Leaders from over 40 countries are gathering in London this week, at the behest of British Prime Minister David Cameron, to catalyze the transformation of Somalia into a peaceful, stable state again. Somalia is currently regarded as top of the list of failed states. Pirates run riot off its coast, rendering international maritime trade activity near the Horn of Africa riskier than ever, resulting in ever higher insurance fees for vessels plying that route. Piracy is not the biggest headache of Somalia--Al-Shabab may possibly be. Controlling significant portions of southern Somalia and having affiliation with the Alqaeeda terrorist network, Al-Shabab hopes to eventually bring the entire country under a harsh form of Sharia law: you know, lash women for wearing pants, chop off hands for stealing, etc.
So why is Britain worried about Somalia? Well, the UK is home to the one of largest groups of Somalis outside Somalia. A significant percentage of this demography is made up of many young and restless males, ripe for radicalization. With the London 2012 summer Olympic games just four months away, the UK maybe worried these young men may become home-grown terrorists. Some of these young Somalis are British nationals (some were born in the United Kingdom) but have traveled to their Somalia homeland and have brought back sophisticated skills in bomb-making, some have also brought back radical ideas, which they pass along to others. These threats can go beyond the London games, and Mr. Cameron seems to want to prevent that.
An understanding of the Somalia problems requires a review of key events leading to current state of chaos. Following the overthrow of the 22-year Barre administration and the appointment of a transitional government in 1991, certain power-brokers who had helped oust the previous government disagreed with the choice of new head of government. This disagreement led to an armed struggle for power, resulting in the Somalia civil war, which devastated the country's capital, Mogadishu. This state of affairs led Somaliland to secede and declare itself independent from Somalia, and it's been doing relatively better than the home country ever since.
A peace initiative in Somalia needs to take the different entities that constitute greater Somalia into stock. Since 1991, no central government in Somalia has succeeded in controlling the entire country. In fact Somalia is a fragmented country, with different bits having varied degrees of autonomy. To the northwest is Somaliland, an autonomous and relatively stable polity but unrecognized by the international community as a state. Puntland, another self-governing region, is located in the northeast. Al-Shabab control significant portions of South Somalia, whereas the internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government, backed by Ethiopia, controls some parts of the capital and some other regions at the center of the country. The TFG's mandate is due to expire this year, and some efforts are ongoing to hold elections.
So what's the way forward? Somalias despite their predicament are fiercely defensive of the "sovereignty," especially when foreign powers are concerned. Despite their radical ways, Al-Shabab cannot be ignored in any peace negotiations. Critics of the latest initiative predict that it will end as the others did: all talk, little action. They contend that for leaders to sit in faraway London and decide the fate of Somalis shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the conflict and the factors that fuel. A better way forward, some hold, is to hold the conference closer to home, invite all who matter, and involve as many local players as possible, with the Africa Union playing a more active role. Doing this will make resolutions more acceptable to Somalians, who would the see these new initiatives are genuine efforts at peace-bringing, rather than another obnoxious action foisted on them by an ever-interfering Western world.