Meddling in Somali politics is a dangerous affair, says U.S. policy expert

08:36, May 20, 2010      

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Continued support for the United Nations-backed government in Somalia will entrench the international community in a lengthy and drawn-out battle with foreign jihadists and divert attention and resources from one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, an expert on policy towards Somalia told Xinhua.

"Meddling in Somali politics is actually giving the foreign terrorists a foothold in the country," said Bronwyn Bruton, a fellow at the New York-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). "If there is no good intervention available then doing less is better than doing harm."

By throwing its weight behind the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the international community has effectively picked sides in a political battle that has been camouflaged as a war on terror. This is a mistake, said Bruton.

Instead, the governance specialist with extensive experience in Africa recommends that the international community employ an approach of "constructive disengagement" that uses humanitarian aid and development to promote stability and local ownership. Less costly than supporting the TFG, constructive disengagement could create the right conditions to tear at the seams of the Shabaab, which has become a militant alliance of convenience.

The global community can encourage fissures within Somalia fundamentalist groups by "signaling a willingness to coexist with any Islamist group or government that emerges, as long as it refrains from acts of regional aggression, rejects global jihad ambitions, and agrees to tolerate the efforts of Western humanitarian relief agencies in Somalia," Bruton said in a thorough March (CFR) report.

But whether the UN and its allies are prepared to shift gears remains to be seen. Beginning Friday, the world body will co-host with Turkey an international three-day conference on Somalia to tackle security, piracy and development. The high-level meeting will not be a donors' conference but will be, among other things, an attempt to engage the Somali private sector, top UN envoy to Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah told reporters here last week.

The TFG will never make progress until it has the consent of the private sector, something the transitional government has not managed in the past. Somali businessmen have security forces to operate their semi-legitimate businesses and they can use them to any extent they want.

Bruton said the conference might hint of success if it can encourage private partnerships but will surely be another disappointment if only more empty pledges are made.


Fearful of a power vacuum that could become a breeding ground for terrorists, the U.S. and its allies have thrown their weight behind the TFG, making this the 14th attempt to create a functioning government in Somalia since the end of Muhammad Siad Barre's dictatorial rule in 1991.

But this is a government of which the first parliament meeting in Somalia took place in a converted grain warehouse in the western city of Baidoa and whose president recently dissolved his Cabinet to overcome divisions that have debilitated his administration.

"This is a government that is in crisis internally, never mind the Shabaab," said Bruton, who recently met with TFG members in Mogadishu, the country's capital.

Somalia's beleaguered government -- based on an undemocratic ethnic quota system -- is plagued by infighting and countless disagreements. Without the exceptional handholding of the international community, the TFG would have fallen a hundred times over. Indeed, its very legitimacy is questioned by many inside Somalia and abroad.

Nevertheless, the United Nations is determined to solidify TFG rule and has been championing a political reconciliation process with Somalia's clans. Last week, Ould- Abdallah said that key agreements, such as the one forged in March with Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama'a, a Sunni religious and resistance movement backed by Ethiopia, provides a "blueprint" for future agreements.

In the pact, Ahlu Sunnah would be given top appointments in the military, the police, the intelligence service and the government in return for its support of the fragile UN-backed government.

However, immediately after the power-sharing deal was signed, a section of the Jama'a led by foreign relation officer, Sheikh Bashir Abdi Olaad and his colleague Sheikh Abdiqadir Abdirahman ( Abu Zakariya), called the deal "a betrayal" to the unity of the group.

"This agreement was a betrayal which is meant to hijack the group," Abu Zakariya said according to media reports.

Nevertheless, the United Nations appears to be content with the deal, despite its precarious nature. Last week, UN political chief Lynn Pascoe called the agreement "encouraging" and said the TFG needs to keep reaching out and bringing more Somali groups under the reconciliation umbrella.

But reconciliation dictated from abroad is harder than it sounds as each clan and militant group suffers from its own internal divides that make foreign alliances almost impossible.

