Somalia: The U.N. Fails To Take Control Of The “Transition”

Dr. Michael A. Weinstein - The chapter of Somalia’s political history that has been dominated by the attempt of the United States, working through the United Nations, to manage the “transition” of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (T.F.G.) to a permanent set of governing institutions has ended with the collapse of the U.S.-U.N. initiative.
Somalia: The U.N. Fails To Take Control Of The “Transition”

The effort to guide the “transition” had been doomed to failure from its outset in early 2011, but it appears that the U.S. had to learn the lesson that Somali factions and external actors are too divided and fragmented to be directed by any player/stakeholder/power the hard way. A new chapter now opens up in which the actual situation, in which there is no dominant actor, no protagonist, no point of momentum in Somalia’s political conflicts,is obvious and at least tacitly acknowledged by all domestic and external parties.

The U.S.-U.N. plan to substitute a new set of institutions for the Transitional Federal Institutions (T.F.I.s) when the latter’s mandate expires in August, 2011 ran to ground on April 13 with the failure of the last U.S.-U.N. attempt to take over the “transition” – a “consultative” conference of Somali factions in Nairobi sponsored by the U.N.

The story of the run-up to the conference, its unfolding, and its aftermath brings out the current balance of power among the actors in Somalia’s conflicts and those actors’ checks and counter-checks on each other that prevent the emergence of a coherent configuration of power in the territories of post-independence Somalia, much less the semblance of a political system and even less political integration, which remains a distant and receding dream.

Run-Up to the Conference

The U.S.-U.N.’s campaign to manage the “transition” entered its final phase on April 5 and 6 when the U.N.’s special representative for Somalia, Augustine Mahiga, publically committed to holding the Nairobi conference despite the fact that the T.F.G. and the self-declared republic of Somaliland had rejected invitations to attend it. Somaliland had been expected to spurn the conference; it would not compromise its project of gaining international recognition for its independence.

The T.F.G. was determined to resist efforts to end its term in August and placed itself firmly in opposition to the U.S.-U.N.’s plans. The absence of Somaliland and the T.F.G. from the conference would deprive the meeting of its raison d’etre – to bring together the major Somali political groups (except the armed Islamist opposition) to discuss the conditions for ending the T.F.G. in August and what arrangement would replace it.

With the conference seemingly compromised in advance, it is not surprising that Mahiga seemed to be on the defensive in his press conference announcing it on April 6. The T.F.G.’s rejection of his invitation brooded over his remarks, although he did not address it directly. Instead, Mahiga said that the conference’s agenda included creating a “good working relationship” between the T.F.G. and the Transitional Federal Parliament (T.F.P.), which were locked in a power struggle over different conceptions of the term extension of the T.F.I.s, neither one accepting its own termination in August, as the U.S.-U.N. desired.

The fact that the U.S.-U.N had been forced to divert its attention from effecting the “transition” to trying to resolve a conflict between the T.FI.s over term extensions that had been decided in defiance of it showed starkly its severely weakened position.

Mahiga acknowledged the resistance of the T.F.G., saying that the conference had been postponed in March and early April at the T.F.G.’s request. He then criticized the T.F.G.’s and the T.F.P.’s  “arbitrary” term extensions and proceeded to insert himself directly into the dispute between them, appearing to take the side of the T.F.P. by asserting that it had the “constitutional right to extend the government’s mandate.”

Mahiga was also constrained to respond to T.F.G. Prime Minister Mohamed Farmajo’s call for the U.N. to relocate its offices from Nairobi to Mogadishu within three months, saying that relocation was correct in principle, but that it was “unrealistic” at present – the U.N. needed a “Green Zone” in Mogadishu. Rather than announcing a broad “consultative” conference that the U.N. would “facilitate,” Mahiga had been drawn into an internecine political conflict.

Most problematic for Mahiga was the T.F.G.’s plan to hold its own conference on the “transition” in Mogadishu, which he was constrained not to oppose entirely. If Farmajo wanted “another conference,” said Mahiga, “we will have one,” adding that the Nairobi conference “would go on.”

