Somalia is justly regarded as one of the poorest and most backward places in the world the quintessential failed state. No wonder: the East African country has endured one of the longest periods of anarchy in modern history, now in its fourteenth year.
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During this period, it has also seen the same number of peace agreements and the latest of these, signed in neighbouring Kenya on 29 January 2004, may just offer Somalis long-suffering people their best chance of security for many years.
But the history of these difficult years explains why caution rather than hope is the dominant sentiment at present for many Somalis.
Two steps forward, one step back
The origins of the feuding lie in the events of 26 January 1991 when, after twenty-one years dictatorial government in Somalia, President Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown by armed rebel movements. The situation soon went out of control after the armed factions that toppled the regime failed to restore law and order. Inter-clan fighting erupted between the rebel groups and plunged the country into both chaos and humanitarian catastrophe, which killed 500,000 people.
As a result of widespread famine, the United States government and the United Nations sent more than 22,000 troops into Somalia in 1992. Their mission was to safeguard the relief convoys being sent to the hungry. Although the mission succeeded in keeping people alive, it failed to convince the armed rebel leaders to silence their guns and establish an inclusive administration.
The next years saw the humiliating withdrawal of the international forces and a resumption of internecine warfare between the factions. More than a dozen conferences have been held with no decisive result. Now, the warlords have reached a peace deal for the fourteenth time. With the mediation of neighbouring East African countries, 42 Somali politicians involved in year-long discussions in Nairobi, Kenya have pledged to form a new government.
These factions have also agreed the formation of a parliament, trimmed down from 351 to 275 members after criticism from the international community that the current Somalia could not afford such a large number of deputies.
According to the result of the Kenya negotiations, clan elders and politicians from the various factions will soon choose members of the new parliament. This parliament will then elect a president who in turn will appoint a prime minister. The proposed government will have a five-year transitional period to restore law and order and prepare for elections.
Two features of this plan mark a notable break with the past. First, 12% of the parliamentary seats have been allocated specifically to women. Here, there is evidence of some progress against the odds. For centuries, Somali women have been severely under-represented in the fields of politics and social organisation; working in the family household was seen as the sole way they could contribute to society.
Under the Siad Barre regime between 1969 and 1991, only two women held ministerial and sub-ministerial positions (and then only briefly). The 177-member Somali national parliament contained only four women in this period, while the 38-member central committee of the ruling Somali Revolutionary and Socialist Party (SRSP) accommodated just one woman.
Second, a crucial difference from previous agreements is that the competing sides have agreed to operate a federal system, to come into effect in two years time. This was the key demand of the autonomous north-east region of Somalia known as Puntland, and exiled politicians from the republic of Somaliland in the north-west which in 1991 declared independence from the rest of the country.
The root of their territorial claims partly lies in the colonial period; Puntland is part of the Somali territory colonised by Italy, while Somaliland is a former British protectorate. These two neighbouring regions have a border dispute of their own, one of many time-bomb issues waiting for any future pan-Somali administration.
The leaders of Somaliland vehemently dismissed the talks in Nairobi and insisted that their independence is irreversible. Since 1991, they have failed to gain international recognition, despite commanding the sympathy of many international observers. A British parliamentary delegation recently paid its first visit to Somaliland.
There were further problems in the wake of the peace agreement; less than two weeks after its signature, some of the major signatory groups were reviewing their assent. Even if they can agree to reassemble, the disputing political factions must still enter the final phase of negotiations, which would deal with the thorny issue of power-sharing. Somali politicians who, in the last fifty years, have developed the attitude of winner takes all into a fine art will find it difficult to reach a compromise.
At the same time, on 18 February hundreds of civil society and peace activists marched through the streets of the capital, Mogadishu, in support of the talks. The demonstrators included school students, womens groups, religious groups, youth organisations, inhabitants of Mogadishus sixteen districts, sports club members, and Somali national artists groups. Many of their representatives expressed great hopes that a government of national unity representing all Somali people will be formed.
The virtual state
This demonstration is one example of the way that in significant respects, Somali people are ahead of their leaders. For although Somalis have found it difficult to reach an agreed political basis for their national community, among the many paradoxes of this East African country is that peoples use of the latest technological advances exceeds that of many other countries. Internet cafes, the latest mobile phones and digital communications are booming. It takes just £0.35 per minute to call from London to Mogadishu, the capital.
