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If all goes well, Somalia soon may have a government

Seen by World Bank and UN monitoring group as ‘corrupt’ and ‘incompetent,’ Somalia’s interim government has a deadline within a month to transition to a permanent government.

By Aug. 20, Somalia’s rulers must make the crucial step, going from being an unelected interim authority toward creating a more lasting government. But this target – set last September at a United Nations-backed meeting in Somali’s capital Mogadishu – may not be reached, many Somalia-watchers say, unless Somalia’s governing authority shows some commitment to the task.

Several deadlines set out in last year’s agreements have been missed, including the convening of a constituent assembly and the adoption of a new constitution.

And a recently leaked UN report alleges “pervasive corruption” at the heart of the transitional federal government, implicating leading political figures in allegedly corrupt deals.

“The transition is definitely troubled,” says Rashid Abdi, an expert on Somalia and an editor at Kenya’s Daily Nation. “It is over-optimistic to believe that everything will work out smoothly and on time. “

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“Government officials admit that they don’t have a plan B, so quick decisions will be needed to complete the process in the short time remaining,” says Abdirashid Hashi, Somalia analyst at the think tank International Crisis Group. “It means that the process could be bumpy and difficult, and perhaps not as transparent as it should be.”

After more than 20 years of internal conflict, it is perhaps remarkable that Somalia has a government at all, even a weak one. The current Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed is the fourteenth attempt to create a government after the fall of President Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991, and it spent its first three years operating in the neighboring country of Kenya. When the TFG finally finally moved to Mogadishu in 2007, following several defeats of a fundamentalist Islamic Courts Union, it did little to impress Somalis or foreign diplomats. Friendly diplomats and even government supporters call the TFG “corrupt.”

In theory, all of that will change by next month. Somalia’s parliamentarians will vote for a new president, and then set about organizing a referendum on a permanent constitution. There is one hitch. The parliamentarians who would select the president – many of them chosen through protracted negotiations among clan elders – themselves have yet to be named by the constituent assembly.

Infighting and disputes about the constitution have all bogged down the political process, threatening to delay the completion of the transition.

“The timetable is artificial – the deadline is very tight and it will inevitably have to be pushed back,” added Mr. Abdi.

“The president may not be elected on 20th August,” agreed Ahmed Soliman, Horn of Africa researcher at the London-based think tank Chatham House. “But while the timelines that have been set may not be met, the progression is definitely there.”

The United Nations, which is providing political support to the transition, emphasizes the progress that has been made up until this point.

“Just over a year ago, the political process was completely paralyzed,” says Nick Birnback, spokesperson for the UN Political Office for Somalia.

“A remarkable amount of progress has been achieved since then. The transition is not the end of the process but it is the first step on the way forward.”

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If a new president is successfully elected by Aug. 20, many experts believe that the current head of state – Sheikh Sharif Ahmed – may hold on to the top job.

Sheikh Ahmed is one of the senior government officials named in the leaked report of the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, which raises concerns about the future of governance in the volatile country.

The report – which has been submitted to the UN Security Council – says that 70 percent of state revenues were stolen or squandered during 2009-2010, while in 2011 almost a quarter of total government expenditures were “absorbed” by the offices of the president, prime minister, and speaker.

The report also alleges that the government – with the “authorization” of Sheikh Ahmed – issued a diplomatic passport to a top pirate leader.

Somalia’s leadership has firmly rejected the allegations in the leaked report, with Sheikh Ahmed describing it as “one-sided.”

But the allegations correspond with those made in a May 2012 World Bank report. World Bank auditors found that the government had not accounted for most of the funds it received in 2009 and 2010.

According to the report, auditors found that the government collected over $94 million in revenues in 2009 but had reported receipt of only $11 million.

The former head of Somalia’s public finance unit, Abdirizak Fartaag, had in an earlier unofficial report highlighted budgetary discrepancies that implied corruption and misappropriation of funds.

Despite the obstacles, Birnback remains optimistic. “This is simply the best chance Somalia has had for peace in two decades,” he said.

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“There is significant international pressure and pressures within Somalia from backers of the roadmap to make sure that this process is carried through to its completion,” added Soliman.

As the country – devastated by twenty years of war – counts down the last four weeks of the transition, many will be holding their breath in the hope that it will mark at least a small step towards peace and stability, and not a move in the opposite direction.