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Somalia needs African solidarity
South Africa: Letter from the President
In June 1974, a few of us spent some days in Mogadishu, Somalia, as members of an ANC delegation. We had come to the capital of Somalia to attend the annual Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Assembly of Heads of State and Government. As was the practice then, the Assembly had elected the President of Somalia, Major General Siyad Barre, as its Chairperson and Chair of the OAU until the next Assembly. Siyad Barre therefore presided over the proceedings of the Mogadishu Summit.
During that month of June, as it hosted the Assembly, Mogadishu served as the venue for a great African celebration. The reason for the celebration was the then impending collapse of Portuguese colonialism and the liberation of the African Portuguese colonies. Unquestionably, the star of the day, who attended the Assembly, was the late Samora Machel, who was to become the first President of liberated Mozambique.
In its 24 June 1974 edition the US "Time" magazine carried an article entitled "Sinking the Lusitanian". Among other things it said: "When President Antonio de Spinola inaugurated new governors for Angola and Mozambique...for the first time ever in a public speech about the territories, (he) used the word that Africans had been waiting for him to speak: independence. 'Self-determination cannot be dissociated from democracy,' he said, adding: 'Neither can we dissociate self-determination from independence.'
"The declaration suggested that Spinola was willing to let sink his pet idea of a 'Lusitanian Federation' - a close alliance of Portugal with semi-autonomous African territories. As the general's speech went on, however, a chill set in. In an apparent volte-face from his earlier tone, he outlined four gradual stages of decolonisation, only at the end of which would the possibility of independence be broached.
"All this may merely have been Spinola's way of asserting his determination not to see white settler interests sold down the river in the territories. However it was meant, liberation movement leaders at the annual meeting in Mogadishu, Somalia, of the Organisation of African Unity...read neo-colonialism into every word. Declared Frelimo Vice President Marcelino dos Santos: 'Our attacks will be maintained and even increased until independence is conceded under the sole leadership of Frelimo.'"
If others might have had doubts about the certainty of the liberation of the Portuguese colonies, the ANC had none. In a letter of congratulations to the new Secretary General of the OAU elected in Mogadishu, William Eteki Mboumoua, Oliver Tambo said:
"Throughout the world, the forces of reaction are suffering successive defeats. The peoples of Africa and the world struggling for national liberation, social progress and peace are scoring impressive victories.
"Of particular relevance to us and to the great peoples of Africa is, of course, the heroic victory scored by our brother peoples and combatants of Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde in helping to bring about the downfall of the hated Portuguese colonial and fascist regime of Caetano.
"This decisive victory has not only opened up the prospects for the rapid accession to independence of the Portuguese colonies in Africa, it has also greatly strengthened the liberation forces of our own country..."
As part of a cultural programme put together for the benefit of the delegates, a Somali drama group performed a play that sought to denounce the neo-colonialism mentioned by "Time" magazine, and which severely compromised the independence of African countries. The play had scenes of delegates visiting Western embassies on their way to OAU meetings.
Here they would be given briefcases full of cash. They would then be given instructions on the resolutions they should propose at these OAU meetings and how they should vote. The sketches included instructions on the need for these delegates to do everything possible to frustrate the struggles against colonialism and apartheid.
This was the first and last time I visited Mogadishu. For many years afterwards Mogadishu and Somalia remained in our memories as African places of hope for us, a reliable rear base for the total liberation of Africa, including our liberation from apartheid. Indeed, in later years, others of our comrades returned to Mogadishu, this time to work with the Somali government to prepare for the clandestine infiltration into South Africa of cadres of Umkhonto we Sizwe, who would travel to apartheid South Africa by sea, secretly departing from the Somali ports!
The fact of the matter however is that in time Somalia fell apart and ceased to exist as a viable state. This has led to the eventuality that, as the year 2007 began, Somalia put itself firmly at the top of the African Agenda. Whereas in 1974 all our liberation movements and independent Africa counted on Somali support to achieve the goals of the African Revolution, in 2007 Somalia needs the support of the rest of the African Continent, again to achieve the goals of the African Revolution.
It is true that Somalia remains an independent state. However, for 15 years it has been victim to a protracted internal conflict that resulted in the collapse of the state, the death of an estimated one million Somalis, the emigration of thousands as refugees, and the impoverishment of millions as a result of severe and sustained socio-economic regression.
Further to complicate the situation, giving it a global dimension, allegations have now been made that international terrorist groups have established themselves in Somalia, taking advantage of the situation created by the collapse of the Somali state.
Earlier, in the context of the conflict that ensued after the overthrow of Siyad Barre, the United Nations (UN) had authorised a US-led military mission to intervene in Somalia, among other things to create the conditions for the distribution of humanitarian assistance. In 1993 Somali combat groups in Mogadishu killed 18 US soldiers, after shooting down a US helicopter. This incident came to be known as "Black Hawk Down", and led to the withdrawal of the US troops and the termination of the UN mission, which failed to achieve its objectives.
Somalia has also turned into a source of regional instability, even as the African Continent through the African Union (AU) has intensified its efforts to ensure that ours becomes a Continent of peace, focused on responding to the challenge of eradicating poverty and underdevelopment.
For the sake both of Somalia and our Continent as a whole, Africa has no choice but to come to the aid of this sister African country. In many respects the deeply entrenched Somali crisis demonstrates what can happen to many of our countries if they are not governed and managed in a manner that addresses the interests of all citizens, bearing in mind the national specifics of each country.