On April 7, the U.N. Political Office for Somalia (U.N.P.O.S.), which Mahiga heads and which was sponsoring the conference, issued a press release in which the special representative said that the meeting’s intent was to “pull into sharp focus the needs and tasks that must be addressed to end the transition.” The conference would also pave the way for a “follow-up meeting” in Mogadishu “proposed by the T.F.G.”

It is at this point that the attempt of the U.S.-U.N. to manage the “transition” ended in failure. There would be another conference and it would not be controlled by the U.N. The push back by the T.F.G. had already been successful; the U.S.-U.N. had been displaced and was no longer the protagonist.

Nonetheless, Mahiga continued to try to play a “facilitating” and “reconciling” role, saying that the conference would seek to strengthen “dialogue between the Transitional Federal Government and its partners.” He said that opposition to the meeting was based on “confusion” about its purpose, which was simply consultative. The “dialogue” that Mahiga envisioned, of course, seemed to be impossible, because the T.F.G. had decided not to attend the conference and the attendance of the T.F.P. was in doubt.

As the U.N. went ahead with its inauspicious plans for the conference, its major antagonist, the T.F.G., continued its diplomatic counter-offensive, with Farmajo meeting with Kenya’s prime minister, Raila Odinga, in order to attempt to persuade him to endorse the T.F.G.’s planned Mogadishu peace conference. Odinga, in turn, according to All Headline News, would try to attempt to convince Farmajo to reverse the T.F.G.’s decision to boycott the Nairobi conference.

On April 7, Farmajo’s visit resulted in a victory for the T.F.G. with Odinga announcing that Kenya would try to persuade the U.N. to collaborate in the Mogadishu conference. Farmajo, on the other hand, did not budge from the T.F.G.’s boycott of the Nairobi conference.

The T.F.G. scored another gain when Gen. Nathan Mugisha, the force commander of the African Union peacekeeping mission (AMISOM)  that protects the T.F.G. in Mogadishu, came out in support of the T.F.G.’s one-year term extension, on the basis of AMISOM’s need to work with a “partner” in making progress against Islamist forces.

On April 7, another front in the T.F.G.’s counter-offensive opened up when a demonstration against the Nairobi conference mounted by “civil society groups” and reportedly attended by “thousands” took place in Mogadisu. Supporting the T.F.G.’s boycott of the conference, the demonstrators branded the U.N. meeting as a “conspiracy” to divide Somalia and an “intervention” aimed at destroying the T.F.G. Sh. Ahmed Abdi Dhi’isow, the head of the Islamic scholars association who addressed the demonstration, said that he had met with Mahiga and gave him a nine-point letter urging the U.N. to support the T.F.G. and to work to improve relations between the T.F.G. and neighboring countries, and demanding that all conferences concerning Somalia be held in Somalia. According to Dhi’isow, Mahiga had turned a deaf ear to him. Dhi’isow concluded by calling on the U.N.  secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, to sack Mahiga.

On April 8, Farmajo returned to Mogadishu from Nairobi and announced that the T.F.G. would take part in a U.N. “consultative meeting” under the condition that it took place in Somalia. The president of the T.F.G., Sh. Sharif Sh. Ahmad, continued the diplomatic offensive, travelling to Uganda for talks with its president, Yoweri Museveni. A group of members of the T.F.P. accused the “international community” (“donor”-powers working through the U.N.) of failing to take a “united stand” on Somalia. The political-diplomatic struggle was in full swing with the T.F.G. using every resource that it could muster against the U.N. – domestic and external support, counter proposals (Mogadishu conference), and challenges (U.N. relocation to Mogadishu).

As the Nairobi conference, scheduled to open on April 12, approached, it caused a new dispute to erupt, this time within the T.F.P. between factions in favor of attending the meeting and those opposing attendance. Aware that the T.F.P.’s speaker, Sharif Hassan Sh. Adan, intended to participate in the conference, a group of approximately 100 M.P.s declared on April 9 that only the government was authorized to attend international meetings in which political matters were discussed, and that the speaker was only authorized to attend international parliamentary meetings.

