SOMALIA: Optimism over peace conference despite violence

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Organisers of the Somali national reconciliation conference are optimistic it will be on schedule, but observers warn that very little can be achieved unless questions over representation and ongoing violence are first resolved.

"We are moving as planned and the conference will begin on 15 July," Abdulkadir Walayo, media adviser to the National Governance and Reconciliation Commission (NGRC), which is organising the conference, said.

"The conference will be a success and all who need to be there, will be there," he told IRIN. "Contacts are under way with the opposition."

Calling for patience, Walayo added: "The early stages of the conference will be about forgiveness and clan reconciliation."

This view was echoed by Somalia's interim President Abdullahi Yusuf, who told reporters on 12 July in the capital of Mogadishu that no matter what happens, the conference would go ahead as planned.

"No matter how much violence escalates in Mogadishu, our will will not be broken," he added. "Even if a nuclear bomb explodes in [the conference] will be held as scheduled."

Violence the biggest threat

Designed to bring together all actors in the Somali conflict to forge a way forward for the war-torn country, the conference has been postponed three times amid threats of violence and fears that some of the key personalities would not attend.

But according to analysts, the biggest threat remains the escalating violence. Mogadishu, where the talks are due to be held, has in recent weeks witnessed daily bomb blasts and killings of civilians, hampering humanitarian operations by aid groups.
"The excluded groups would like to scuttle the conference to demonstrate to the world that the TFG [Transitional Federal Government] does not have support on the ground," said Timothy Othieno, Horn of Africa analyst at the Institute for Global Dialogue in Johannesburg.

Citing a recent attack that targeted Villa Somalia, the presidential palace and venue for the conference, Othieno said more such attacks could threaten the conference.

"The TFG needs to bite the bullet, set its personal differences aside and compromise to allow, unconditionally, the UIC [Union of Islamic Courts] and Hawiye clan and other prohibited groups to attend the conference," he added.

Walayo, however, dismissed fears over security, saying Somali and African Union forces would ensure every delegate was safe.

Organisational problems

Analysts also caution that preparations for the historic meeting have not been properly handled. "Given the exclusive nature and haphazard manner [in which] the conference has been organised, it may not even take place," said Othieno.

With only days to go, various clan and civil society leaders are complaining over representation, selection of delegates and the likely TFG dominance over the conference.

"The NGRC has yet to make clear who will select the representatives of the clans," one civil society leader said. "Is it the government or the elders - and which elders?"

According to him, all participants should be equal, but the "perception of many is that this is a conference dominated by the TFG".
Hassan Warsame, the vice-president and co-founder of the Somali Diaspora Network (SDN), a lobby group, concurred. "The TFG has appointed the chairman and other members of the committee and is setting the agenda," he said. "It has also selected the venue and will ultimately control the final outcome."

According to Warsame, the primary focus of the conference should be to establish a legitimate unity government that upholds the Transitional Federal Charter and respects the system of checks and balances mandated by the charter.

Other leaders point out that for the conference to succeed, it had to involve the political wing of the UIC and all elements of the Hawiye clan, which is dominant in Mogadishu. The UIC, which controlled much of south and central Somalia, including the capital, was ousted in December by Ethiopian and TFG forces.

Ahmed Diriye, a member of the Hawiye elders' council, said his clan supported a reconciliation conference but the conditions were not right. "Mogadishu is a war zone and occupied by a foreign force," he said. "It is neither neutral nor secure."

He also called for the departure of Ethiopian forces and confidence-building measures from the government, such as the release of thousands of people detained since December.

Calls for consensus

According to the civil society source, the conference would have greater success if it were delayed to allow further consultations and consensus-building with opponents, while Warsame believes "a strong involvement by the international community in mediating can also help salvage the conference. They are the only ones with any influence on both sides."
Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed of the UIC said it had not been invited to the conference. "Even then, for any genuine Somali dialogue to take place inside the country, there has to be immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the Ethiopian troops from Somalia."

The interim Somali president told reporters his government wanted all parties to attend the talks. "We are extending an amnesty for those who fought against us, particularly the Islamic fighters," Yusuf said, adding that his government was also talking to the Hawiye clan.

Observers say the stakes are high. Should the conference succeed, then Somalia, which has had no functional government for more than one-and-a-half decades, could turn the corner. At least 1,000 delegates as well as Somalia's development partners are expected to attend.

"Most clans were keen to participate and had already put forward the names of their delegates," Walayo said as workers at the former police compound continued putting final touches to the venue.

"It [the venue] should be ready by Sunday [15 July]," he added.

Source: IRIN
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