ISTANBUL, May 31st/June 1st -- IDLO Director-General Irene Khan is taking part in a conference on the future of Somalia in Istanbul, as the organization seeks to aid progress towards a constitutional settlement in the shattered country. The Somali environment is arguably the most complex and fractious in which IDLO has worked to date, both advising on a new fundamental law and helping build legitimacy behind it.
“The test of the constitution is not in the text, but whether the people of Somalia will have confidence in it and we are committed to facilitating a transparent, consultative process," Ms. Khan will tell the conference.
The Istanbul conference follows a similar gathering in London in February. The Turkish hosts believe the impetus now exists for key pieces of the Somali jigsaw to fall into place. Ankara prides itself on its conflict mediation skills: the conference crowns months of confidence-building and soft-power projection.
Uniquely, while foreign envoys to Somalia tend to live in the comparative safety and comfort of Nairobi, Turkish embassy staff and their families have taken up residence in Mogadishu. Turkey, meanwhile, is the only country whose national airline, THY, operates regular flights into the Somali capital.
Yet if the Turks are very much pioneers, they may soon be joined by others as security conditions improve in and around Mogadishu. The territory held by the Islamist al-Shabaab militia continues to shrink under the combined assault of Kenyan, Ethiopian, African Union and Somali forces. The battle is still far from decided: a string of attacks blamed on al-Shabaab, in both Kenya and Somalia, suggests the al-Qaeda affiliated group has retained a capacity to inflict serious damage. Just days ago, Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed narrowly survived an attempt on his life, while travelling to a recaptured town.
Even so, the city of Mogadishu appears to be enjoying its longest period of relative peace in over two decades. As BBC editor and Somalia expert Mary Harper shows in a recent book, Getting Somalia Wrong,* Somalis have a knack for filling every crack in their country’s misfortune with ingenuity and entrepreneurship. Al-Shabaab’s retrenchment from the capital has allowed commerce and private initiative to flourish more visibly than at any time since 1991. Recent developments there hint at Somalia’s wider potential for self-reinvention — if only the politics would follow.
Now, finally, it looks as if they might. After months of confusion and disagreement, a meeting of key Somali political players in Ethiopia on May 24 produced a detailed timetable to end the transition. It says a new Somali parliament must be in place by July 20, which in turn, will elect a new president by August 20. Prior to that, in June, a new Constituent Assembly is to sit in session for the first time, tasked with considering — and provisionally adopting — a draft constitution.
The draft constitution has been produced by a committee of Somali experts with support and advice from international partners including IDLO. Transparency, accountability and public participation are best practice for constitution making, but not easy to follow in the Somali context. Although the current Transitional Federal Charter envisions the constitution to be adopted by referendum, this will not happen now for security reasons. In the absence of democratic elections, authority in Somalia continues to be derived and devolved along traditional lines, which does not guarantee fair representation. Fewer than 140 Somali elders will nominate delegates to the National Constituent Assembly who will then provisionally adopt the constitution.
The fact that Somalia remains splintered, both administratively and militarily, further complicates things, while a vibrant Somali diaspora add their own articulate, but often discordant, voice to the mix. Turkey’s deal-brokering itself is not universally applauded: there was, until the last moment, uncertainty about whether some key Somali players, including the president of the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, would attend the Istanbul conference.
The draft constitution has been criticised by some Somali groups as having been drawn up behind closed doors. To remedy that perception, IDLO, as well as the UN, have facilitated a series of grassroots consultation exercises, or ‘townhall meetings’. Several meetings have also been held involving refugees, Somali intellectuals and other leading figures, as well as diaspora in the West. “IDLO,” Ms Khan says, “has put people in the same room who’d never come together before.”
The most recent consultation, in mid-May, took place in Mogadishu itself, in cooperation with the United Nations: it focused on media freedom and fundamental rights. IDLO is hoping to stage more such meetings in the Somali capital soon, which will move beyond the constitution’s specifics to explain the procedural steps ahead.
The constitution will leave untouched Somalia’s traditional laws which form a complex web. BBC’s Ms Harper points out that “different ‘rules of law’ apply in different regions and different circumstances. Traditional law has re-emerged as a powerful and useful tool,” she explains. “[The late dictator Mohammed] Siad Barre tried to crush it, but I think it is stronger than pretty much anything. It serves as a justice and insurance system, and is pretty effective.”
In Somalia, IDLO has been deploying its law-building capacity in its most challenging configuration yet. Many of the factors on which success depends are beyond the organization’s control. But fraught as it is, the effort is a valiant one, testing the power to roll back the very edge of state failure.
*Zed Books, London, 2012 (http://zedbooks.co.uk/paperback/getting-somalia-wrong)