The anti-conference faction warned M.P.s not to attend the meeting and repeating the charges that its aim was to “degrade” the T.F.I.s and that it was a “conspiracy.” In response a pro-conference faction of M.P.s insisted that it would attend the meeting, saying that it was “consultative” and that no decisions would be taken at it. Far from furthering dialogue, the U.N. was continuing on the path of fragmenting Somali factions even further. Meanwhile, Sh. Sharif was off to Burundi to meet with its president, Pierre Nkurunziza, continuing the T.F.G.’s diplomatic counter–offensive.

On the eve of the Nairobi conference, the various Somali factions lined up for and against attendance, with Sharif Hassan, the president of the autonomous state of Puntland Abdirahman Mohamed Farole, and the president of the autonomous authority of Galmudug Mohamed Ahmed Alin heading to Nairobi; and Somaliland, the T.F.G., and factions of the Sufi armed movement Ahlu Sunna Wal-Jama’a (A.S.W.J.) staying behind.

The T.F.G. warned “regional administrations,” such as Puntland and Galmudug, against attendance, stating that they were legally parts of the T.F.G. and that if they participated in the Nairobi conference “decisions will be taken against them.” Farmajo’s information advisor, Abdurrahman Omar Osman Yarisow, called Sharif Hassan’s attendance an “abrupt step taken without consideration.”

Sharif Hassan replied that he had made the decision to attend after consultations with M.P.s. The spokesman for the parliamentary faction supporting him, Muse Sudi Yalahow, said that all those who boycotted the meeting were against stability and peace, and that T.FP. attendance was necessary “to reinvigorate dialogue among Somali authorities.” After meeting with Sharif Hassan, Farole, and Alin separately before the conference was officially opened, Mahiga scaled down its purpose to “exchanging information” in preparation for “bigger future peace talks.”

The Conference

The failure of the Nairobi conference was a foregone conclusion from the viewpoint of the U.N. and the “donor”-powers, led by the U.S., which inspired the project of taking over the “transition.” By April 13, Mahiga had been reduced to presiding over an “exchange of information” preparatory to a “bigger” conference (and doubtless more after that).

Since even the minimal aim of a comprehensive dialogue between the T.F.G. and its “partners” had to be abandoned in the absence of the T.F.G., the most that could be done along that line was to articulate what one would have said to the T.F.G. had it shown up, which does not amount to dialogue. The Nairobi conference had lost any purpose for the U.N.-U.S.; it was another temporary placeholder in the decentered process of Somali politics, part of the violent stalemated waiting game. Indeed, the “donor”-powers were conspicuously silent about the conference, although they were present, as always. Denying Mahiga any public support for the Nairobi conference, of which it wanted to wash its hands, the “donor”-power coalition of the U.S. and Western European states left Mahiga alone to dangle on the limb on to which they had pushed him.

The conference, nonetheless, had its purposes for the participants that had accepted Mahiga’s invitation, which were to articulate their respective policies, strategic plans, and interests regarding Somali political organization in an international forum; to win the favor of the U.N. and “donor”-powers; and to increase their leverage in their own disputes with the T.F.G. Puntland, the Sharif Hassan faction of the T.F.P., and Galmudug were not at the conference to engage in “dialogue” and were not a coalition, and were not in league with the U.S.-U.N. – they were there to advance their particular interests in “Somalia’s” political future.

Mahiga as much as admitted defeat in a press release that he issued and a press conference he gave as the conference opened. The press release began on a high note, hailing the meeting as a consultation to prepare the way for a “new political dispensation.” The purpose of “dialogue” was to “empower” the participants to “oversee” the process “of bringing the transition to a close.” Having noted the participants, Mahiga struck a lower note, espressing disappointment that the T.F.G. did not attend. Taking an almost abject pose, Mahiga said of the T.F.G., “I believe they have a good story to share with us on the recent achievements and on the way forward. I truly hope that they can still join us before the end of the meeting.”

