On a political path strewn with obstacles and dangers, Somalia stands at a new crossroads.
The term of the current Transitional Federal Institutions ends in three months and everybody is wondering what will come next.
Elections are not possible, so Somali politicians and their UN-led international backers have agreed that traditional tribal elders will lead the next phase in the transition process.
But questions remain over who exactly represents Somali clans, and any mistakes in naming them have the potential to unravel the significant political and security progress that has been made so far.
Over the next two months, traditional elders will be the most important actors in Somali politics.
Instead of foreigners or politicians appointing the next members of parliament, 135 genuine tribal chiefs would exercise those powers.
The elders are tasked with doing two things. They will select an 825-member Constituent Assembly, which in turn, will debate and adopt the new constitution.
They will also appoint the incoming 225 or 275 Somali parliamentarians. Parliament, in turn, will elect Somalia’s next president.
But there is a caveat; these leaders must be uncontested and recognised elders.
The selection process and commissioning of these elders could usher in a new dawn or send Somalia sliding back into chaos.
On the whole, traditional elders are well-respected by their clans and most are anointed for their integrity, impartiality and cultural acumen.
The general expectation, if the process is not manipulated, is that these chiefs will select credible and competent political representatives.
On the other hand, if politicians with personal agenda corrupt the process and empower phony clan elders, these imposters could sell seats in parliament to the highest bidder.
The whole enterprise of ending Somalia’s dysfunctional transition and ushering in a more progressive political era would then be futile.
Any resulting institutions would lack legitimacy, and the strife-torn country could enter a new era of uncertainty, if not full scale disorder.
This need not happen, and the international community has both the obligation and the ability to make sure that the process is neither hijacked nor tarnished unnecessarily.
The process of assembling these traditional elders in Mogadishu is already under way.
What is needed is that the government, or those doing the inviting, must publish the list of the 135 traditional elders. They must be genuine representatives of Somali communities.
Most Somali clans have uncontested and recognised traditional elders, so the selection or invitation criteria should be transparent. But there is another important consideration.
Some elders will not be able to assume their new responsibilities due to poor health, indifference to politics or for reasons of inaccessibility, certainly if they live in Al Shabaab-controlled areas.
In these cases, there must be clear criteria to establish the validity of clan leaders who replace elders who are unable, or unwilling, to take part.
In some instances, clans do not have agreed-upon traditional leaders. How they will be represented in the conference of elders and their deliberations should be explained in advance.
The issue of who should represent communities in Somaliland is another important question. Elders from Somaliland might not want to come to Mogadishu due to government blockage or because they don’t want to. How then will Somaliland MPs be selected?
To address the need for transparency and establish the vital buy-in of the public, a joint Somali and international monitoring and verification committee should be set up.
This small and specialised committee could consist of a representative from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, for instance the British ambassador; a representative of the OIC, like Turkey’s ambassador to Somalia; an Arab League representative, say from the United Arab Emirates; and four respected Somali civil society and/or political leaders.
The team’s main task would be to check the credentials of, and endorse, the 135 traditional elders as well as the overall integrity of the process to end the transition.
It would work like traditional election monitoring committees, and could present written recommendations on how to overcome technical problems.
Another important consideration in the transition process is the adoption of the new constitution.
The international community invested heavily in the preparation of this document, but most Somali people either don’t care about, or don’t like, the whole constitution drafting process.
This lack of enthusiasm is due to the poor communication strategy of the Somali government and its UN backers.
In terms of content and quality, the draft constitution is an improvement of the current contradiction-ridden transitional charter, but many citizens are pessimistic.
There is a Somali proverb that says “a man who dons his garment in an odd way comes across as though he is hiding something”.
The constitution and the constitution-making process suffer from a similar prejudice. The new basic law has been getting bad press from many quarters.
It is high time that its sponsors stopped ignoring the backlash and began actively engaging the Somali public.
It is also important to restore public confidence by dispelling misinformation and distortion about the draft constitution.
Somalia sorely needs a new political apparatus, but the process that leads to it has to be fair and transparent – the selection of the traditional elders is the litmus test.
The writer is the International Crisis Group’s Somalia analyst