Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The End of the Transition?

Somalia's dilapidated parliament building

There's already been a plethora of analyses on Somalia's so-called "end of the transition" yesterday, but I'm going to do my best to squeeze my voice into the cacophony. A few brief observations: 

First, I was amazed that so many people thought that a presidential election was actually going to take place yesterday. The roadmap timeline was utterly unrealistic from its genesis, but given that as of two days ago the nascent Somali parliament (which is tasked with selecting the president) was still deadlocked over the refusal of clan elders to nominate the 30% quota of female MPs required by the roadmap, the possibility of an election the following day seemed totally ludicrous. 

Even the steadfast BBC and its Somalia sage Mary Harper carried on yesterday like an election was about to happen—any moment now—up until the point that it didn't. After which they seamlessly dropped the pretension that a ballot was ever supposed to take place, and the day became all about the "historic" swearing in of MPs.

The UN Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS) seems to be in engaging in similar revisionism. As August 20th approached and it became clear that the deadline for presidential and parliamentary speaker elections was going to be missed, the unpopular SRSG, Augustine Mahiga, made frenzied last-minute rounds in attempt to bully MPs into meeting the UN timeline. When it became obvious that these efforts were futile, UNPOS responded by simply moving the finish line halfway through the race: in a statement following the swearing in of the parliament on Monday (or at least a proportion of it: 60 of the 275 seats—almost all of which reserved for women—are yet to be assigned), Mahiga merely ignored the fact that the election over which he had been beating brows just days before had not taken place:

“This historic moment marks the long-awaited end of the transitional period in Somalia. The new MPs, selected after broad-based, grass roots consultations and representing all of Somalia’s clans, have been successfully screened against objective criteria and are now ready to start their important work,” SRSG Mahiga stated. Funny, I thought that they were supposed to have finished it.

I have to say, I feel sorry for UNPOS officials, and for Mahiga in particular. UNPOS is in the unfortunate position of being squeezed on both sides: blamed by the Somalis for dictating a Western approach to Somali nation-building, and conversely accused of weakness and fecklessness when Somali politicians hijack the political process for their own ends. It happened a year ago in Kampala, and it happened again yesterday.

People have been mighty bullish on Somalia for a while, ever since the withdrawal of al-Shabaab from Mogadishu in August of last year. Instead of focusing on suicide bombs and mortars, foreign journalists have begun documenting the capital's first drycleaner, a restaurant on the beach, its first bank. Not that there's anything wrong with lightening the typically depressing litany of news stories issuing out of the country, but this new leaf is indicative of an unfounded optimism that has infused Somalia reporting for the past year.

Every Somalia hand (with some notable exceptions) seems eager to believe that this latest act in Somali political theatre represents a break from the past, despite the fact that its product is to be a government that will look very much like the transitional apparatus that has existed for the past twelve years, and which will likely continue to be headed by now-confirmed kleptocrat Sheikh Sharif Ahmed. To their credit, Somali politicians only pretend to believe the hype. Many Western journalists and political analysts sincerely appear to.

Instead of all the saccharine prophesying about Somalia's new dawn (yes, I've actually seen that phrase used), I'd like to see a media outlet do a retrospective on the coverage leading up to the "political transition" in 2004—a "Where are they now?"-type special—when the Transitional National Government (TNG) morphed into the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), an evolution that was probably even less significant that the name change suggests. I imagine you would hear a lot of the same "historic dawn" rhetoric that we experienced in the run up to yesterday. Yet here we are, eight years later, very much ensconced in a transitional system that few Somali politicians have incentive to change.

The Security Council was clear that August 20th would mark the end of the TFG's mandate. Sheikh Sharif is still inhabiting the presidential palace, but is he the president? I'm not exactly sure, and I suspect that UNPOS isn't too sure either.

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