Somalia took an important step this week in its bid for stability. In neighboring Ethiopia, Somali leaders have signed a deal setting August 20 as the date for a transition to a new government (presidential elections must take place before that date). Meanwhile, within Somalia, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) have launched a new offensive to capture territory from the rebel movement al Shabab, pushing into areas outside Mogadishu, where the TFG-AMISOM forces hope to take the towns of Elasha and Afgoye (map).
As is often the case, we can greet these events optimistically – VOA says that Somalia is “on track to end failed state status” – or pessimistically, noting the challenges that remain.
- The agreement has six signatories: TFG President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, TFG Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, Speaker of the Transitional Federal Parliament Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden, President Abdirahman Farole of the semi-autonomous Puntland region, President Mohamed Ahmed Alin of the semi-autonomous Galmudug region, and Khaliif Abdulkadir Moallim Noor, a representative from the pro-government militia Ahl al Sunna wa al Jama’a (Arabic: “The People of the Traditions of the Prophet and the Muslim Community”).
- By June 20, Somalia must assemble a National Constituent Assembly whose members will meet in Mogadishu by June 30.
- By July 10, Somalia must adopt a new constitution.
- By July 20, Somalia must swear in a new parliament with 225 members selected by elders.
- On August 4, the parliament will elect a speaker and deputy speaker.
- These MPs will then elect the next president by August 20.
Now for the potential problems:
- Establishing the framework could prove to be the easy part; carrying it out could be difficult. A power struggle between President Sharif Ahmed and Speaker Sheikh Aden has already forced a delay of one year (the presidential election was originally set to take place in August 2011). At each step in the process, there is potential for factionalization and deadlock. Additionally, it is possible that the time-frame will prove too short to move through all the steps, at least without rushing and thereby creating problems that will appear later.
- Despite gains in the military offensive against al Shabab, there have also been costs, particularly massive displacement of civilians. Some critics are also charging that the Kenyan offensive against another al Shabab stronghold, Kismayo, is going too slowly and may be futile. Military progress, in other words, has come in fits and starts, taking a heavy toll on civilians, and the new government will still control only portions of southern Somalia.
- Reuters wonders whether oil production in Puntland might complicate relations between that area and the TFG (and the TFG’s successor).
So should we be optimistic or pessimistic? I certainly think that the agreement in Addis Ababa marks a positive step. And political progress is critical to solidifying any military gains – if the government at the center is plagued by infighting and confusion, how can it establish a legitimate and continuous presence in newly conquered areas? For once, the politics and the conquests seem to be moving partly in sync. But this summer will put optimism to the test, as we see how papers signed in Ethiopia will translate into realities in Somalia.