Surrealism was alive and well at last week’s London Conference on Somalia. Reading Annex B of its final recommendations, which listed ‘Principles for Support to the Somali Security and Justice Sectors’, meant going through the looking glass and entering an Unreal Kingdom of Limitless Virtue hosting some dubious tricks by the Queen of Hearts. The first principle was ‘to be Somali and citizen-owned’. An excellent principle indeed, but strangely adhered to by the conference’s organisers who had limited the Somali delegations to three members, coddled their favourites, dismissed the others, written the conclusions before the Conference had been held and prepared the speech the Transitional Federal Government’s Prime Minister was supposed to deliver (he tried half-heartedly to disobey but British Ambassador Matt Baugh left him with little option).
The Somali are a difficult and quarrelsome people so London ensured they were left with little choice but to comply with what it had decided they should ‘own’. So their ownership was by default. The second principle was that their support should be ‘context specific and realistic’. That specific realism was then exemplified by a twenty-five point final communiqué studded with ‘we recognise the need’, ‘we condemn terrorism’, ‘we emphasise the urgency’, ‘we acknowledge the good work’, ‘we reiterate our determination’, ‘we welcome the efforts’ and assorted buckets of pious verbal porridge . The regal ‘we’ predominated but the event did not feel very Somali. Or perhaps it was ‘Somali-owned’. By default, one could guess. The one and only concrete measure announced in the entire final communiqué was the creation (point eight) of a Joint Financial Management Board, namely an international committee to oversee the accounts of the Somali ‘government’ in the hope of containing its massive corruption. The same annex proclaimed the need to ‘build on existing structures’ to make them ‘appropriate, accountable and adequate’. Buthow? The communiqué remained prudently silent on which structures were to be used and on how they would be made to produce the wonderful results expected of them. After a nod towards the need to ‘respect and promote human rights and the rule of law’, a worthy ambition perhaps not quite ‘context specific and realistic’ in the present situation, the apex of this wish list was found in the final ‘principle’: reflect the political reality. Which leaves the neutral observer speechless. This after not a single aspect of the political reality has been examined, analyzed or even mentioned. Without referring to the fact that the military forces ‘winning’ the war against the Shebab are entirely foreign (Ugandan, Burundian, Ethiopian, Kenyan and even American); that the Somali ‘government’ has no legitimacy, no money, no civil service, no troops and no sense of ridicule; that there are no mechanisms in sight to try enlisting the support of the population in the fight against the Islamists; that the self-organizing entities running from a fully operating state (Somaliland) to tottering hopeful constructions (Galmudug) by way of shaky but serviceable scaffolding (Puntland) are not even taken into account. After all this we are asked to perceive this flimsy magical construction as a realistic ‘reflection of political reality’! And in addition one in which ‘the Somali’ are supposed to ‘own’ this void and treat it as a solid rock on which to build their hopes. So far, since 1993, there have been fourteen conferences in which the same sickness had been examined and treated with the same medicine: the (re)building of a centralized state. The London Conference had been mooted as one where a new approach would be taken and this has indeed proved to be true: we have retreated from an honest – even if misinformed – effort at (re)building a state which Somali culture had never essentially embraced, to a much worse position: preaching in the desert the value of uninformed neo-imperialism. Because we should not deceive ourselves: behind the Mad Hatter’s tea party with the March Hare, some harder, rougher realities are taking shape:
- The African Union forces will keep ‘taking the lead in any conflict’, meaning that African mercenaries will keep saving white soldiers from having to die in yet another godforsaken war with Islamists.
- The TFG is impotent and corrupt but we’ll keep supporting it because it is the only thing we know and they have to eat out of our hand anyway. It makes them tamer than the rest.
- The joint Financial Management Board will look after our pennies and minimize the level of theft. It is easier than handling local Somali-based administrations.
- The one thing we are scared of is Islamist Terrorism. So although we’ll do nothing to deal with its roots and causes, we’ll try to contain its dreadful consequences.
- Piracy costs us too much money. So we’ll keep spending much more on fleets to contain it than we do on Somalia itself.
- We will not – repeat will not – work with and try to develop local self-administered entities even though they are the only ‘Somali-owned’ structures that exist. The reason is very simple: we don’t understand them and their logic is Somali-based, not ‘international community’-based .
All this amounts to one thing: the days when the international community really expected that some sort of a real government could be conjured out of a clan salad are gone. To face an incomprehensible anthropological situation, the ‘Internationals’ are going back to the old basics of imperialism: guns, money and polite natives. It is rough but it is not deliberate policy; it is merely the last resort after western diplomatic niceties have run their course having failed to achieve any discernible result. The notion that a Somali-specific solution could be tried died in London. Welcome to the new House of Mirrors. After all, it is only the fifteenth Somali conference and the Turks are eagerly preparing the upcoming sixteenth one! Somalia has now become a cottage industry, one guaranteed a long future.