Somalia: peace? or more war?

My eye was caught by the headline 'Talks open' between Govt, Hizbul Islam faction and the possibility of peace in a country that has suffered 18 years of war. That report, and a subsequent one: Somali Peace Negotiations Continue With Hard Line Islamic Insurgents, focused on the difficulties: engrained conflict, personal rivalry, some factions outside the discussions, and the weakness of the Somali government.

The position is at least as complex as, and seems superficially similar to, the conflict in Southern Sudan with multiple armed groups, fighting one another as well as the national government, with more or less legitimate sub-regions within Somalia resisting central control, and interference from external powers.

At the start of any negotiation the impossibility of success is always uppermost. The differences are well known. Possible starting points for discussion, never mind areas of co-operation, are unknown and seem insubstantial. An assassination attempt against the interior minister won't help.

But two things in particular leapt out as warnings. First, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, Somalia's new president was told to enter talks as a condition of the African Union's $18million grant towards rebuilding the country. In itself this is not enough for failure: to have to do something can be useful within your own faction to enable you to do something unpalatable but necessary.
What's more worrying is Kenya's engagement in Somalia. It has apparently taken over tax collection for the Somali government nominally to prevent Islamist warlords profiting.

... This categorization of "warlords" implies that every political entity outside President Sheikh Sharif's camp is considered a warlord by the Kenyan government. Unfortunately, the reality in Somalia is that there are long-established and functioning sub-states – i.e. Somaliland and Puntland – as well as vast territories controlled by Islamist factions, who are overtly anti-President Sheikh Sharif.

If the original intention was to cut off financial support from Islamist rebels, then unfortunately the opposite might become true with Kenya' s tax collection scheme. The number one product airlifted from Kenya to Somali airports is the leafy narcotic drug khat, which is consumed widely across Somalia. If khat traders are taxed by Kenyan authorities, then it is likely that they will be taxed for a second time by authorities in Somaliland or Puntland, or Islamist groups in major cities like Kismayo.

For the Islamists, it will become a win-win situation – because they despise khat and have banned its sale inside major towns. For political realities, like Somaliland and Puntland, regions which are considered part of Somalia under international law, then it is another reminder that the international community does not value the "building blocks" strategy that has thus far saved northern Somalia from the political anarchy and self-destruction of the south-central regions.

The Ethopians were forced to leave by violent opposition. The AU, despite a natural reluctance, say they will put in more troops to guard key installations (from Uganda and Burundi) - notably ports and airports where taxes can easily be levied. The Kenyans, whether in their own right or badged as an AU force, will need to put troops on their neighbour's ground if they are to be tax-collectors.

The Kenyans also seem to be making a grab for some of Somalia's territorial waters by an agreement which will allow it greater area than a stronger neighbour would permit under the current UN Commission on the limits of the Continental shelf process.

The Americans will also be faced with a series of challenges. They regard some of Somalia's armed groups as Islamicist terrorists, sources of training and supporters of international terrorism, and not without reason. But they may have to balance the need for national stability - achieved (if it can be achieved at all) through acceptance of the politicial reality of Islamic building blocks - against their desire to crush the threat from terrorism.

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