"Everything is faction ridden," Bruton said. "There is no consensus. When you finally get an agreement, there is no reason to think it's going to be honored or operable."

Can the international community exploit these disagreements?

"Given that we're not actually engaging with any of these people, it's hard to say how we could take advantage of those fissures except just to step back and let them play out," Bruton said.

History has shown that foreign jihadist movements tend to suffer in Somalia's tribal environment.

According to U.S. intelligence, Al-Qaeda in the 1990s consistently became entangled in clan conflicts and excessive operational costs. The Horn of Africa, including Somalia, presents a "unique set of socioeconomic, political and religious factors that create specific challenges and opportunities to both Al-Qaeda and to counterterrorism forces," said a 2007 West Point Academy report.

Al-Qaeda's links to the Shabaab only really began to flourish in 2006 when Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called for Muslims in Somalia to fight Ethiopia, which was backing the TFG.

"Without the TFG gaining in strength, these groups don't have a lot of reason to cooperate with each," Bruton said. "And the TFG is only managing to survive at all because of the absolute determination of the international community, unfortunately."

TFG's security and ability to operate is dependent on the African Union Mission for Somalia (AMISOM), which is largely comprised of troops from Uganda and Burundi. But the long-term commitment by these two countries is often taken for granted.

Currently, Uganda is experiencing a variety of its own internal and external security threats, all of which are compounded by increasing political tensions ahead of the 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections. There is speculation that Kampala's support for AMISOM could turn into an election issue threatening the longevity of the international peacekeeping force.

"The question is how long can you expect Uganda or Burundi to stay in Somalia?" said Bruton. "Are they going to be willing to be there another year or 10, depending on how long it takes for the TFG to get their act together?"


Constructive disengagement, said Bruton, begins with the realization that picking sides will only exacerbate the situation in Somalia. Instead, the international community should coordinate with local authorities on the ground to provide humanitarian relief and development assistance.

International aid will allow Somalis to create conditions similar to the pre-2006 period, when Somalis were slowly working towards a grassroots national reconciliation, said Bruton in her report. Extremism will dry out, as it has in the past, and meanwhile the United States can help by engaging in cautious counter-terror activities. But truly, said Bruton, the goal of the global community should be to leave Somalia to itself to sort out its own political conflict.

The humanitarian situation in Somalia is considered one of the worst in the world. Currently, 3.25 million Somalis are in need of assistance -- a 77 percent increase since the start of 2008, according to the Food Security Analysis Unit (FSAU) for Somalia.

FSAU has said the level of human suffering is shocking, with one in six children under the age of five now acutely malnourished, and the numbers rising.

In response, the World Food Program (WFP) is currently targeting some 2.5 million people for food assistance across Somalia, although 625,000 of those are in areas where operations were suspended in early 2010 due to growing insecurity and threats from the Shabaab.

Meanwhile, the WFP faces allegations that contractors and staff members have diverted as much as half of WFP food aid away from the hungry. While WFP has said it would welcome an independent investigation, officials have refuted the high level of corruption as an unsubstantiated claim.

Bruton said she also believed the allegations to be distorted.

"There is no doubt that some food is probably going to the Shabaab and then indeed a much larger portion is being siphoned off to corrupt officials," she said, "but I don't believe that the number is 40 percent. I think that's too high."

Nevertheless, a concerned U.S. government has drastically scaled back its funding. According to a WFP spokesperson, the U.S. -- the WFP's largest donor -- has contributed over 73 million U.S. dollars to a two-year project that began in April 2009. A U.S. official told Xinhua that so far, for 2010, the U.S. has contributed 16 million dollars.

If no more financial contributions are made this year, they will have cut over 57 million dollars in assistance since last year.

"The humanitarian relief that was going into Somalia was the only thing that the population was getting from the international community," Bruton said. "It was the only thing making them feel supported rather than battered."

"The question," she said, "is even if you look at it from a counter-terror perspective, is it in the U.S. interest to stop humanitarian relief because some small portion is going to the Shabaab?"



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