By Guled Mohamed
MOGADISHU, Aug 7 (Reuters) - Critics may say Somalia’s national reconciliation conference has little concrete to show half-way into the six-week meeting of 2,000 delegates charged with dragging the Horn of Africa nation out of anarchy.
Big players are missing, and no accords are yet struck.
But after braving a barrage of verbal threats and physical attacks near the venue, those inside the heavily fortified old police garage in north Mogadishu would argue the mere fact that they are still talking is a huge achievement in itself.
"Not all hope is lost for troubled Somalia," said Captain Paddy Ankunda, who helps lead Ugandan peacekeepers in Mogadishu. "The resilience that delegates have shown ... is a clear testimony to their determination to salvage their country."
The twice-delayed conference is viewed by the international community as the best chance — however thin — to kick start a peace process in Somalia where violence and anarchy have been the norm since warlords overthrew a dictator in 1991.
So with foreign blessing and funds, the reconciliation meeting finally got under way on July 15.
In scenes reminiscent of Baghdad’s Green Zone, people are searched five times before entering the high-walled compound, surrounding streets are kept empty, battle-wagons stand outside, and sharpshooters keep watch from rooftops.
Inside, the old police compound is a beehive of activity.
Delegates, who include clan representatives from around the nation of 9 million, murmur in low voices over coffee, while others follow deliberations in the heavily guarded hall.
The talks prompted an upsurge in attacks by Islamist insurgents, and have been boycotted by the most prominent anti-government factions. But organisers are upbeat.
"There is light at the end of the tunnel," the government-sponsored conference’s spokesman Abdikadir Walayo told Reuters. "We have opened a new horizon for Somalia."
GUNS EQUAL POWER
Despite such enthusiasm, there seems to be little prospect of any breakthrough agreements on major issues.
"The conference has not been stopped, which has to be a good thing. But on the other hand, what is it really accomplishing?" asked Mark Schroeder, Africa analyst with U.S.-based intelligence consultancy Stratfor.
Delegates are considering an 11-point agenda, which includes solving clan feuds, disarmament, and use of natural resources.
Just past the half-way stage, the conference has discussed eight agenda points. At the weekend, the plenary started debating the sensitive issue of religious extremism.
And elders representing the five major clans gave one another a copy of the Koran as a symbol of forgiveness.
The government has said it will accept all the conference’s resolutions, the most important of which is expected to be a rule allowing the cabinet to include members outside parliament.
But even if there are accords on all agenda points, their value would be questionable without the endorsement of many big players in the Somali conflict such as exiled Islamist leaders.
"Unless those who are fighting the government are brought on board, I expect nothing tangible will come out of this conference," said one delegate, Ibrahim Bar, his hair dyed red like most Somali elders.
And some question whether the agenda addresses the needs of the Somali people. Schroeder said big substantive issues like power- and wealth-sharing beyond just government circles would not be resolved by the delegates.
"I am not optimistic that this conference reaches out to the wants and desires of the general Somali population," he told Reuters.
"The core issues are not included. Those issues are unfortunately being controlled in the traditional Somali way, by who has more guns and is more powerful."
"BIRDS SINGING FOR NOTHING?"
Outside the talks, the security situation has deteriorated and the refugee exodus has grown, as insurgents push their campaign of attacks on the Somali government and their Ethiopian military allies.
The government, set up in 2005 in the 14th attempt to restore central rule to Somalia, joined forces with Ethiopia late last year to oust Islamists from Mogadishu and end their six-month control of south Somalia.
The Islamists, whose leaders are now based in Eritrea, Yemen and elsewhere, were invited to the reconciliation talks, but said they would only attend after Ethiopian troops left.
"Our efforts will be fruitless unless all feuding groups and clans are reconciled. Otherwise we will be just like birds singing for nothing," Bar said.
Despite such views, some of Somalia’s famously entrepreneurial people are at least happy for different reasons.
Restaurants are making a killing in coffee and cigarettes, while money-changers are also doing brisk business.
"Trade is good," Hussein Sharif, a waiter at one of the coffee shops, said with a smile.
"We hope the conference goes on for years." (Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne in Nairobi)