• In the aftermath of the February 2012 London Conference on Somalia, Sally HealyAccord 21 editor and a Fellow of the Rift Valley Institute – offers her personal assessment of the conference, its likely impact and the complex challenges ahead.

The London Conference has no precedent in the amount of time and effort that the British government put into the subject of Somalia.

Many Somalis welcomed the conference cautiously, curious as to whether the UK could successfully bring the wider international community together on a common position that did not dictate the political future of the country. Others looked for reasons to be sceptical; one couldn’t blame them.

Apart from the predictable flurry of diplomatic activity that preceded the February meeting, efforts were made to get views from Somali civil society both inside and outside the country.

UK officials also embraced social networking methods of stimulating debate, with the new UK Ambassador to Somalia hosting a blog discussion, Foreign Minister William Hague answering questions via Twitter, and Facebook and Twitter being used as means of eliciting views of Somalis wherever they may be.

On the day, it was – as was always intended – an intergovernmental meeting, the purpose of which was to forge a more purposeful and effective international approach to the stabilisation of Somalia. Given the long history of confused and often counterproductive international interventions in the country, this was a laudable goal, however hard it may prove to achieve.


Success is hard to measure on diplomatic occasions. Like a big family gathering, it is sometimes just important that everyone is there and there aren’t any major rows. On this occasion everyone concerned with Somalia from the international community was there – a success of sorts.

Somalia’s African neighbours remain very much in the front row. But states from the Islamic world have re-engaged on Somalia and were playing a more assertive role.

For Somalis, representation is always a political minefield when organised on a clan basis. It has bedevilled previous international conferences. At the London Conference representation on the Somali side took a refreshing new turn. While still not fully inclusive, there was a departure from the internationally perpetuated fiction that the Transitional Federal Government “represents” Somalia in any meaningful way.

The Heads of other Somali  states and statelets such as Puntland and Galmudug were present too, but none so significant as President Silanyo of Somaliland. Somaliland has never before attended any of the international conferences or the peace conferences on Somalia.

Mark Bradbury has commented:

It seems that the UK concluded that Somalia could not be fully settled without the participation of Somaliland. […] Opinions in Somaliland and among the Somaliland diaspora were divided over whether Somaliland should attend. They remain divided over what [was] achieved by participating.

Somaliland needed some reassurances. Henry Bellingham, the Minister for Africa, said publicly that Somaliland’s participation in the Conference was “without prejudice to their aspirations for independence, which we respect”. Commitments of aid were announced, including over £100 million in new development assistance earmarked for Somaliland.

Having spurned participation in previous internationally sponsored conferences, it seems to have opened a new diplomatic avenue for Somaliland to explore if they chose to.

Mark Bradbury (in personal communication with the author)

President Silanyo used his conference speech to advocate for a bottom-up process to build peace and stability in Somalia, taking lessons from what worked successfully in Somaliland and drew upon Islam and traditional conflict resolution methods. He took the opportunity to press the case for recognition saying that he firmly believed that supporting and recognising Somaliland would help to promote stability and recovery in Somalia.

Meanwhile, Al Qaeda’s decision to embrace Al Shabaab more closely made it easier to duck the whole question of “talking to Shabaab”. This was one of the issues on which there was least international consensus and had potential to polarise the conference. Although it was successfully avoided, there is a strong thread of Somali opinion that sooner or later dialogue with Al Shabaab will be necessary for a political settlement.

Somali analyst, Abdi Aynte, notes that the conference communiqué devoted just one line to genuine reconciliation between warring Somali factions. He continues:

Dialogue with elements within the Shabaab is crucial to the success—or failure—of the London Conference. Certainly, al-Shabaab's recent "merger" with al-Qaeda complicates matters. But there are nationalist elements within the Shabaab who are simply not on board with 'Qaedizing' their "struggle" against what they see as a foreign invasion (AMISOM). These elements can't speak out at this point due to safety. But the international community has the means to reach out to them, via intermediaries.

Abdi Aynte (in personal communication with the author)

A few commentators have come up with the odd suggestion that Al Shabaab should have been invited to the conference itself. But this seems to be based on a misunderstanding about the purpose of the event.

It was not a peace conference. And if Al Shabaab is going to start talking to anyone, it is surely fellow Somalis, preferably inside Somalia, rather than fifty-odd Heads of State and Government in London.

