Somalia Peace Talks Proving Futile

Somali refugee near the Kenyan border
A Somali refugee in Mandera, Kenya, near the border of Somalia, waits to return home (Photo: Sayyid Azim/AFP).

When will the world see an end to the crisis in Somalia?

The word “crisis” is used for want of a better one to describe what has been happening in Somalia for the last 12 years with no end in sight. Yet it is a tired description, for it reminds one of a phenomenon that has refused to abate.

When Somali President Siad Barre was ousted in the civil war [1992], Somalia’s problem became a genuine international problem. There was a refugee crisis, starvation, and landmines. The international community intervened and tried to recreate a nation-state of the battlefield.

After the U.S.-led intervention [also in 1992], that international problem became a tragedy as peacekeepers—mostly U.S. Marines—and certain warlords in Mogadishu had a falling out. The world withdrew and “Somalia” became a lost concept.

But it was not lost entirely. Since Barre’s fall, close to a dozen attempts have been made by the United Nations and Somalia’s neighbors—acting individually or under the auspices of Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the Arab League, and the Organization for African Unity—to restore sanity, order, and modernity.

After the failure of all these attempts and endless, directionless negotiations, Somalia, previously a nation-state, has existed without a government for more than 10 years.

The new attention Somalia has received since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on U.S. targets, following suspicion that the collapsed nation could be a haven for terrorists and extremists, has created a new crisis. The United States and other powers accuse certain organizations in Somalia, such as the Al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, of having links to international terrorist chief Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network. Among the foreign governments leading the charge is Ethiopia, which has accused the unrecognized regime in Mogadishu of promoting transnational Islamist and terrorist activities in Ethiopian territory.

While the United States and its allies complain of the alleged terrorist networks within Somalia, the country’s neighbors worry about the burden imposed by the refugees fleeing the lawless and war-torn country. They also have genuine concerns about the thriving gun- and drug-smuggling that thrives across Somalia’s borders.

Yet neither the international community’s accumulated frustrations, Somalia’s neighbors, the refugees, nor the Somali masses have created a sense of urgency sufficient to convince the warlords to act. And so the Somalia issue has become a menace.

Today [March 7], the principle actors are gathered in Nairobi for a so-called reconciliation summit. The meeting had been proceeding turbulently in Eldoret, but has now been moved to the capital.

Do the talks offer any hope for the Somali people and their neighbors? Hardly, for the manner in which the talks have proceeded for the past three months leaves a lot to be desired.

Events and the delegates’ behavior in both Eldoret and Nairobi mirror the failure of past peace and reconciliation efforts. The talks have been characterized by walkouts, fights among delegates, complaints about money, and the delegates’ inability to agree on almost anything. Immediately after one problem is solved, another pops up. One begins to question the delegates’ commitment to the talks.

Meanwhile, a bitter military struggle has erupted in Mogadishu. Somali FM radio stations, monitored in Kenya, say roughly 10,000 displaced people are moving toward the Kenyan border following the new hostilities. This fighting has cast doubt on the recent cease-fire between warlords and faction leaders. Such cease-fires have been seen before.

In the meantime, Somali refugees in Kenyan camps are approaching starvation because the international community has been withdrawing financial support. Most Western powers involved in the Somalia question have been losing interest in the negotiations in Kenya, as exemplified by IGAD’s inability to foot the bill for the talks. The organization is normally financed by its partners forum, a group of former colonial rulers of Horn of Africa countries.

The rifts that have caused the failure of past Somalia peace talks are emerging again at the Nairobi summit. Already, the transitional national government delegates have moved to 680 Hotel in the heart of Nairobi, claiming that the facilities at Mbagathi College were beneath their dignity and not conducive to their security.

Delegates from Jubaland have also vacated Mbagathi and are now housed at Al-Aqsa, Al-Rehab, Ayan, and Taqwa lodges in Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate. Many do not even attend the talks.

It is not uncommon to find delegates of the Hussein Aideed faction leaving the venue of the talks to travel to Addis Ababa and other capitals. These two phenomena have led to speculation that many delegations are funded by powers outside IGAD. There are also reports that some delegations are receiving instructions from foreign governments, businessmen, and other agents provocateurs in Eastleigh about what to accept, concede, or reject.

The latest center of dispute was the claim that Djibouti and Ethiopia were unduly interfering with the talks for their specific interests. When the Jubaland delegates made this claim, it caused a rumpus, resulting in a physical confrontation.

It may also be recalled that the number of delegates is already unwieldy, with many uninvited and ineligible people gate-crashing into the talks and demanding to be allowed to participate.

If the talks were making progress, there would have been no fresh outbreak of war in Somalia. There must be a lot of reasons why there is no progress. But the most obvious reason for the talks’ failure is that there is actually no talking, just accusations, demands, stonewalling, and refusals to cede territorial gains made through force.

Since most warlords and businessmen are benefiting from the chaos in Somalia, the crisis is likely to continue. The warlords are unwilling to surrender territory, and those who have occupied other people’s houses are unwilling to surrender them. Meanwhile, Ethiopia, Djibouti, the Arab League, and other powers continue to influence what their allies will accept or reject. So the mediators are heading nowhere.

Progress might begin to emerge the day the international community starts to use new tactics to try to sway the warlords. But there will be no change if the old, familiar tactics are used again. There have been suggestions that certain international sanctions, such as the threat of a tribunal for war crimes, or the freezing of bank accounts, should be imposed on those faction leaders opposed to progress.

There have been suggestions that the international community should impose an Afghanistan-style government. And yet another mundane suggestion is that whenever Somali delegates are due to meet, they should be quarantined to limit the influence of patron-states or busybodies in Nairobi.

During the last talks in Arta, Djibouti, which led to the formation of the transitional government, delegates were not accorded the sort of comfort and accommodation now being offered by IGAD and the Kenyan authorities. Yet the Arta process led to something, while three months of bickering in Kenya are leading nowhere.