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April 12, 2011

Little Hope for Talks on Somali Government Transition

by Michael Onyiego

With the mandate of Somalia’s transitional government nearing an end, the United Nations has convened a conference in Nairobi to discuss the future of the Horn of Africa nation. But with some major stakeholders absent, observers expect little progress.

International diplomats, government ministers, armed groups and politicians at the conference are discussing the future of Somalia’s political structure.

In attendance for the meeting are representatives of semi-autonomous states such as Puntland and Glamudug, as well as Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa, an armed group allied to Somalia's Transitional Federal Government.

Conspicuously absent from the conference, however, are representatives of the government itself.

Shortly after the conference was announced in March, Somali Defense Minister Abdihakim Fiqi said the talks would damage the progress made by the Somali government over the past months and indicated that representatives from the Transitional Federal Government would not attend.

Both President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and Prime Minister Mohammed Abdullahi Mohammed echoed Fiqi’s sentiments. The prime minister, on a recent trip to Nairobi to meet with Kenyan Premier Raila Odinga, told reporters that any such meeting should be led by Somalis in Mogadishu.

According to analyst Rashid Abdi of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, the stance of the TFG is an indication of the frayed relationship between Somali leaders and the international community.

"Probably Sharif may have read the signal that powerful elements within the international community don’t want him and so there is very little use for him to attend," said Abdi.

Despite the boycott of the Somali government, Speaker of Parliament Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden is in Nairobi to participate in the talks.

Aden, known in Somalia as "the blade" for his political prowess, is Ahmed’s main political rival. Aden reportedly has the backing of regional powers, such as Kenya and Ethiopia, and is seen by many as a possible replacement for the president.  

Late Tuesday, Somalia’s Council of Ministers warned that the talks could potentially damage the country’s national institutions. The group also blasted the attendance of Aden, arguing he had no mandate from either the Somali parliament or executive to attend the talks.

The conference was initially designed to restart discussions about the transition of the interim government, without producing any binding agreements. But with the talks set to close Wednesday, ICG analyst Rashid Abdi said even those modest goals are unobtainable.

The conference is probably an attempt, some would say belatedly, to try to build some consensus around the way forward for the transition. It’s very difficult to see what can change really with this conference. The fact that you have the speaker of parliament attending, and the prime minister and the president absent, is a clear indication that there is division within the government.

The current Somali government is facing a crossroads with its seven-year mandate set to expire in August of this year. The Transitional Federal Government was formed in Nairobi in 2004 and tasked with delivering national elections and a new constitution to the Somali people.

With little progress seen in either of those benchmarks, though, international backers, including the United States, United Kingdom and United Nations, appear to have lost patience.

The government’s mandate was further complicated in February, when the Somali parliament voted unilaterally to extend its term for an additional three years. The move was blasted by the international community, prompting U.N. Somalia envoy Augustine Mahiga to call for the Nairobi talks.

Speaker Aden has defended the extension as an exercise of parliament’s authority. The speaker, however, recently rejected a similar move by the transitional federal institutions, which includes the presidency, to extend their mandate for an additional year.

Somalia has not had a functioning central government since dictator Mohammed Siad Barre was overthrown by warlords in 1991.