Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | March 4, 2012

Somalia Update: Of Conferences and Cultural Relativity

Photo op’s will solve all the world’s problems

Just over a week ago there was a large conference in London on what to do about Somalia.  55 nations and international organizations were there, including big players:  the President of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Sharif Sheikh Ahmed; President Farole of Puntland; British Prime Minister David Cameron; U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.  Piracy and terrorism were on the table, but the real issue was that the TFG’s mandate is scheduled to run out in August…the “Transition” is to give way to something they’d like to call ‘permanence.’  Can anyone actually agree on what that is to look like and how to get there?  How does the problem of piracy fit in?  And what do the Somalis themselves think about it?  To gain some breadth, I read over two dozen articles from what I hoped would be very different media perspectives, including The New York Times, The Huffington Post, the U.K. Guardian, and two online newspapers from Somalia itself, and  My conclusion:  The only way Somalia can gain anything like stability is not by imposing foreign models but by creating something that meshes ALL of the cultural complexities of the region.  That means that the West has to acknowledge the central role of Islam and not paint all the followers of Islam as terrorists or potential terrorists.  Dear readers, please indulge me.  This does have to do with pirates.  More importantly, it has to do with how WE shape the world.

Garowe II

With the eminent–or at least theoretical–demise of the TFG, the London conference might be the biggest yet, but it is definitely not the first.  In December, a meeting in Puntland’s capitol, Garowe, produced the “Garowe Princliples,” and just days before the London conference there was a second meeting in Garowe.  Together, they call for a full constitution and a bicameral legislature.  The reaction of the Somali people to the Garowe meetings set the tone for any concept of progress:  doubt.  In an interview with, Professor Abdurahman A. Baadiyow, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Mogadishu University, stated that “there is deep suspicion of the mechanism and the process of implementing signed principles in Garowe.”  In short, the Somali people, having no particular trust in the status quo, have no reason to believe that those already in power can create a true and functioning Somali state.  It’s not even clear what is meant by “Somalia:”  Although Puntland is ready to join a united Somalia, Somaliland is standing firm for its own independence, even while their sovereignty goes unrecognized.  It was no surprise average Somalis weren’t holding their breath for any practical outcome of the London conference.

The most cogent reasoning for why the conference was doomed to accomplish nothing came from Alex de Waal, currently Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School of Tufts University, writing for the New York Times.  The assumption that European government will or should work in Somalia, he argues, is intrinsically flawed.  A central government may not be what Somalia needs or what Somalis want.  The worst wars in Somalia in fact took place when there was a central government under the dictator Mohammed Siad Barre.  De Waal stated, “Somali society has functioned for centuries without a state, on the basis of kinship, customary law and Islam.  These traditions survive.”  He pointed to both Somaliland and Puntland as semi-autonomous regions where the traditional approach has succeeded in a modern context.  Somali society’s three pillars have no analogues in the West, making it hard for the international community to even envision how a native-grown government would look.  The role of Islamic law as a moral means to civil order is the most difficult for us to appreciate in our era of global paranoia, in which Islam cannot even be thought of without also thinking of violence.  Westernized government via Western conferences is little more than a myth.  “After 25 years of getting Somalia wrong,” de Waal said, “there’s no easy way out of the imbroglio today.  There have been six fully fledged international peace conferences and 14 other major peace initiatives, as well as four foreign military interventions, and Somalia is no better off.  As designed, the meeting in London is fated to be just another one of those failures.”

The Prime Minister of Somalia’s TFG, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, and British Prime Minister David Cameron

Against all odds of success, the conference happened, and its existence and shape were inevitably British.  Somalia matters to the UK, not only because the British were once a colonial power there (what is now Somaliland) but also because, as an indirect consequence, they feel, oddly, that they have both the solution and the most to fear.  The age-old pride of the British Navy in dealing with pirates I have discussed before.  One day before the conference, the UN security council passed a UK-sponsored resolution to drastically increase the size of the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia (Amisom) to combat what the Guardian called “more than two decades of chaos.”  The same day, Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that, along with Interpol and the Dutch government, Britain would be funding an anti-piracy intelligence center in the Seychelles.  Underlying these actions is terror, best put into words by Prime Minister Cameron at the conference, quoted here at The Telegraph:  “Young minds are being poisoned by radicalism, breeding terrorism that is threatening the security of the whole world.  These problems in Somalia don’t just affect Somalia.  They affect us all.  If the rest of us just sit back and look on, we will pay a price for doing so.”  The heart of the fear is Somalia’s Islamic extremist group al-Shabaab, which recently made its affiliation with al-Qaida public.  The logic goes, if we are to believe Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens’ post to the UK Huffington Post, that the global network of al-Qaida and the Somali emigrant diaspora combine to make Somalia a direct threat to Britain and the world.  MI5 Director General Jonathan Evans was quoted in the UK Huffington Post as saying that it was “only a matter of time” before al-Shabaab at least ‘inspired’ terrorist attacks on the streets of Britain.  Consider the fact that the UK is about to host the Olympics.  Britain has dodged the idea of targeted drone airstrikes against al-Shabaab, but they have, to again quote the Guardian, “demanded that its politicians form a stable government.”  The British government feels backed up against a wall.  They hate that.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton

The United States doesn’t have quite the stake in–or ability to deal with–Somalia as Britain.  This almost excuses Hillary Rodham Clinton’s statement, quoted at the Huffington Post:  “The position of the United States is straightforward:  attempts to obstruct progress and maintain the broken status quo will not be tolerated….We will encourage the international community to impose further sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on people inside and outside the TFG who seek to undermine Somalia’s peace and security or to delay or even prevent the political transition.”  Let me make clear that I have respected Hillary Rodham Clinton for a long time, and I think she is a very capable Secretary of State.  But really this statement means little more than ‘move forward…or else.’  We have to do better than making threats.  This is the political equivalent of telling a kid that he’ll lose his allowance and get put on probation if he doesn’t get better grades at school.

