NAIROBI, Kenya—That Somalia even has a government surprises people who know only of the country's woes. But this is understandable, because it's a transitional government. It wasn't elected, it provides no social services, and the security minister has been accused of kidnapping civilians for ransom.
President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed's authority comes from a 2002-04 conference held in Kenya, funded by Kenya and the European Union, where 1,000 prominent Somalis were invited by the host governments to write a constitution and pick a parliament and president. Foreign governments fund their salaries, the electricity in their offices, and flights back and forth to regional government talks.
In early August, Somalia's transitional prime minister, Nur "Adde" Hassan Hussein, fired the mayor of Mogadishu, a warlord and friend of President Yusuf's. Yusuf revoked the order, citing constitutional problems. In his support, 10 ministers quit the Cabinet. Now the rift between the prime minister and president appears to be causing a total collapse of the transitional government.
Somalia is the world's worst failed state, according to a recently released ranking by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace. The country doesn't have any banks—residents exchange money with each other and the outside world via hawala, an informal Islamic money-transfer system. That hasn't stopped international donor powers from paying a minister of the central bank. "There is no central banking system. The government just wanted the titles to show that there was some system," says Mohamed Uluso, a politician appointed to run the nonexistent bank in 2002. "In the African system, they give you a letter saying you are appointed as this, and you don't have [to do] anything. The United Nations Development Program [which distributes money donated by foreign governments] paid me $500 a month."
Gaffes like this have been happening since 1991, when Siad Barre, Somalia's dictator, was overthrown. There have been no elections thus far. International donors can't know what's happening with the money they give to Somalia's transitional governments because they don't have embassies in Mogadishu. It's too dangerous to work in Somalia. Heavily invested diplomats visit every couple of months, often finding fresh hell. One diplomat found that the contents of a ministry his government filled with office equipment had been stolen and sold by the minister and his staff.
In four months of speaking to more than 100 Somalis, no one told me he or she would have voted for President Yusuf. They say he invited Ethiopian soldiers to invade Somalia and attack those residents who don't support him; that he denies massacres, rapes, and looting by Ethiopian soldiers; that he orders the bombardment of civilians in a counterinsurgency strategy. Two Somali witnesses to the 2004 conference where Yusuf was appointed say he gave each member of parliament $1,500 to vote for him.
"It's not a government," says former Mogadishu resident and journalist Abdiaziz Hassan Ahmed. "If you could see Villa Somalia [the president's headquarters] in Mogadishu, you would see that it's like a corrupt NGO with Ethiopian troops guarding it." Ahmed left Somalia for Kenya nine months ago because he feared for his life. In 2006 and 2007, he says, the president's spokesman would call press conferences and then imprison the journalists who showed up. Ahmed received death threats from anonymous callers who told him to leave the country if he wanted to live.
Somalis like Ahmed want war-crimes tribunals. They compare President Yusuf to Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia. (Taylor fomented tribal war in Sierra Leone and Liberia in order to divide the population, thus maintaining his own power.) Somalis see foreign governments and the United Nations as culpable by association for President Yusuf's alleged war crimes, and Islamist fighters punish anyone involved with the government. That means kidnapping U.N. officials, even those delivering food. Three food-aid workers have been killed since July, as has the head of UNDP Somalia.
The U.N. special envoy to Somalia won't buy into this rhetoric. "I think many countries, not only African countries, we don't have the best presidents," says Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, a Mauritanian. "I am sorry, we have to give them a break. Very often I have tears in my eyes when I meet prominent Somalis. We are just putting the blame on these unfortunate people, we have to give them a hand." In June, Ould-Abdallah mediated a peace agreement between Somalia's transitional government and the Islamists fighting them. Since then, fighting in Somalia has increased in pitch. The agreement was finally signed on Aug. 19.
