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Somalia: The Back-up Plan

February 13th, 2007
By Ken Menkhaus

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During a recent Senate subcommittee hearing on Somalia, Senator Russ Feingold posed a difficult but critical question to Assistant Secretary of African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer. What happens, he asked, if our best-case scenario in Somalia  – successful political dialogue between the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and Mogadishu-based opposition groups, producing a government of national unity – doesn’t work out? What’s our back-up plan?

Diplomats are paid to cajole protagonists in conflicts to “get to yes,” and not to entertain possibilities of failure, so it was understandable that Assistant Secretary Frazer opted not to dwell at length on the query.  Yet Senator Feingold’s question remains germane precisely because it acknowledges that prospects for successful dialogue and a more inclusive transitional government in Somalia are increasingly poor.  While we continue to work toward a best-case scenario, we must also be making contingency plans for less desirable outcomes.

The situation in southern Somalia today is clearly veering toward the less desirable. Mogadishu is tense and security is deteriorating.  The TFG leadership is present in Mogadishu but its capacity to provide even token administration over the capital, where its support is quite limited and tepid, is very weak.  Most of the population openly opposes the TFG, viewing it as a narrow clan coalition and a client of Ethiopia.  Armed violence – by revived criminal gangs, warlord militias, clan-based resistance to the TFG, and regrouping Islamist cells – is rendering most of the capital unsafe and anarchic. Attacks against the TFG and Ethiopian forces are increasing.  In a matter of weeks, this violence could coalesce into a full-fledged insurgency.

Worse, efforts to pressure the TFG leadership and opposition groups in Mogadishu into political dialogue have made little progress. Both the TFG and opposition leadership are to blame for intransigence.  The TFG leadership has taken a series of unhelpful steps – imposing martial law, calling for forcible disarmament of Mogadishu, removing the Speaker of Parliament,  and refusing to dialogue with moderate elements of the defunct Islamist movement –  seemingly designed to antagonize the opposition. The TFG shows every indication of wanting to impose a victor’s peace.  For their part, opponents of the TFG appear intent on rendering Mogadishu ungovernable as a means of blocking the TFG. Spoilers in this instance need not defeat the TFG outright, only play for a draw, allowing the clock to run out on the TFG’s remaining two and a half year mandate. 

Meanwhile, Ethiopia is withdrawing most or all of its forces from the capital in the near future, whether or not an African Union peacekeeping force for Somalia (AMISOM) can be mustered and deployed in time to replace them. African governments are leery of injecting forces into a clearly hostile environment in Mogadishu, and many observers openly doubt whether an effective force can be deployed in time.  Observers are equally worried that if AMISOM forces are deployed in the absence of genuine political dialogue, they will be viewed as non-neutral by the Mogadishu-based opposition and attacked. The African Union runs the real risk of being set up for failure in Somalia.

The most likely outcome of all this will be an Ethiopian redeployment out of Mogadishu followed by a quiet withdrawal of the TFG from the capital. South-central Somalia will revert to something akin to the status quo ante bellum of 2005 – a weak, Ethiopian-backed TFG in a provisional capital, facing opposition from a loose coalition of Mogadishu-based groups, in a context of de facto state collapse.  This would be a disastrous setback for the Somali people in general. But state collapse is an outcome that many constituencies, both in and out of Somalia, have learned to live with. Some of those actors may be concluding that renewed state collapse is a preferable alternative at this point in time. 

What, then, should be the contingency plan in response to renewed political paralysis and de facto state collapse? 

First, the international community must be prepared to do whatever it can to facilitate a “soft landing” for Mogadishu and surrounding areas. The city need not revert to warlordism and criminal anarchy. If local authorities can cobble together at least some elements of the administration they built in the capital – local (non-radical) sharia courts, a municipal authority, seaport and airport management, neighborhood watch groups – the city’s 1.5 million people could be spared from at least some of the rising levels of armed violence.  The city’s increasingly organized business community and civil society groups may be able to manage this soft landing.

Second, we need to consider possibilities for reviving and supporting those structures of the transitional federal institutions (TFIs) which are essential to the transition process, even if the TFG itself is non-functional as an administration.  The TFIs are assigned two main tasks – to provide governance in Somalia during the transitional period, and to advance and conclude the five year transition process.  We tend to assume that the first function is an essential precondition for the second, but a case can be made that a nonfunctional government can still guide the country through a successful transition.

The evidence for this claim is the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which just completed its post-war transition despite an almost completely paralyzed government during the transition. The DRC stumbled across the finish line in part because of a strong international commitment to supporting essential “clusters of competence,” such as the National Electoral Commission and key committees in Parliament considering essential laws relating to the constitution, the referendum on the constitution, and electoral policies.  If these vital transitional organs can be identified and kept on life support while the rest of the TFG is in a coma, Somalia would stand at least a chance of working its way out of  this long nightmare of state collapse.  The alternative – yet another transitional government, negotiated upon the expiration of the TFG’s mandate in 2009 – is almost unthinkable. Somalis deserve a better fate than death by transition. 

By  refocusing energies on advancing the transitional process, the international community would create a stronger incentive for TFG opponents and rejectionists to rejoin the political process, in order to have a hand in shaping critical constitutional provisions and electoral laws. This would privilege professional, technical expertise within the Somali community, de-emphasize the divisive issues of political control and cabinet appointments, and institutionalize political debates in committees and working groups. Even if efforts to complete the transition are brought down  by political impasse and spoilers, the exercise of working through the many technical details of transition could help build trust and expertise among the Somali professionals involved. That “non-perishable” body of experience and social capital could be useful as a base upon which the next iteration of transitional efforts can be built.

Ken Menkhaus is professor of political science at Davidson College and author of Somalia: State Collapse and the Threat of Terrorism.

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