London Conference on Somalia

Children stretch out their hands at the Dadaab refugee camp in Dadaab, Somalia, where thousands of hungry refugees wait for help on Aug. 15, 2011.

Of the numerous international conferences organized to deal with Somalia's seemingly endless conflict, the London conference held last month attracted by far the highest expectations of Somali people, closely matching that of Djibouti in 2000. But unlike the latter, the former also provoked extraordinary apprehension as to what may transpire from such an unexpected, sudden gathering.

Perhaps the most important factor that sparked Somalis' optimism was the British government itself. A powerful U.N. Security Council member, a major donor country and a former colonial power of Somaliland, Britain was seen as the best candidate to succeed where others failed in ending what many describe as hell on earth.

Besides the negative experience of previous international conferences, the anxiety of the Somalis was mainly incited by the coincidence of the British government's unexpected announcement of the conference and Ethiopia/Kenya's incursion into Somalia territory without prior U.N. authorization.

Has the London conference met the high expectations it generated, or was it a rerun of previous futile exercises, full of lofty speeches but destructive outcomes that ultimately make bad situation worse? Before answering this question, we might ask why Somalia, the only relatively homogenous society in Sub-Saharan Africa, is engulfed in such heartbreaking violence as to earn it the moniker of the world's most failed state.

Radical tribalism

The root cause of Somalia's endless violence is based on tribal and religious extremism. These dual extremisms feed each other, but radical tribalism is the mother of all evils plaguing Somalia. Tragically, with the Transitional Federal Government's (TFG) abhorrent, un-Islamic, poisonously divisive "4.5" clan politics, tribalism is glorified at the national level, while it is celebrated as a genuine building block in establishing regional or local sub-national authorities.

As the Arab spring has revealed in countries like Libya, tribalism is not unique to Somalia. But unlike our cousins in Libya, Somali leaders pioneered a new phoneme: formation of clan or coalition of clan-based sub-states. No doubt that some of the leaders did so because of legitimate grievances, while others use these new political constructs to maintain old privileges or secure new ones. However, most of them use it as a bargaining chip to secure a favorable place in any future government.

Since Somalis are Sunni Muslim, Islam has always been the strongest weapon to combat tribalism whenever it rears its ugly head. Tragically, Islam itself became victim of two camps. On one hand, some extremist al-Shabaab leaders hijacked the religion and use it to masquerade their diabolical agenda. On the other hand, most of regional or local authorities, and to a certain extent TFG leaders, use religion as a boogeyman to fight against their opponents no matter how genuine their grievances might be.

Extremism in all its shades is destructive, but tribalism and religious extremism are the worst ever known to mankind, particularly when it comes to nation building. These two extremisms destroyed Somalia's nation-state – a nation-state pillaged by its elites, abandoned by its friends and exploited by its enemies.

London conference

Naturally, it is very hard to make a fair assessment on a five-hour conference. This appraisal is based on my reading of the final communiqué and what I garnered from key participants' speeches.

While the conference offered each of the Somali representatives something to claim victory, there was nothing for ordinary Somalis except contradictory, ambivalent and outright alarming statements, leaving them with questions and bewilderment. However, not everything was negative. There were some aspects of the conference that inspire optimism.

According to the communiqué, the conference welcomed the U.N. resolution expanding AMISOM's mandate and raising its troop ceiling. While this resolution is admirable, the trouble is the incorporation of Kenya forces into AMISOM, while acquiescing Ethiopia's freelance operation into Somali territory. It is mystifying why these latecomers, with their suspicious agenda, are allowed to spoil the admirable job of the Ugandan and Burundian AMISOM troops, considering the fact that these two countries' leaders have repeatedly expressed their readiness to provide more troops if requested.

The conference agreed that the Transitional Federation Institutions (TFIs) must end in August of this year. This is understandable since TFIs have been ineffective and dysfunctional since their formation. However, the irony is how the communiqué also welcomes the agreements, such as the Transitional Federal Charter (TFC) and the current mystifying Roadmap, which have been established as the main factors that caused the TFIs' disastrous failure.

The TFC, for instance, imposes a federal system that, although ideal in many multi-ethnic countries, is a devilishly monumental task, if not impossible, in one ethnic nation-state, no matter how some of our leaders and their domestic and foreign cheerleaders argue otherwise. In Somalia's current environment, which is full of grievances, hostility and mistrust, federalism would be nothing but an institutionalized tribalism, plunging the country into more violence.

The conference called the international community to "support any dialogue between Somaliland and the TFG or its replacement." This is ambiguous, to say the least. What is the relationship between TFG and Somaliland leaders? Are they leaders of a central government and a regional one, as TFG leaders entertain, or leaders of two neighbouring countries, as the Somalilanders assert. What is the role of the recently crowned Puntland and soon-to-be-crowned Galmudug "states" in this dialogue?

According to the communiqué, the conference agreed "to incentivise progress and act against spoilers to the peace process." This is clearly a vague statement, as there is no indication on how to determine the spoilers. For instance, would the leaders who oppose the deeply flawed agreements (i.e. TFC and Roadmap) be considered spoilers, or the international community's friendly leaders who are speeding to implement these agreements? Are the Ethiopian and Kenyan leaders, who are engaged in fishing expedition, solving one problem while creating many more, also treated as spoilers?

One disturbing question is related to the eye-souring presence of four "Somali presidents" at the conference. When TFG executive leaders authorize Ethiopian/Kenyan forces' military operation in the country, why is their endorsement considered an act of a legitimate federal government, but such status is denied to them to represent Somalia in the conference? After all, the larger, multi-ethnic Ethiopian federation is represented by its prime minister.

It is now established that the U.S. dual-track policy on Somalia has produced conceivably unintentional disaster, resulting an explosion of mini-states that have undermined even the relatively peaceful areas in Somaliland and Puntland. Sadly, the communiqué, as I read it, is the same policy dressed differently. It focuses on an all-out war against Islamist militants, and invites new regional or local tribal warlords to join in the campaign.

I hasten to add that some of the TFG and other authorities are genuine nationalists with an impeccable integrity, but most are heartless, ruthless, rapacious individuals who use violence as an enduring profitable project. As Professor Ken Menkhaus righty says, "What we (the international community) see as threats and crisis – humanitarian emergencies, state collapse, armed conflict, piracy and Islamic extremism – the Somali political elite views as opportunity."

Perhaps one of the most painful ironies ordinary Somalis are constantly witnessing is the international community aggressively handling militant Islamists while entertaining tribal militants. Certainly, Islamist militants are a threat to Somalia, the region and the world. But so are tribal extremists with their hideous ideology rooted in hostility, exclusion and injustice. They are not only fuelling the violence, they are also the stumbling block to Somalia`s nation-state building. More importantly, they are the very cause that lends groups like al-Shabaab a reason for existence.

The upside

Despite this somber assessment, I still believe that, at least symbolically, the conference has been successful in many important aspects. The conference was, as British Prime Minister David Cameron rightly said, "the largest and most influential gathering that has ever come together" on Somalia. It was the first of its kind attended by powerful Muslim countries such as Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the first attended by elected Somaliland leaders. And most importantly, the conference moved Somalia's crisis out of hostile corners of Africa into the center stage of world politics.

Although these positive aspects of the conference are significant in many ways, they are not a substitute for a bold, balanced and fair policy alternative to end the tragedy in Somalia – a tragedy that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called "a test for civilization and contemporary values." Whether the international community will pass such a test in its June Istanbul conference remains to be seen.

Said Liban "SONNA" is a freelance writer who can be reached at