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The Somalia Tragedy Part II
By Ahmed M.I. Egal
Fifteen years ago in January 1991, the barbarous regime of Somalia’s long time military dictator, Mohammed Siyad Barre, collapsed and along with it collapsed the rickety edifice of the hollow, corrupt structure that passed for the state in that woe begotten country. The rapidity of the collapse of the Siyad regime and its structure of despotism masquerading as government, took its opponents by surprise and the country quickly descended into fiefdoms controlled by warlords competing for power and wealth. At the time, the international community was focused upon the Middle East and the US-lead war to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Events unfolding in the Horn of Africa were considered tangential to the momentous history being made in the Persian Gulf as a truly international coalition emphatically reversed the aggression of a brutal Arab dictator against a pro-Western, oil rich, Arab princely state.
History is being repeated as Somalia embarks upon the second phase of its modern tragedy while global attention is focused again upon the Middle East, where Israel is yet again seeking to bomb, terrorize and smash its Arab neighbors into complete and abject capitulation to its conquest of their lands and their dignity. Once again, the events unfolding in the Horn of Africa are viewed as tangential to the history under formation in the Middle East, however, there are important differences between the 1991 experience and what is transpiring now that will have a determining impact upon the likely consequences.
Firstly, the US emerged from the Gulf War having spearheaded a stunningly successful military and political campaign that united practically the entire world behind its leadership. US prestige and its standing in global affairs had never been higher and academics and media pundits alike were waxing eloquent about the dawn of an era of ‘Pax Americana’ under a benign, wise and inclusive hyper-power. Today by contrast, the US is not only trapped in a political and military quagmire of its own making in Iraq, it has thoughtlessly and needlessly discarded the spontaneous wellspring of solidarity, support and sympathy of people throughout the world after the 9/11 attacks through hubris and imperial overreach.
Secondly, the political situation in Somalia is vastly different from that which pertained in 1991. In that year, the people of the ex-British Protectorate of Somaliland chose to recover their national sovereignty which they had willingly, if rather hastily, surrendered in 1960 to form the Somali Republic. During the intervening years, while the writ of the warlords continued to reign in Mogadishu, Somaliland established a peaceful, functional, democratic government with an executive, judiciary and two chamber legislature. Its constitution, which was ratified in 1997 by a majority of 97% of voters, enshrined Somaliland’s independence from Somalia and Somaliland has since held three elections, municipal, presidential and parliamentary respectively, which were deemed by international observers from the AU, EU and the US to be free and fair.
To Somaliland’s east, the people of north eastern Somalia established their own, autonomous administration, (which they named Puntland), to avoid being dragged into the lawless anarchy of Mogadishu. While remaining a part of Somalia, Puntland has established peace and a functioning administrative, state structure. Now, thirteen years later and half way into the term of the latest Somali ‘government’ concocted from the ranks of warlords and their supporters in foreign capitals by regional players seeking to advance their own interests, Somalia is once again at a watershed in its modern history of anarchic misery at a time when the world’s attention is focused upon events in the Middle East.
The latest ‘government’, which is recognized by the international community is the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which was concocted some two and a half years ago from a witches’ brew of warlords, their supporters and sponsors, and assorted, venal opportunists determined to finagle as much of the aid money provided by international donors as they can. Over recent weeks, the people of Somalia, finally fed up with the brutal anarchy wrought by the warlords’ militias, not to mention the impotence of the TFG in subduing them, rallied to support the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) which has evicted the warlords from Mogadishu and much of the countryside.
The rise of a network of loosely affiliated Islamic Courts organized along clan lines throughout various districts in Mogadishu had quietly taken place during the last decade, as an organic effort to bring some semblance of law and order to daily life among a highly urbanized populace. The strength and power of these courts caught many by surprise in recent years as radical elements within them sought to impose a foreign, harsh and authoritarian perspective, e.g. razing the colonial era Catholic church in Mogadishu and disinterring the burial remains of the graveyard on its grounds, the attacks upon foreign, non-Muslim aid workers that murdered three people Somalia and four in Somaliland, the assassination of Somali civil activists opposed to their reactionary theocracy.
Subsequent to their stunning success in decisively routing the warlords, the UIC has recently established a Majlis Al-Shura or Supreme Council as their policy-setting body with Hassan Dahir Aweys as its Head. Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who had been the UIC’s official spokesman, was named Head of the Council’s Executive Committee and is second to Aweys in the UIC’s leadership. Aweys is one the founders, and was the leader, of Al-Ittihad Al-Islamiya (Ittihad) which was designated as a terrorist organization affiliated with Al Qaeda by the US after the 9/11 attacks upon New York and Washington. Aweys was a colonel in the Somali Army during the Siyad Barre dictatorship when he advocated Marxism Leninism with the same zeal that he now proselytizes brutal tyranny cloaked in fundamentalist Islam.
