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Negotiating peace in Somalia: An insight from Somaliland

In his 2009 book, Somaliland: An African struggle for nationhood and international recognition Iqbal Jhazbhay’s asserts that “Somalia no longer exists”. This claim remains valid to a certain extent. Security – a crucial ingredient for further progress – is challenged daily. Persistent al-Shabaab bomb attacks in and around Mogadishu serve as a shocking reminder of the precarious nature of the situation. Since September 2012, the president, the Supreme Court and foreign delegations have all been targets for suicide bombers. Al-Shabaab still controls much of the country. At present, the government’s authority hardly runs further than the bounds of Mogadishu – if that far.

The establishment of a new government in Somalia, led by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has given rise to greater optimism about the country’s prospects than at any time in the past two decades. New businesses are springing up daily in Mogadishu, and elsewhere. Many members of the diaspora are returning, or seriously considering the possibility. The results of efforts to begin re-establishing a functioning state, though mixed, have been praised by foreign governments. Any progress in improving the lot of an embattled populace is self-evidently welcome – and encouraging – but needs to be assessed cautiously. If any involved party, indigenous or foreign, believes in the possibility of a “quick fix”, it would be wishful thinking of the most counter-productive variety.

For the foreseeable future, the state will be wholly dependent on military support and intervention provided by external parties – for some of whom the paramount concern is their own national security interests. While this should not preclude ambition – and many hope that Somalia can assume responsibility for maintaining internal peace sooner than is commonly envisaged – it is also a reminder of prevailing realities.

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and foreign governments continue to prioritise reconstitution of the Somali state. As far as neighbouring Somaliland is concerned, at least one of the sponsors of ongoing talks with Somalia – Turkey – has been reported as expressing hope that unification might occur. Unionists – both Somali and foreign – need to tread carefully. The authority of the Mogadishu government to impose a model of federal administration, or an equivalent incarnation, on the former regions of Somalia is still widely contested and in some instances flatly rejected.

An aspirational, hastily produced and inevitably flawed new constitution means as little in semi-autonomous Puntland and Jubbaland, for example, as it does in independent Somaliland – which strongly objects to being referred to as a “breakaway republic” as opposed to an independent sovereign state. As Somaliland’s Foreign Minister, Mohamed Omar, remarked at the launch of Africa Research Institute’s latest publication After Borama: consensus representation and parliament in Somaliland, “it is unacceptable to Somaliland that Somalia should adopt a constitution which purports to lay claim to our territory, or that it should declare an Exclusive Economic Zone off our coast”.

Immensely patient, even-handed negotiation and a consensual approach will be required if a new Somali state is to emerge and meld. Tactless diplomacy and interventions by foreign governments and UN agencies – of which there have been a number – need to be kept to a minimum. The Mogadishu government is in no position yet to consolidate power – it is facing a battle for survival. Autonomous regional powers need to be treated as equals by all parties, not as quaint or deviant distractions needing to be brought into line. Things might change surprisingly quickly if the interests of Somalia’s multiple protagonists align, either fortuitously or by design, but to assume this will happen would be self-defeating.

There may be some among Somaliland’s political leaders who see advantages to a possible reunion if peace were restored throughout Somalia and the terms were right. Confederation would undoubtedly be a more alluring prospect for Somaliland than federation. Among ordinary Somalilanders, however, economic and political marginalisation by the Siyad Barre regime has not been forgotten. Nor has the cruelty and destruction wrought on their country in 1988-91.

Most Somalilanders were consigned to years in refugee camps. Even among the political and business elites, memories of Somaliland being derided as “the wrong country” by southerners are ingrained. The question of who did what to whom during fighting in Somaliland that divided clans and the state is still fiercely contested. However, the agency of an autocratic central government in certain key events in distant Mogadishu during this time is indisputable. It casts a long shadow.

Whatever transpires in the next few years in Somalia and Somaliland, the fact that the latter has developed a credible constitution, held a succession of genuinely competitive multi-party elections and effected peaceful transfers of power is worth emphasising. Perhaps the one key message that Somaliland can hold up to its neighbour is the importance of time and developing the capacity to defuse crises. The institutions of a functioning state and durable peace are not conjured up overnight.

Edward Paice

Director – Africa Research Institute

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