West needs to change half-hearted approach to Somalia
Deutsche Welle

West needs to change half-hearted approach to Somalia

A conference on Somalia is being convened by the United Nations in Istanbul with the aim of showing support for the Somali people. But observers say the West’s half-hearted approach is doing more harm than good.

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UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told delegates at a special conference on Somalia in Istanbul on Saturday that “the only way to restore stability is to support this government in its reconciliation effort and its fight against extremism.”

The delegates from 55 nations and 12 international organizations also expressed their “full support” for President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed and his Transitional Federal Government (TFG). They said the “reestablishment, training, equipping, payment and retention of Somali security forces is vital for long-term stability.”

Top UN envoy for Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah promised last week that this weekend’s conference will demonstrate political solidarity with the suffering Somali people.

But the diplomat also made clear that the conference would not be a new money-collecting exercise, or an appeal for more aid donations from other countries.

At a conference in Brussels a year ago, the international community pledged $213 million dollars (172 million euros) to the besieged TFG and peacekeepers belonging to the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). But less than half of this money has been delivered as yet, and the TFG’s area of control is little more than a corner of the capital Mogadishu.

Famine, corruption and war

While the civil war between radical Islamists opposing all foreign intervention and the western-backed TFG continues, the human disaster deepens.

Some 3.4 million Somalis are dependent on aid, and in March, a UN committee report claimed that as much as half the food aid sent to Somalia ends in the hands of corrupt contractors, Islamist militants and local UN staff.

This report was disputed by the United Nations World Food Program, but it forced UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who will be attending the conference, to open an independent investigation into WFP operations in Somalia and to create a database aimed at blacklisting people and firms linked to the kidnapping of aid workers.

Starving the population for fear of al Qaeda

But in September last year, the WFP was also forced to suspend food aid to areas of southern Somalia after the US designated certain areas as being under the control of terrorists.

Bronwyn Bruton, independent researcher for the Council on Foreign Relations, says this decision was highly unusual. “The fact is that humanitarian aid goes astray all over the world,” she told Deutsche Welle.

“In Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Congo, in Haiti – you name it. It’s a fact of humanitarian relief. The question is why in Somalia has it resulted in this stoppage of delivery. It’s very rare for the world to say ‘Look, the corruption is so bad that we’re just not going to feed these people.'”

The answer, Bruton believes, is simple. “It’s the concern that some portion of the food is going to this al-Qaeda linked group, Al-Shabab.” This is a serious mistake, Bruton believes. “Even if you say Al-Shabab is dangerous, al Qaeda wants to get in there, and potentially they could or are, you have to ask yourself, ‘Is it helpful to starve the population?’ Is that going to reduce the likelihood that Somalia becomes an enabling environment for al Qaeda, or is it going to increase it?”

Resilient private sector

The forum is also intended to be a platform for Somalia’s private sector, international businesses, and governments to launch new initiatives for reconstruction and job creation. This is a very useful aim, as Roger Middleton, consultant researcher at the British think tank Chatham House, says, “One of the remarkable things about Somalia is the resilience of the private sector in the face of the collapse of the state, and its ability to carry on business both inside Somalia and throughout the East African region. A lot of people have made a lot of money, despite the terrible fighting and the terrible humanitarian situation.”

But the power of Somalia’s private sector is clearly limited. “Can you expect the private sector to resolve the crisis? No, I don’t think so,” says Bruton. “The key issue for Somalia at the moment is the humanitarian crisis. When you have 40 percent of the population in need of food aid, and food aid isn’t going in, you have to ask yourself what is a conference to celebrate the private sector really going to accomplish.”

So what is the conference good for?

Some commentators have suggested that this weekend’s conference in Istanbul could offer a change of tack – the focus on the private enterprise at least shows a willingness to engage with sections of Somali society outside the TFG, and Middleton praised this as “an interesting approach.”

But it certainly does not translate to a willingness to engage in radical Islamists like Al-Shabab. “I don’t get the impression that the intention here is to turn around the international approach to Somalia and start talking to everybody without preconditions. I’d be surprised,” Middleton says.

To add to Somalia’s troubles, the TFG is currently in the middle of a political crisis. Even though President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed on Thursday rescinded his decision to sack Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid and to name a new cabinet, the government is still struggling to form a stable alliance.

These are issues that by their nature can only be resolved internally. “I don’t think what’s going to save the TFG is external support,” says Middleton. “It’s certainly important for them to have international backing, but really what would improve their lot would be political deals within the grand coalition that makes up the TFG, and then with other groups in Somalia who are a threat to them.”

Nation-building on the cheap

In the meantime, the international community’s somewhat half-hearted approach to international aid and military support for the TFG is probably doing more harm than good. The underfunded AMISOM peacekeepers, currently the only force protecting the TFG, are accused of indiscriminately shelling civilians in retaliation against attacks. This, like the West’s cagey attitude to food aid, is only fuelling the resentment among Somalis against the TFG and its western backers.

“Doing it on the cheap is a really bad idea, because in Somalia, backing the government means doing what AMISOM is doing, which is defending the government by firing on civilians,” says Bruton.

“And it’s not the goal of a counter-insurgency campaign to support the government at the expense of citizen security. If you’ll pardon my French, it’s an ass-backwards way of getting to the same goals as you see working in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

In comparison to the Somalian situation, where the West has virtually no political will to intervene, western involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan seems positively successful.

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