Mahiga broke down even further at the press conference, where he confessed failure: “I tried, I tried. I had a four hour meeting with the President in Kampala. Also I met with the Prime Minister. I shared with him the agenda but unfortunately I failed to satisfy.” Mahiga was especially disturbed by the demonstrations against the meeting that had occurred in Somalia, saying that opposition to the conference was based on “misunderstandings” and that he wished that he had been able to “talk with the Somali people.”

As Mahgia’s vehicle sputtered, the T.F.G. shifted its counter-offensive into high gear.

The T.F.G. cabinet held a meeting on April 12 and issued a severe and unequivocal denunciation of the conference. The cabinet called the conference an “anarchistic meeting” arranged by Mahiga “to instigate political instability.” Farmajo’s information advisor, Abdirahman Omar Osman, said that the canbinet’s position was that the Nairobi conference had “nothing to do with Somalia.” The T.F.G., he said, had not been consulted by U.N.P.O.S. about the conference. The cabinet urged Somalis and T.F.G. officials to condemn the meeting as an attack on Somali sovereignty.

The cabinet also continued its dispute with Sharif Hassan, calling for him to leave the conference and saying that the speaker had not attend the meeting with parliament’s and the cabinet’s approval, and that, in consequence, he was not authorized to represent Somalia there. The anti-speaker parliamentary faction joined in the attack with a group of M.P.s (numbering more than 300 of the T.F.P.’s 550 members, according to the Somaaljecel website) preparing a motion against Sharif Hassan.

Having returned to Mogadishu from his trip to Uganda and Burundi, Sh. Sharif joined the counter-offensive when he addressed a ceremony marking the fifty-first anniversary of the establishment of the Somali army, devoting his remarks to criticizing the “international community” for failing to help Somalia and, indeed, “not actually wanting to help us get out of the lawlessness.” If the international community (“donor”-power coalition) is not willing to help, it should, said Sh. Sharif, stop intervening: “Every time a problem gets close to being resolved, the international community creates new political misunderstandings.” Sh. Sharif called upon the “Somali people” to consider their political future for themselves; the international community “will not help.”

The T.F.G.’s counter-offensive had reached its culmination with its repudiation of the conference to the point of declaring that the meeting was irrelevant, and its assertion of indifference to it; and its condemnation of the international community’s malign neglect. Under the shadow cast by the T.F.G., the conference proceeded in its first day with statements by its participants putting forth their policies and pursuing their interests.

Sharif Hassan used his time to defend the T.F.P.’s three-year extension of its term and to criticize Sh. Sharif and Farmajo for opposing it. Sharif Hassan insisted that the T.F.G. would end in August, 2011, and that the T.F.P. would continue. There could not be, said Sharif Hassan, a “power vacuum.”

Farole put forward Puntland’s vision of a federal Somalia modeled on its own example of a functioning regional state,and offered to host a national reconciliation conference. He expressed disappointment at the T.F.G.’s boycott of the Nairobi conference and said that it showed that its leadership remained an obstacle to peace. Farole opposed term extension for the T.F.G., which, he said, had been a “catastrophic failure.” Instead, he advocated measures of political reform, such as streamlining parliament and abandoning representation based on clan quotas.

A.S.W.J., whose factions had been persuaded to attend at the last moment, carried its divisions into the conference, forcing Mahiga to try to mediate their internal disputes. The group was able to agree that it wanted aid in its struggle against the Islamists, which it had initiated after the latter had destroyed Sufi mosques and cemeteries.

Meanwhile, Farmajo reiterated his challenge to the U.N. to relocate to Mogadishu, saying that the T.F.G. had created a “safety zone” for its agencies. He accused the U.N. of spending Somali aid in Nairobi hotels and threatened to make a case against it to the donors if it failed to relocate.