What the conference might have done better was to signal that a political process that included Shabaab was not something that the international community would necessarily rule out. Who can doubt there were differences of view on this one?

The work of the conference

In the months leading up to the conference, several good things happened:

  • The number of successful pirate attacks showed signs of dipping.
  • Mogadishu began to show the gains of Al Shabaab’s abrupt departure in August with a revival of confidence and commerce, although the latest terror attack at a football match showed they could still act with deadly results.
  • The humanitarian crisis of last summer began to abate, although the situation remains precarious.
  • The political pact between the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Puntland and Galmudug, represented by the Garowe principles, seemed to be growing.
  • Although Kenya stayed bogged down militarily, Ethiopia’s interventions with its allies continued to creep forward against Shabaab held areas.
  • Ethiopia was clearly dealing more competently with the local political factors than it had in the past.

In some key areas – humanitarian assistance, action against piracy and counter-terrorism – broad agreement was reached before the conference.

Ken Menkhaus has defined the three key issues for the meeting itself as:

  1. to broaden external consensus on Somalia policy in general, including bringing the new players, Turkey and Qatar and other Middle East countries, into the fold;
  2. to establish general political principles for ending the transition in August; and
  3. to increase AMISOM and put its funding on a more sustainable footing.
Ken Menkhaus, Somalia: What to expect of the London Conference and Beyond page 1

There was also an attempt to agree on ways to support emerging entities and areas of stability, consolidating the dual track policy of support for local stability as well as central government formations.


Much of the UK press coverage focused on the terrorist aspect of the Somalia problem, this being the most tangible British interest that the media could identify. Several papers cited a report that some 50 British passport holders, not all of Somali origin, were among 200 foreign fighters receiving training in international terrorist methods with Al Shabaab.

Hilary Clinton said the US was prepared to work with anyone who wanted to defeat Al Shabaab, seeming to signal a limited interest in the bigger picture.

Despite its perennial news appeal, terrorism does not appear to have dominated the meeting. It forms just one unemotional paragraph in the communiqué and avoids muscular language. Nonetheless, as Ken Menkhaus observes, counter-terrorism concerns are still dominant in many governments, including the US.

The Obama Administration remains internally divided on counter-terrorism strategy toward Somalia, but the fact that the US delegation supported language in the communiqué that focused on political solutions to the Somali impasse and kept references to counter-terrorism relatively modest is noteworthy.


The political conclusions are perhaps the most intriguing: a very clear message that the TFG is over but a refusal to define the specifics of what happens in August when its (over-extended) mandate expires.

Those commentators who have expressed fear of a “power vacuum” have clearly not been paying attention to the state of Somalia’s ruling body for the last several years. But facing the void does not make it any easier to cross.

Sally Healy

The TFG failed to establish its authority, failed to make itself more inclusive and representative, failed to account for the vast amount of money it received from the international community and spent its time squabbling over the spoils and how to extend its time in office.

It failed to deliver to the Somali people and it failed to deliver on any of its commitments (political progress, roadmaps etc) to its international backers. So its termination – in its present form – can only be welcome.

Meanwhile other Somalis in other places – regions, zones and states – were cobbling together settlements and forms of social order that actually provided some stability for the local community. If the TFG failed because Somalis saw it as an agent of foreign interests, there would be little purpose in an overseas conference designing its successor.

There is a chance here for Somalis to take ownership of a political process, but as Ken Menkhaus suggests, it is a very big ask.

What is certain is that the next few months will produce a messy, contentious scramble to accelerate the end of the transition in Somalia. Advocates of completing the transition quickly will be racing against the clock, forced to rush decisions and processes. That will work against a stated aim of the London Conference conveners to work toward a more inclusive and transparent transition process.

Somalia has a long history of rushed reconciliation and power-sharing agreements, and the results have generally not been good.
The next year in Somalia constitutes a narrow but very real window of opportunity for the country to emerge from over 20 years of war and state collapse. The results of the London Conference are not nearly as important as the intense follow-up work that will be required of the international community and the Somali people.

The next step — hammering out the critical details for the process by which the political transition is accelerated and completed—must somehow combine haste with transparency. …Both the process of selecting a constituent assembly and the actual quality of representation in that assembly must be seen as legitimate in the eyes of most Somalis.

