Starting Over In Somalia? The Biggest Threat Of All Is In The Heart Of Mogadishu

on August 02 2012 6:43 AM

A constituent assembly in Somalia has approved a new constitution for the war-torn East African nation.

The document passed overwhelmingly, with 96 percent of the assembly voting in favor. The transitional government, which has been in place since 2004, will now preside over the selection of a new parliament and president.

"This is an historic day -- today we have witnessed the completion of a task that has been worked on for the last eight years," said Constitutional Affairs Minister Abdirahman Hosh Jabril, according to Agence France-Presse.

The momentous meeting, which took place in the capital city of Mogadishu, was marred by violence. Just hours before the agreement was announced, two suicide bombers rushed the building. The men were shot before reaching the delegation, at which point they detonated their vests and died, wounding a nearby security guard. It was a sobering reminder that despite considerable progress in Somalia over the past year, the nation still faces incredible challenges in its pursuit of lasting stability.

Somalia has long faced myriad threats, both internal and external; the current transition process is widely seen as a first step in addressing those concerns. But the biggest challenge of all might actually be the interim government itself, where there are already signs of a cancerous corruption that could derail progress even before it begins.

Big Roadblocks

Somalia has not had a stable government since 1991, the year military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in a coup. Since then, the country has been plagued by drought, famine, clan warfare, piracy, terrorism, and widespread poverty. Somalia has earned a reputation as one of the most chronically volatile failed states on earth.

In recent years, the two most pressing problems were famine and terrorism.

About 100,000 people died across the Horn of Africa in 2010 and 2011, when drought conditions led to severe food shortages throughout the region. Though the worst of the drought has ended, those food shortages still affect tens of thousands of Somali citizens to this day.

The terrorist group al-Shabab, which is linked to al Qaeda, aggravated the problem by blocking international aid in several areas. Al-Shabab militants have made significant territorial gains in southern Somalia within the past few years, although intervention from neighboring countries has lately contained their expansion. A year ago, African Union troops succeeded in ousting al-Shabab from Mogadishu. But incidents like Wednesday's attack show the problem has not been fully eradicated, even in the capital.

Concurrent violence and food shortages have led to widespread displacement. Mark Yarnell, an advocate for the Horn of Africa with Refugees International, reports that there may be over a million internally displaced persons in Somalia and about a million more Somali refugees in neighboring countries, like Kenya.

Having worked with many of these migrants, Yarnell has noted an overwhelming distrust of the Somali interim government.

"It's rare to find anyone who's optimistic about the current transitional process," he said.  "I think the main assumption is that once the process goes through, it'll be essentially more of the same -- corruption and a lack of accountability or viability."

Picking Up the Pieces

The establishment of a strong central government is a necessary first step in solving these major problems, but this process has been repeatedly stymied by the internal divisions that have long plagued Somalia.

Since the overthrow of Siad Barre, various clan leaders and warlords have vied for control over various areas the country. For more than two decades, violent clashes and sudden coups were the norm -- even before the emergence of al-Shabab.

The northern regions bordering the Gulf of Aden, for instance, are somewhat removed from the rest of the country. The region of Somaliland has been effectively autonomous for years, and nearby areas including Puntland and Galmudug have likewise kept their distance from the southern turmoil.

The rest of the country is just as divided. The southernmost region, Jubaland, has been Al Shabab's strongest base, though neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia have spearheaded some successful efforts to combat the insurgency there.

Meanwhile, the coastal city of Mogadishu remains under the effective control of African Union troops from Uganda, Djibouti and Burundi.

It is amid this chaos that the Transitional Federal Government, nominally in place since 2004, has struggled to assert its presence in the political sphere. Wednesday's agreement on a constitution represents a first step in its latest attempt to establish a permanent foundation.

A Joint Effort

The constitutional assembly included representatives from all of Somalia's various clans, according to a report from the United Nations. Their new document adheres to Muslim Sharia law for the most part; it also includes clauses that protect women's rights to political participation, and it allows for a multi-party system of government.

Now, the assembly will oversee the selection of a new parliament by political leaders and local elders. This will be followed by the parliament's selection of a president and prime minister. The UN has set a deadline of Aug. 20 for this process to be complete, but the TFG is currently behind schedule. The constitution was to be finalized more than three weeks ago, and a parliament should have been implemented by July 20. Aside from that, things are going mostly according to plan.

But there are concerns about whether the new government will truly represent the will of the people. After all, no part of this initial process calls for any general elections or national referendums -- such an endeavor would be near-impossible in Somalia.

That's partly because of the high number of IDPs and Somali refugees, none of whom would be able to swing by a local ballot box. And even in many communities where people have not been displaced, violence continues to erupt regularly, perpetrated either by al-Shabab or other warring factions. In short, Somalia is no environment for a fair and democratic national poll of any kind.

"It's impossible to hold a normal election," said Yarnell. "The elites within the country are driving the process. So even if there's an assumption that parliamentarians will represent a broad base of the Somali population, I think it's unlikely to garner the legitimacy and viability that would be necessary."

And in the end, this could be Somalia's biggest stumbling block on the road to stability. All other problems -- including terrorism, displacement, divisions, famine and piracy -- can be effectively tackled over time, but only if the central administration has the strength to do so. Without broad public support, a new government could be just as toothless as the TFG has been since 2004.

Rotten to the Core

A July report from the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea raised alarm bells about the TFG, pointing to serious problems within the very organization that is meant to lead Somalia into stability.

"The transfer of power to a more effective, legitimate and broad-based national authority is threatened by the efforts of diverse Somali political leaders and their supporters to hijack or derail the transitional process," said the report, which was confidential but quickly leaked.

The report also suggests that embezzlement has been practiced frequently in recent years.

A May 2012 report commissioned by the World Bank found $131 million in TFG revenues unaccounted for in 2009-10-- 68 percent of total recorded income for that period. The Monitoring Group's own investigations suggest that the real scale of corruption is probably even higher, since millions of dollars of revenue go unrecorded. In other words, out of every $10 received by the TFG in 2009-10, $7 never made it into state coffers.

That's a very bad review for a body that presides over Somalia's transition to what could become its first permanent government in more than 20 years.

"My concern is that the current leaders of the TFG will be able to influence those who will be selecting the parliament," said Yarnell.

"It's clear that there are signs of corruption within the TFG, and as the political process moves forward, there are indications that individuals are trying to use money to buy parliamentary seats from those who have influence."

The Show Must Go On

Somali Interim Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali had words of praise for the constituent assembly shortly after the new constitution was approved.

"We are very happy today that you... responsibly completed the procedure by voting for the constitution," he said.

"I announce that Somalia has from today left the transitional period."

His statement was encouraging, but not accurate. The interim government still exerts excessive control over public funds and international aid, even while it fails to adequately address the endemic problems that continue to plague Somalia's 10 million people.

A stable government is an essential foundation for a functioning society -- but at this point, it looks like Somalia may be looking to build on shaky ground.

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