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Peace Talks Slow to Develop in Somalia

In the Somali capital, Mogadishu, insurgent violence is continuing to cause delays in the start of peace talks to end 16 years of factional strife. As VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi, the reconciliation process is also being severely tested by increasing criticisms about the performance of Somalia's top interim government leaders and allegations that they are pursuing their own agendas.

When Somalia's Ethiopian-backed, secular, interim government took power in Mogadishu from Islamists more than six months ago, major western donor nations urged the government to hold a national reconciliation conference that could help stabilize the country, help heal the wounds of civil war, and pave the way for nation-wide elections in 2009.

But organizing and holding that conference has not been an easy task for Somalia's Transitional Federal Government, which was established in 2004 in neighboring Kenya, and represents the 14th attempt by the international community to form a functioning government in Somalia since the fall of Mohamed Siad Barre's regime in 1991.

Insurgents, who began a fierce guerrilla war against the government in February, have played a key role by disrupting the planned peace conference four times in as many months.

The latest effort to start the talks was more successful than others. On Sunday, interim President Abdullahi Yusuf was giving a speech at the opening ceremony, when the conference site came under a mortar attack. Organizers again delayed the opening, this time for four days.

Ali Abdullahi is a Nairobi-based, pro-interim government Somali intellectual, who is becoming increasingly concerned that insurgents, not the government, are winning the hearts and minds of ordinary Somalis.

Abdullahi says he and many of his colleagues believe the government is having trouble uniting Somalis behind it, largely because it is seen as being beholden to the country's traditional rival in the Horn, Ethiopia. Ethiopia's military brought the interim government to power and tens of thousands of troops are still in Somalia to protect it.

"The biggest challenge is the Ethiopian presence in Somalia," said Abdullahi. "They need to be replaced constructively by African Union [AU] forces. The time frame should be as quickly as possible."

Islamist leaders exiled in Eritrea, and whose followers make up a large number of the insurgents, have rejected participating in any peace conference with interim government officials while Ethiopian troops were still in Somalia.

They say that they would consider joining the talks if the Ethiopians withdrew, and if the reconciliation process included formulating power-sharing deals with not just rival clans, but with political rivals, like the ousted Islamic Courts Union.

The director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in the United States, J. Peter Pham, says he believes if the government showed a willingness to be politically inclusive, the insurgency could weaken significantly.

But he says some transitional federal government leaders, particularly President Yusuf and Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi, have done little to convince the Somali people that they want peace.

"The groundwork was never laid for this conference, which leads me to question whether the political will was ever there for the conference to succeed," said Pham.

"They have shown very little political will to be inclusive. The international community needs to wake up and recognize that the TFG was seriously flawed from the start because it did not have the requisites to build legitimacy across clan, religious, and ideological lines," he continued.

Pham notes that, in Mogadishu, clan tensions have skyrocketed in recent months amid allegations that President Yusuf is encouraging his Darod clan's attempts to claim dominancy in the capital over Prime Minister Gedi's Hawiye clan.

The Hawiye clan is also reportedly dividing quickly along sub-clan lines, making reconciliation more difficult.

Somalis say a particularly dangerous power struggle is brewing between the Abgal clan and the Habre Gedir clan.

The leaders of the two clans worked together to overthrow Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. But when the Abgal leader, Ali Mahdi, declared himself interim president over the Habre Gedir leader, Mohamed Farah Aideed, it sparked a devastating seven-year war between the two clans that destroyed much of Mogadishu.

When Prime Minister Gedi recently appointed Ali Mahdi, a fellow Abgal, to be the chairman of the national reconciliation committee, many Somalis, especially within the Habre Gedir clan, complained bitterly that the committee was not a neutral, independent body.

A member of the Somali interim parliament, Awad Ashureh, acknowledges that the interim government has failed to achieve much of what it had promised to do, when it was formed nearly three years ago. He says the parliament, which has the power to vote the president and the prime minister out of office, will act, if necessary, to stabilize the country.

There are mistakes and it is the jurisdiction of the parliament to review and correct all mistakes and mismanagement.

Analyst J. Peter Pham says he believes western donor nations must set clear political benchmarks for Somalia's interim government to meet.

"Instead of constantly advancing money for these conferences, I think benchmarks for progress need to be laid, and if there is failure to adhere to those benchmarks, then gradual derecognition of the TFG Without international recognition, the TFG would simply dissolve," said Pham.

Few experts believe the international community would allow the Transitional Federal Government to collapse for fear it would create a vacuum for Islamic radical groups like al-Qaida to fill.

But they warn that not holding interim leaders accountable for failing to bring peace and stability could also lead desperate Somalis into the arms of radical Islamists.