It is difficult to imagine that the news out of Somalia could get any worse after a disastrous few years that have seen a spike in kidnappings and piracy, and the rise of al-Shabab, a hardline Islamic group that meted out justice – as in one documented case – by chopping off the hand of a 16-year-old convicted of stealing $100 that his accuser later found in a drawer.
Yet 2011 will probably be a banner year for Somalia – in the worst possible way – because this August is the month when the country’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is supposed to make way for a permanent government and constitution.
No matter that Somalia is probably worse off today than in 2004, when the TFG was created with the mission of bridging the gap between chaos and some degree of normalcy. The government, if it can be called that, has instead been crippled by clan rivalries, infighting, bloat and corruption. The TFG is filled with people who see government service as a means of profiting from Somalia’s war economy rather than ending it. “We have a transitional government that has not transitioned,” says one western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We are extremely frustrated with the TFG.”
The problem, as the diplomat admits, is that the West has very little choice but to deal with the TFG and proceed with the current plan to establish a new government in August. For their part, Somalia’s leaders have little incentive to do anything differently, precisely because they know they are the West’s only option aside from al-Shabaab, which is no option at all.
So the “transition” continues. The UN Development Program has launched something called the Somalia Constitution Making Support Project, which will, according to the UNDP website, “provide capacity building and technical advice on constitution content development, consultative processes and civic education, and will facilitate community consultation in Somalia and among the diaspora.” Out at the Dadaab refugee camp, home to more than 200,000 Somalis who have fled the conflict at home, workers have begun to distribute an early draft of the proposed constitution.
How can Somalia hold community consultation when anyone who does such consultation will be targeted for death by al-Shabaab? Or when so many of the country’s 10 million people are living in a refugee camp in Kenya and have absolutely no intention of returning home anytime soon?
On the other hand, with growing evidence that al-Shabaab is forging close ties to al-Qaeda, Somalia is almost certain to become one of the West’s most pressing foreign policy challenges of the next decade. What choice do western leaders have but to push for progress, however futile that may seem?