x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Somalis finally have a window of opportunity

Things are certainly not perfect but the fact that the one-time failed state is getting a new government is welcome news.

Nothing is ever easy in politics, and Somalia's formation of a new government has been hobbled by disagreements. The election of a president has been delayed. And the incumbent politicians are accused of cronyism and corruption.

Just two years ago, such a situation would have been called one thing: remarkable progress.

Somalia has been mired in chaos for more than two decades, subjected to successive famines, warlord rule and a disastrous US intervention. For much of the past decade, the international community had all but given up on assisting a transition to stability.

Yet yesterday, a new parliament was being sworn in after 225 members out of 275 were chosen to represent the country. The subsequent parliamentary vote for a new president will see a new Somali government after eight years of transitional government rule.

The process has been fraught with disagreement. The country's main clans still define Somali politics, but those groups have been brought into the political process. The presidency remains a bone of contention, with three leading politicians - including the current president Sharif Ahmed, the prime minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali and the parliament speaker Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden - all jostling for the job.

Politics, even messy politics, is a welcome change. The transitional government that is being retired this week controlled little more than a few blocks of Mogadishu as recently as two years ago, and that territory was only guaranteed by a line of African Union tanks. The rule of the gun left ordinary Somalis to eke out a hard-scrabble livelihood in a state of perpetual uncertainty, while the vacuum of central power allowed Somali pirates to threaten international shipping even near UAE territorial waters.

Another symptom of chronic instability was last year's famine that killed thousands, and left hundreds of thousands dependent on international aid. Without stability, more such catastrophes are inevitable.

In the year since, however, the Islamist extremist group, Al Shabaab, has been driven from Mogadishu and other strongholds. It maintains strength in the south, but for the time being African Union forces hold it off.

The conflict is hardly won, but today's peace in Mogadishu is a chance not to be missed. Somalia - long-considered a failed state - can begin rebuilding. African Union forces and foreign aid can help to set the circumstances for this transition, but ultimately Somalis will decide Somalia's fate. In the next days and weeks, politicians must prove that they understand that this is not an open-ended opportunity.