FEBRUARY 23rd has been the biggest day in Somalia’s recent history. There is an expectation that today’s London conference on Somalia, organised by the British government and backed by almost all interested parties, will give the benighted country a chance to move forward. That does not mean that it will necessarily pull together. Asour story in this week’s paper makes clear, the plan is to give up on a centralised state, for now, and to concentrate instead strengthening local rule. But in order for Somalia to have any chance of making a cantonal arrangement of six or seven regions work, it must first get some important things right. Donors can play their part by coughing up cash and trying to make sure it is spent correctly, but Somalis have to do much better than they have done so far (though the country has not been without heroes; many courageous and tolerant Somalis have been killed by jihadists and warlords, often dying without any recognition from the outside world). For Baobab, the main challenges can be broken down into security, food and business.
Security: The London conference has to come up with ways to hammer Shabab bomber and sniper units, while creating opportunities to draw moderate Islamists into local administrations. The announcement, on February 10th, that the Shabab have officially joined al-Qaeda is unlikely to result in much of an operational surge. Indeed, it may present an opportunity to get on side those fighters who are more interested in Somalia than in waging global jihad. The Shabab are on the back foot. It is having to defend its territory from Kenyan forces in the south, Ethiopia and its proxies in the west, and from African Union troops in Mogadishu. The Kenyans have succeeded in repelling the Shabab from their border (although Shabab fighters still slip through to kidnap or kill Kenyans). The group has so far deterred an assault on their stronghold of Kismayo by threatening a bombing campaign in Kenya, which would wreck tourism and scare off foreign investment there.
Those conferring today need to address two immediate security challenges. The first is to limit the influence of Eritrea, which has often acted against the interests of ordinary Somalis by assisting the jihadists. The second is to help local Somalis and Kenyan forces to secure the buffer state of “Jubaland” along the Kenyan border, about 100km inland. Investment in education, health and jobs in Jubaland would encourage Somali refugees in the Dadaab refugee camp, just inside Kenya, to return home. It would also make northern Kenya safer and enable work to start planned oil drilling, a new super-port at Lamu, and a new city for 1m people.
Food: The second area the conference has to get right is food production. Somalia is a hungry country, reliant on food aid and commercial imports of wheat, pasta and oil. Its old Italian banana and tomato plantations are in ruins. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the Shabab still control most of the country’s breadbasket. The United Nations says 80,000 Somalis may have perished in last year’s famine. Conditions have improved considerably, but 2.3m people are still in need of assistance. The UN humanitarian chief for Somalia, Mark Bowden, says the priority is getting displaced people to return home from tented camps around Somalia, as well as from Dadaab: the World Food Programme claims to feed 400,000 people in and around Mogadishu alone. The Shabab have tentatively supported the idea of returns; they emphasise self-reliance. However, many displaced people were driven from their farms by the Shabab and fear runs deep.
Business: The third and most important area to address is business. Here there is plenty of reason to hope, not least because of the acumen of its traders, bankers and entrepreneurs. Donors need to build on this money-making instinct by supplying capital for loans to medium-sized Somali companies. “I want to see more carrots and less sticks,” says a Somali businessman. Investments would need to be varied, including industrial equipment for fishing companies and frankincense exporters, and an overhaul of the country’s destructive charcoal business to make it more sustainable. Somalis are also surprisingly nerdy. The country is one of the most advanced in Africa in terms of mobile phone and internet usage. That can be further encouraged by subsidising the cost of data uploads on mobile phones as well as paying for fibre-optic cables to be laid down.
The foremost investments, though, will have to be in livestock. Trade in cattle, camels, sheep and goats account for about half of Somalia’s exports. The country exported record numbers of animals last year, despite the famine. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation, $250m worth went to Saudi Arabia during the haj. The Saudis say they want to double that figure by 2013. A $50m investment to establish a national system of watering and veterinary points for animals being marched through the desert looks like a bargain, if it helps win over pastoralists.
Many Somali businesses can prosper without a helping hand. Take Somali money-transfer firms. The biggest of these is Dahabshiil. The Anglo-Somali outfit says its 5000 employees move most of the $1.6 billion in remittances to Somalia each year. The company’s boss, Abdirashi Duale, reckons the future of his company—and of Somalia itself—lies in the growing trade between African countries. He is expanding across Africa and hoping for a bigger share of the continent’s $40 billion in remittances. Similarly, connections abroad give Somali import and export companies an edge in selling electronics and household goods across Africa. That will probably continue even as they move to “regularise” their companies.
The cantonal arrangement does, however, look shaky in another way: taxes. How will they be paid? To whom? Direct taxes look to be a non-starter. Indirect taxes will be hard to administer. What happens if oil drilling goes ahead in Puntland? What kind of revenues should it send to Mogadishu? Does the oil, in fact, belong to Somalia at all, or only to the Puntlanders? Everyone agrees that the services provided by the new republic should be minimal, but how minimal? That raises a host of other questions. Should the revived republic have a navy? Who will run the central bank? Who will decide how many Somali shillings to print? Those in Mogadishu close to the transitional federal government argue for the trappings of state—but the argument seems to have moved decisively beyond that.