ADDIS ABABA - The United Nations special envoy for Somalia says the "Road Map" peace deal signed last September is on track to produce a breakthrough in ending the Horn of Africa country's 20-year political vacuum.
It won't be easy, but three months before the end of the U.N.-backed transitional government, leaders of Somalia's fractious political entities seem committed to working together in a post-transition arrangement. U.N. special envoy for Somalia Augustine Mahiga said if it holds together, this could be historic.
"We have 90 days till the end of the transition. The elders are convened, the principals are here. They are together. And they have demonstrated a commitment to end the transition, and certainly, touch wood, this will be a major breakthrough that has never happened in the past 20 years," Mahiga said.
Critics point out that what Somalia will have after August 20 will not be a perfect representative democracy. After two decades of anarchy, there is no infrastructure to hold an election. What's more, Islamist extremists still control significant parts of the country.
So instead, the parties have agreed to hold a proxy election. A body of traditional elders is selecting members of a Constituent Assembly who will in turn choose a new parliament, leading to ratification of a constitution and election of a post-transitional president.
Previous attempts failed, partly because of factional squabbling and lack of security. But with pro-government military forces expanding their area of control, Mahiga believes this time is different.
"This is different because of two major underpinning trends. The first is related to the establishment of security beyond the borders of Mogadishu. It is a different process than any other that have happened before because it is inclusive of all major political actors in Somalia," Mahiga said.
Among the many things that could go wrong between now and August would be a resurgence of the al-Shabab militant group. Al-Shabab remains a spoiler, with the potential to create terror through suicide bombs and guerrilla attacks. But Mahiga says the extremists are a spent force.
"Let's face it. They are really in retreat on all fronts, not only in and around Mogadishu, but in the south, the central parts, the expansion of AMISOM, the entry into the war of Ethiopia, and the determination by the TFG forces to combine with neighboring countries is putting tremendous pressure on al-Shabab," Mahiga said.
Transitional Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali says these Addis Ababa talks have been a big step toward the August 20 finish line. He sounded energetic as he surveyed the exhaustive course ahead.
"Next, [we're] going back to Mogadishu. Bring the CA [Constituent Assembly] to convene June 12, ratify the constitution, select the new parliament, and then by August 2012 we have the new parliament, new constitution, and a new political dispensation," Ali said.
Diplomatic observers say the daunting tasks facing Somalia's leaders over the next 90 days, even with all their potential pitfalls, will be the easy part. If everything goes according to plan, the hard part begins August 20, when a new government selected by Somalis tries to stand on its own.