Policy WATCH:Analysis
Commentary: What The Donors Want
Options For a Post TFG Somalia
Secretary of State Clinton with President Sharif in 2009
Secretary of State Clinton with President Sharif in 2009
On February 2, Somali parliamentarians returned to Mogadishu in droves and cast a near-unanimous vote to prolong the Transitional Federal Parliament’s mandate by a generous three-year term. But after years of absenteeism and stalemate, the effort was too little and too late. The United States and Europe dismissed the vote without a backward glance. Not even the United Nations Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS)—which must by now have spent millions ferrying the parliamentarians back and forth from Nairobi to rubberstamp various international initiatives—has bothered to argue that the parliament’s opinion matters.

When the Transitional Federal Government’s (TFG) mandate expires on August 20, 2011, it is the donor nations that will come up with a new set of governing arrangements for Somalia, and this time around there may not even be an internationally-sponsored “reconciliation” conference to help us all pretend that the Somalis had a say in the matter.

For the last seven years, the United Nations has prevented the TFG’s collapse through sleight of hand and sheer force of will. The United States and Europe have helped, by buying the guns and paying the bills. The TFG has repaid the effort by failing to accomplish any of the transitional tasks assigned to it, by indulging in vicious rounds of infighting, and by failing to make any headway against the Islamist radicals who have captured most of southern Somalia’s territory, all the while using the TFG’s Western-backed presence in Mogadishu as a rallying cry.

Now, the Western donor nations are tired. And for the first time, they aren’t pretending otherwise.

The donors have unwillingly learned one lesson in the past four years in Somalia: that the creation of national government in Mogadishu cannot, in the short term, bring any measure of peace to Somalia. That lesson cannot be unlearned, and so the “international community” is looking towards August with exhausted eyes. No one quite has the gall to predict that this next administration will be—like the 2001 Transitional National Government, Abdullahi’s Yusuf’s 2004 government, or Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s 2009 TFG—“Somalia’s best hope for peace in the last ten/fifteen/twenty years,” or even that it will govern more than half of Mogadishu. No one is bothering to pay any attention to President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s latest squabble with parliament speaker Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden. After all, both men are personally discredited—both at home and abroad—and neither are serious candidates for future Western-funded leadership positions. The TFP, too, has proven itself to be a multi-headed hydra, too large, unpredictable and unruly to be useful. Not even the launch of the TFG’s long-promised “offensive” to drive al Shabaab out of Mogadishu is generating much enthusiasm.

There are simply no good options available.

The United States made that clear in October 2010, when the State Department outlined a new, “dual-track” strategy for dealing with Somalia. When he unveiled the strategy, Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson sounded apologetic, preemptively insisting that the policy offered “no clear road map” to peace, that U.S. planned to revise the policy as needed, and that he fully expected “a series of potholes and even defeats.” Indeed, the strategy leaves the worst parts of the former U.S. policy in place: namely, it fails to address the problematic African Union (AU) occupation of Mogadishu’s presidential palace, airport and seaport, and makes not even a token effort to stop—or even to justify—the rising civilian death toll in Mogadishu, most of which can be put down to relentless indiscriminate bombing by the AU with mortars provided by U.S. taxpayer dollars. What the policy does do, usefully, is to signal some redirection of U.S. diplomatic and financial resources away from Mogadishu, and towards Somaliland and Puntland, two autonomous northern territories that, in the wake of the TFG’s failure, are under growing pressure to act as bulwarks against the spread of al Shabaab’s ideology and forces. To the Obama Administration’s credit, the “dual track” strategy also indicates at least a notional willingness to try out a “bottom-up” (or decentralized) approach in the Shabaab-controlled territories of southern Somalia. But the policy stops far short of providing any funding or hinting at any operational strategy for engaging with local actors. At best, the U.S. dual track policy is a containment strategy posing hard as a form of intervention. (The policy was rather a blow to this author, who had tried hard to make the case that overt disengagement by the United States would not only take the air out of al Shabaab’s tires, but could perhaps free up funding for the basic, nonpolitical development efforts that Somalia desperately needs, if real reconciliation is ever to take place.)

If the “dual track” strategy signals that the U.S. has stopped looking to Mogadishu for a political solution to the Somali crisis, what is it that the donors expect from the new Somali government? Unfortunately, a lot.

Any governance arrangement that emerges in the “post-transitional” period will have to go some way towards satisfying a contradictory set of donor goals:

• First, whatever entity emerges in Mogadishu must have the authority to sanction the continued presence of African Union troops in Mogadishu. The international community may have given up on the idea of creating a government to win Somali hearts and minds, but it is still determined to fight al Shabaab.

• Second, any new government in Mogadishu must preserve the framework of the current TFG. The international community has poured time and money into creating a federal charter, drafting a constitution, and building up some (limited) administrative capacity within the transition federal institutions. The donors are bound to need another national government in Somalia, and if they don’t want to reinvent the wheel, they will seek to preserve as much of the TFG apparatus as possible.

• Third, the government must be emphatically different from the current TFG, which has disappointed everyone.

• Fourth, the United States, Europe and the United Nations want to satisfy Somalia’s neighbors. Ethiopia and Kenya, with backing from the Intergovernmental Authority for Development and the African Union, will need to exercise a “self-protective” influence over Somalia’s internal governing arrangements. They will demand a prominent place for their proxies in any new institution that emerges – and they’ll want to feel that those proxies have real power.

• The United States, on the other hand, will not want the new Somali government to have real power. The Obama administration’s vocal support of the TFG – once “Somalia’s best hope for peace,” but now “the government in name only” – has become a political embarrassment. The U.S. will want to reduce the likelihood of future humiliation by making it clear that the new administration in Mogadishu is only one of many horses in the race.

Clearly, these are conflicting goals, and so far, none of the donor nations or the United Nations has come up with a governance formula for Mogadishu that satisfies. A number of ideas are circulating, including the possibility of a limited UN trusteeship of Somalia; the creation of a “Somali Provisional Authority” or a “Benadir Regional Administration”; or the positioning of the Ethiopian proxy Ahlu Sunna wa’al Jamaa in Villa Somalia. All of these possibilities tick some of the boxes, and any of them would be a minor improvement on the status quo. But none of the above options will stop the devastating proxy war between the foreign African Union troops and the foreigner-filled Shabaab, and none is likely to provide the Somali public with a pathway to legitimate, representative governance.

Bronwyn Bruton is a democracy and governance specialist who has served at the U.S. Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy. She is the author of the March 2010 Council on Foreign Relations Special Report, “Somalia: A New Approach,” and the November/December 2009 Foreign Affairs essay, “In the Quicksands of Somalia,” among other publications. She has argued that U.S. counterterror objectives demand a policy of “constructive disengagement” from Somali political affairs.