Foreign powers look to their own interests in Somalia

Western efforts to stabilise Somalia are really all about controlling piracy and terrorism which trouble the West, not helping the country's long-suffering people.

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The latest effort to bring stability to Somalia after 20 years as a failed state has begun with some promising words. In advance of the international conference held in London yesterday, the British prime minister, David Cameron, said that Somalia deserves a "second chance". Somalia's transitional prime minister, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, said the country was "moving from an era of warlordism, terrorism, extremism and piracy".

The question remains whether good intentions can actually revive a country that is divided into fiefdoms controlled by warlords and the armies of neighbouring states.

The unfortunate truth is that Somalia is still viewed by the western powers primarily as a security issue, comprising piracy and terrorism.

Piracy is still a major problem. Foreign navies operating off the Somali coast are increasingly successful in deterring pirates, while many merchant ships now have security details that can fight off attacks. But the cost of these measures to the global economy is estimated at $7 billion (Dh26 billion) a year.

Ransom payments are a tiny part of that, $160 million, since these expensive security measures have reduced the number of successful attacks. This has forced the pirates to roam ever farther from the shores of Somalia in search of unprotected prey.

Captured pirates have generally been tried in the Seychelles (population 90,000) because of fears that Somalis would claim asylum if landed in Europe, particularly Britain. Already one in five prisoners in the Seychelles is Somali.

But under new agreements reached with the two breakaway regions of the north, Somaliland and Puntland, convicted pirates will soon be serving their sentences on Somali soil.

The establishment of a judicial "conveyor belt" to try suspected pirates in a foreign country and then imprison them in their homeland is a good story to tell. But increasingly the dominant western concern in Somalia is terrorism. There are said to be 50 Britons - including some of Somali extraction - undergoing jihadist training in Somalia. This issue has been rising up the list of British security priorities. International volunteers are said by British intelligence to include men from the US, Canada, Europe and East Africa.

The Al Shabab militia which controls large parts of southern Somalia has given these fears a boost by declaring it has "merged" with Al Qaeda. What this means in practice is not clear. Most likely the announcement was intended as a morale boost to the troops at a time when the militia is retreating before the African Union peacekeeping force known as Amisom. The UN Security Council has just agreed to raise its strength from 12,000 to more than 17,000 soldiers. It has driven Al Shabab out of the old capital Mogadishu and more recently from the port of Baidoa.

The US has increased its drone strikes on Al Shabab over the past year, and Britain has considered helicopter assaults on their training camps and "logistical hubs", according to news reports.

At a time when the armies of Ethiopia and Kenya are occupying border areas, and the mainly Ugandan soldiers of Amisom are in control of the capital, and US drones are circling overhead, it is not hard for Al Shabab to construct a narrative of rapacious non-Muslim powers carving the country up. In this light, the Seychelles, with 100 Somali prisoners in its jails, looks like a mini-Guantanamo Bay.

Whatever the tactical success of the African Union troops, and however many militants the drones kill, this will not revive Somalia. Even if Al Shabab were weakened by desertions and internal feuds, another bunch of cutthroats is likely to take their place. Without a credible government capable of working within the confines of the Somali system, not much is going to change.

The weak link is the Transitional Federal Government, installed by foreign powers in 2004. Western patience has clearly run out with this discredited group that exists only thanks to the military support of the African Union force. No proud Somali can really support a foreign-installed "government" that has no hope of controlling the country's borders.

There is now an active search for a replacement for this failed transitional government. Doing this by democratic means - elections and referendums - seems an impossible task at the moment.

Alex de Waal, a veteran Africa expert at Tufts University, offers a different view. Instead of Somalia's neighbours and the western powers picking weak governments, why not empower the Somalis themselves?

In the north of the country, Somaliland functions reasonably well on the basis of a dynamic business sector and the country's traditional values, the clan system and Islam. "Neither Somaliland nor Puntland is internationally recognised, they don't get official foreign aid or military cooperation. But they have done pretty well relying on themselves," Dr de Waal writes.

This idea runs counter to the western security agenda: the US is more focused on combating terror than nation-building. And with the Olympic Games taking place in London this summer, the British government sees an urgent need to neuter the jihadist threat wherever it is.

So long as the security agenda is the prime mover in western policy - and there are some reasons for that to be the case - creating a functioning society that will allow Somalia to take its place among the world's nations will take second place.

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