Government pledges to improve its peoples’ lives in return for $2.4bn in aid, but critics remain sceptical.
Hargeisa, Somaliland – In Brussels, it was hailed as a “New Deal” for Somalia. That after more than two decades of killing and chaos, the Horn of Africa country now has a government and enough international backing to start delivering peace and economic growth for its people.
The agreement on Monday between rich donors and Somalia’s one-year-old government in Mogadishu involves plans for general elections by 2016, a new constitution and security gains, in return for international funding pledges estimated at about $2.4bn.
But back in Somalia, the Euro-gathering was not seen as incentive enough for people to throw their lot in with a government in Mogadishu that depends upon foreign soldiers, and has yet to stamp its authority across much of the fragmented nation.
“The government in Mogadishu is not a full government because it doesn’t control the country. It’s still a baby,” said Mohamed Jamal Emil, a 21-year-old living in a camp outside Hargeisa, the main city of the self-governing northern region of Somaliland.
“Here in Somaliland, we don’t want to join Somalia. People die there every day; militiamen kill people endlessly. When the former Somali government controlled the country, many Somalilanders were murdered. It was a long time ago, but we remember.”
Similar concerns are echoed further south in Garowe, the main city of Puntland, a northeastern breakaway region that is within the federal structure but exercises substantial autonomy, and cut ties with Mogadishu in a row last month.
“We need to see somebody serving Somali people without corruption and regardless of clan and colour. Then the people will feel the trust and return,” Kasim Abdulkhadir Elmi, a teacher at a college in Garowe, told Al Jazeera.
“The last three presidents have only managed to hold Mogadishu. They need to get international actors out, hold Mogadishu and hold southern Somalia. Then, with good administration, they can come to Puntland and ask us to join with them.”
Trust the government?
Opinion is divided over whether Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who is based in the capital Mogadishu, can capitalise on military gains against Islamists to restore nationwide security, promote growth and bring breakaway regions back into the fold.
Optimists point to the decline in piracy off Somalia’s lawless coast, which fell by 93 percent the past two years. Mogadishu is a fast-changing city, with an influx of Somalis returning from overseas to open shops and businesses in its bullet-ridden buildings.
Mohamud, who celebrated one year in office earlier this month, described a unique chance to “remove any threat of a return to anarchy and conflict”.
Nicholas Kay, the UN’s special envoy to Somalia, said the government is “on the brink of achieving great things” and ending the chaos that has blighted Somalia since dictator Siad Barre was toppled in 1991.
But others remain sceptical about progress. They point to secessionists, corruption, rights abuses, a deadly polio outbreak, and relentless attacks by al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda linked militants who seek to oust the government.
A bomb blast this month in the Village restaurant in Mogadishu, a popular haunt of government workers and journalists, claimed 15 lives and marked the latest al-Shabab raid to prove that the group still threatens the capital two years after it was kicked out.
The hard-line Islamists described the meeting as a “Belgian waffle” on Twitter. They predict that the “billions promised will most likely be unpaid, the paltry sum given to the apostates” – its term for the Somali government – “will be lost in corruption”.
A recent UN report estimates that al-Shabab is still about 5,000 strong and is the “principal threat to peace and security” despite being forced from Mogadishu, the southern port of Kismayo, and other key towns by 17,700 African Union (AU) troops and cash-strapped national forces.
The Heritage Institute, a Mogadishu-based think-tank, warned that only 15 percent of funding in the EU-backed deal would bolster security in a country where African Union troops are “spread thin” and al-Shabab is regrouping.
“They are emphasising providing services and economic performance,”said deputy director Abdirashid Hashi.”These are good things. But security, reconciliation and stitching the country back together should come first.”
In a study for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the analyst Matt Bryden said an influx of aid workers, returnees and investors has created an “artificial, almost surreal bubble of optimism” in Mogadishu that was not replicated elsewhere.
The campaign group Amnesty International has criticised “large-scale human rights abuses” when camp-dwellers were evicted in Mogadishu this year. Doctors Without Borders, an aid group, pulled out of Somalia in August because of a “barrage of attacks”, including kidnappings and killings.
Mogadishu has struggled to wield influence over Somaliland and Puntland for years. Last month, the southern region of Jubaland brokered a two-year transition deal, in which it will be run by Ahmad Muhammad Islam, a regional strongman known by the nickname “Madobe”.
The World Health Organization describes a polio outbreak that has infected 179 people in the region this year. Many Somalis fear cash transfers from overseas relatives will dry up when Barclays closes accounts for Somali transfer brokers later this month.
Corruption remains a key issue for donors. In July, UN monitors said Mogadishu’s central bank was a “slush fund” for politicians and accused the governor of irregularities. The government denies this and accused the report authors of launching “obsessive and unrelenting” attacks on its credibility.
“Somalia doesn’t have public financial management systems in place, so the findings of the UN report are not surprising,” said Michele Cervone d’Urso, the EU’s envoy to Somalia. “But that’s not a reason not to engage. We need to be cautious. We need to help them develop more robust financial systems.”
Back in Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland, the view of Mogadishu is less rosy. The city, which is home to pizzerias and spas and recently hosted festivals for literature and home-grown crafts, is worlds apart from the battle-scarred cities further south.
“Maybe there is one person in Somaliland who would want to rejoin with Somalia,” said Hoden Omer, who provides legal help to rape victims. “Almost everybody else would say no.”