Puntland, an autonomous state in northeast Somalia with a population of three million, has declared that it is no longer interested in working with the current Somali government. Puntland’s decision stems from the hesitation of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu to embrace a draft constitution supported by the international community that would allow Somalis to form regional states within a federal structure. TFG President Sharif Ahmed’s supporters in Mogadishu and in the diaspora have lobbied hard against federalism, which they believe will lead to the balkanization of Somalia.
Puntland was already feeling aggrieved for not having been consulted by the current TFG leadership regarding the reconstruction of the Somali state. Its declaration of separation further highlights the weakness of the TFG and its inability to bring peace to Somalia. Ahmed’s TFG claims to rule only 70 percent of Mogadishu.
Puntland’s move is tactical. It’s willing to be part of a federal Somalia, so its separation is not irrevocable. Rather, it made its declaration as a kind of wake-up call to the international community. It wanted to call attention to the TFG leadership’s inability and unwillingness to cooperate with the rest of Somalia. It wanted to underscore the lack of transparency in the workings of the government in Mogadishu. Finally, it wanted to send a signal to the international community about the need for new ways to reconcile the Somali people and reconstruct the Somali state.
Earlier, UN Special Representative for Somalia Augustine Mahiga recommended that the TFG not extend its term without consulting with all Somali stakeholders including Puntland. However in early February, defying this request by the international community, the Somali parliament extended its mandate for three years. “This is a disappointing decision taken in haste without the required level of discussion and consultation on how to end the transition and on the next political dispensation,” Mahiga responded. In a strongly worded press release, the United States said the parliament’s move would embolden al-Shabaab, the radical Islamic group that controls much of Somali territory.
Somalia is a poor country entering its twentieth year of violence and disintegration. Fortunately, Somalis in all corners of the society now recognize the importance of engaging in new forms of reconciliation and dialogue that involve listening, respecting differences and interests, and acknowledging grievances. Robust and open discussions are now taking place within the Somali community – in the overseas community, in Puntland, Somaliland, and the rest of the country – to jump-start reconciliation and restore peace in Somalia.
The United States should continue its dual-track policy of engaging Puntland and Somaliland and trying to work with Mogadishu. Puntland’s declaration of independence is a signal that the international community must help bring all the parties to the negotiating table again, and quick.