As a state entity Somalia came into being as recently as 1960. In that year the two colonies, British and Italian Somaliland, gained their independence. To end the fragmentation of the Somali population brought about by colonialism, they then decided to merge and form the United Republic of Somalia.
This process of the unification of the Somali-speaking people however also led to tensions with neighboring countries, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya, each one of which has a Somali-speaking minority. The worst manifestation of these tensions was, of course, the 1977 war with Ethiopia, when Somalia tried to annex the Somali-speaking Ogaden region of Ethiopia. (Feudal Ethiopia had managed to seize part of Ogaden during the 1880s, and later succeeded to get the whole of it through an agreement with colonial Britain.)
We mention these events because today there are Ethiopian troops in Somalia. Not surprisingly, the media reports that many Somalis consider this Ethiopian presence as a humiliation. One businessman, Abdulahi Mohamed Mohamud, was reported as saying, "We are afraid of a long war, and people are angry at the Ethiopian troops."
As the Somali state collapsed after the overthrow of Siyad Barre in 1991, it became a conglomeration of different enclaves. North-west Somalia proclaimed itself the independent Republic of Somaliland. The Puntland region declared its autonomy. Various parts especially of southern Somalia fell under the control of different clan leaders, or "warlords".
The question that must arise is whether, in fact, during the years of independence, the different traditional "clan" areas and sections of the Somali population had developed a strong enough sense of national cohesion and identity to ensure the survival of the United Republic of Somalia proclaimed in 1960!
The importance of this question is highlighted by the role played by the issue of clan divisions in the uprising that overthrew Siyad Barre in 1991, who evidently had discriminated against some clans, specifically the Mijertyn and Isaq clans, in favor of his own Marehan clan. In this regard, a BBC correspondent, Peter Biles, has reported that: "When Somalia's president was overthrown in 1991, much of the country fell under the control of warlords and clan-based factions."
Another report spoke of "the oppressive, capricious, and clan-based autocracy of the late dictator, Siyad Barre, who used his interpretation of clan institutions for his own ends, to oppress political opponents, create inequality, and promote conflict and violence. So great was his malevolence and abuse of power that virtually all Somalis now hold a deep-seated fear and distrust of any centralized authority."
Another important element of the story of Somalia is that, as had happened in many African countries at the time, General Siyad Barre had acceded to power in 1969 by coup d'etat. He seized power after Abdi Rashid Ali Shermarke, elected President in 1967, had been assassinated. Inevitably, the absence of democratic institutions would make it extremely difficult for the different Somali clans, regions and interest groups to negotiate among themselves to define a national compact that would ensure the cohesion of the nation.
Somalia now has an Interim Government that is recognised by the AU and the rest of the world, born in 2004 after protracted negotiations held in Kenya, involving the warring Somali factions. As a result of the Ethiopian intervention, which ousted the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) that had fought itself into a position of power in Mogadishu and other parts of southern Somalia, this Government is now operating from Mogadishu.
As the military conflict continued after the ouster of the UIC, the US decided to launch air strikes against the retreating UIC adherents, claiming that it was striking at terrorists who had bombed the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998 and then taken refuge in Somalia. The majority of the world, including the AU and the UN, has been forthright in opposing this action, correctly asserting that this will not help to resolve the crisis in Somalia and would add oil to the fires that are burning in the Middle East. In addition, some Somalis have been quoted as saying that these air strikes were carried out as an act of vengeance for the death of 18 US soldiers in Mogadishu in 1993 and the shooting down of the US 'Black Hawk' helicopter.
Responding to the events in Somalia, including these US air strikes, the Foreign Minister of neighboring Yemen, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, said:
" Yemen was hoping that the Islamic Courts and the interim government would have settled their differences through the negotiating table. Unfortunately this did not happen.
"Now we have to deal with the situation as it is, and we will have to work on getting everybody concerned in Somalia to negotiate the future management of Somalia, to restore peace and security, and to put the interests of Somalia above the interests of clans or political parties or ideologies."
In these words, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi set the agenda for Somalia that the AU must address during this year, 2007. Supported by the UN Security Council, the AU is engaged in an urgent process that should result in the deployment of AU peace-keeping troops in Somalia, to help this sister country to extricate itself from its protracted crisis.
In this regard, the January 2007 President of the Security Council, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, announced that the Council regards Somalia as "a high priority matter" and is concerned about instability, security, and the humanitarian situation. The Council strongly supports an inclusive political dialogue among various political forces in Somalia and favours the speedy deployment of IGASOM, the new force that would be set up by the African Union and a seven-nation East African regional group of nations.
Time will tell when the next Assembly of Heads of State and Government, this time of the AU, will convene in Mogadishu. For that to happen, as Africans we will have to do everything necessary to overcome the old and new historic problems that have placed Somalia on our agenda as an unresolved problem of the African Revolution, as the liberation of the Portuguese colonies was an unresolved problem of the African Revolution in 1974.
Beyond this, perhaps, as Africans, we should seriously consider whether we should not take up the call originally made by former President Khatami of Iran for a "dialogue of civilisations" - a dialogue that would lead to a peaceful resolution of conflicts between clans, within nation states, between states, and between coalitions of states, to ensure that the Somali example of anarchy and death is not visited on our countries and the rest of humanity. Might this not serve as a fitting tribute to the 50th anniversary of the historic independence of Ghana of Kwame Nkrumah, which we will celebrate this year, 2007!
Source: ANC Today, Volume 7, No. 1 • 12 - 18 January 2007