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February 22, 2012

Somalia Conference Stirs Range of Sentiments

by Henry Ridgwell

Twenty years ago in northern Kenya, an encampment was set up to deal with the influx of Somalis escaping drought and civil war. Now home to half-a-million people, Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, represents just one symptom of Somalia’s adversity, merely one indicator of the scale of the task undertaken by delegates in Thursday's London conference.

Attended by representatives from more than 50 countries, talks on the security and future of Somalia concluded with comments from the host, British Prime Minister David Cameron, who insisted concrete progress had been made.

"Today’s conference has put new momentum into the political process," he said. "We’ve backed the Somalis' decision to end the mandate of the transitional federal institutions in August. This timetable will be stuck to. There will be no further extensions. We will hold the Somalis to this. We’ll act against those who stand in the way of the peace process and we’ve also agreed the formation of a new government must be as inclusive as possible."

Delegates agreed that rebuilding Somalia has to start by tackling al-Shabab militants, an al-Qaida-linked group that has recently lost ground but still controls much of the center and south of the country.

Benedicte Goderiaux of human rights group Amnesty International says the conference did not do enough to deal with atrocities committed against Somali people.

"Direct attacks against civilians, indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks, these are crimes under international law, these are war crimes," she said. "You have also the very widespread recruitment of children for the purpose of putting them on the frontline."

Prime minister of Somalia’s transitional government, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, was clear about what kind of help he wanted in tackling al-Shabab, which recently formalized its al-Qaida alliance.

"We have to face this menace, and al-Qaida in Somalia is not a Somali problem -- it is a global problem that must be addressed globally," he said. "Therefore, again, we welcome targeted airstrikes against al-Qaida, not against the populace."

Talk of intervention by foreign powers in Somalia prompted protests outside the conference.

"The conference is about 40 countries coming together discussing the Somali issue, [but] what we feel is that Somalia is not part of it," said Cabdi Aakhiro of Voice 4 Somalia. "They are discussing their interests, not the Somali interests."

But delegates inside the conference disagreed, insisting that interests of Somalia and the world are intertwined, and that al-Shabab's alliance with al-Qaida has only stoked fears that Somalia could become a base for exporting terrorism.

Meantime, piracy off the Somali coast has continued to cost the global shipping industry billions of dollars. According to the United Nations, 246 seafarers are currently being held captive by Somali pirates.

Analysts have said that while the conference did not produce many concrete policies, it did prompt a change in attitudes toward Somalia.

For the first time in 20 years, that could provide a glimmer of hope for the country’s hundreds of thousands of refugees.