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Is the London Somalia Conference 2017 another imperialist deja vu?

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 19:45 May 8, 2017

Somalis see no reason to trust this week’s conference in London after similar initiatives in the past did little to address the core issues.

In a deja vu situation that does not excite many Somalis, the United Kingdom announced that it will host a major international conference in London on Thursday, “to accelerate progress on security sector reform and agree the new international partnership needed to keep Somalia on course for increased peace and prosperity by 2020”.

It was in 2012 when the first London Conference on Somalia was held with the declared intention of helping Somalia to transform from a failed state to a stable nation with functioning government institutions. Somalia’s partners pledged millions of dollars for the beleaguered country’s reconstruction, including $77 million (Dh283.2 million) earmarked for rebuilding Somalia’s security forces. A year later, the European Union (EU) also pledged $2.4 billion at a conference in Brussels to enable the conflict-ridden Horn of African nation to stand on its feet.

At the time, the stubborn extremist group, Al Shabab, was quoted to have branded the EU pledges as “Belgian Waffles: Sweet on the outside, but really has not much substance to it”. They also predicted that the funds would remain an unpaid hollow promise or would be lost in corruption.

Almost five years after, it seems Al Shabab’s ominous prediction has unfortunately become a reality as what was dubbed as the New Deal ended up as ‘No deal’ and the millions of dollars pledged either never arrived or were used as a slush fund by the previous political leaders and their international cronies.

Instead of building government institutions, Somalia’s western partners and the country’s African neighbours contributed to the country’s disintegration into tribal enclaves and instead of rebuilding Somalia’s national army, the friendly countries’ geopolitical goals had become detrimental not only to the need of Somalia to have its own army but also to the real sovereignty of the Somali nation.

Since the last conference, Somalia’s break-up into bantustan-like enclaves had taken momentum with the help and encouragement of the international community. It is no wonder that Somalis, as most of Africa, see colonialism as a living reality and not a period in a bygone era.

Somalia was in the past divided into five parts by the European colonial powers. At independence, two of the five, namely the British Protectorate in the north and Italian Somalia in the south united to form the Somali Republic.

Unification bid

Immediately after independence, the Somali government, riding on a wave of nationalism, started campaigning for the unification of all the Somali people in the Horn of Africa. Being one of Africa’s most homogenous people, predominantly Muslim with one language, Somalia’s quest for the unification of the Somali territories raised alarm bells in the West more than it did in neighbouring countries with sizeable Somali communities. It is a known fact that Somalia occupies a geographically strategic position in the region, having the longest coast in Africa, stretching from the Gulf of Aden to the Indian Ocean.

This is one of the busiest shipping routes for maritime trade and seaborne oil supplies. During the Cold War period, Somali waters were one of the most contested areas between the former Soviet Union and the United States, with Moscow having a military base in Gulf of Aden port of Berbera and Washington taking a naval base in Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean. While the US and EU enjoyed strong relations with Somalia’s neighbouring countries of Ethiopia and Kenya, and most other African countries, Somalia had always remained an orphan nation — if not seen as a pariah in the region.

History also vouches for Somalis memory of their betrayal by European powers since the 16th century when, the Portuguese sided with the Abyssinian Kingdom against the invading Somali forces led by the legendary Ahmad Guray, known by the Ehiopians as Ahmad Gragn. Later, Somalia became the first African country where the British used aerial bombing against Syed Mohammad Abdullah Hassan’s dervish movement. It is through this worldview formulated by British betrayal and chicanery that the Somali people see the London Conference.

Ulterior motives

The general mindset of Somalis about the London Conference or any other conference that is held outside the country is just to view it as another imperialist deja vu of how Somalia was carved up in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Such conferences are never about the interest of Somali people, they are always about an ulterior motive; whether it is to end piracy that choked international trade, or to fight against the scarecrow of terrorism while real terrorism is left unhampered. The outcome is usually the prolonging of the presence of foreign forces and letting Somali territorial and maritime integrity to be violated on their watch.

It is not lost on Somalis that the 2012 conference came at the peak of piracy, which cost global trade $7 billion in 2011 alone. And now UK calls for the second conference after a recurrence of piracy attacks were reported in March this year.

Exhausted by conflict and cyclic droughts caused by environmental change, the Somali people are concerned only about survival and it’s due to this vulnerability that their country and resources have become a fair game for all.

The London Conference is therefore not about what it would do for the Somali people despite the declared objectives, but how much more it will hamper the Somali people’s capacity to own their own decisions and how much more of their sovereignty and nationhood they have to give up. One can dismiss this as a third mentality that hankers after conspiracy theories, but it is the lessons that Somalis learnt from the dozens of conferences held in their name and the millions of dollars pledged that only robbed them more of their dignity, their identity and their decision-making.

It echoes the spirit of an old Somali poem that Somalis often quote which says: “There is a man who searches [for] your lost camels with you, and sometimes works even harder than you do, but who deep inside his heart never wants you to find them.”

Bashir Goth is an African commentator on political, social and cultural issues.

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