|Home | Contact us | Links | Archives | Search|
The Past, Through The Looking-Glass
REPORT ON MISSION TO SOMALILAND
15/12/94 TO 21/12/94
By Matt Bryden, Consultant to UN-EUE
From 13-24 December 1994, a mission from the UN Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia (UN-EUE), on behalf of UNHCR Regional Liaison Office in Addis Ababa, visited Djibouti and north-western Somalia (Somaliland), in order to evaluate the causes and consequences of the current conflict there and its implications for Ethiopia. Specifically, the mission was concerned with the displacement of the civil population, both within Somaliland and across the international boundary with Ethiopia, as well with the progress of humanitarian efforts on their behalf. Consideration was given to various options for relief of the war-affected population, including cross-border assistance from Ethiopia with a view to minimising further influxes into Ethiopia.
Meetings were held with numerous actors in the field including UN agencies, NGOs, Somaliland administration officials, community elders, and representatives of displaced groups on both sides of the conflict. Special thanks is due to the members of the UNHCR Northwest Somalia Unit for the orientation, logistical support, and extraordinary hospitality they offered throughout the mission.
Note: Unfortunately for the uninitiated, it is not possible to describe this conflict without reference to the major clans involved. Although many of the issues involved are of a political nature, there is even disagreement between the combatants as to whether this is a "clan" conflict or not. Every effort has been made to ensure that discussion of clan issues in this paper is kept as simple as possible.
Evolution of the Conflict
Versions of the battle naturally differ over who is ultimately to blame for the fighting and who presently has the upper hand, but a few basic points are undisputed by either side: namely, that government forces struck first, attacking the ‘Iidagale village of Toon, south of Hargeysa, on 15 November. Having already taken control of Hargeysa aiport from the ‘Iidagale militia who had controlled it for a over 18 months, , government forces overran the village and captured a large arsenal. Although they left much of their hardware behind, some ‘Idagale troops escaped with heavily armed "technical" vehicles and attacked a busy commercial section of central Hargeysa populated mainly by the Habar Awal clan. Many civilians, not only members of the Habar Awal, were killed in the attack. The soldiers then retreated to the mainly ‘Iidagale-populated Dumbulug area of south-eastern Hargeysa, whence they began to launch hit-and-run raids upon adjacent parts of the city.
Fearing an explosion of violence and already terrorised by the shelling from both sides, civilians began to flee their homes in Hargeysa on the first day of fighting. Others held on until the end of the month when another fierce clash prompted a second large-scale exodus from the city. Much of southern and central Hargeysa is now empty. Few people remain in the south-eastern Garxajis sections of the city, where government and opposition forces are engaged in a daily routine of raids and sweeps characteristic of urban guerrilla warfare. On the government side many have removed themselves only as far as the more elevated neighbourhood of old Radio Hargeysa and the far-western suburb of new Jigjiga. In these newly crowded areas life is relatively normal, with shops open for business and buses and taxis plying their usual trade.
With the exception of Hargeysa, security throughout Somaliland remains good, and most of the displaced have chosen to move only as far as their home areas within the country. Perhaps as many as 150,000 people have fled from Hargeysa to their clan territories, where they are dependent upon the support of extended family and kinsmen. For the Habar Yonis and the Habar Awal displacement has meant dispersal among towns to the east and west of Hargeysa respectively (notably such places as Gabiley, Arabsiyo, Oodweyne and ‘Adaadley). Among the ‘Iidagale, whose Somaliland territory includes no settlements of any importance (with the possible exception of Salahley), the search for refuge has led large numbers to migrate across the border to settle among the largely ‘Idagale community at Aware in Ethiopia. If fighting continues, or if the hosts of the displaced prove unable to shoulder the burden of supporting their relatives over the long term, many more of the displaced within Somaliland may be forced to follow the ‘Iidagale example and to cross the Ethiopian border in search of help.
What began as a simple dispute over control of Hargeysa airport has evolved into a major confrontation between the Somaliland administration and its opponents, loaded with the potential to spark a full scale civil war. Although the government’s intransigence over the airport issue is in part responsible, the major factor in the escalation of the conflict to its present dimensions would seem to have been the intervention of a clique of opposition political figures - notably former Somaliland President Abdirahman Ahmed Ali "Tuur" and General Jaama’ Qaalib (Jaama’ "Yare") - supported by a diverse array of external interests - including several fighting factions from southern Somalia and, at one point, UNOSOM. This intervention has now become so overt that it may not be an exaggeration to describe the Somaliland clashes as a "proxy" war, exported from the south. Indeed, it is difficult to identify any truly indigenous root causes for the present conflict.
