ARLINGTON, Va., June 7 (UPI) -- The establishment of the new semi-autonomous Somali Jubaland state is a step in the right direction for a stable Somalia but the region isn't in the clear yet.
Three weeks ago saw the turning of a significant corner in modern Somali history: a vote for the transparently elected leadership of the newly declared Jubaland state. On May 15 hundreds of clan representatives from throughout the region voted Sheik Ahmed Mohamed Islam -- aka "Ahmed Madobe" -- to serve as president, with a General Fartag reported to have been selected to serve as vice president of Jubaland.
As it turns out, though, around the corner laid a number of hurdles for the newly formed state government.
Mere hours after the announcement that Madobe had won the presidency, a rival clansman, militia commander and former Somali minister of defense with the Transitional Federal Government named Barre Adan Shire Hirale declared himself the electoral victor.
While the conflicting claim was quickly rejected by designated clan representatives, it has been reported that some sources accused the Somali Federal Government of secretly backing the surprise self-declaration.
Although the electoral process itself can be seen as a victory, caustic remarks challenging the legitimacy of the election process were made by SFG President Hassan Sheik Mohamud at an orphanage opening May 19 in Mogadishu. His statements indicated that his government recognized neither the process nor the outcome of the election as adhering to requirements outlined in the Provisional Constitution of the Federal Republic of Somalia.
Although the outcomes have been rejected, the process and affiliates of the Kismayo Convention, as the governance design process has been dubbed, were well known to SFG members since its activities began under the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development.
In order to understand the motivation of the interested parties, it is important to appreciate the setting in which these disputes are occurring. The newly branded Jubaland state, which shares borders with Kenya to the southwest and Ethiopia to the north, is Somalia's southernmost territory and is composed of the three administrative regions of Gedo, Middle Juba, and Lower Juba. Though these are potentially rich agricultural regions with regular seasonal rainfall, reliably flowing rivers, relatively preserved forests and fertile land for farming and herding, it is the port city of Kismayo that is the jewel in the crown of the nascent Jubaland state.
Just more than 300 miles southwest of Mogadishu, Kismayo has long been the prized possession over which opposing factions vie for control. Kismayo's status as a regional transportation hub is critical to commerce and transit. Three main thoroughfares connect Kismayo to other parts of the country and Kismayo is home to two of the country's airports. Perhaps most importantly, though, is Kismayo's deep-water seaport, which could allow for the reinitiation of profitable domestic and international trade as security in the region improves.
Access to the port played a major role in the development of southern Somalia in the latter half of the 20th century but the docks and surrounding infrastructure fell into disrepair until they were jointly refurbished by the U.S. and Somali governments in 1984. Three decades of neglect and war have rendered the port unusable for large commercial and naval vessels but control of and access to the site remains vital as prospects for renewed trade begin presenting themselves.
Beyond the in-fighting amongst recognized stakeholders to maintain power over resources and critical infrastructure sites, the activities of non-state actors continues to threaten the tenuous gains.
Although the Kenyan Defense Forces under leadership of the African Union Mission in Somalia and alongside local Somali militias were successful in crippling al-Shabaab's hold on the region, the militant group still maintains a notable presence across southern Somalia. Their occupation limits freedom of movement throughout the region, including control of multiple checkpoints on a critical road between Mogadishu and Kismayo.
Clan affiliations remain primary sociopolitical constructs in the region and they are the basis from which representatives pooled to form the voting council for last week's Kismayo Convention presidential elections.
On a national scale it is widely thought that Jubaland's allegiances are divided between pro-Mogadishu and pro-Kenyan movements, which may lead to local elections having wider repercussions than might initially be expected.
Reconciling these differences to collaborate on building a secure state with a respected legitimate government to impose rule of law will be vital to the durability of the Jubaland state and the wider Somali nation. While there are substantial obstacles that both the state and the country will have to overcome, not least of which the interpretation of the wording of the Provisional Constitution, the international community should be supportive of the transparent election process initiated by the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development body.
If grassroots processes can prevail in the former militant stronghold only months after the fall of al-Shabaab, then perhaps the clouds will part on a new era of economic and sociopolitical stability for the inhabitants of Somalia.
(Whitney Grespin has overseen education and security sector capacity building programs on five continents. She is a research fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and a member of Women in International Security and the 2012-13 inaugural class of the Eurasia Foundation's Young Professionals Network.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)