Ould-Abdallah makes a sour face when asked about the April 19, 2008, massacre in Mogadishu's Al-Hidya mosque. Clerics were beheaded, dozens of worshippers were killed by soldiers, and children were abducted. Journalists in Mogadishu reported that Ethiopian soldiers, backed by transitional government forces, committed the crimes in an attempt to force radicals and their young recruits from the mosque. Amnesty International issued a statement asking Ethiopian soldiers to release 41 abducted children. President Yusuf accused the Islamists of dressing up in Ethiopian uniforms and launching the attack. The Ethiopian government issued a press release accusing Amnesty of "publicizing deliberately invented stories about the activities of Ethiopian troops." So, will the United Nations conduct an investigation?
"To me, this is not a problem. I will not get into the name game," says Ould-Abdallah. He believes it's not possible to find out who was responsible for the attack. "We have to look at the wider picture."
The European Commission, a branch of the European Union, has been the biggest donor to Somalia's transitional governments, and it funds the current government. Since 1991, there have been five transitional presidents and 17 failed peace conferences, one of which cost $11 million and lasted two years. The European Commission wants peace in the Horn of Africa for pragmatic geopolitical reasons, but it gave no support for the Islamic Courts Union when it took over Mogadishu in 2006.
"They had nothing to fund," says Walid Musa, a former political adviser for the European Commission who now works for the United Nations. "How can I fund a number of guys who created a court, who refused to announce an administration, who refused to subscribe to dialogue with the existing administration and were totally hijacked by their extremists? No way." Musa says that although the transitional government is not legitimately democratic, it is legal, because it was brought about by Somalis and signed off on by the United Nations, European Union, African Union, Organization of the Islamic Conference, and League of Arab States.
Musa, who is Sudanese, has worked as a political officer on Somalia since 1991, first for the UNDP, then the European Commission, and now under Ould-Abdallah in the U.N. Political Office for Somalia. He says the biggest impediment to democracy is Somali politicians' winner-take-all attitude.
Somalia's parliament is also funded by the European Commission. It includes five warlords who nominated themselves at the 2002-04 conference, and it recently tied with Burma as the world's worst parliament in a parliamentary power index compiled by University of California-Berkeley political scientist Steven Fish.
Individual European governments have different strategies for Somalia, some of which could be seen as conflicting with the EC strategy they fund through their membership in the European Union.
Great Britain is the second-biggest donor to Somalia's transitional government, and it endorses President Yusuf's administration, including its hated security minister, who used to operate a forklift at a Leicester grocery store. "This government is, from our point of view, a small shadow of light or a way out of this hell that is modern day Somalia," Britain's minister for Africa, Lord Malloch-Brown, told journalist Aidan Hartley. His government raised their annual pledge to Somalia from £3.1 million in 2003 to a projected £25 million this year.
Italy funds three projects run by a Somali NGO to develop district-based governance. Special Envoy Mario Raffaelli wants to persist until the model spreads across the country, carving out districts of peace amid war.
Raffaelli, a former senator, says he tried to persuade the Islamists to negotiate with the transitional government in 2006, before Ethiopia invaded. Raffaelli is known for his visit to Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys in a radical stronghold called Dhobley. Other diplomats refuse to speak with Aweys because he has been designated a terrorist.
"The U.N. Security Council would only allow the Islamic Courts Union so long as they mediated with the [Transitional Federal Government]," says Raffaelli. "We had to find a compromise. The first one was a regular process through a formal conference. You cannot play with democracy." Three formal conferences in Khartoum, Sudan, failed to reconcile the parties. While President Yusuf was in Khartoum, he arranged to have Ethiopian troops enter Somalia and expel the Islamists. Raffaelli says international donors were not happy about the Ethiopian invasion but recognized that the Islamists' irredentist agenda posed a "legitimate security risk" to the neighboring country.
The United States is a partner in Somalia only to the extent that it trains Ethiopia's military and funds it with generous aid: $500 million in 2007.
Somalia's transitional government is meant to be a placeholder until Somalis can vote democratically. The charter runs out in 2009. There is no general election in sight.