Amid the flurry of international concern over the European economic crisis, the American elections, the controversy surrounding Iran and the fallout from the Arab spring, it is important not to ignore Somalia. There is a rare opportunity taking shape there that deserves international support.
The crisis in Somalia poses a danger not only to the Horn of Africa, but also to the security and economies of the world. Almost 50% of the world's maritime trade passes through the region, and the Somalian coast extends for 3,000 kilometres, from the straits of Aden to the Indian Ocean. Attacks by pirates cost the world economy more than $7bn annually, making the Somali crisis an international one.
The Horn of Africa has become the military theatre with the widest array of international forces after Afghanistan. The US, China, Russia, Nato and the EU all maintain naval forces in the region to combat piracy. On the ground Ethiopian and African Union forces are mostly focused on safeguarding key locations in the capital, Mogadishu, and fighting al-Shabaab mujahideen in the south of the country.
Despite the complexity of the Somali problem, there have been several important developments in the past two months. The first was the drafting of a new constitution for the country; then there was the appointment of 275 members to parliament, whose formation all the clans agreed upon. That was followed by the dissolution of the transitional federal government, often described as weak and corrupt. On 10 September, the parliament elected a new president with a majority vote of 190 in a historic meeting that showed signs of national unity for the first time in many years.
Last week I met a number of Somali politicians and activists in Mogadishu and came away with the impression that there was widespread optimism among the people after the election of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as president. Now in his 50s, he is a former chancellor of the University of Somalia and has no record of political strife. Instead, he is known for his extensive work within civil society and for his efforts to bring about national reconciliation.
The president is convinced of the need to rid Somali politics of clan loyalties, even though he belongs to the Hawiye, the largest clan in the country. Meanwhile, Mogadishu is enjoying a climate of relative calm, especially after al-Shabaab withdrew its forces from the city. Immediately after the new president was elected, they tried to assassinate him by detonating a car bomb. Some of their cells are still active in Mogadishu, except that their ability to hold territory has suffered setbacks. The African Union forces continue to launch military operations against their strongholds, the last of which is the city of Kismayo, from which they have now withdrawn. On a regional level, the death of the Ethiopian president, Meles Zenawi, has restored hope for a more balanced relationship with Addis Ababa. Zenawi was never liked by the Somalis. He cemented fears among them of Ethiopia's imperial ambitions, especially after its recurrent military interventions in Somalia.
I met Mohamud in his office in the presidential palace in Mogadishu. Naturally, there was nothing about it to suggest that it was presidential, or a palace. Some call it Villa Somalia. It is ensconced in a fortified military compound guarded by Ugandan and Somali forces. Within it are located most of the state agencies. It is a target of constant mujahideen attacks.
It was very clear that the president is conscious of the enormous responsibility that rests on his shoulders: a state without institutions; a government without resources; a society torn apart by vicious wars; and perplexing regional and international intervention. Despite all this, he is still optimistic. His task in the immediate future is to form a national consensual government, one that will begin to build the organs of state as well as pursue a national reconciliation that will not exempt anyone, even al-Shabaab.
But his country lacks the means, as well as genuine support. The international approach to Somalia requires a thorough reassessment. It has been confined to two priorities - terrorism and piracy - and has caused a wide cross-section of Somalis to view the international effort as a foreign occupation. Terrorism and piracy are symptoms of more fundamental and greater problems: the persistence of conflict and the absence of an authentic state infrastructure.
At present the international community spends billions on ineffectual operations to secure commercial shipping against piracy. An equivalent amount is also spent on fighting armed groups and providing relief for people displaced by recurrent drought. But building a stable political system and establishing state infrastructure and an all-inclusive national reconciliation would be less costly and more beneficial for the region and the world.
New players must therefore be encouraged to advance these new priorities; especially countries with historical, cultural and religious ties with Somalia. The Arab Gulf states with their vast financial resources can fulfil this role. As for post-revolution Egypt, it enjoys extensive respect among Somalis. This makes it possible for Egypt to exert significant influence towards reconciliation. The same applies to Turkey, which has a visible presence in Mogadishu through the projects initiated after the visit of its prime minister to the country last year. On the regional level, South Africa can also play a major role in the forthcoming period.
Much of the international effort has gone to waste in the past because of a lack of co-ordination, different agendas and discordant motives. The suggested path, one that focuses on state building and national reconciliation, does not contradict present efforts; it only complements them. The sensitivities of the various international parties must not prevent them from seizing this moment. Somalia today stands at the threshold of a new era. It needs effective regional and international support for its stability, territorial integrity and the security of its people.
We must not miss this opportunity. If we do, the Somali conflict will infect many neighbouring countries like a virus and increase tensions in the Horn of Africa. Ultimately, global security and economic interests would suffer more setbacks and a deeper crisis.