Building Consensus For A New Somalia

09/16/2013 03:48 pm ET | Updated Nov 16, 2013

Mogadishu has witnessed the arrival of new development, returning diaspora and foreign investment at a pace unseen for decades, creating a powerful constituency invested in peace and generating hope that the new era of stability in Somalia will last.

Events, however, this summer reflect a fundamental yet unresolved challenge -- how to convert military success into political stability. Last week's bombings in the capital, including an attempt on the President's life, follow hard on the tail of fighting in Kismayo, a horrific attack on the UN and al Shabaab's unopposed re-occupation of areas vacated by Ethiopian troops. They speak of more than just a fragile peace, serious cracks in the strategy are emerging.

While Somalia remains entirely reliant on outside support, the international community has the opportunity to reconsider more fundamental issues before it heaps funds on institutions and reinforces a system with under-developed popular legitimacy.

Undoubtedly, Somalia is important to the national security interests of US, as the State Department reminded us last summer. More recently, a number of domestic criminal prosecutions against Somalis with terrorist connections reveal an ongoing concern that Somalia continues to matter to the US.

Far from the US ensnaring themselves further in a comprehensive nation-building project there is an important role in nurturing and protecting broad-based political dialogue that is genuinely Somali. What the US and her international partners lobby for next matters. Pushing too far, too fast in the wrong direction ultimately risks putting Somalia back to the top of the list of terrorist havens.

The military gains made, resulting from the sacrifice of so many African soldiers and the patient funding of the US and others, are startling. Yet, this can only be the precursor to a more difficult process which now requires the sort of political boldness and leadership displayed by the soldiers.

In a recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, long-time Somalia analyst, Matt Bryden, describes the underlying conflict dynamics and omissions in the current political agenda. There are three urgent reasons for why the US must help Somalia to restart public debate about its constitutional future, and ensure the foundations of a stable state are laid.

First, the Somali Federal Government is clinging to a paper-thin sense of domestic legitimacy; it owes its survival to a combination of western money, African soldiers, regional and Middle Eastern goodwill but governs little outside the capital and has a dangerously small following in the country itself. The arrangement recently brokered between the Federal Government and the self-declared Jubbaland Administration acknowledging it's existence but limiting it to an interim mandate is an important step forward but a stopgap nonetheless. The capital still has the opportunity to add value by campaigning for support from people and groups outside the capital in order to increase consent for the system.

Second, there is an urgent need to demonstrate commitment to moving discussions about Somalia's future forward, in accordance with the terms of the agreement that brought the Federal Government into power in the first place. The constitution remains provisional because it is palpably incomplete, with areas like federalism, left for future discussion at the time of signing. A thorough and patient debate about the national identity and future society, distribution of power, responsibilities and resources is a necessary prerequisite for any referendum and widespread consensus to be reached.

Third, ongoing Somali support for the presence of the African Union troops depends on a mandate that works at the local level, as well as in the capital. Consent for the force teetered on the edge earlier this year when one contingent, the Kenyans, were seen to be on the wrong side of a battle between the Federal Government it is required to protect, and the Jubbaland administration. Neither the African force, the steadfast central pillar of peace in Somalia, or its backers cannot afford to see popular support being eroded.

When the extremist insurgency, al Shabaab, suddenly retreated from the capital in 2011, I saw first-hand in Mogadishu steps towards building a political strategy that continues to emerge two years later. The constitution leaves unreconciled an adherence to Islamic Sharia and a western code of human rights, reflecting the polarizing influences on Somali notions of justice. For some, this is the heart of the conflict and will remain a rallying call until a meaningful reconciliation process, like that which is only now occurring in Afghanistan, is urged forward.

There can be no silver bullet to a country riven by decades of conflict. Externally imposed solutions will not work and no constitution can remedy all political differences. Turning the page on the War on Terror demands a more thoroughly diplomatic, more Somali-centered approach. Undoubtedly, the approach to debating Somalia's constitution will need to be as patient as it is imaginative, especially when the idea of discussing territorial limits and federalism attracts so much hostility. Still, little else provides such a powerful symbolic and substantial mechanism for generating national unity in a country where cracks threaten to divide the people of Somalia once again.