After the participants at the conference had laid out their positions on the “transition,” the meeting moved to drawing up a communiqué that somehow would sketch a semblance of a common approach. The major players – the U.N., Sharif Hassan and his faction, and Puntland – had contradictory interests and did not change them in the first phase of the conference, so any joint statement would have to paper over rather than resolve differences.

The seven-point communiqué that emerged from the conference had something for every major participant, which guaranteed that it would be incoherent and contradictory.

The first point, which represented U.N./”donor”-power interests, called for the T.F.G. to end before August 20 with elections for president and speaker, according to the Transitional Federal Charter. The second point shifted position, catering to Sharif Hassan and stating that it had been  ”proposed” that the T.F.G.’s  term “could be” extended for two years, adding that the extension would not be “an end in itself” but a means to preparing for “eventual national elections.” The qualified rhetoric of point two reflected the U.N.’s and Puntland’s reluctance to endorse the T.F.P.’s term extension and to put themselves (especially the U.N.) on the side of the speaker in the T.F.G.-T.F.P. conflict over the “transition.”

Nonetheless it was there, jeopardizing the role of Mahiga as mediator and facilitator.

Points three, four, and five repeated boiler-plate U.N.-“donor”-power calls for “redoubled” efforts to fight terrorism, “intensified” efforts for “outreache and “reconciliation” by the T.F.I.s, and “accelerated” efforts toward drafting a permanent “federal constitution.” Point five catered to the U.N.’s and Puntland’s interests by “acknowledging” that constitution drafting was a “shared responsibility” between the T.F.G., regional states, regional authorities (A.S.W.J., Galmudug), and “other stakeholders including the international community.”

Point six was Puntland’s piece of the communique, calling for “past agreements,” such as those that the T.F.G. had made with Puntland and A.SW.J. (and had not kept), to be adhered to and implemented. Specifically, the Galkayo agreement that Puntland signed with the T.F.G. was very favorable to the former, giving it a central place in the transitional process, including endorsing federalism and making it the venue for constitution-drafting.

Point seven called for donors to provide more humanitarian and development aid, a constant refrain in statements from conferences on “Somalia.”

It is difficult to see how the patchwork of divergent visions and policies constituting the communique could have any force or effect. The U.N.’s vision of a comprehensive “reconciliation” process and a quick “transition” to permanent governing structures runs up against the T.F.P.’s term extension (possibly cut to two years), which in turn runs up against Puntland’s path through the Galkayo agreement, which limits the U.N.’s plans. Given the incoherence of the communique, it is unlikely that any of the participants will to able to use it for leverage. The communique is simply a collection of aspirations rather than a “way forward,” even a set of guidelines and principles, as Farole interpreted it to be. It will be superseded at the next conference or even before then.

As the conference closed having failed even in achieving the U.N.’s modest and reduced aim of fostering “dialogue,” the T.F.G. made a bid to take over the “transition” for itself. The cabinet met on April 14, “reviewed” the Nairobi meeting, and declared it to be “fruitless” and “not representative of the Somali people.”

Stepping into the perceived gap left by the U.N.-“donor”-powers, the cabinet announced that it would host a “high-level consultation meeting” of its own in Mogadishu from June 11 through June 16. The cabinet stressed that the new conference would be the “responsibility” of the T.F.G., although it would involve the “cooperation” of the international community and the U.N. Its agenda, the cabinet promised, would be “pre-shared” with stakeholders and participants “so that they are fully agreed.” The purpose of the meeting would be to consult on the future of the Somali people, and the T.F.G. would reach out to all interested parties, even the armed Islamist opposition.

The T.F.G.’s announcement of its conference marked a change in the bellicose tone it had adopted in the run-up to and during the Mogadishu conference. Now that the U.N. had failed, the T.F.G. was ready to be more conciliatory and take it in as a player, as long as the T.F.G. was managing the process. The T.F.G. was poised to declare victory in the political-diplomatic power struggle. Sh. Sharif took off for another support-building trip, this time to Ethiopia and Tanzania.

