Most people know two things about Somalia: It has more pirates than any other place in the world, and it has no government.
The news media have fixed on these two identifying characteristics. The fifth or sixth paragraph of any 400-word wire story about Somalia will contain both the latest update on piracy and a reminder that since 1991 Somalia has not had an effective government.
Right now in Djibouti, a small, hot country on the Red Sea populated by ethnic Somalis, the Kempinski Hotel is full of people trying to solve these two issues—unfortunately, not together.
An electoral committee of Somali parliamentarians is examining the résumés and photographs of a dozen or so candidates who applied to become president of Somalia. The election is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 30, and many of the résumés arrived on Jan. 29. Being a citizen of a foreign country is no problem. The only prerequisite is an application fee of $2,000. There is not enough time for background checks, since the new president, whoever he may be, is expected at this weekend's African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The piracy conference, meanwhile, boasts stakeholders from 22 countries in Africa and the Middle East. It's safe to assume they consider their project of negotiating legal procedures for prosecuting Somali pirates to be a higher priority than stabilizing Somalia through a legitimate presidential election. They are not the only ones.
The United Nations has directed the 30-day process leading to what they are calling an "election" for Somalia's sixth transitional president in 18 years. The new leader will almost certainly not be able to live or work in Somalia, nor will his parliament, because radical Islamists have taken over the country, following the recent withdrawal of Ethiopian troops.
So, it seems that nobody cares about democracy for Somalia, except the people who are currently stuck there having their hands cut off for theft, being kidnapped for ransom by their own government officials, dying of malnutrition in camps for "internally displaced persons," paying off teenage gunmen at roadblocks, being shot for watching movies, or getting stoned to death for the sin of being raped.
"The formation of another ghost government … is a cruel option for the Somali people," says Somali activist Mohamud Uluso in a mass e-mail titled, "Political Scam Serves No Purpose."
The West, represented by the European Union and the United States, would prefer to install a new transitional president as soon as possible to replace the transitional transitional president who replaced a warlord named Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed who blighted the country for four years with nepotist policies and gangsterism. Otherwise, claims a Western official, there might be a leadership vacuum.
Any thinking person would be confused by this suggestion. Doesn't Somalia already have a leadership vacuum? Isn't that why it has so many pirates?
The Somali parliament in Djibouti doubled its size this week—to 550—thanks to a hard-won U.N.-mediated peace agreement between moderate Islamist politicians from the Islamic Courts Union and the already existing "warlord parliament." (The ICU ruled Somalia briefly and with immense popularity in 2006 after a grass-roots rise to power, but they were routed that same year by an Ethiopian invasion and have since been living in exile.) The original 275 members of parliament have a hopeless track record. They tied with Burma as the worst-ranked parliament in the world.
Kenya, Ethiopia, and the European Commission created the parliament in 2004. Diplomats initially planned to host 350 elders—notable Somali ethnic leaders—who could represent the diversity of Somalia's clan-based demographics and pick a parliament. But the conference got out of control—1,500 people showed up, and it lasted two years at a cost of $11 million.
None of the participants was a legitimate ethnic leader, according to one diplomat present. "We had no real elders," he says. "The elders said, 'Go to hell, we will not participate in this.' So the 'clan notables' were warlords, and they're the ones who chose their [members of parliament]." The warlords were allowed to elect themselves, and they did so.
On Jan. 28, the Daily Nation, Kenya's newspaper of record, published a story on the progress of Somalia's presidential election in Djibouti. At the bottom of the piece is a lone comment from Somalia, like a cry from the dark. It reads: "550 MPs!!! What the heck is wrong with us? … Are we going to feed these lunatics or rebuild this war ravaged country? … We need competent leaders, not like the current ones, they will lead us into hell." Sadly, this reasonable man can't vote.