Do all of the pronouncements actually mean anything at all, and, specifically, what about the pirates?   The “Final Communique” from the conference, in spite of 26 points, for the most part says little more than ‘we agree that we must agree.’  Only four of those points directly address piracy.  One states that “we agreed that piracy cannot be solved by military means alone, and reiterated the importance of supporting communities to tackle the underlying causes of piracy, and improving the effective use of Somali coastal waters through regional maritime capacity-building measures.”  This is a long way of saying that the conference at least understands that the root of piracy’s existence in Somalia must be dealt with, not just crime at sea, and that the long-term elimination of piracy must come from the Somali ability to police themselves.  I can’t disagree at all and personally welcome any statement that goes beyond a naval solution.  The Communique goes on to support “Best Management Practice on ships”–in other words, ships defending themselves.  An article from Reuters just before the conference made clear that mariners couldn’t agree more:  Ransoms and violence are going up, and “shippers say they must take matters into their own hands.”  The article went on to say, however, that private defense, if unregulated, could easily mean unnecessary violence against the pirates; even now there is essentially no way of knowing if private guards are killing pirates because they are under no legal obligation to report.  In terms of how to deal legally with captured pirates, the Communique states that, while trials must at least at present happen in other countries, convicted pirates should be imprisoned in Somalia itself.  This is a a long ways off:  Even Puntland does not yet have close to sufficient infrastructure.  Finally, the Communique states that the “kingpins of piracy” must be prosecuted.  By this I assume they mean men like Afweyne and Garaad.  The problem with this focus is that it does not take into account the small, temporary groups that make up most pirate activity, one of the main points in Jay Bahadur‘s book.  These four points are some of the most concrete in a document that is, as a whole, very lacking in actual direction or policy.  Yet, whether in terms of piracy or Somalia as whole, the Final Communique is not much more than one small step down a very long road.

Somalis listen to news from the London conference on a radio in Mogadishu, Somalia (from Voice of America).

Somali reactions to the conference included words like “uncertain” and “unconvinced.”  In an article for, Cabdi Aakhiro of Voice 4 Somalia put it this way:  “The conference is about 40 countries coming together discussing the Somalia issue, (but) what we feel is that Somalia is not part of it.  They are discussing their interests, not the Somali interests.”  Both Somalis and foreign analysts are especially concerned about the exclusion of the Muslim perspective and al-Shabaab specifically.  If Islamists are viewed as problems instead of actors and excluded from any dialogue, they are only further marginalized and thus more likely view war as the only means to their objectives.  Abukar Arman, Somalia Special Envoy to the United States, wrote for Middle East Online:  “Understandably, from the modern day military strategic perspective,you do not engage your enemy in a dialogue when they are at their weakest point (al-Shabaab has been on a losing streak for several months now).  However, this surely flies in the face of the Islamic perspective that keeps the space for dialogue and peace negotiation readily available for any group or nation ready to fill that space.  And this could trigger an internal backlash that could undermine the holistic peace process that the conference was to inspire.”  Even some British analysts are unconvinced that the conference really had the best interests of the Somali people in mind.  The BBC’s Mary Harper:  “There seems to be a bit of a contradiction in the final communique.  On the one hand, it states in bold type that decisions on Somalia’s future ‘rest with the Somali people.’  On the other it talks about outsiders taking some control of the government’s budget, with the establishment of a Joint Financial Management Board….It is also outsiders who have decided that the time for political transition is over; they even say they will ‘incentivise progress’ towards representative government.”

A simplified map of Somali clans

The London conference was only six hours long, so perhaps one should not expect more than broad statements of concern from world leaders.  Naturally, the next step is…more conferences!  Two are slated for June, one in Turkey and one in the UAE.  It is expected, or at least hoped, that the next meetings will move forward to actual implementation.  Yet we may have already started down the wrong path.  Back in October, 2011, Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society, questioned the very idea that Somalia should be a “state.”  “Strong centralized states are the legacy of colonial rulers.”  Dowden argued that the only time when southern Somalia saw any recent peace was, in fact, when the Islamic courts were in control in 2005.  He proposed a model in which nearly all power is held locally, with a national forum made up of clan leaders and others whose sole jurisdiction is national security and international diplomacy.  In a recent reaction to Dowden’s article, Mohamed Haji Ingriis, a Somali researcher studying in London, wrote that “since time immemorial, conflict over economic resources, pursued on the sole greedy basis of living a good life, has been inherent within Somali society; hence, state as a concept has become an ambivalent practice.”  Calling greed a core cultural value may sound harsh–tho’ it certainly sounds piratical–but consider the context:  The region has never been a rich one.  Whether one applies the “nomad” label or not, this is a landscape in which one must fight nature, and possibly your fellow man, simply for livelihood, much less wealth.  In such a place, clans are the means to group effort and identity, and Islam is the means to peace between them.  Neither the cultural concept of nation nor the official concept of state have much meaning except to those who wish to use one or both to achieve a position of dominance.

I am but a scholar with a blog about sailing and alcohol.  Yet my training in anthropology, combined with a sincere interest in current events and an idealistic desire to see as many of my fellow human beings as possible happy and not suffering, drives me to go beyond writing about pirates, whether historical or modern.  I started paying attention to Somalia because of pirates, but I am now concerned with how we, the Western world, are poised to impose a foreign ideology on a place where European models of government have indeed created the problems we are now trying misguidedly to solve.  I don’t pretend to have the answer.  I do worry that our own fear and pride are about to make matters worse, not better.


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