London and Istanbul Conferences on Somalia: Is the International Community Making the Same Old Mistakes?

“We can help get Somalia on its feet, we cannot do the running for it. […]
Our engagement with Somalia is not a luxury, it is a necessity.”
-William Hague, UK Foreign Minister

The year 2012 has been marked by two international conferences on Somalia, one in London on February 23rd and another one in Turkey, from 31st of May to 1st of June. Since the past 21 years of conflict in the Horn of Africa, over 14 international conferences have been held on Somalia without any major accomplishment. A lot of hope has been put on the London and Istanbul Conferences this year. However, despite the vast incorporation of the different parties in these conferences, it seems that no tangible achievements have been made.

In the 1990s, the failed missions of the United Nations (UNOSOM I and II) and the United States (Operation Restore Hope) contributed to a massive disengagement from the International Community (IC) from the Horn of Africa and from Africa in general. This led to incredible atrocities like the Rwanda genocide where USA refused to send troops to prevent it. The recent interest of IC on Somalia is more or less related to the terrorism threat. Effectively, the last 5 years has been characterized by a new interest on the conflict in Somalia[1]. In fact, despite the fact that IC failed to respond to the Somali crisis, we must accept that its growing interest in resolving the conflict is a positive change (even if it is not clean from political and economical interests).

The London Conference on Somalia has been much publicized and for few days, the entire world was giving attention to this conflict. This was an innovative conference since a lot of parties involved in the conflict were invited and the British have made some groundwork prior to the Conference[2]. Effectively, a lot of the important players attended the Conference including representatives from over 50 countries, from the Somali civil society; the independent parts of Somalia (Somaliland and Puntland); the Transitional Federal Government and some members of the Diaspora, etc. However, the major stakeholder, Al-Shabaab, was not represented as it is labelled as terrorist organization by most of the countries involved in the Conference.

But in the eyes of most of the Somali Diaspora, the five-hour Conference was just too short and not transparent. For them, it was the same old story and they still felt apart even if it is now common sense to refer to the important role of the Diaspora when it is time to talk about development promoters. The Diaspora of Minneapolis, one of the most important Somali communities, argued that the average Somali was completely left out of the Conference. Moreover, the conference still failed to make a remarkable achievement regarding the most critical debate on security[3].

Equally, even if the IC agreed in some points in order to improve the situation in Somalia, no active plan or concrete strategy has been elaborated for fostering long-lasting stability and the withdrawal of African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The final results of the Conference were more a brainstorm regarding the problems and their possible solutions than a concrete way to resolve the conflict.

The second Conference of this year on Somalia was held by Turkey at the beginning of June 2012. It was the second time Turkey held that kind of event regarding Somalia, the first being in 2010. In recent years, Turkey has come to play a very important role in Somalia’s conflict management and has been the first country to reopen an embassy in Mogadishu[4]. Sharing similar views on Islam than Somalia (Sufi Islam), Turkey launched a massive diplomatic and humanitarian involvement concerning the Somali conflict. The Istanbul Conference, organised on the theme: Preparing Somalia’s Future: Goal for 2015, attracted

[…]representatives from 57 countries and 11 international organizations as well as by the TFG leadership, the regional administrations, and representatives from wide-ranging segments of Somali society, including youth, women, business community, elders, religious leaders and the Diaspora[5].

The Conference noted that Somalia has been making a lot of progress recently in the way of stabilization and argued that this opportunity should not be missed since the TFG mandate is ending on August 20th 2012. Istanbul meeting then tried to settle some goals for 2015 in order to achieve the political reunification of the country by voting a new president and instituting a constitution. However, the situation on the ground remains particularly violent and precarious. Thus, it is thus difficult to envisage peaceful transition to a democratic regime in a war-torn country where the TFG itself is responsible of some of these violence.

In the end, a lot of issues have been left aside. It appears that IC is confined to a Westphalia way of thinking and cannot categorized state in other ways than between “failed” or “successful”. IC did not find a correct answer to the crisis in Somalia and now, it looks like it is more challenging to find a solution that can fit within the interests of all the stakeholders. Moreover, both Conferences left aside the agency of regional countries like Kenya, Ethiopia or Eritrea. As Mehmet Özkan commented, a pacific resolution of the conflict would not be possible if the regional balance of power is not re-established[6]. Additionally, most of the key analysts on Somalia and the Somalis feel that the most important voices have not been represented in the two international Conferences:

But for Mohamed, and many others in Tabda and similar towns, food remains scarce, health care is provided by aid workers, violence is a constant threat and London is very far away[7].

But the international interest on Somalia and efforts to change the situation may remain fruitless if we do not acknowledge the mistakes of the past. It appears international community is making the same mistakes it made in the past: forgetting local agency and dynamics. Most Somalis seems not to care much about piracy on a daily basis. Their main concern is on more pressing issues such as water, food and surviving violence[8]. It then appears illogical that they will support the international initiatives in the first place. As John Bainbridge argues:

The question now then is not if a Somali-led conception of ‘statehood’ can work, but rather if the international community is prepared to accept it, and then support and respect Somali-led decision-making and traditions[9]”.

The Somalia’s complex scenario raises more questions than answers: is the modern state model the best solution for Somalia? Is IC acting well by taking sides with the TFG? Or IC just supports the TFG because it failed to encounter any other viable alternative? What do you think?


[1] Shinn, David H. (2010): “Somalia and the International Community: Facing Reality,” 9th Horn of Africa Conference Focus on Somalia, Sweden, Remarks by David H. Shinn from Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.

[2] Harper, Mary (2012): “Will the London Conference Help Somalia?” BBC, available online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-17098108, (Consulted: June 24th, 2012).

[3] McGill, Douglas (2012): “Minnesota Somalis to Global Leaders: “Let Us Help Rebuild Our Country”,” The McGill Report, available online: http://www.mcgillreport.org/rebuild.html, (Consulted: June 24th, 2012).

[4] Al-Jazeera (2012): “Turkey Hosts Meeting on Somalia,” Al-Jazeera English, available online: http://www.aljazeera.com/video/europe/2012/05/201253162357945454.html, (Consulted: June 24th, 2012).

[5] Somaliland Press (2012): “Somalia: Istanbul II Conference on Somalia – Declaration,” Somaliland Press, available online: http://somalilandpress.com/somalia-istanbul-ii-conference-on-somalia-declaration-29813, (Consulted: June 24th, 2012).

[7] VOA (2012): “Somalis Unconvinced by London Conference,” Voice of America, available online: http://www.voanews.com/content/somalis-unconvinced-by-london-conference-140204183/159662.html, (Consulted: June 24th, 2012).

[8] Bainbridge, John (2012): “The Capacity for Peace Exists in Somalia, not in London,” Insight on Conflict, available online: http://www.insightonconflict.org/2012/02/somalia-conference/, (Consulted: June 24th, 2012).

[9] Ibid.

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