That should be the yardstick by which international support to Somalia is measured in coming months, not the meeting of arbitrary deadlines.

Ken Menkhaus, Somalia: What to expect of the London Conference and Beyond, page 3

Jabrille Abdilleh offered a view from Mogadishu where the public mood was detached and tending to scepticism. The political deadlines were unrealistic and people were wondering what would happen if there was no constituent assembly in place by August. Was there a Plan B? How did all this connect with life on the ground and who was responsible for implementing these undertakings? [in personal communication with the author]

Security and Justice

The security conclusions are important. They come on the back of UN Security Council Resolution 2036, passed on the eve of the London Conference. This has expanded the AMISOM mandate and raised its numbers to 17,000 with the incorporation of the Kenyan forces already operating inside Somalia. The Resolution has also put the funding of AMISOM on a sustainable basis, with a larger slice of UN funding for the operation.

The international community is justly pleased with AMISOM. Their own protégé, the TFG, proved far too weak to confront Al Shabaab. Only AMISOM troops prevented Al Shabaab taking over Mogadishu and the Ugandans and Burundians are riding high.

Since the withdrawal of Shabaab forces, AMISOM appears to be playing a reasonably benign role in city life. The nationalist resentment that Ethiopia’s military intervention caused does not – for the moment – automatically attach to AMISOM. But there have been displacements from around Afgoye as AMISOM has moved out of Mogadishu. AMISOM has made military gains, but these are not yet matched by political gains.

Somalis are generally less pleased with AMISOM than the international backers of the force. They may deem AMISOM’s motives more mercenary than born of national ambitions, but they still fiercely resent the fact that

AMISOM troops are paid so much more than their Somali national counterparts. AMISOM’s original mandate: “to protect the TFG” was hard for the general public to swallow. The Ugandan and Burundian soldiers served as a backfilling force for Ethiopia’s original intervention against the Islamic courts.

During AMISOM’s major confrontations with Shabaab in Mogadishu there were numerous civilian casualties that received neither acknowledgement nor recompense. Shabaab continues to represent AMISOM as a foreign force, serving foreign (Christian) interests and argues that it is the patriotic duty of Somalis to resist this form of occupation.

Somalis would feel happier if there were a clear exit strategy for AMISOM and a clear indication of when they themselves would take over control of security. Mohamed Al-Hadi, Director of Alshahid Centre for Research and Media Studies, expressed the following concerns:

Looking at the emphasis on Security and Military approaches, it is not what Somalis would admire. It may give extremists tools for exploiting more youths. Somalis are very sensitive towards all neighbouring countries, particularly Kenya and Ethiopia.

Rather than denying foreign military intervention – which has proved counterproductive – the Kenyans are going to be included in AMISOM, thus legitimising their intervention in the south. Ethiopians are also praised for what they are doing to "liberate" areas from Al Shabab, an organization that was originally boosted by their intervention in 2006.

There is no clear exit strategy for AMISOM in the foreseeable future, also there is no transformation project to legitimise them in the eyes of Somalis. Somalis don't like the Al Shabab and Al Qaeda agenda, but it is very easy for them to recruit more and more of those who have legitimate nationalist aspirations by showing them how their land is invaded by Kenyans, Ethiopians, Ugandans etc.

Al Shabab may look defeated now but they can emerge back from the ash if issues that created and empowered them are not tackled properly.

Mohamed Al-Hadi, Director of Alshahid Centre for Research and Media Studies

Expanding AMISOM is therefore a gamble. A bigger, better-equipped force should make more headway against Al Shabaab and do so with less harm to civilians. AMISOM no longer exists simply as the protector of the TFG and is represented as a body that works to develop Somali security forces.

But a bigger, better force might also increase resentment of outside intervention, especially if there is no clear evidence that Somali national forces are being developed to replace AMISOM.

The communiqué language reflects some of these concerns, calling for adherence to International Humanitarian Law and noting, “Somalis themselves must decide what security and justice arrangements they need”. It remains to be seen how this will translate into practice.

Managed regional intervention

Unrestrained regional intervention is part of the harsh reality of Somalia’s protracted breakdown. There are already “boots on the ground” from five countries: Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and Djibouti. With the addition of the Kenyan and Djiboutian forces, AMISOM will not be far short of the 21,000 force that made up the ill-fated UNOSOM mission 20 years ago.

