Inside Somalia: When will it improve?

Editor's note: Somalia defines the term failed state. This GlobalPost series includes accounts of being under fire in Mogadishu and on guard duty with African Union peacekeepers, an investigation into the Al Shabaab rebels and a look at Somalia's revered poetry.

NAIROBI, Kenya — An entire generation of Somalis have grown up knowing nothing but war
and death, and still the cycle goes on.

The United Nations and Unites States led wrong-headed peacekeeping missions in the 1990s that left them with body bags and burnt fingers.

Today the U.S. restricts itself to arm’s length meddling — alternately backing clan warlords and then Ethiopia’s invading army, or launching cruise missiles and at least one special forces assassination squad, or sending shipments of weapons to a country already awash with guns.

For its part the U.N. watches, spends a little money on the current African Union peacekeeping force (AMISOM) but refuses to send in its own blue helmets until there is, as the secretary-general put it, a peace to keep.

That won’t be any time soon.

The current Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has U.N. support, meaning its president and emissaries are recognized by many states but it is not a government in any real sense of the word. Barricaded into a hilltop presidential villa it provides no services to its people, not even security, and certainly not healthcare or education.

Its president, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, was voted in by fellow parliamentarians, not ordinary Somalis, so he has no popular mandate.

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the U.N. special representative for Somalia, recently asserted that the country had now moved “from failed state to fragile state,” but there’s little evidence to support such progress.

On a recent visit to the capital, Ould-Abdallah and a couple of other dignitaries donned flak jackets before racing through the streets in armored vehicles to greet the president. They left hurriedly before the Al Shabaab insurgents could mortar the airport as they often do when bigwigs are in town.

Weary observers of the two-decade-old crisis point out that 13 peace conferences spawned failed governments before this one was installed.

The best way to get an invite to the internationally funded meetings in posh African hotels was to assemble a militia with a few "technicals" and kill your way to a seat at the table. Many of these expensive affairs looked more like a warlords’ shindig than a serious peace-making effort.

Every previous government has collapsed and with the continued insistence on an externally brokered top-down peace process this government may also be doomed to failure.

Some advocate leaving Somalia to the Somalis to fix themselves. Certainly foreign influence and intervention has often done more harm than good.

Last year Hillary Clinton gave another example of the flip-flopping foreign policy postions that have proven more damaging than constructive for Somalia. In Nairobi last year she called Ahmed’s administration, “the best hope we’ve had for quite some time for a return to stability and the possibility of progress in Somalia.”

If only the U.S. had thought that three years earlier when it backed Ethiopia to drive Ahmed's Islamic Courts Union (ICU) out of Mogadishu. The grassroots movement, of which Ahmed was a key leader, and Al Shabaab, the armed wing, briefly pacified the country in 2006.

If they had been left alone the country might be at peace now. But back then, through the lens of George W. Bush’s "war on terror," the Shariah-based ICU had to be shut down.

Of course the killing must be stopped which means more peacekeepers must be deployed and the government’s own forces must be trained and given enough backbone to defeat Al Shabaab.

Since 2006 Al Shabaab has evolved into a particularly nasty group of extremists with a penchant for Koranic interpretations that lead them to chop off hands and feet of convicted thieves and to stone to death those found guilty of adultery, including rape victims.

Al Shabaab also periodically proves itself as ridiculous as it is brutal by banning musical ringtones, bras and PlayStations. At times it can be quite stunningly childish: Everyday the Ugandan spokesperson of the peacekeeping force receives text messages and crank calls from men and women shouting foul-mouthed threats in mangled English and Somali.

GlobalPost caught up with the president of Somalia, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, late last year in Chicago:

It would be laughable if so many people were not dying everyday as a result of the constant deadly battles between Al Shabaab on one side and the Transitional Federal Government and African Union peacekeepers of AMISOM on the other.

Defeating Al Shabaab is a necessity and inviting in or buying off its less extreme allies would weaken it. Once the government has a monopoly of force in the territory the real work can begin, of carefully building a consensus from the bottom up using existing traditional and clan structures.

There’s a small-scale model for how this can work in Somaliland, a breakaway northern region that declared independence in 1991 and went through torturous years that appear to have succeeded in building sustainable peace and stability.

Reconstituting Somali society would be a deathly slow process and it requires an acknowledgement that there is no quick fix. But the alternative is the current brutality and that cannot be allowed to continue.

Inside Somalia: The series

Life in hell: under fire in Mogadishu

Peacekeeping: on the ground with African Union forces

Al Shabaab: a glimpse into the Islamic extremist group

A nation of poets: poetry is a political tool as powerful as the gun