The media narrative of progress in Somalia has really taken hold. Some parts of it are absurd (a dry cleaner?), and some parts can cut both ways, but much of the narrative deserves to be taken seriously. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its allies – the African Union, Kenya, and Ethiopia – have retaken several key towns from the rebel movement al Shabab. Al Shabab fighters are reportedly defecting to the TFG in significant numbers. In terms of formal politics, the true tests will come later this summer when Somalia adopts a new constitution and holds presidential elections. But having a roadmap toward those goals represents some progress in and of itself.
Yet that narrative of progress coexists with another narrative, one that says Somalia is at a crossroads. I find this second narrative more accurate. This narrative asks, “If the TFG and its allies have wrested control of some areas away from al Shabab, what will the government’s rule look like?” On the answer to that question hangs the government’s legitimacy.
Gabriel Gatehouse of the BBC points to three problems: corruption, law and order, and internal TFG politics.
Despite the military advances, the battle for “hearts and minds” is not yet won.
At Mogadishu seaport, we watch two dozen men unloading bundles and boxes from cargo ships and piling them onto their trucks.
All the drivers said they thought life was better under al-Shabab – less corrupt and more secure, so long as you stayed out of politics.
“In al-Shabab areas, we don’t see guns everywhere,” said Mahmood Abdullahi.
“If the government disarmed the militias and got rid of the checkpoints that steal money from us, then we would support the government.”
Yet it is politics that could make or break Somalia’s current momentum towards stability.
Gatehouse goes on to describe the political roadmap Somalia is to follow this summer, which he calls “hugely complicated.”
“The process,” he concludes, “is fraught with potential pitfalls, not least a number of former warlords who have financial and political interests in maintaining instability.”
Ahmed Egal, writing at African Arguments, has an even more negative take on the roadmap. Egal believes this moment could be different from other times when Somalia tried to establish a new government: he notes “sustained military success,” “widespread fatigue” with al Shabab among ordinary people, and a revitalization of civil society. But he does not believe the roadmap offers a way out:
This positive public mood and hope for the future needs to be harnessed in the service of a genuine Somali-driven process of nation-building and state reconstruction. Yet, this is precisely what the so-called Roadmap ignores and precludes in favour of establishing yet another bogus ‘parliament’ composed of members that have either bought their seats or which have already been bought and paid for. This ‘parliament’ will, in turn, ratify a constitution that has not been put to the people it purports to govern and ‘elect’ a ‘President’ that has succeeded in buying the largest number votes with cash payments, appeals to tribal solidarity and promises of patronage and disbursements of aid monies in the future.
He foresees a “farce” where “erstwhile warlords, Siyad Barre* henchmen, self-appointed civil society leaders, newly minted clan elders and Diaspora carpet-baggers will take their usual places in the drama,” with the presidency, and seats in parliament, going to “the highest bidders.”
If the new government proves to be illegitimate in the eyes of the people, unable to provide law and order, and riven with internal divisions, that does not necessarily mean al Shabab will come roaring back. But neither would it mean genuine stability for Somalia. As Gatehouse and Egal both point out, there are various powerful parties with an interest in prolonged instability, and parties who prefer instability to having someone else consolidate power.
Which narrative – progress or peril – do you find more convincing?
*Siad Barre was president of Somalia from 1969-1991.