The telecommunication boom has transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Along with telecommunication service, thousands of smaller companies offer banking services such as money transfer, depositing and buying shares.
Money-transferring companies, in particular, have been the life-savers of many Somalis. Returnees from the Somali diaspora have made heavy investments in communication technology and a sophisticated financial system for the remittance of money to Somalia. Many of the estimated 2 million Somalis (from a population of around 8 million) living outside the country have found ways to communicate with and assist financially their next of kin living inside the homeland.
According to the UN, Somalis in the diaspora send an estimated $500 million to benefit as many as half of the Somali population inside the country who relate to them either as relatives, friends or just acquaintances.
The Somali money transfer business known as hawala (sent) is mainly based on trust. No receipts, no paper work and no hassle. One only needs to go to a remittance office in London or another major city where Somalis live to send money anywhere in Somalia.
The countrys gradual exposure to globalisation means an open invitation to western gateway companies such as AT&T, Nortel, France Telecom, Ericsson and others; they employ thousands of people in a country where jobs are otherwise almost non-existent.
It is partly this mixture of functioning economic and technological processes alongside social disintegration that makes the Somali experience so bitter. For though in the eyes of the world Somalia may be dismissed as a failed state, to Somalis themselves the corrosion of political trust has had a huge psychological as well as social cost: it represents the loss not just of everyday security, but of a generation of young people deprived of education who have gone wild.
Who can Somalis trust?
This is where political progress becomes not just an attractive aspiration but a social necessity. The Nairobi breakthrough if it proves to be so in the longer term came only after a stormy intervention from the presidents of Uganda and Kenya, who warned the Somali factions that the international community was losing patience with them. Kenyas foreign minister, Kalonzo Musyoka, who was asked to chair the talks by the regional umbrella, the Inter-governmental Authority for Development (IGAD), had been very critical of the Somali factions and commented that the factions must get it right this time.
It is true that leading institutions of the international community want the Somali factions at the talks to concentrate on restoring stability. The representative of the European Union to the Somali talks, the Italian diplomat Carlo Ungaro, pledged to rally world financial and political support for the new Somali government once it takes office. A conference of donors is already being prepared.
But the role of the international community is itself ambiguous. The attitude of some foreign countries involved in the Somali peace process has shown evidence of conflicting interests. IGADs own record in mediating the Somalis discussions has been flawed since the chaos ignited in 1991. Ethiopia and Djibouti, neighbouring states, have sided with some Somali factions against others. The two main signatories of the agreement, the Transitional Government led by Abdilkassim Salat Hassan and the Somali Reconciliation and Restoration Council (SRRC), led by Abdullahi Yusuf (the president of Puntland), are supported by Djibouti and Ethiopia respectively. Both these states seek a government in Somalia that reflects its own perceived interests.
Ethiopia shares a territorial dispute with Somalia over the Ogaden region one created by Britain during the colonial era, and which led to war between the two countries in 1977-78; Djibouti, whose population is predominantly Somali, has always sided with Somalia in this dispute. Egypt, Italy, Yemen and Malaysia have also contributed to preserving the long-standing political stalemate in Somalia.
This is the reason that a third neighbouring country, Kenya, widely seen as impartial in the Somalia conflict, was chosen as moderator of the crucial talks. Kenya also hosts nearly half a million Somali refugees. Many of them are business people who have come to play a major role in the Kenyan economy.
The diplomatic and economical muscle of western states will be needed to push the implementation of this agreement. The African Union has proposed deploying African peacekeeping forces (excluding the regions governments) for being involved in the Somalia conflict. But any such deployment could still fail without the backing of wealthy countries with a well equipped and trained military.
A half-centurys mistrust and mismanagement is hard to overcome. But Somalis do share a Somali national identity and sense of belonging that can override the differences between them. The problems of accommodating these differences within a common institutional and political framework may be even greater in the age of proliferating small arms and landmines, and in conditions of great poverty; but the creative adaptation of Somali people in using new technologies shows that they will be able, if given the chance, to make a better country.