African, Arab and Western nations worried by Somalia’s turmoil meet on Thursday to coordinate efforts against militants and pirates seen as growing threats to global security and ramp up measures to end famine and clan violence.
Skeptics say the London conference of 40 countries including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon risks producing fine words but no action: They point to ineffective similar gatherings in the past 20 years involving a corrupt Somali elite skilled in extracting support from Western aid bureaucrats and foreign peacekeepers.
But the British organizers have sought to temper expectations, explaining that the aim of the event is to galvanize policymakers’ attention on Somalia to better coordinate a sometimes disjointed international response.
It will not delve far into the details of Somalia’s clan-based politics, which play a complex role in everything from business and piracy to the distribution of humanitarian aid.
Nevertheless, Somalis who have known nothing but war, famine and blunder-prone international intervention for decades cannot help but hope for something that will improve their lives.
“The expectations that Somalis have are huge,” Mogadishu-based civic activist Jabril Ibrahim Abdulle of Somalia’s Center for Research and Dialogue think tank told Reuters.
“You have so many external actors driving different agendas that it would be a success to have a unified stance. Above all we need implementation of what’s agreed, as disappointed hopes will only bring more radicalisation and hostility.”
Somalia collapsed into feuding between rival warlords, clans and factions after Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. Up to a million people have since been killed, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
The weak Western-backed interim government, which holds only a few areas, is fighting a revolt by al Shabaab militants who recently merged with al-Qaeda and harbor dozens of Western volunteers seen as a threat to Western security.
Moses Wetangula, foreign minister of neighboring Kenya, told Reuters he wanted to see “a renewed and reinvigorated international commitment to Somalia.”
“We hope it’s not going to be the usual talking shop where we make flowery speeches and get clapped and go away without caring whether it will be followed up or not. I hope we will have a commitment to assist the warring factions in Somalia to instill a sense of peace and working together.”
Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) got a boost on the eve of the conference when the U.N. Security Council voted to boost by nearly half an African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, seeking to press home a military offensive against al-Shabaab.
The resolution increasing the AMISOM force to 17,731 from 12,000 troops and police passed the council unanimously.
The UK Foreign Office said Thursday’s meeting could build on “this good news, setting out a comprehensive international approach to Somalia covering politics, development, security, as well as our work to combat terrorism and piracy.”
The force, which first entered Somalia in 2007, has claimed a series of recent successes against al-Shabaab’s fighters who had seized much of the east African country’s center and south. Last August, AMISOM wrested control of the capital, Mogadishu.
In a further setback for the rebels, Ethiopian and Somali forces on Wednesday captured the stronghold of Baidoa in the south. Ethiopian troops moved into Somalia in November but will not come under AMISOM and are expected to withdraw eventually.
Diplomats say a key concern is ensuring the broadest possible support for Somali constitutional discussions in the run up to the Aug. 20 expiry of the TFG's mandate, by which time it should have enacted a new basic law and held an election.
Critics say without elections, the next administration will just be Somalia's 16th transitional government since 1991.
A senior U.S. official told reporters traveling with Clinton the United States may slap travel restrictions on Somalis in and out of the TFG, as well as possibly on citizens of neighboring nations, who obstruct the political reforms.
“We would contemplate imposing ... travel restrictions and visa bans on individuals who serve as spoilers in the political process,” said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Somalia expert Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council said similar conferences in the past had pretended that “Somalia is still a state when it has long ceased to be one.”
“The only result this has produced is to incentivize the rent-seeking behavior and corruption of so-called officials incapable of restoring a modicum of security and governance ... What is needed is a ‘bottom-up’ approach.”