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Will a London conference help set Somalia on path to peace?

After two decades of despair, there are tangible signs of progress in Somalia.

African Union forces, together with the armies of Kenya and Ethiopia have managed to push back an Al-Qaeda-allied militia force and create the kind of breathing space that the Somali government needs to start functioning. Food aid donations and successful crops have helped end Somalia’s worst famine in more than 20 years.

Now, donor nations and regional partners are gathering in London for a British-sponsored conference starting tomorrow to help figure out a way forward that could lead to sustainable peace in Somalia. Donor groups, Somali politicians and activists, and neighboring allies such as Ethiopia and Kenya will be gathering to discuss security, humanitarian efforts, internal politics, and the perennial question of how to break the cycle of violence within Somalia.

Among the topics that are guaranteed to draw the most attention is how much international players like the United Nations and the African Union should intervene and how much military force should be used in the intervention. Britain is considering air strikes against the Islamist Al Shabab, reports the Guardian newspaper. The United Nations is expected to vote this week to send 5,700 peacekeepers to augment a 12,000 strong African Union peacekeeping force. And aid groups are issuing appeals to keep the supply of food and other aid flowing to meet the needs of some 1.5 million people displaced by war.

Given that Somalia has not had effective peace for more than 20 years, it’s hard to imagine how a single conference could solve all the accumulated problems. But the costs of failure are steep.

“It matters for the Somali people if we make progress, but it also matters for the rest of the world,” said David Cameron, the British prime minister, in a BBC interview. “While the problems are very deep and the challenges are very great, I do see some signs of progress.”

Rather than leave young Somali expatriates living in Britain and in America continue to live without hope of peace, and thus to be easily recruited by either pirate gangs or by the Al-Qaeda-linked militia, Cameron believes the time has come for renewed international commitment to helping Somalia to solve its political and humanitarian problems.

“…let us give this country and its young people the hope of a job and a voice,” said Mr. Cameron.

"We could see it all across north Africa, the prospects of an Arab Spring, where people actually start to have more of a say in their country and how it's run, and that should be the case in Somalia as well as in the Arab world."

For aid groups and Horn of Africa experts, the London Conference is both an opportunity and a cause for concern. Humanitarian groups welcome the renewed interest in Somalia after decades of inaction and torpor, but some aid workers fret that an action plan that relies on military force instead of political negotiation could actually make things much worse in Somalia, and for the hundreds of thousands of Somalis who rely on aid for their survival.

“It is time for a new vision of engagement that meets Somalis’ immediate and future needs, while providing the space for a negotiated peace process that puts Somalia on the road to recovery," said Barbara Stocking, Oxfam's chief executive, in an emailed statement. "Those attending the London Somalia Conference must seize this opportunity and help start the process to address the causes of the conflict in Somalia and put the interests and aspirations of the Somali people centre stage.”  

In a report issued Wednesday, Oxfam called for less reliance on military solutions and more reliance on negotiations to ensure aid work can continue.

“The perception in many of the world’s capitals is that military action will improve security both in the region and for Somali civilians, but the reality to date has often been very different,” says the Oxfam report, “A Shift in Focus.” “So far, moving front lines, a wider area in open conflict, and shifting control of populated areas by the various parties have in many cases had the effect of jeopardising an already precarious and limited space for providing humanitarian assistance to those in need.”

The West has renewed its attention on Somalia in recent years because Somalia’s dysfunctionality has finally begun to spill over its borders to affect the outside world. Lack of job opportunities in Somalia has pushed a generation of young men into criminal activity, including high-seas piracy and kidnapping for ransom. Lack of effective law enforcement on Somali territory has forced the international community to solve this problem by patrolling the waters off the Somali coast and key sea lanes of the Indian Ocean. But patrolling hasn’t solved piracy, notes the East African Seafarers Association. In fact, pirates have merely moved farther out to sea, and the number of attacks has actually increased.

More recently, a domestic Islamist militia group, Al Shabab, has aligned itself with Al Qaeda, and carried out a number of suicide bomb attacks since July 2010 that indicate the group is prepared to wage a terrorist war abroad.

Yet, neither of these problems — piracy or terrorism — can be solved through mere military action, says the International Crisis Group. In a report issued Wednesday, Crisis Group argues that the solution is the creation of an effective and inclusive government in Somalia that can establish its authority and begin to chip away at problems of lawlessness, poverty, and conflict.

“The root cause of Somalia’s many troubles — terrorism, piracy, periodic famine and constant streams of refugees — is collapse of effective governance, with resulting chronic conflict, lawlessness and poverty,” says the report, “Somalia: an Opportunity that Should not be missed.” “The most effective and durable solution to these ills is to build gradually an inclusive, more federal government structure that most clans can support. Otherwise, Al-Shabaab (or some similar successor) and other disparate groups of would-be strongmen with guns will exploit continued dissatisfaction with Mogadishu and innate Somali hostility to ‘foreign occupation.’”

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