Ever since 'Black Hawk Down', Somalia is not known as a country bearing good news. For over 20 years, the country has lacked a stable central government and been wracked by civil war.
But for the first time, it looks as if this grim state of affairs might change. This month an 825-member assembly of clan elders from across the country, including its autonomous provinces, has approved a provisional national constitution. The assembly is also due to select new parliamentarians who, in turn, will elect a speaker and president before the UN-imposed deadline of 20th August. If all goes well, the transitional process will culminate in Somalia's first national democratic elections.
But this welcome development comes in spite of, rather than because of, the role of the west - which for the most part has been less than helpful.
In the early 1970s, under the brutal reign of Muhammad Siad Barre, Somalia was a client-state of the Soviet Union. This changed from the late 70s until Barre's overthrow in 1991, during which he switched allegiance to the United States, receiving $50 million dollars of arms annually in return for the use of military facilities to support US force projection in the Middle East.
Simultaneously, the US supported an IMF-World Bank structural adjustment programme which severely weakened the local agricultural economy, and led to the collapse of the livestock economy - in a country that had remained self-sufficient in food until the late 1970s despite recurrent droughts. The economic reforms also disintegrated health and education programmes, while Somalia's export earnings were absorbed by its ever-increasing debt-servicing obligations.
Meanwhile, Barre's repression resulted in the murder of thousands of civilians, granting him the distinction of having "one of the worst human rights records in Africa" according to the UN Development Programme. His efforts to neutralise his political opponents, combined with the impact of ill-conceived macro-economic policies and ongoing drought, culminated in the 1988 civil war leading to the collapse of Barre's regime and an unprecedented famine which took the lives of over 300,000 Somalis.
Shortly after the US-led UN intervention in Somalia in 1992, it became clear that US interests in Somalia remained complicated. Years before Barre's overthrow, "nearly two-thirds of Somalia" had been "allocated to the American oil giants Conoco, Amoco, Chevron and Phillips" according to the Los Angeles Times. Corporate and scientific documents "disclosed that the American companies are well positioned to pursue Somalia's most promising potential oil reserves the moment the nation is pacified." US State Department and military officials confirmed that "Conoco Inc., the only major multinational corporation to maintain a functioning office in Mogadishu throughout the past two years of nationwide anarchy, has been directly involved in the US government's role in the UN-sponsored humanitarian military effort" - including the US government paying rent to use Conoco's office as a de facto US embassy.
A decade after the failed US-led UN intervention, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) emerged. Originating in Mogadishu as "a grassroots movement by businessmen", the UIC's mandate was "to establish some law and order in a city without any judicial system." Described as "the most popular political force in the country" by the BBC Somali Service, the UIC garnered widespread public support for its efforts to reduce robberies, drug-dealing and prostitution, and for expelling the unrestrained rule of local warlords. But stability also came at a price, including harsh punishments such as amputations and execution for theft and murder; the banning of the popular stimulant, qat; and women being forced to cover.
On the pretext that the UIC was harbouring al-Qaeda, the US financed a brutal coalition of criminal warlords to shore-up its favoured Transitional Federal Government. According to former Clinton administration official John Prendergast the CIA provided them up to $150,000 a month in military supplies.
Although the UIC's chairman Sharif Sheikh Ahmed - who later became President of the transitional government in 2009 - was a moderate Sufi, the network encompassed a range of Islamic perspectives from liberal to strict interpretations. This allowed more militant factions to rise to the fore. Sharif's UIC co-leader, the politically ambitious Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, seized the opportunity to sideline moderate elements in the UIC, and mobilised his Afghanistan-trained lieutenant, Adan Hashi Ayro, to transform elements of the court militias into what eventually became the terrorist al-Shabaab army.
The US escalated its involvement by pressuring Ethiopia to invade Somalia. In late 2006, Ethiopia sent in 50,000 US-trained and armed troops. The invasion - later described by one State Department official as a "big mistake" - resulted in 20,000 deaths, made 2 million Somalis homeless, and fuelled the grievances behind the al-Shabaab insurgency, allowing more hardline militant Islamist groups to eclipse the UIC.
Given this backdrop of ceaseless clan warfare, fuelled by western interference, the strides that Somalia's transitional government have taken over the last year cannot be underestimated. For the first time, the government has managed to bring together elders from Somalia's clans across the republic into a federal national assembly with a view to engender a popular mandate for what will eventually be a truly democratic government. The process is the brainchild of Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, a Harvard-trained economics professor, and provides a basic legal framework enshrining freedom of expression, access to information and fundamental human rights.
Yet some argue that the constitution, despite endorsement of high ideals like ensuring universal education and ending female genital mutilation, is unlikely to be implemented any time soon given that large parts of the country remain outside government control.
The process has also been marred by allegations of corruption against "senior" transition government officials - a leaked UN Monitoring Group report notes that around 70 per cent of money received by the transition government between 2009 and 2010 was unaccounted for. Though some news stories claimed that Abdiweli had been personally implicated in corruption, this was not true. The Prime Minister's office welcomed the UN report - which Abdiweli had cooperated with - but refuted misrepresentations of its findings in some parts of the media.
Sources within the transitional government admit that the problem of corruption is real, but pinpoint primary responsibility for it on the incumbent President, Sharif Ahmed. "We have to improve our governance structures and public finance management," Prime Minister Abdiweli agreed in response to the report - in contrast with President Sharif who angrily dismissed its findings as "rumours and hearsay."
Indeed, Abdiweli was a latecomer to the senior echelons of the transition government, having been appointed Prime Minister in June last year - when much of the systemic corruption documented by the UN was already in full swing. Quietly, he has played a pivotal role in combating economic and political corruption, while spearheading a programme of national reconciliation. Despite resistance from his government, he has championed the idea of a Joint Financial Management Board comprising international donor governments and the World Bank alongside the government, to improve transparency and accountability in use of public funds. Within six months of his office, he also launched Somalia's first Anti-Corruption Task Force.
But as the UN report demonstrates, there remains much work to be done - and familiar interests at play. Earlier this year, Somali and British officials were in talks "over exploiting oil reserves that have been explored in the arid north-eastern region of the country", reports The Observer. "Somali prime minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali said his government had little choice but to entice western companies to Somalia by offering a slice of the country's natural resources, which include oil, gas and large reserves of uranium", in return for investment in reconstruction. Thus, the British government is offering "humanitarian aid and security assistance in the hope of a stake in the beleaguered country's future energy industry."
Many in Somalia believe that amongst all the presidential candidates, Abdiweli - who last Tuesday officially declared his candidacy to President Sharif's chagrin - is pitched to be the best man for the job. But given the follies and dangers of western interference in preceding decades, it is critical that Abdiweli, and foreign powers, recall the lessons of the country's history. Whoever wins the upcoming presidential contest, the imperative for the winner is to ensure that the prospect of stability is not unduly exploited by either a corrupt government or western multinationals, but to ensure that the current political process is as politically and economically accountable as possible to the Somali people. After over 20 years of violence, they deserve no less.