NAIROBI, Kenya, Aug. 20 (UPI) -- For Somalia, August 2012 might turn out to be a historic month forever engraved in the country's political calendar. After more than two decades of civil strife and warfare, Somalia is taking crucial steps toward lasting peace.
On Aug. 1, an 825-member national constituent assembly voted in a provisional constitution for the country under a United Nations-backed plan dubbed "The Road Map." The next step is for traditional elders to select a 275-member Parliament, which will elect a speaker, two deputies and eventually, a president. The president will appoint a prime minister, who will form a Cabinet of ministers.
If all goes as planned, the transitional federal government will be replaced by a more representative one, signaling a remarkable turnaround in the country's troubled history.
The improved yet delicate situation in Somalia is a by-product of years of intervention into its affairs by outside nations and governing bodies.
The U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea says that almost a dozen countries, including the United States, France, Turkey, Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates, have provided assistance to Somali security institutions. Their efforts have involved training, intelligence gathering and supplying military equipment without prior consent from the U.N. Security Council.
This provision of weaponry, the United Nations states in its 2012 report, violates the arms embargo imposed on Somalia in 1992, a year after Somali President Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted.
"The pattern of arms embargo violations in Somalia has changed little over previous years," states the leaked report. "Arms markets in Yemen remained the principal source of supply of arms and ammunition for Somali non-state armed groups. Contributions by foreign governments, mainly to the (Transitional Federal Government) but also to other authorities and militia forces, remained an important secondary source of supply."
This disregard of pre-established conditions, the report states, is deeply "problematic" and preventive measures should be taken to curb this "sustained, large-scale violation" of the embargo.
In late July, even the British Ministry of Defense confirmed that they had "sent a small team of advisers" to Somalia to assist the African Union Mission in Somalia, the 17,000-person peacekeeping mission that was first deployed to Somalia in 2007 to support and defend the transitional government from the attacks of militant groups like al-Shabaab.
Though the defense ministry said the team wouldn't have a combative role, photos taken by photographer Simon Maina from the French Agence France-Presse, indicate armed soldiers patrolling Afgoye, a town 19 miles outside Mogadishu. Analysts interpreted these armed soldiers at face value, as proof that the stated British objective of "an advisory role" was at odds with what they were seeing on the ground.
Analysts say Britain's operations in Somalia ought to be seen against the backdrop of the country's attempt to coordinate international efforts towards rebuilding Somalia. Last February, the British government hosted an international conference in London to that end. The situation, Mary Harper, the BBC's Africa editor said, can also be analyzed in the context of national security, as worries persist that young Somali immigrants, some of whom have become radicalized and gone back to Somalia to fight alongside al-Shabaab, might, on return to British soil, mount terror attacks against the West.
"I think the sudden rush to help stabilize Somalia is primarily based on state interest," said Mary Harper, author of "Getting Somalia Wrong? Faith, Hope and War in a Shattered State." "The United States, United Kingdom, Australia and the Scandinavian countries are terrified of the idea that they will suffer terror actions on their ground. So, their primary motivation is about their national security."
Geo-strategic interest has also pushed regional governments farther into Somalia as the momentum to secure and stabilize Somalia becomes more urgent. Ugandan and Burundian troops, the first of the AU Mission in Somalia battalions to arrive in Mogadishu, battled al-Shabaab in Mogadishu's neighborhoods before removing them from the capital in August 2011.
Ethiopia has repeatedly crossed Somali borders to fight the group, first capturing the town of Beledweyne, in the Hiiraan region in December 2011, and then expelling the militants from the strategic town of Baidoa, which is 155 miles from Mogadishu.
In addition, Kenya's army crossed the border into Somalia in October 2011 in what was dubbed as Operation Linda Nchi -- Kiswahili for "Protect the nation" -- with the pretext of pursuing militants for kidnapping tourists in Mombasa and aid workers in the massive Dadaab refugee camp. Troops from Djibouti, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria have also been deployed into the country to strengthen the African Union's hand in sustaining the gains made so far in expelling al-Shabaab from Mogadishu and taking the battle deeper into al-Shabaab territory.
"Kenya's incursion into Somalia in October was a paradigm shift," said Emmanuel Kisiangani, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi. "It added a lot more to the equation of whether Somalia's neighboring nations can finally be part of the solution rather than the problem."
Indeed the situation in Somalia, and especially in Mogadishu, has been improving since al-Shabaab was expelled from the capital last August. Businesses are booming, many schools and universities have reopened, street lights are back at the main al-Mukarramah Street, and dilapidated structures like the former Somali Parliament are being renovated, largely thanks to the efforts of the Turkish government's reconstruction program.
"The Turks have understood that you cannot have development without infrastructure," said Rasna Warah, a columnist with Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper. "They have made the connection that they cannot just keep delivering food aid and focusing on the short term without looking at long term progress."
Despite the progress in Somalia, the danger of retaliation from groups like al-Shabaab is ever present. Since the Kenyan offensive, several explosions have targeted several Kenyan towns and cities in locations ranging from pubs and nightclubs, to bus stations and buildings.
Even religious symbols haven't escaped al-Shabaab's wrath. In July, two Christian churches in Garissa, a town 86 miles from the Kenya-Somalia border, came under grenade attacks killing 17 people and injuring another 50.
The probability of retaliatory attacks grows as al-Shabaab weakens. Indeed, on the eve of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Kenya in early August, a grenade attack killed one person and left several injured near an air force base in the capital Nairobi.
The visit followed reports by the Wall Street Journal that the United States will provide Kenya with drones to use for surveillance and intelligence gathering as part of a broader security enhancement program.
Sources at the U.S. Embassy, however, stated that the request for these drones pre-dated Kenya's operations in Somalia or its army's official integration into AU peacekeeping forces.
For now, the world is betting that a stable and secure Somalia will leap to economic and socio-political progress. The Nairobi Securities Exchange signed a memorandum of understanding with the Somalia Stock Exchange Investment Corporation on Aug. 8, to establish the country's first stock exchange business to boost investment and trade.
Somalia applied to join the East African Community, a vibrant trading bloc, in early March. Members include Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.
"It will be interesting to watch how Somalia's application to join the (East African) community evolves with time," said Richard Sindiga, director of economic affairs at Kenya's East African Community ministry. "If it does join, Somalia can be an important factor in the region's progress."
Somalia boasts the longest coastline in Africa, with a strategic opening to the Gulf of Aden shipping route. The country also has a robust telecommunications industry; a growing livestock trade and money transfer companies that handle more than $1 billion in remittance cash every year.
For a country that has been mired in conflict, the current wave of optimism also represents a fragile moment where anything can go wrong.
"Somalia is turning a corner, but I don't think it has turned that corner yet," Harper said. "To bring about stability in Somalia, it will take a while."
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