Within Somaliland, there exists deep disagreement over what the fighting is really about: specifically, whether the dispute is politically motivated or a simple contest of clan interests. The distinction, though admittedly somewhat esoteric, is crucial to the self-perceptions of the combatants and will likely have a decisive effect upon the evolution and resolution of hostilities. At the moment, government and opposition perspectives on the conflict are totally incompatible and pose a formidable barrier to any form of mediation. Until there is some mutual recognition of what the fighting is about, it is difficult to envision any progress towards a negotiated settlement of the crisis.
The government position is monolithic and has broad popular appeal among members of those clans in the government coalition. These include the Habar Awal/Sa’ad Muse & ‘Isse Muse (Isaaq), Arab (Isaaq) and Gadabursi. Some members of the Habar Je’elo (Isaaq), Dhulbahante and Warsengeli are also fighting on the government side, thought their clans are not formally allied with the government.
The government is anxious to portray the conflict as a political confrontation between exponents of an independent Somaliland (the government and its loyalists), and supporters of federal union with a Somalia. Since virtually all Isaaq and perhaps a majority of Gadabursi still favour the continuing independence of Somaliland, such a posture offers the government the moral high ground and provides a powerful rallying point. The government’s posture is corroborated by Abdirahman Tuur’s public support of a federal Somalia, and General ‘Aydiid’s less public claims that a new "SNM-SNA" faction is fighting as his ally against the Somaliland administration. Government forces have already captured SNA and Somali paraphernalia in battle in Hargeysa, and the regular flights loaded with arms and ammunition sent to the opposition from Tuur and ‘Aydiid in Muqdisho are now an open secret.
Egal and his key Ministers (including Defence and Interior) lay the blam for the fighting at the feet of a core group of ‘Iidagale fighters, remnants of the airport militia, recently reinforced by some of their Habar Yonis kinsmen, and paid and supplied by the Tuur - Qaalib clique. They argue that it is perfectly natural for the Garxajis population at large to feel clan solidarity with these fighters, taking pains to demonstrate that their battle is with only the militia, not with the Garxajis clan as a whole. As time passes, this distinction is becoming more difficult to maintain. In the meantime, Egal has declared a national State of Emergency and has appealed for humanitarian assistance for victims of the conflict on both sides of the "front.".
The government has so far rejected overtures from various groups of elders to negotiate an end to the fighting between the Garxajis and Habar Awal on the grounds that the government represents the interests of a broad coalition and must therefore be dealt with as a government, not as its constituent clans. Their case is a strong one: the Minister of Defence, Abdirahman aw Ali, is a Gadabursi; the commander of government forces is a Habar Je’elo, and his deputy is a Dhulbahante; Gadabursi, Habar Awal (Isaaq) and Arab (Isaaq) soldiers are heavily engaged in the fighting. The opposition’s insistence on negotiating only with the Habar Awal clan is therefore unacceptable to the government, and in any case hard to justify.
Furthermore, the government asserts that there is no one from among their adversaries in Somaliland with whom to hold a dialogue. Admittedly, the opposition does seem to be for the moment without clear leadership: Tuur is in Muqdisho and Qaalib in Djibouti, both of whom seem to prefer the BBC to direct intercourse. Local commanders of the opposition militia include Col. Ahmed Mire (Habar Yonis) and Col. Qalinle (‘Iidagale), neither of whom seems to be of the necessary stature, nor of the disposition, to negotiate a cease-fire. In the absence of competent interlocutors, the government demands the total disarmament (or defeat) of the renegade militia. Given the ‘Iidagale militia’s record for troublemaking over the past two years, many Somalilanders consider this to be not an unreasonable attitude.
