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Somalia’s long road of institution building

By Parselelo Kantai in Mogadishu
Posted on Thursday, 8 November 2012 16:06

Against the bold predictions of a new dawn in Somalia, the masked men on the Maka al Mukarama Road in downtown Mogadishu offer a sharp reminder of the daily uncertainties.

Dressed in combat fatigues and wielding AK-47s, their faces are hidden beneath the sand-coloured balaclavas worn by Al-Shabaab fighters. They move unchallenged from car to car, waving some through and detaining others. They are in full control of the mid-morning traffic.

A year ago, the masked men could have been Al-Shabaab ‘tax collectors.’ In fact, they are National Security Agency recruits. Part of the security system meant to protect the capital from suicide bombers and assassins, they are really traffic marshals, and the balaclavas are for their own protection. Not being identified helps to protect them and their families from the attacks against anyone volunteering for the government.

The latest phase of Somalia’s political transition started in late August with the dissolution of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and inauguration of a new federal parliament. A president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, was elected on 10 September but Somalia still had to pick a prime minister and craft a constitution. The group will also have to establish a credible and effective national security force that is not so critically dependent on African Union (AU) soldiers.

Whether this next stage – what the UN’s political commissar for Somalia, Augustine Mahiga, describes as a “transitional interim government” – moves the country towards democracy and stability depends on the legitimacy of the foreign and local politicians and officials who will underpin it.

Trusting Outsiders

“There are two questions for Somalia,” says Mohamed Abshir, a veteran Somali journalist and politician based in Nairobi. “One, can a government properly exert its authority if it is dependent on foreign handouts? And two, how does Somalia make a leap of faith of placing its long-term security interests in the hands of neighbours who have their own vested interests in the country?”

The run-up to the elections in August offered a dramatic insight into Somalia’s immediate past and its long-term future. In late July, 825 traditional elders from around the country gathered in the National Constituent Assembly conference centre close to Mogadishu airport.

They had to select the 275 members who would constitute a new parliamentary assembly and debate the new constitution. This was the penultimate stage of the ‘Road Map’, the political process initiated in 2010 by the UN’s Political Office for Somalia. It is meant to create a political authority with enough local legitimacy to establish a new constitution and usher in a new political era.

Can a government properly exert its authority if it is dependent on foreign handouts?

“This is a phase of stabilisation, not transition,” says Mahiga, the UN’s representative in Somalia since 2010. “There are four things we are hoping to achieve … the separation of powers and the institution of a system of checks and balances; then, to bring Somalia into the 21st century through a document that is ‘sharia-compliant,’ while respecting women and minority rights. We hope that the new government will come with a greater degree of legitimacy than the previous Transitional Federal Government.”

Fears of suicide bombers and grenade attacks, along with bribery of the elders, hampered the preparations. “The major shortcoming in the Somali political process had been its lack of inclusive- ness,” explains Mahiga. His plan owed much to the relatively stable enclaves in the north – Somaliland and Puntland – where traditional elders played a key role in forming the governments.

Giving traditional elders such authority creates other problems. Although civil society groups and professionals from the diaspora were included, observers say that the elections of the president, speaker and prime minister in August were undermined by TFG politicians. “The elders are very poor and were corrupted. They had no idea what they were required to do, yet they were on a pedestal.

The professionals in the diaspora forfeited their responsibility because they could not agree on representatives. It will be difficult to move the country from the grip of elders to professionalise governance,” says Abshir. Mahiga, however, accepts the difficulties ahead: “The problem is the environment – a lack of a recognisable authority, a lack of safeguards […] It’s a real challenge to state building.”

Clan politics and money

Abdi Ismail Samatar, a geography professor at the University of Minnesota who returned to Somalia to run for the presidency, criticises the UN for dominating and distorting the process.

Samatar argues, like other critics of the new dispensation, that the UN and other outsiders made the outgoing TFG incumbents “judge and jury” in the August elections. “Whatever the quality of this draft constitution, it appears that the TFG leaders and their international associates do not want the Somali people and their legitimate representatives to have any say about it,” wrote Samatar in a recent essay. The politicians from the TFG had gone along with the UN plan mainly to ensure they would maintain power and influence in the next phase, according to Samatar.

That appears to be what happened. Outgoing President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and parliamentary speaker Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden traded on clan support to retain influence and ensure that their chosen candidates from rival clans cancelled out their competitors.

“What really counted in the elections was clan politics and money,” says Abukar Albadri, a Mogadishu-based journalist now working at the African Union Mis- sion in Somalia secretariat. Corruption could yet undermine the whole plan.

A UN Somalia Monitoring Report estimated that 70% of funds that the TFG received it then misappropriated. It accused former President Sheikh Sharif and prime minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali of sanctioning and benefiting from this theft. Both men deny wrongdoing.

“My conscience is clear. The Somali people know what I’ve done for them,” Sheikh Sharif told The Africa Report. “I was the president – of course my name would be mentioned in corruption allegations. The question is: Was the report accurate? There were no institutions when we came in. We hired Pricewaterhouse Coopers to manage financial processes, and the aim was to eradicate corruption. But you can’t do this immediately.”

Similarly, prime minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, a man from the diaspora who arrived in Mogadishu with excellent credentials from the private sector, deflected any claims of corruption. “I am the one who installed the anti-corruption commission in March 2012 and started the Joint Financial Management Board,” he says .

“Corruption is an outcome of the total lack of governance structures. With the support of our international partners, my government will ensure that public funds are spent responsibly and legally.”

Beyond the political cauldron in Mogadishu, however, Somalis starkly rejected the bona fides of the incumbents. In Baidoa, a city of walled spaces, tree-lined streets and a culture of commerce and tolerance, market traders are tired of war and anxious for stability.

The city was nearly pummeled into submission during the famine of 1992 by Maslah Mohamed, son of the former dictator Siad Barre.

Residents there face the prospect of a new order in Mogadishu with resignation rather than hope. Deqa Isaak, a 35-year-old trader, still reels from the onslaught from outgoing TFG tax collect- ors.

“We’ve never really had a problem with who is in charge as long as we’re not disturbed. The problem with the TFG is that they were weak. And because they knew that their term was coming to an end, they were desperate for taxes. They were demanding a year’s worth of taxes in advance. It was unacceptable. We told them we were not paying,” she recalls.

Leaving aside the questions about security and the motives of the regional states running the AU intervention, many Somalis have serious misgivings about the next political steps in Mogadishu.

But they also worry about the lack of alternatives. Abshir, who has closely followed his country’s political fortunes since the fall of the Barre regime in 1991, speaks of deep forebodings: “We need to believe in miracles again because there is no Plan B. There are only miracles”●

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