Somalia is, on paper, a sovereign state. But for the past two decades, beset by endless civil strife, secessionism, and regionalism, it has been anything but. The international community has acted as a de-facto caretaker of Somali affairs in the absence of a credible central government, with troops from African states continuing to provide security assistance.
But this has begun to change. Last year, a new parliament was convened, ratifying a new constitution and electing Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as the first president of a permanent Somali government since the fall of the military government in 1991. And significantly, the recent visit to the United States by President Mohamud secured the much coveted recognition of the U.S. government.
With the official recognition of the Obama administration, many Somalis remain optimistic that Somalia can be represented by a single national entity that has the confidence of its public and represents the interests of its constituents equally. Somali observers rejoiced on the utterance of the words “sovereign” and “Somalia” in the same sentence by outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton.
On January 17, Clinton officially declared U.S. recognition of Somalia as a sovereign and equal partner. Restoring bilateral relations between the two states for the first time in two decades, Clinton flanked Mohamud and effectively turned a new page on U.S.-Somalia relations, leaving behind an ineffective “dual-track” policy that had threatened to balkanize Somalia along ethnic and regional lines. This swift policy change, resulting from steady political progress in Somalia, undeniably uplifted the dampened spirit of the Somali populace and is largely seen as a gesture of goodwill on the part of the United States. Backers of the Somali central government hope the gesture will be echoed by the United Kingdom, as well as former colonial powers.
An End to Business as Usual
With recognition comes responsibility for both the United States and Somalia. For the United States, dealings with Somalia cannot remain business as usual.
For the first time in 20 years, the U.S. government will now have to consult on all its affairs in Somalia with the legitimately elected and recognized Somali government, especially regarding America’s ongoing campaign against al-Shabaab. This means that the dreaded unmanned drones and spy warplanes that have hovered over Somali air space with impunity, as well as covert U.S. ground operations, must be brought to account and approved by the Somali government.
Only an agreement based on an honest accounting of U.S. operations in the country can safeguard the lives of innocent citizens and blunt the impact of ongoing night raids on the psyche of an already terrorized society. Other bilateral agreements may concern securing safe passage for international shipping vessels on the Somali coast, as well as collaboration on the re-development of coastal communities to resume their once prosperous fishing industries, thus eradicating piracy and other criminal activities from the area.
Lastly, the resumption of diplomatic exchange between Washington and Mogadishu should allow both the United States and Somalia to reclaim their respective abandoned properties in Mogadishu and Washington. This symbolic act will encourage the estimated 200,000 Somali-Americans living in the United States who aspire to travel, invest, and do business in both countries.
It should be abundantly clear that recognition from Western headquarters alone will not be sufficient to salvage Somalia from its prolonged failed state status. It must immediately be followed by credible and measurable progress on all fronts. These fronts include, first and foremost, progress in the security sector and the restoration of a viable national army, police, and coast guard to protect and safeguard national borders and coastal areas. Sovereign states, the Somali government must be reminded, are not protected by foreign armies.
Next, the government must initiate an ongoing dialogue with all Somalis, particularly with self-governing entities such as Somaliland and Puntland, with the possibility of exchanging high-level delegations to bring them closer together. Similarly, the Somali parliament needs to establish clear guidelines for the establishment of viable and ethnically diverse regions with full access to the sea. These regions should be limited in number, with the aim of developing diverse regions that are politically and economically viable.
In addition, Somali’s corrupt reputation should be countered with the adoption of strict ethics and good-government laws, a merit system to ensure the recruitment of qualified individuals who are fairly compensated, and the adjudication of all violations of ethical rules and standards in public service. President Mohamud should begin by requiring every member of his government to abide by the tenets of Somali constitution.
Finally, the Somali government must outgrow the capital city and its environs and become visible throughout the country. Fair and transparent guidelines establishing decentralized regional governments and local administrative authorities must be established to reduce claims and counter claims of local authorities. Rebuilding national infrastructure and institutions of good-governance will assure the international community that Somalia is indeed a sovereign entity in both word and in deed.
A Looming Threat to Sovereignty
Despite Somalia’s impressive strides, if there are no visible signs of progress in the areas described above, Somalia may slowly slip back into a failed-state status, regardless of who recognizes it. The threat to Somalia’s sovereignty looms large, and it mostly comes from within Somalia rather than from without. Experts continue to debate whether the U.S. recognition of Somalia will matter that much given the realities on the ground.
After 20 years of lawlessness, the proliferation of an unregulated private sector threatens the development of a viable public sector for the country. Successive Somali governments, including the current one, seem to be reluctant to establish strong rules and regulations for the blossoming private sector. The government appears unable or unwilling to counter the narrative promoted by the self-serving businesses and NGOs based in Nairobi that the Somali public sector is too dysfunctional to engage in meaningful business transactions.
Sprawling private-sector industries include but are not limited to the airline industry, telecommunications, banks and remittance organizations, universities, hospitals and health clinics, and local schools. A nascent yet flourishing real estate industry is tapping into the financial largesse of those returning from the Diaspora promising huge returns on investments thanks to the unregulated Somali economy.
The Somali government must not shy away from promoting the establishment of a strong public sector alongside a well regulated private sector if Somalia is to create an economy suitable for a functioning sovereign state.
The U.S. recognition of Somalia elevates Somalia’s potential to move away from its failed-state status of the past two decades, but Somalia must play the part of a sovereign state to affirm its sovereignty and territorial integrity.