The opposition forces remain concentrated among members of the ‘Iidagale and Habar Yonis/Reer Isaxaaq clans. Member of many other Habar Yonis lineages, however, provide material and moral support to the fighters. In contrast with the government platform, the opposition’s political orientation is ambiguous fragmented, and even contradictory. Tuur and his followers call for a federal union with Somalia, while a committee of twelve Habar Yonis clans has recently affirmed its committment to an independent Somaliland. Three main inclinations may be discerned within the opposition camp:
Federalists: The proclivity for a federal union with Somalia remains limited to a clique of Garxajis political figures, mainly outside Somaliland, personified in the Tuur-Qaalib axis (though Qaalib has not publicly declared himself in favour of federation). Surprisingly, Tuur has been able to garner military support from the SNA (which he then funnels to the opposition militia in Somaliland), even though General ‘Aydiid is himself opposed to federation and makes no secret of his preference for a unitary Somali state. Several Habar Yonis encountered in the course of the mission spoke openly of arms shipments from Muqdisho received through the airports of Kabahdheer (15 minutes east of Bur’o) and Salahley.
Since the federalist platform has little popular appeal among Isaaq, this group attempts to characterise itself as a rejuvenated Somali National Movement (SNM), of which Tuur was himself once chairman, while decribing the Egal administration as Faqash - a term once reserved for loyalists of the Siyaad Barre regime. Since many prominent SNM officers, several former SNM chairmen, and Tuur’s own SNM deputy chairman have declared their support for Egal, this pretense has not yet caught the imagination of the opposition’s clan membership. Grassroots feeling among the Garxajis tends to oppose federalism.
Constitutionalists: Within Somaliland, the tone of the Garxajis political leadership, though unfocussed, is less strident than that of its expatriate associates. Their reasoning concerning the fighting involves a muddled array of grievances against the Egal administration, whom they accuse of an inherent anti-Garxajis orientation, and the predominance of Habar Awal political and commercial interests in decision-making (the issue of the new Somaliland shilling is a case in point). The inclusion in the present administration of several "‘Alan ‘As" (Red Flag) SNM officers who opposed the Tuur government lends weight to this complaint. Joined to this argument are several instances of perceived injustice towards the Garxajis - mainly allusions to their under-representation in government and their non-recognition of the Booraame accords which put an end to the last round of Somaliland civil strife (1992) and brought Egal to power. Prior to the latest outbreak of fighting, however, no one (even among the Garxajis) seemed to think these kinds of issues were worth going to war over. It is unclear what may have changed.
Of more immediate importance (though equally unlikely casus belli) are several alleged violations of the National Charter (formulated at the Booraame conference) by which the Garxajis insist Egal’s government has forfeited its legitimacy. These include the formation of a national army (not provided for in the Charter) and the government’s efforts to take control of Hargeysa airport from the ‘Iidagale militia: the opposition argues that a clause in the Charter referring to "local" security arrangements gives the ‘Iidagale a legitimate claim to their "own" airport, though they refute the ‘Isse Muse’s comparable "right" to control revenues from Berbera port, which they describe as "national" property. They also resent Egal’s declaration of a state of emergency, which they describe as ultra vires.
The distillate of these rather arcane formulations of clan interest is that the Garxajis leadership no longer recognise the Egal administration and refuse to negotiate with it to end hostilities. They therefore prefer to describe the conflict in clan terms, as a struggle between Habar Awal and Garxajis for power in Somaliland. Those clans who have demonstrated their solidarity with Egal through the commitment of military forces are considered to be puppets of the Habar Awal. If the Habar Awal will lay down their arms, the argument goes, so will the rest.
Sadly, the mechanism for such inter-clan dialogue no longer exists. The members of the Guurti, or Council of Elders, provided for as a national body for conflict resolution in the National Charter, have been scattered by the conflict. Their chairman, Sheikh Ibrahim, is with Egal in Hargeysa and supports the government’s insistence that this is primarily a problem between politicians, not clans. The opposition allege that the Guurti have been bought...
Popular sentiment: Discussions with ordinary members of the Garxajis clans - primarily the Habar Yonis - and representatives of various groups of displaced would suggest that most Garxajis are neither federalists, nor particularly interested in the governments adherence or otherwise to the National Charter. The majority, demonstrated by a joint declaration of 12 Habar Yonis clans in Bur’o on 10 December 1994, support the continued independence of Somaliland and a peaceful settlement of disputes. They seem for the most part deeply embarrassed by Tuur’s attempts to portray the conflict as a battle for a federal Somalia, and are uncomfortable accepting arms from Muqdisho.
