direction from the international community or the TFG, and certainly without international troops staring over their shoulder. Southern Somalia, however, is still mired in war and not in a position to take such steps on its own.
So will an international civilian operation manage to emulate the locally generated successes of northern Somalia? That remains to be seen, but civilian groups will surely be more effective than the Kenyan military, a group trained only to wage war.