Is Somalia, the world’s ultimate failed state, on the brink of authentic renewal and reconstruction? Is its bloody, famine-furthering, piracy-producing 20-year-old civil war close to an end?
That has been the fierce if fragile hope recently of tens of thousands of Somali refugees living in Minnesota, most of whom last saw their homeland in the period after its last functioning government was toppled in 1991.
Hopes in Minnesota’s Somali community, one of the world’s largest Somali diaspora groups, soared especially high last week when top government leaders from 55 countries convened in London on February 23 to seek answers to Somalia’s crises.
Hosted by Britain and led by British Prime Minister David Cameron, the London meeting’s goals were to help restore a legitimate and representative Somali government, to end Somali piracy and terrorism, and to ease a continuing Somali famine worsened by the war.
Yet today, a week after the conference, many Somali Minnesotans, including hundreds of former Somali civil servants, teachers and professionals, say it fell far short of its stated aims, producing a gale of high-flown rhetoric but virtually no specific plans or programs.
“A lot of people expected drastic changes, but the conference showed the same status quo thinking,” said Sakawdin Mohamed, the executive director of the Eagan-based Somali Institute for Peace Research. “The corrupt officials of the Transitional Federal Government now have huge momentum. The bad people kind of won.”
The Somali government officials who attended the London meeting appeared much different to Somali diaspora members who have known them well over the years, than they did to outsiders who did not.
“What we saw as Somali citizens was tribal representation,” Sakawdin said. “They were basically representing their own tribes and interests.”
The conference was transparently insincere, many Minnesota Somalis say, noting that a draft of its final communique, containing conclusions and recommendations, was leaked days before the conference even started.
The conference offered Somalia a welcome moment of global attention, but the moment was short, with the conference lasting a mere five hours. To many Somalis living in this state, the conference was “same old, same old” — an all-too-familiar play by superpowers pursuing their own interests in Somalia, while disregarding the needs of average Somalis.
Britain’s keen interest in ending Somali piracy, which costs its shipping and insurance industries billions of dollars annually, and in helping British oil companies gain access to possible Somali oil reserves, appeared to many to have driven Britain’s leadership of the conference.
Most of all, many Somalis living in Minnesota today felt left out of the conference in at least two ways. First, in not having been asked for their best ideas about Somali renewal prior to the conference; and second, that the meeting’s final recommendations made scant mention of the potential role that Somalia’s global diaspora could play in rebuilding the country.
The Somali civil war has killed a half million Somalis and forced more than two million to flee as refugees, roughly half within Somalia and the other half spread around the world. Moreover, the 2007 rise of the Shabab, the al Qaeda-linked extremist group that still controls most of southern Somalia, has stirred fears of Somalia becoming a safe haven for global terrorists; and Somali piracy already seriously threatens major global shipping routes.
When the civil war began about 20 years ago, thousands of trained government bureaucrats, teachers and professionals — the foundation of a Somali middle class — fled the country to start their lives over in countries around the world.
Vague on Specifics
“The diaspora has all the skills that the country needs,” said Sheiknor Qassim, a home care executive living in Rochester, MN. “Unless there is a program to bring back the diaspora,” reconstruction will fail, he said.
Such a program would offer returnees security and at least some financial support, Qassim and others said.
The conference’s final communique mentioned the Somali diaspora only once, saying that financial contributions from the diaspora could help to rebuild the country’s livestock, fishing and other private sector businesses.
If the London meeting was vague in specifics, the intense critique of its omissions taking place now in Minnesota reveals the outlines of a far more detailed and practical vision for Somali renewal.
“The Somali problem has become an international problem, which requires an international solution,” said Mohamoud Fiqi, a Minneapolis public school science teacher. “Plus, the Somali government today just doesn’t have the resources, the power or the ability” to rebuild the country from scratch.
A critical area where the London conference failed, Minnesota Somalis say, is setting a firm policy with hard deadlines for withdrawal for the three foreign armies presently occupying Somalia without a mandate.
Some 10,000 African Union soldiers now control Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, having driven Shabab from the city in recent months. Hundreds of Ethiopian troops, meanwhile, have recaptured the strategic southwest Somali city of Baidoa from the Shabab; and 2,000 Kenyan troops are pressing to free the southern port city of Kismayo from Shabab control.
On the one hand, these military successes are offering Somalis all through the global diaspora hope that the defeat of Shabab may finally be near.
“Those armies are helping one million Somalis who need them,” Fiqi said.
The Shabab’s harsh, Taliban-like rule and extortionate taxation schemes levied against ordinary citizens are terrorizing Somalia; Shabab also has blocked humanitarian aid from reaching thousands of famine victims.
Yet Somalis are deeply sensitive to foreign occupying armies, especially from Ethiopia, with whom Somalia has fought several wars in recent decades. It was Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006, to rout the Islamic Court Union from power in Mogadishu, that triggered the rise of Shabab and began the last long period of the Somali civil war.
“There is both advantage and disadvantage to having these international troops in Somalia,” said Abshir Ibrahim of Minneapolis. “The advantage is they are fighting Shabab. The disadvantage is, who will control them? Things could go wrong. We don’t know what they will do.”
The London conference should have stipulated that all international armies presently in Somalia will be unified under a central, authoritative command, many Minnesota Somalis say, such as from the African Union.
Ultimately, diaspora members here say, Somalia needs to raise, train and sustain its own army with international help, another absolute requirement for long-term stability in Somalia not addressed at the conference.
“You are not really a sovereign country until you have your own national army,” said Mohamud Hashi, a Minneapolis daycare company owner.
Two other issues, entirely absent from the London conference final communique especially rankle the Minnesota Somali community here.
One of those issues is piracy. Somali pirates regularly attack international merchant vessels hauling cargo, oil and chemicals in heavily trafficked Middle East shipping lanes. Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, cited solving the piracy problem as a major reason for holding last week’s meeting, but many Somalis here say the approach is superficial.
“You can’t solve piracy until you understand and fix its root causes, which are overfishing and waste dumping,” said Tarabi Juma, a Bush Foundation Fellow who has studied Somali piracy.
Nailing Down Rights
When the Somali Navy ceased to function after 1991, foreign fishing fleets decimated fish stocks off the Somali coast, and toxic waste was also dumped in the waters by foreign vessels.
Their livelihoods lost, Somali fishermen took to piracy, at first, only to defend their fishing rights. Over time, though, tempted and corrupted by the enormously lucrative ransom payouts, piracy became a more organized criminal activity. The average ship ransom today is around $5 million.
Juma and other Minnesota Somalis say that a lasting solution to piracy must include well-funded, grassroots-level programs to offer young men a chance to make a living honestly. As well, the Somali navy must be restored to the point where it can stop foreign vessels from illegally fishing and dumping in Somali waters.
The other major undiscussed issue in London was oil.
Clearly defining the process and timetable by which land ownership, boundaries and commercial drilling rights are decided is critical to ensuring Somalia’s stable future, many Minnesota Somalis stress.
Failure to nail down oil rights in Somalia’s favor could lead to Kenya or other countries getting access to Somali resources, which in turn would likely inflame nationalist passions, warns Sheiknor Qassim of Rochester.
“It could stir a lot of radicalization and recruitment,” Qassim said.
A final word from Minnesota Somalis on the London conference?
“It brought everyone together in a room,” Sakawdin Mohamed says. “That was positive. We saw that. But after you bring everyone together you need to ask ‘What changed? What was accomplished?’”