Friday, April 24, 2009

Cause for optimism over Somalia?

Mike Wooldridge
BBC News, Brussels
April 23

It is rare to hear optimistic talk about Somalia.

But at the international donors' conference - which has just pledged more funding than expected to boost the country's security - the meeting itself was described as "historic".

Some spoke of Somalia as being at a turning point at long last.

The man who has been Somalia's leader since January could hardly have anticipated receiving more public support from some of the highest dignitaries of the United Nations, the European Union and other institutions represented at the gathering.

All this at the very time Somalia is making headlines around the world as the source of some of the most persistent and brazen piracy of modern times.

This week more international aid workers joined the list of those held on land by militants.

Hundreds of thousands of Somalis continue to be forced to live in conditions that have been called the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

To an extent, clearly, the organisers of the Brussels meeting had an interest in trying to generate a confidence that better times could be ahead in Somalia.

Alliances sought

They needed to convince donors that it was worth providing the funds to keep African Union peacekeepers in Mogadishu, equip them better and enable them to expand towards the target of a force of 8,000.

They also needed to convince them to help the Somali government build up its own security institutions.

Some senior UN officials have long argued that one of the obstacles to turning this archetypal failed state around is that too many people believe that things cannot improve.

The expressions at this conference of confidence in the moderate Islamist President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed tended to gloss over the reality of how little of the country he actually controls by any conventional definition of power.

What the president is seeking to do in the complex world of Somali clan politics is strike up alliances.

He has appealed to factions that have been involved in armed opposition to his government to join in what he hopes will establish itself as the mainstream political process.

In Brussels, this was welcomed - at least in the opening statements of the conference, intended for public consumption - as the best shot at forging a meaningful government in years.

Tests ahead

If things really are going to be different the new president clearly has to win the confidence of the majority of the Somali public for his ambitions, and perhaps in particular for the security forces the government intends to develop.

And there is a difficult path ahead - one example being the potentially fraught vetting and recruitment of any existing militia members who might be drawn into the new security forces.

There are Somalia-watchers who would certainly describe the country as being at a cross-roads, poised between the possibility that the president will succeed in consolidating his position and his government's chances and the alternative scenario that the country now could face a period of more feuding between different Islamist factions.

There is also a broader reconstruction conference to come - another test of how enthusiastic the international community is about investing in Somalia and its new president.

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