The Aftermath of the Conference

In the days following the close of the conference, the dispute within the T.F.P. continued, with the anti-speaker faction denouncing Sharif Hassan for agreeing to cut the T.F.P. term extension from three to two years, and Sharif Hassan hailing his “victory” in getting Mahiga to agree on a two-year extension. The anti-speaker faction carried on with its move to impeach Sharif Hassan, now with the added charge that he had no right to agree to a two-year extension.

On April 15, the dispute within the T.F.I.s spilled into the streets when a pro-Nairobi conference demonstration in Mogadishu organized by ex-warlord and ex-mayor of Mogadishu Mohammed Dheere (acting for Sharif Hassan) turned violent as T.F.G. forces trying to stop the demonstration clashed with T.F.G. forces loyal to Dheere and with demonstrators. On April 20, Sharif Hassan met with parliamentary committees and M.P. Umar Islow announced that there were no longer any disputes within the T.F.P. – all had agreed that the original T.F.P. three-year term extension would remain in place. The slight concession that Mahiga had wrung from Sharif Hassan in Nairobi had been reversed.

On April 17, Mahiga threw in the towel and conceded defeat, announcing in an interview with the T.F.G.’s Radio Mogadishu that U.N.P.O.S. supported the T.F.G.’s June conference “from the beginning to the end,” and that he would participate in it and would “persuade the rest of the international community to come to the meeting.” Mahiga added that the “outcome of the Nairobi meeting is supporting the upcoming reconciliation conference in Somalia.” The Nairobi communique had been superseded. A new chapter had opened.

On April 19, Sh. Sharif hosted a meeting in Mogadishu with a “high-level” U.N. delegation on the U.N.’s role in “supporting” the T.F.G. For the moment the U.N.-“donor”-powers would be seeking leverage within the T.F.I.s rather than trying to replace them.
On April 21, the T.F.G.’s cabinet met and launched an initiative aimed at giving it more domestic leverage in managing the transition, announcing that it was forming a “ministerial level committee” to propose ways in which citizens could “take an active part in nation building.” According to the plan, the T.F.G. would set up programs in security, education, and health and humanitarian affairs to which Somalis inside and outside the country could contribute; the contributions would be managed by the new committee “transparently.” The initiative was meant, according to the cabinet, to put the future of Somalia in the hands of Somalis and out of the control of the donors.

Also on April 21, Sh. Sharif met with more than one-hundred M.P.s and announced that he was ready “to take part in the coming presidential elections,” but added that it was too early to hold them, since disputes within the T.F.I.s over term extension had to be resolved first, and the Islamists had to be defeated.  Sh. Sharif called for a “comprehensive strategy going forward.”

In a move intended to engage the term-extension issue, the cabinet formed a committee on the matter and sent a letter to Sharif Hassan and the chairs of parliament committees inviting them to a meeting on “to unify our efforts in ending the Transition Period of the Government.” On April 23, when the meeting had been scheduled to take place, Farmajo issued a press release saying that the speaker had failed to show up.

It was not to be expected that Sharif Hassan and the T.F.P. would enter negotiations on their three-year term extension with the T.F.G.  

After a hectic two and a half weeks, “Somalia’s” politics have reverted to their chronic decentered state. The interminable “transition” goes on with no apparent prospects for conflict resolution. Now that Mahiga has appeared to have switched sides, Puntland, which has suspended relations with the T.F.G., is once again on the outside; Sharif Hassan is left to fight his battles after a pyrrhic “victory,” and the other “authorities” in Somalia are left to go their own ways; external actors are free to pursue their respective and divergent interests.

Report Drafted By: Dr. Michael A. Weinstein, Professor of Political Science, Purdue University in Chicago

Article 21 May 2021 10:14

I read your article on Foreign Policy with keen eyes and interest. While whining from public officials does not deserve response from any sensible citizen of the Republic of Somalia, I felt compelled to counter false narrative with more objective analysis.