In the chaos and anarchy that ensued after the collapse of Barre’s regime, while other ambitious officers of the collapsed army assembled militias from the ranks of their own clans and sub-clans, Aweys and his group affiliated themselves with the international network of radical, Islamic organizations which included, at that time, Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and the NIF of Sudan’s Hassan Tourabi. Ittihad was born during this time and it quickly secured support and funding from its international affiliates and sympathizers. Its initial guerrilla operations were focused against Ethiopia in the largely Somali-populated eastern province of that country in collaboration with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). Within Somalia and Somaliland, the organization essentially focused upon proselytizing their rigid interpretation of Islam, and upon charitable and relief work.
Further, the Transitional National Government of Somalia (TNG), which was formed in Djibouti in early 1996 and was the forerunner of the current TFG, boasted no less than six Ittihad ministers in its first cabinet. The aftermath of 9/11, in particular the steps taken by US and other governments against its fund-raising activities and financial network, effectively destroyed Ittihad as a civil, political force in Somalia, while Aweys and other leaders went into hiding to avoid capture and to regroup. The guerrilla arm, however, continued its attacks against Ethiopia and in fact expanded its scope to encompass attacks against other regional forces deemed inimical to its aims, including Somaliland. On the political front, Ittihad began to rebuild through infiltration of the fledgling Sharia Courts that were springing up throughout Mogadishu, as an indigenous, organic conflict resolution platform in response to the prevalent warlord-dominated anarchy.
The Sharia Courts were supported by the business community as independent, trusted, dispute settlement venues, while the local people were only too happy to embrace them as a source of impartial, civil dispute settlement without resort to armed conflict, which often descended swiftly to inter-clan skirmishes. The emergence of Aweys as the Head of the UIC, in place of the more moderate Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, gives a clear indication of the dominance of the Ittihad elements within the UIC. In the few weeks since establishing their control over Mogadishu and much of the country, the dominance of the Ittihad elements within the UIC is beginning to emerge. Clearly, they hold to an extremely authoritarian, reactionary and backward looking theocracy which is alien to Somalia and its people.
They have savagely broken up weddings where live music was being played, open air video theatres where paying customers were watching World Cup football matches, banned TVs, videos and cinema/video theatres and assaulted independent, local journalists that have questioned their actions – in short, they have imposed a Taleban-style theocratic dictatorship in the country. In a recent interview with Newsweek magazine, Aweys has made no secret of UIC’s ambitions to conquer all of the territory in the Horn of Africa inhabited by Somali people, i.e. Somaliland, Djibouti, the 5 th Province of Ethiopia and the Northern Frontier District (NFD) of Kenya. This manifesto is nothing other than the old, irredentist dream of Greater Somalia cloaked in a fundamentalist, Talebanesque guise.
Aweys, and his cohorts, may present themselves as mujahids fighting for the glory of Islam, but in reality they are nothing but remnants of the failed dictatorship of Siyad Barre seeking to maintain their grip on power in Somalia through the same brutal, authoritarianism as in the past. Where the previous credo was Marxism Leninism, it is now a backward, neo-feudal vision of Islam; where the previous sponsor was the Soviet Union, it is now an amorphous, international network of jihadist organizations lead by Al Qaeda. The script and some of the actors may have changed to suit the prevailing circumstances, but the plot remains the same – political hegemony over all Somali people in a doomed pursuit of a discredited, irredentist dream which has been consigned to the dustbin of history by the vast majority of the Somali people. Aweys and the UIC have no agenda for the development of their country nor for the uplifting of their poor, benighted people. Instead, all they have to offer is oppression and destitution domestically and war and military adventurism abroad.
Thirdly, the malign neglect by the major powers of the Somali crisis over the last thirteen years, and the machinations of regional powers, principally Egypt, Ethiopia and the Arab League (AL), to establish Somali ‘governments’ of their design which are amenable to their interests, have made the prospects for a genuine solution to the crisis infinitely more intractable. We have already mentioned the Ittihad-dominated TNG which was manufactured by the Djibouti government under the aegis of Egypt and the AL, and which proved incapable of bringing the country under its control, although many of its key ministers became very wealthy from expropriating the aid monies donated by certain Arab Gulf States.
Ethiopia, determined not to be out manoeuvred by Egypt (with which it is engaged in tense discussions over the Nile waters), sought to impose its imprimatur upon the TFG which was manufactured in Kenya under the aegis of IGAD and the AU. To this end, it sponsored and promoted the campaign of Abdillahi Yusuf, the erstwhile warlord leader of the autonomous government Puntland, for the Presidency. Ethiopian efforts and largesse were successful after a protracted conference in Kenya that lasted some two years, and Yusuf was declared President of yet another ‘government’ of Somalia that exists only on paper and that commands neither the respect nor the loyalty of its people. Worse, it does not control any significant territory within its own country!