As well as national armies, there are a growing number of private security companies carrying out various lucrative security contracts.

Many Somalis resent this additional international security presence in the country. There are no indications that Ethiopia intends to include its own forces within the expanded AMISOM. It prefers to maintain its own freedom of action, illustrated last week with their capture of the town of Baidoa from Al Shabaab. However, multiple, freelance interventions in Somalia do not seem a good recipe for peace.

The corralling of most of the forces under a proper international mandate seems preferable to the free-for-all that was threatening to emerge. But many Somalis would have preferred the international community to take a clear position against unilateral interventions.


Considering that the original impetus for the conference was thought to be the rising costs of piracy, the conclusions in this area are unexceptional. However, seasonal factors may have created the impression that piracy has been quelled more successfully than is actually the case.

Stability and recovery

There are signs of a new direction on stability and recovery – the development segment of the conference. The language reinforces the political shift away from the TFG and a focus on building central government institutions in the direction of supporting local areas of stability. This is good news for Somaliland, Puntland and other autonomous areas and bad news for the TFG.

Somali peace activists have long advocated this approach and have found the external models of top down state building bafflingly irrelevant to their own experience. The challenge is to ensure that engagement with sub-national polities does not inadvertently produce a proliferation of local administrations or incentivise the creation of clanustans.

Aynte sees the local stability fund for what he terms “clan-based administrations” as a dangerous slippery slope that could, over time, shatter the notion of Somalia as a nation. He writes:

Despite the fact that Somalia's Transitional National Charter (TNC) stipulates a federal dispensation for the country, the shape and the scope of federal states are dangerously ambiguous and unknown.

The London Conference seems to have endorsed Washington's infamous "dual track policy" which sparked the 30 or so "regional administrations" that are milling around with no bearing on the ground. The balkanization of Somalia deprives the country of nationhood.

Abdi Aynte (in personal communication with the author)

Did the conference succeed?

The London Conference was not a peace conference or a humanitarian conference. It was not expected to produce a quick fix or a silver bullet. British Ministers were at pains to stress that the work started now – after the conference – and they gave a commitment to stay the course. The results might take some time to emerge.

From an international perspective, the conference may have reduced the risk that East and West, in the shape of Muslim and non-Muslim countries, will further contribute to Somalia’s instability with new layers of proxy warfare on top of old ones. But from now on, Somalia is no longer simply IGAD’s problem; a wider range of players is involved and they will need to align their interests. This could be beneficial in the medium term.

The conference may have occurred at the right moment to galvanise Somalipolitics in a new direction. The intention to refocus international efforts towards supporting stability rather than perpetuating a non-operational government was meant to be a wake up call for the TFG.

But it is not clear that they heard it.

Most of the TFG delegates are now touring the world rather than advancing the political process, and trying to create the impression that the London Conference offered them some sort of international endorsement.

Sally Healy

If the new decentralising approach to stability and governance is to work, Somalis must give some urgent attention to defining the relationship between local and central government.

For the international players who favour the new approach, equally skillful navigation will be needed to steer between supporting local stability while avoiding the risks of disintegration and greater conflict.

But making any sort of succession plan in haste and with transparency will be hard and people in Mogadishu are already prepared to be disappointed.

AMISOM remains at the centre of the security equation – which probably accounts for the TFG’s continuing confidence. The conference failed to mark a break with the past by trying to better address the security needs of Somalis themselves rather than satisfying the demands of international security.

Somalis will be looking for reassurance that the bigger and better resourced AMISOM forces are held accountable for upholding International Humanitarian Law and there are signs that this is now more firmly on the agenda.

But the financial backers and troop providers need to be aware that the conduct of AMISOM is under critical scrutiny all the time, above all by Al Shabaab, who will ruthlessly exploit its every shortcoming.

There are no risk-free options for Somalia. It is ever more obvious that Somalis, not foreigners, have to lead on the solutions.

It is equally obvious that more and more external players are getting involved in different capacities. However regrettable this might be, it seems to be unavoidable.

Helping to maintain some kind of balance between the political track, the security track and various forms of external engagements is a way for the international community to play a more helpful role than it has in the past.

Events of the coming months will show whether the mustering of effort in London really did help to build a sense of common purpose or whether the many competing stakeholders just took from it what they wanted to hear.

Sally Healy