The people do feel, however, that the government’s attack on Toon, a village firmly within ‘Iidagale territory, was a serious miscalculation which places the administration clearly in the role of aggressor. This is hardly sufficient cause for a full-scale, protracted civil war, and they see no reason why the conflict should not be speedily solved through dialogue.
A concerted effort has already been undertaken by UN agencies and NGOs to quantify and evaluate the problem of displacement in consequence of the fighting. detailed reports are available from the Emergency Task Force and through UNHCR. The primary purpose of the UN-EUE mission was to assess the potential implications of the mass displacement for Ethiopia, by establishing patterns of displacement, the intentions of the displaced vis-à-vis further movement, and the impact of humanitarian assistance on both sides of the border. The mission visited both sides of the "front", including several key concentrations of displaced, with the notable exception of Salahley (due to time constraints) - a major ‘Iidagale focal point.
Patterns of Displacement
According to the Inter-Agency Emergency Task Force, as many as 150,000 persons may already have been displaced by fighting (N.B. these figures date from 29/11/94, since which time there have been several more major clashes within Hargeysa and further displacement). The majority of these people have remained within Somaliland, seeking refuge within their own clan territories, as follows:
The situation of the displaced, though difficult, was described in the Emergency Task force report of 29 November (nearly one month old, though a follow-up report has yet to be compiled) as "under control." It is certainly true that most displaced families have managed to survive the last month and a half reasonably well. It is equally true that the coming month or two is likely to prove more difficult for a number of reasons:
Prospects for Assistance
From discussions on both sides of the "front", it is clearly the intention of most families to remain where they are. Since most have sought first refuge among extended family and clan relatives, further movement would imply dislocation from these highly effective informal coping mechanisms. Only in dire circumstances would most people consider relocation to Ethiopia. Unpleasant memories of life in the refugee camps during the SNM struggle also seems to be a factor in many people’s thinking when considering their options. Most people recognised that if hostilities persist, they may be obliged to move again in search of assistance. If it is possible to remain where they are, however, they will do so.
However, many interviewees were equally clear that a major new assistance programme to refugees on the Ethiopian side of the border would have tremendous drawing power for members of all clans. Without exception, people asked were categorical that even those families now re-settled among relatives would take advantage of any formal assistance offered to refugees in Ethiopia. Since all major clans involved in the present conflict move freely between Somaliland and their contiguous territory across the border, such exploitation of refugee aid programmes would only be natural.
The different responses of the government and the opposition to the problems of the displaced has been revealing: Egal has appealed publicly for people to remain in Somaliland and not to seek status as refugees. Following such initial reluctance, the administration now call for assistance to displaced "Somalilanders" on both sides of the conflict. They insist only on transparency of assistance programmes and assurances that the aid will not go to military purposes (i.e. will not be "dumped" without supervision). The opposition, though lacking a clear orientation with respect to humanitarian assistance, has already appealed for assistance to those who have crossed the border to Ethiopia (Jaama’ Qaalib has been busy canvassing aid agencies in Djibouti and Addis Ababa for help). Such gestures do not seem to imply a sense of urgency in having people return home.
It is still possible to project the evolution of the conflict in different directions. Broadly speaking, these are:
Escalation and generalisation of the war: For the moment, only a few small lineages of the Habar Yonis are directly engaged in the conflict. If the opposition succeeds in bringing the remainder of Garxajis (i.e. all Habar Yonis and ‘Iidagale together) into the war, the situation could deteriorate steeply. Unlike any other clan, the Garxajis are strongly represented in four of Somaliland’s six major towns. Their full commitment to the conflict could easily provoke clashes in Berbera, Bur’o and ‘Eerigaabo. Displacement of civilians would rise proportionately. Inclusion of Abdirahman Tuur in a southern government (led by ‘Aydiid) may be just the spark that’s needed. Public opinion on both sides, however, still militates against expansion of the war.
Resolution of the conflict: A negotiated settlement remains possible. As the opposition asserts, the Habar Awal remain the key to a truce on the government side. If they can be persuaded to negotiate, other clans in the government camp will probably follow suit. For the moment, however, there is no prospect of high level discussions. The government is not enthusiastic about opening a dialogue, concerned that this would only lead back to the status quo ante. Nor is there any guarantee that agreements reached within Somaliland would be respected by Tuur’s group, and the militia bands they control.