This farce reached Kafkaesque proportions when the Kenyan government, fed up with the cost of putting up hundreds of members of the TFG parliament and fifty plus members of its government, not to mention their posturing and self-aggrandizement, forced them to go to Somalia under threat of eviction from Kenya. Yusuf and many of his ministers refused to go to Mogadishu, fearing assassination at the hands of the warlords which controlled that city and were their cabinet colleagues in the TFG! The TFG thus became split between the Yusuf camp which set up base in Jowhar, a small regional town some 90 kilometers to the south, while the opposing faction, comprising the Mogadishu warlords and some members of parliament lead by the Speaker, remained ensconced in the capital. After much brow beating and overt threats to cut off funding and recognition on the part of IGAD, AU and the EU, the two sides were forced to meet in Baidowa to settle their differences. When the Yusuf camp went to Baidowa to attend the parliamentary session scheduled there, the warlord in control of Jowhar promptly switched his allegiance to the Mogadishu group and began to loudly denounce Yusuf.
While the TFG was engaged in this ‘theatre of the absurd’, the UIC had been consolidating its militias and encouraging defections from the militias of the warlords, whose fighters were often not being paid but left to extort money and favors from the public. The UIC soon began to challenge the warlords individually in their respective fiefdoms, and with the support of a tired and brutalized populace they began to have some success. The warlords, realizing that they were under serious threat for the first time in thirteen years, banded together and sought support from the US, citing the UIC’s links with Al Qaeda. In a incredibly short sighted and callously amoral decision, the US government decided to support the warlords with money and arms against what had become a popular uprising lead by the UIC. In short order, the warlords were roundly defeated to the joy of the long suffering people of Somalia and the UIC began to consolidate its grip on power.
However, the joy of the people has been short lived as the true nature of the Ittihad faction in control of the UIC and its program has become clear. The public, while grateful for the peace and security that has now been established across Mogadishu and much of the country that is under UIC control, is beginning to realize that they have exchanged warlord anarchy for despotism masquerading as theocracy. There have already been spontaneous demonstrations against the strictures imposed by the UIC and its militias have dealt with these examples of popular dissent savagely resulting in several deaths. While the US government was certainly remiss in choosing to support the warlords which had terrorized and tyrannized the people of Somalia for so long, it is also true that those who look upon the UIC through rose-tinted glasses and insist upon viewing it as the saviors of Somalia’s long suffering people are equally remiss and misguided.
Make no mistake, Aweys and his cohorts are ruthless demagogues who have long sought to recover the power they held under the Barre dictatorship, and they are determined to launch their dream of irredentist conquest from the base they have secured in Somalia. The fundamentalist Islam they profess is nothing more than the credo they have determined will best enable them to pursue their aims. These people adopt ideologies in much the same way as political parties in Europe form and dissolve alliances in pursuit of parliamentary majorities to form governments. There is no doubt whatsoever that a UIC regime under Aweys poses a clear and present danger not only to the people of Somalia, but indeed to the entire Horn of Africa region. The response of the international community to the success of the UIC in effectively taking over control of Somalia has been to insist that it recognize the ‘fiction’ of the TFG (as Professor J. Peter Pham succinctly put it in his recent testimony before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US Congress) and enter into talks with it.
The truth is that no one in Somalia supports the TFG, except of course its own self-seeking members, and Abdillahi Yusuf is a sick and fragile old warlord has-been that is widely reviled, even among many of his own clansmen, as a bloodthirsty tyrant. As for the warlord members of his government, the fact that the people of Somalia rose up en masse to support their UIC opponents at the first real opportunity to unseat these venal architects of anarchy speaks for itself. The international community, particularly Somalia’s neighbors, IGAD and the West have to accept the harsh reality that Somalia is in the grip of the UIC and that the TFG is not a real or credible alternative. Aweys and the UIC detest Yusuf and his fellow warlords as much as they detest Ethiopia, and the UIC sees Yusuf as nothing more than a stooge in the pay of Addis Ababa. Even if the UIC agrees to recognize Yusuf’s TFG and conduct negotiations with it, this will only be a temporary tactic to bide their time until they feel they can remove or kill him with relative impunity.
