MOGADISHU, Somalia — As Somalia approaches its umpteenth attempt to forge a government that will actually stick, there’s a deadening familiarity here: bloodstained warlords reemerging, clan elders manipulating politics, roadblocks going up as militias try to reclaim turf.
And yet a year of relative peace in Mogadishu, long the world capital of chaos, and the recent adoption of a new constitution have raised faint hopes that this latest stab at shedding the “failed state” label might actually work.
But can it?
Rather than optimism, Somalis more often express wistful caution that if only the politicians get it right this time, life might just improve.
“Something good is happening,” said Jabril Abdulle, director of a Mogadishu nongovernmental organization, the Center for Research and Dialogue. “I’m scared. Are we going to lose this again?”
Many see it as the last chance.
Come Monday, Somalia is supposed to have a new president. But ordinary Somalis will have no say in the matter. Instead, the president will be chosen by the country’s new parliament, which was elected by the clan elders whose warlords have brought anarchy to the country for two decades, in a process critics say was beset by corruption and vote buying.
Neither the Somalis who led the “election” process nor the main international players involved, including the United States, see the country as being ready for real democracy. They fear it might upset the delicate balance of power between the clans and lead to more bloodshed.
But many Somalis say that unless Monday’s election produces a different crop of leaders from the transitional figures who have misgoverned Somalia for the last five years, it won’t have credibility or legitimacy, nor will it bring the change they crave.
Analysts warn that President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, singled out in a recent U.N. report as one of the worst offenders in a government marked by horrendous corruption, is likely to come out on top.
Even worse, there’s a risk that bad losers will take up arms.
“It’s reverting back to warlordism. That’s what all the Somalis I trust are saying,” said one Western security analyst, who couldn’t be identified because it would endanger the work of the entity he works for in Somalia. He said most of the Mogadishu district commissioners are warlords. “One of them has a militia of 400 men, and nobody does anything about it.”
This week’s transition comes a year after the Shabab, the Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militia, lost control of the capital, and retreated to its stronghold in the south of the country.
The United States is heavily invested in the outcome. Concerned that Al Qaeda will gain a foothold here in the Horn of Africa, it is helping fund the African Union force that has been mobilized in Somalia to try to crush the Shabab. The U.S. provides significant aid to neighbors Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda, all of whom are fighting the Islamists, and has also used drones to launch attacks in Somalia.
The departure of the Shabab, which lost popularity because of its summary executions, forced recruitment of teenagers and extreme brand of Islam, has provided the first real chance of lasting stability. Diaspora money has come flooding back, and a mini-building boom taken off in Mogadishu.
“People are saying, enough is enough. Even Al Shabab cannot challenge the overwhelming aspiration for stability,” Abdulle said.
Somali fears are amplified by the sinister wave of assassinations in Mogadishu: two journalists killed this week, an airport manager the week before and a comedian who lampooned the Shabab the week before that.
“The Somali public is very suspicious of the transition process,” said Abdullahi Shirwa, director of a human rights and peace advocacy group, Somali Peace Line. “For them, any political experience is likely to fail, due to the experience of the last 20 years. In the next five years, maybe we will go back to the same cycle of violence. Or maybe Shabab will gain strength.”
The parliamentary selection was based on an old formula that supposedly balances the power of the four big clans in Somalia, whose struggles have cursed the country since its collapse into chaos in 1991, after the ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.
“The question is, ‘Are we keeping the integrity of the process?’” said Mogadishu Mayor Mohamed Ahmed Noor, a Somali Briton who came back in 2010. “We want the best parliament, we don’t want the previous parliament. We want people with integrity, people who will feel for the people of Somalia.”
The outgoing transitional government insists that the power of clan warlords, who got rich in the years of anarchy and disintegration, has been broken. Diaspora entrepreneurs, who’ve poured in as business rivals to the old guard, seem eager to believe it.
“None of them exists anymore,” said Mogadishu-born American Liban Egal, referring to the warlords. He recently opened what he says is Somalia’s first commercial bank. “Their weapons were confiscated. A lot of them disappeared. Even if they exist, you never hear of them.”
But the underlying clan power conflicts remain undiminished, analysts say.
Shirwa, the peace activist, said a survey by clan elders, supported by the Somali Peace Line, identified 39 roadblocks in Mogadishu last month, a sign of growing competition for control by clan warlords.
These fault lines have become more obvious as the African Union force has pushed Shabab positions back, taken more territory and become more thinly spread in the capital, which makes it less able to rein in rival militias in Mogadishu.
“Essentially … these poor Ugandan soldiers are getting killed to create a space — for something — but no one is quite sure what. The space is being filled not by nice old men sitting under a tree resolving their differences democratically, but by exactly the kind of people who were in charge before 2006,” said another analyst, referring to the warlords.
“There are a few hundred people who matter, and for them war is brilliant business. They’ve got really rich,” he said. He also couldn’t be identified because it would endanger the work of his organization in Somalia.
Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, who took office last year, also brushed aside concerns that powerful figures who got rich on chaos and war could derail the transition. “Whoever made money, if you don’t have peace and stability, what’s the point? The biggest losers will be them if there’s chaos and instability. The biggest beneficiaries of stability will be those who have some money.”
But the regional and clan conflicts that have undermined Somalia haven’t changed, argued analyst Michael A. Weinstein of the University of Purdue in Indiana.
The new parliament “is chosen in exactly the same way as was the last one. It’s the ‘emperor has no clothes’ story,” he said in a phone interview. “The first time, it was a tragedy. The second time, it’s a farce.”