The last conference on Somalia in the UK in February 2012 was a deeply political event, designed to support Somalia’s political transition. The US$64,000 question for the two events in London this week was how different they would be from previous occasions and whether this new dawn, too, would revert quickly to dusk.
There are most certainly grounds for optimism and, on balance, the past 15 months have seen good progress. Since the February 2012 conference the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has been instrumental in pushing extremist group al Shabaab from a number of towns and cities. The terrorist group has been expelled from the main Somali towns and confidence is increasing in line with enhanced peace and stability. This is reflected in the return of significant numbers of those who had previously emigrated.
Making the most of recent stability
To capitalise on this progress, a second conference in London was decided upon and held earlier this week, on Tuesday, 7 May. There was a strong focus on improving security, justice, public financial management and political stability. The conference sought to garner more support for a country which now has a more legitimate government than it has seen for many decades, with a new parliament reflecting the country’s clan structure and a new president elected by the parliament. A reflection of the more recent stability is the recent opening of a new British Embassy in Mogadishu.
The UK Government’s official communiqué highlighted some of the challenges to be addressed:
- the need to build up the country’s armed forces
- to help combat the human rights abuses that have accompanied the conflict
- to support an anti-piracy naval force and to address issues of counter-terrorism.
And although it may seem a small and rather bureaucratic point, the establishment of an aid coordination unit within the Government’s structure to help organise the efforts of donors on the ground represents an important step in a long process to transition Somalia out of conflict, and towards peace and stability, and to entrust it with greater control over its own affairs.
Building relationships of trust
On Wednesday 8 May, a third conference took place – the ‘Somali Investment Conference’, hosted by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Department for International Development (DfID). Note the carefully chosen name of the event, designed to avoid some of the obvious political pitfalls. It had several hundred participants – one speaker claimed there were over 30 UK-based Somali Diaspora millionaires in the room keen to invest in their country, as well as many large companies and multinationals. Whilst the government of Somaliland decided not to attend (the Government of Somalia were represented), there were participants from all over the world, doing what the Somalis do as well as anyone else in the world – being entrepreneurial, cutting deals, seizing opportunities.
I was there specifically because a small group of us as founder directors have, with support from DfID, established a community interest company under UK law to encourage investment into Somaliland. Because it is not an internationally recognised entity it is unable to offer sovereign guarantees (more here). This has the potential to help build up the economic, trade and infrastructure links between Somaliland and its neighbours, whether to the north, east, south or west. This will be good for business, but will also be a factor in helping to build relationships of trust and mutual benefit which can ultimately underpin the political process.
Grounds for hope
No-one believes that political process will be easy. But perhaps these three conferences have between them helped to generate an upwards spiral, where cautious political progress can be matched by strengthening and deepening economic links between different regions, giving the international community the confidence to provide continuing support. Under those circumstances there are grounds for hope that Somalia can move from failed state – in the news only because of conflict, terror, famine and humanitarian crisis – to simply a fragile state to ultimately a middle income country.
How long might that take? I don’t know. But I am hugely encouraged by the fact that there is a fourth conference about to take place, in June 2013, in Nairobi. It is another investment conference, not this time being supported by the British Government, but put together on an entirely commercial basis in the region. That looks to me like progress. Fingers crossed.