Somalia's next step
The staging of a meeting of tribal elders and politicians to draft a new constitution and elect a National Constituent Assembly is a significant moment in the life of Somalis, contends Gamal Nkrumah
Only Somalis can reconcile Jekyll with Hyde. Eccentric in tone and cryptic in content, the draft constitution of the Somali ruling clique is embarking on an experiment that is important for what it implies. What Somali politicians and tribal elders are hinting at is that domestic decisions are made in an atmosphere that encourages circumspection and prudence rather than openness and ingenuousness. The role of tribal leaders in Somalia has long been abused by warlords. This, coupled with the sidelining of intellectuals and women, has become increasingly untenable.
Somali tribal leaders, former warlords and politicians are meeting in the capital, Mogadishu, at the moment to form a National Constituent Assembly, the country's nucleus of a legislative body. After two decades of civil war and political chaos, Somalia's long-destroyed institutions need a robust change, just as any in the African continent. Somalis can draw little comfort, however, from the experience of the past few months. But this is no excuse for Somalis to sit on their hands.
Such caveats, however, cannot camouflage the uncomfortable truth. The National Constituent Assembly needs as many women as men. Tribal leaders are overwhelmingly middle-aged men who have traditionally monopolised power in Somalia. The new 275-member parliament is supposed to be representative of all people of the country.
Yet the Somali political elite maintains the pretence that all Somalis are represented in the National Constituent Assembly. They are fearful of the power of militant Islamist groups in Somalia. And, indeed, without political and military assistance from the international community, and regional powers such as Ethiopia and Kenya with large ethnic Somali minorities, the Islamists might overrun the Somali capital and split the ruling clique and deliver victory to the militant Islamists and their political allies. Somalia's political progress has often been interrupted by the interference of outside forces.
The hope is that the cross-pollination of thoughts among Somalia's political elite will spark a new idea. They must resist the temptation of incorporating the Islamist militants. They must also try and include representatives of breakaway regions such as Somaliland in the northwest and Puntland, an autonomous and particularly prosperous region in the northeast. There are lessons to be learned from the successes of both Puntland and Somaliland.
If there is one thing on which most Somalis agree, it is that the nation must muster the strength to secure a full-fledged democracy. One thing has radically changed in contemporary Somalia: the Somali political conflict can no longer be classified as a civil war within a single state.
There are no easy options in Somalia. What is truly astounding is that the Somalis have managed to utilise the goodwill of neighbouring countries and the international community to their own advantage. The crux of the matter is that the key neighbouring states have their political priorities which sometimes interfere with those of the Somali people. Three issues are of grave concern in Somalia. First the militant Islamist threat, which now risks the stability of Somalia's neighbours and poses particular problems to Kenya and Ethiopia with their large and restive Muslim minorities.
Such a crisis would overwhelm the mechanisms of political reform in Somalia itself as well as destabilising Ethiopia and Kenya. African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) assumed full control of Kenyan troops in Somalia this week.
Second, sharing its political intentions publicly is an important internal check on the political institutions now being created in Somalia. Neighbouring countries have a big say in what goes on in Somalia.
Third, frustrated with the difficulty of breaking the hold of the antiquated tribal traditions of Somali politics, emerging players appear to be making inroads into the political milieu. The Western-educated, secularist intellectuals and women leaders, long marginalised from the decision-making process, have complicated the process of institutional re-building in Somalia, which will need all the resources the country can muster.
Until this point, Somali President Sherif Sheikh Ahmed has largely been on the right track. He has been trying to raise resources to accomplish a most difficult task.
This also falls on the right side of the line. Somali leaders currently debating the draft of a new constitution aim to guarantee more fundamental rights than the United States constitution. But rights such as access to medical care, clean potable water and food are hard to guarantee in one of the world's poorest countries.
The new constitution is to replace the Transitional Federal Charter written in 2004. The fault of the leadership of the Somali president is his almost total reliance on outside powers. If he does not take corrective action, Somalia might end up as a country entirely dependent on its friends abroad, unleashing a new round of civil war and chaos.
This can intensify the ongoing power struggles. It raises questions about whether Somalis can actually manage a multi-party democracy and launch a full-fledged state once again.
Regulatory muscle flexing may be needed to enforce a more rational division of the spoils. Somali politicians renege on the electoral promises as soon as they take office, but the Somali president made good on his pledge to restore law and order. He deserted his onetime allies, the militant Islamist Al-Shabab (Youth), and mended fences with neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya, key players in Somali politics.
Somali Prime Minister Abdel-Wali Ali also must make his influence felt. He needs to provide intellectual political leadership to lift his war-torn country out of its current morass.
Securing a slot in the leading pack, Somalia's president and prime minister must curtail the power of tribal elders and end the endemic corruption. A leaked United Nations report revealed that petty officials and politicians pocketed around 70 per cent of funds intended for development projects. Somalia's interim government faces a challenging task indeed.
Against this backdrop, the need to combat widespread dependence on narcotics in Somalia has become imperative. Qat is a narcotic tropical plant where the leaves are widely chewed as a stimulant. The narcotic slows down economic performance. And since the drug is almost exclusively consumed by men, the epidemic leaves Somali women with a bulk of domestic and agricultural labour, leaving men free to take up arms. A most destructive, vicious cycle. Here is something really worth banning.
If Somali politicians drag their feet, then there is nothing to stop the country from sliding back into civil war and chaos.