A major influx of Somaliland refugees to Ethiopia is undesirable and could even - if it totals some 150,000 persons or more - prove unmanageable. In the present donor climate, neither the resources, nor the will to meet the needs of such a major refugee population are likely to be available at this late juncture in the Somali crisis. Further, since the crisis involves a conflict within the Somaliland community, it will not be possible to group members of various clans together in the same refugee camps, as in 1988. New camp infrastructure would be necessary in order to keep groups separated and to prevent the importation of the conflict into Ethiopia. It is also worth keeping in mind that imminent developments in southern Somalia may also generate major humanitarian crises which will compete for the attention and energy of aid agencies and donors alike. It is therefore proposed that resources be devoted to preventing a mass exodus from Somaliland. In the long term, this is likely to prove easier and less costly than large-scale, long-term refugee care and maintenance programmes.
In addressing the needs of displaced, no distinction should be made between those who have crossed the Ethiopian border and those who have not. Any special status conferred upon those who have come to Ethiopia, especially in terms of material benefits, is likely to encourage a further exodus among members of other clans, hoping to cash in on these advantages (in a most extreme example, it could be suggested that the establishment of a full-scale refugee programme in Ethiopia, complete with registration and food distribution, could leads to tens of thousands more people crossing over the border). It therefore of prime importance that assistance to displaced on both sides of the border be co-ordinated closely and kept in equilibrium.
Although this kind of intervention would imply only a limited role for UNHCR, the refugee agency still has an interest in ensuring that effective assistance does indeed reach displaced persons on both sides of the border (since HCR will ultimately bear the brunt if the exodus is not arrested). To date, HCR staff in Somaliland have played a key role in co-ordinating of relief efforts to internally displaced, while maintaining rehabilitation programmes (associated with repatriation) in secure areas of the country. It is recommended that HCR continue to act in the critical capacity, with three clearly defined objectives:
1. Monitoring of the situation and co-ordination of relief efforts in the field.
UNHCR is already well-placed for a monitoring and co-ordination role, which requires the presence of field staff in Booraame/Gabiley (Government areas), Bur’o (Opposition areas), and Jigjiga/Aware (Ethiopia - mainly opposition). UNHCR is the only agency to be present in all three areas. It is therefore recommended that the field officer for Bur’o not be withdrawn, but rather stay on to assume these functions.
UNHCR operates one of three aircraft flying to destinations in Somaliland, performing a vital service for the Somaliland aid community, especially in this time of crisis. It is recommended that this service continue. It is further proposed that, while keeping shy of a fully operational engagement in the Somaliland crisis, that HCR use its logistical expertise and capacity for rapid response to preposition relief supplies for distribution by INGOS and other implementing partners. Provision of basic supplies such as plastic sheeting and blankets is essential to meeting the basic needs of the displaced where they are found.
Some basic needs, like digging of shallow wells and latrines may require small, once-off investment of funds. By making a small fund available to NGOs in their work, UNHCR could break one of the bottlenecks in the present relief effort: quick release of necessary funds. Transport costs needed in order to bring supplies to widely dispersed displaced communities could also be met through such a fund.
The displaced population which has crossed into Ethiopia poses a special problem, firstly because they may qualify for legal status as "refugees", and secondly, because their home areas within Somaliland are among the least accessible of all. Although a small airstrip exists at Salahley, travel by land requires approximately 8 hours from Bur’o.
From Aware, the road to Salahley is estimated to take about 4 hours, considerably faster than travel from Bur’o. Travel from Hargeysa is unecessarily risky for the moment because it would require crossing the "front." In strictly operational terms, it is more practical to deal with the problems of this population in a cross-border operation from Aware, rather than a base within Somaliland.
If a cross-border approach is adopted, it is important that the Somaliland administration’s insistence upon transparency be kept in mind. UN agencies within western Somaliland remain accountable to the government, and the smooth discharge of their functions will require at least a cordial working relationship with the administration. An independent cross-border operation of which the administration is not aware could introduce stress into the relations between UN agencies and the government within Somaliland, unless maximum effort in made to avoid misunderstanding and to minimize the government’s apprehensions about aid flowing to the opposition.
Summary of Recommendations:
DisclaimerThe designations employed and the presentation of material in this document do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever of the UN concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.