Any agreement brokered between the TFG and UIC will be nothing more than a fig leaf to hide the ugly and unpalatable truth that neither side is truly representative of the people of Somalia, that they can’t abide each other and that both are merely seeking to buy time until they can destroy the other. Given that the TFG is powerless militarily against the UIC; their only hope is to bring the Ethiopians into any armed conflict with the UIC, while the UIC has Eritrea as its principal arms supplier and Egypt as its principal political backer at present. In any armed conflict with Ethiopia, the UIC would also seek, and probably secure arms from Egypt, Sudan and Yemen which have in the past supplied arms to Ittihad. In such a scenario, the US would probably decide to support the TFG and Ethiopia.
The looming prospect, therefore, is for a proxy war in Somalia which would pit a US supported TFG/Ethiopia alliance against the UIC supported by Eritrea, Egypt, Sudan and Yemen which would quickly drag in other countries in the region, i.e. Somaliland, Djibouti, Kenya and Uganda as well some outside the Horn, e.g. Iran and Saudi Arabia. This would be a disaster of cataclysmic proportions for the entire region which is likely to spiral out of control making Somalia a theatre of proxy war for regional and international actors, much as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) became in Central Africa for many years.
What is needed is a considered and realistic strategy to establish a representative government in Somalia formed by its people through an indigenous, grass-roots, ‘bottom-up’ process in place of the UIC, without plunging the country into a disastrous war. Such a strategy must perforce address the Horn of Africa region as a whole with the aim of resolving the conflicts in the region that feed upon each in a cycle of mutual inflammation and escalation. The essential elements of such a strategy can be listed as follows:
1. Application of the principle of national self determination by clearly and unambiguously addressing the claim of Somaliland for international recognition of its statehood.
2. Application of the principle of representative government by accepting that neither the TFG nor the UIC truly represents the people of Somalia. A national conference must be convened where the traditional elders, sultans, ‘aqils’ and leaders of all the clans, tribes and civic groups of Somalia are assembled to agree a new ‘heer’ or basis for the state in Somalia. The historic rationale behind the creation of the Somali Republic was as the first step to the creation of ‘Greater Somalia’ which would unite all Somali people in one nation-state. That rationale has been overtaken by history, since the Somali people of Djibouti, Somaliland, Kenya and Ethiopia have effectively eschewed it. The people of Somalia must develop a new ethos and rationale for their country and how they are to live together and govern themselves. Somaliland could provide invaluable guidance and assistance in this endeavor in view of its own experience.
The UIC would find it difficult to object to such a national conference without losing the widespread popular support they now enjoy, and without which they cannot govern. The UIC would certainly seek to be a prominent, if not the major, player in such a national conference, but this would not be easy for them, since in Somali political culture, the ‘aqils’ and clan elders are the representatives of their clansmen and sheikhs, or religious figures, have no political power as such. It is important to note herein that the UIC is itself organized along clan lines, whereby the Sharia Courts of each clan not only settle the disputes within their own clan members, but also pass sentence upon their own wrong-doer kinfolk. Thus, for example, if a thief from clan X is caught by the militia of the Sharia Court of clan Y, they hand him over to the clan X Sharia Court to deal with, and so on.
3. Application of the principle of good neighborliness by mediation and resolution of the Ethiopian-Eritrean stand-off with respect to demarcation of their national boundaries, in particular resolving the dispute over the town of Badme.
4. Application of the above principle by mediation of the Ethiopian-Sudanese-Egyptian disputes with respect to the Nile waters.
5. Application of the above principle by enlargement of the East African Economic Community to include all the countries in the Horn of Africa and commencing negotiations on establishing a customs union and free movement of people, capital and goods throughout the region.
6. Establishment of a Horn of Africa Reconstruction Fund with donations from the IMF, World Bank, African Development Bank (AfDB) and international donors to rebuild the region’s physical and social infrastructure. This fund would be administered by the AfDB under clearly defined guidelines to avoid corruption, misuse and unnecessary bureaucracy.
7. Establishment of a standing Inter-Governmental Coordination Committee for the region to address common development projects as well as resolve inter-governmental disputes.
At the beginning of this piece, we noted that the major differences between the international political environment of 1991 and the present day will determine the likely consequences of events transpiring in Somalia. In order for the strategy outlined above to have a reasonable chance of success it is essential that the AU and particularly the major players in African diplomacy, e.g. South Africa, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania etc., take a leading role in resolving this crisis. It is also important to secure the support (political, financial and logistical) of the EU, US, Russia and China as the major world powers as well as of the UN. However, it is crucial that AU, and its major players, take the lead role in resolving this crisis with the neighboring countries, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti, taking a back seat in view of their involvement in previous attempts to establish ‘governments’ in Somalia and the widespread popular distrust of their intentions among the Somali population. This distrust also extends to Egypt, Yemen and the AL which is why they must also take a back seat in this endeavor.