How Somalia conference can achieve peace

NAIROBI, Kenya — Hillary Clinton is among the key speakers at an international conference on Somalia convened in London by Prime Minister David Cameron today aimed at lending "new momentum" to efforts to end the country's longstanding chaos which has spawned piracy and kidnapping, terrorism and famine.

The guest list is impressive: Britain's Prime Minister and the US Secretary of State are joined by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, the presidents of Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti who all contribute troops to the African Union peacekeeping mission (AMISOM), other African leaders from Kenya, Ethiopia and Nigeria and senior representatives from Arab and Muslim nations including Qatar, Turkey and the UAE.

There are also some Somalis, among them President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali and other leaders for the soon-to-expire Transitional Federal Government (TFG), leaders of the government-allied Sufi militia Alhu Sunna Wal Jamaa and semi-autonomous regional authorities from Somaliland, Puntland, Galmudug and elsewhere.

In all there are representatives of more than 50 countries crowding into London's Lancaster House for the day-long summit. There is also a healthy dose of skepticism tempering all the talk of "historic moments" and "windows of opportunity".

Yes, the jihadist Al Shabaab are on the backfoot and Mogadishu feels safer today than it has in years but international conferences on Somalia are nothing new, nor are fine words and promises (from donors and Somalis alike).

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There will be much discussion of terrorism, in particular the fear that young Western-passport holding Somalis will be trained in Shabaab camps and visit destruction on the streets of their home towns in the US or Europe. This is something Britain is particularly concerned about and a key driver for the timing of this particular conference just months before the London Olympics.

On the military side AMISOM has already received a boost with the UN Security Council decision on Wednesday to back an increase in its troop numbers from 12,000 to 17,700 which will pile the military pressure on the Shabaab. There has been talk in recent days of air strikes against Shabaab targets, supplementing the unilateral drone strikes that Washington already orders.

There will also be talk of stopping the piracy that is thought to have cost the world economy around $7 billion last year, and of preventing a repeat of last year's famine that killed tens of thousands and threatened the lives of millions more.

But conferences have come and gone since 1991 when the last central Somali government — itself a venal dictatorship — collapsed and none have provided creative solutions that take into consideration the desires of ordinary Somalis. This one shows little sign of being much different. What will matter is not the talking today in London but what comes next: whether Somali leaders and international powers back their words with actions.

Some of the actions that might help are these: A concerted and well-funded military effort is needed to defeat the Shabaab but this must go hand-in-hand with political negotiations, however unpalatable the US and others might find this. That might bring security and will allow food aid to reach more of the population.

To stop piracy there must be economic alternatives in the coastal communities from which most pirates come.

And to create a functioning government the West and Somalia's current leaders must abandon hopes of a centralized administration, allowing instead a federal system devolving power to local leaders who can find local solutions.

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