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Progress and fear in post-transition Somalia

24 August 2012 - Saferworld

Somalia’s transitional government came to an end on 20 August when a new government and parliament were sworn in. Major challenges to their legitimacy lie ahead – as well as fears of instability spilling over from Ethiopia – but the inauguration of the new parliament nonetheless marks a significant milestone in Somalia’s recovery.

Somalia has lacked a stable and effective central government since the start of civil war in 1991, so the establishment of a new 275-member parliament is a hopeful sign of progress in the long UN-backed transition process. There are a number of reasons for cautious optimism. For one, the new parliament does not include any warlords after the Technical Selection Committee (TSC) successfully excluded them and anyone else suspected of committing human rights abuses. This was a move strongly welcomed by all Somalis.

The new parliament is also smaller than its predecessor, with over 60% of its members newly appointed and a good number of them highly educated. Involving the traditional elders in national state-building processes has been a positive development and there are now discussions about the establishment of a new house of elders similar to the one already established in Somaliland. This would be a positive development if implemented.

Against expectations, the timeline of the transitional roadmap also seems to have been broadly kept. With the new parliament in place, the new speaker and his two deputies to be elected on 26August, and the presidential election on 30August, overall public feeling is positive. Improved security in and around Mogadishu is another positive development boosting public confidence.

However, some major challenges also lie ahead. A key one is the credibility of the new parliament and government if any of the old political leaders come back to power. The Prime Minister and the Speaker are both in the new parliament and vying for the Presidency, but these leaders have already been accused of manipulating the traditional elders during the selection of new members of parliament, and manipulating the Technical Selection Committee (TSC) through threats to its members over disqualification. There are also quite a number of familiar faces from previous governments among new members of parliament, and the 30 percent gender quota has not been respected as some clans have failed to add many women to their list of parliamentarians. As a result, many Somalis unsurprisingly have doubts about how different the new parliament will be from previous ones.

There are also strong fears in Mogadishu that if President Sharif loses the presidential election, the security situation will get worse as he mobilises his power base. Over the last few weeks Sharif has made promotions in the army and the police and established new districts and regions – against the spirit of the new constitution – creating a new power struggle between him and the cabinet. He has also released over 200 Al-Shabaab suspects from prisons without court decisions and there are reports that he distributed guns to his clan militias.   

On top of this, there is wide public scepticism about the new Draft Provisional Constitution, which many feel exacerbates all sorts of problems and political dynamics. These include social fragmentation and conflicts from secession or separation, foreign claims over Somali territory, the primacy of international laws over Somalia laws, and long-term foreign military occupation. However, there are high expectations among the public that the new parliament will revisit the Draft Provisional Constitution for harmonisation.

None of these challenges are insurmountable, but addressing them must be part of the immediate priorities of the new government. 

The recent death of Ethiopia’s leader Meles Zenawi adds further potential for destabilisation, with Al-Shabaab reacting to his death with unconcealed joy. Zenawi had closer links with Somalia than any other Ethiopian leader, living in Mogadishu during the regime of Mengistu Hailmariam in Addis Ababa and leaving Mogadishu only a few months before Said Barre’s regime collapsed. Ethiopia’s information minister has stated in an interview with the BBC that his government’s policy towards Somalia will not change, meaning no immediate withdrawal of Ethiopian troops. However, there are fears in both Mogadishu and in East Africa of a political uprising in Ethiopia that would almost certainly change things for the worse in Somalia. Ethiopian troops currently control parts of Bay, Bakool and Gedo regions where they dislodged Al-Shabaab. Transitional government forces in those areas are no match on their own for Al-Shabaab militia. Similarly, Kenyan forces in the south and Ugandan and Burundian forces in and around Mogadishu are unlikely to be able to contain Al-Shabaab alone. Zenawi’s death conjures up a depressing set of possibilities.

The hope among many Somalis is as much for stability in Ethiopia as constitutional progress in their own country.

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Many Somalis unsurprisingly have doubts about how different the new parliament will be from previous ones

Saferworld, on Somalia