Global Policy Forum

Somalia: Africa Insight


By Eliezer Wangulu*

September 7, 2007

Towards the end of nineteenth century, Somalia was partitioned between European colonial powers and Ethiopia. The Somali Peninsula, one of the most culturally homogeneous regions of Africa, was divided into British Somaliland, French Somaliland, Italian Somaliland, Ethiopian Somaliland (the Ogaden region), and what is now Kenya's North-Eastern Province. After the formation of the modern Somali state, which came about as a result of the former British and Italian parts uniting in 1960, Somali leaders became preoccupied with the dream of unifying all areas populated by Somali people into one country to be called the Greater Somalia. The collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991 was followed by a seven-year period of inter and intra clan civil war and banditry throughout the country.

Barre's manipulation of clans had created an atmosphere of mistrust and hostility that gradually weakened traditional and national institutions which were mostly based in Mogadishu. Simply put, when Mogadishu collapsed, as a country, Somalia collapsed as well. Although unified as a single nation at independence, the south and the north, were, from an institutional point of view, two separate countries. Former colonisers Britain and Italy had left the two regions with separate administrative, legal, and education systems in which affairs were conducted according to different procedures and in different languages. Police, taxes, and the exchange rates of their respective currencies also differed. Their educated elites had divergent interests, and economic contacts between the two regions were virtually nonexistent.

In 1960, the United Nations created the Consultative Commission for Integration. This was an international board headed by UN official, Paolo Contini, to guide the gradual merger of the new country's legal systems and institutions and to reconcile the differences between them. In 1964, the Consultative Commission for Legislation succeeded this body.

Composed of Somalis, it took up its predecessor's work.

But many southerners believed that, because of experience gained under the Italian trusteeship, theirs was the better prepared of the two regions for self-government. Northern political, administrative and commercial elites were reluctant to recognise that they now had to deal with Mogadishu. The collapse could also be attributed to certain features of Somali lineage segmentation. The Somali clan organisation is an unstable system, whose main characteristic is ever-shifting allegiances. This segmentation goes down to the household level with the children of a man's two wives sometimes turning against one another on the basis of maternal lines.

Ethnographers state that power, among the Somali, is exercised through temporary coalitions and ephemeral alliances between lineages. A given alliance fragments into competitive units as soon as the situation that necessitated it ceases to exist. In urban settings, for example, where relatively large economic and political stakes are contested, the whole population may be polarised into two opposing camps of clan alliances. To varying degrees, the poles of power in the politics of independent Somalia generally have tended to gravitate around the Daarood clan and a confederacy of the Hawiye and the Isaaq clan families.

Amidst the interclan violence that was the order of the day in the early 1990s, Somalis naturally sought comfort in Islam to make sense of their national disaster.

The Somali brand of messianic Islamism (others view it as fundamentalism) sprang up to fill the vacuum created by the collapse of the state. In the disintegrated Somali world of early 1992, Islamism appeared to be largely confined to Bender Cassim, a coastal town in the Majeerteen country. In this town operated assassins belonging to an underground Islamist movement whose adherents wished to purify the country of "infidel" influence. Recent United States policy on Somalia has only made matters worse in the collapsed state. The Horn of Africa region, which has both suffered attacks by al Qaeda and hosted its agents is a legitimate concern of U.S.

Unholy alliances

According to media analyses, stemming the spread of terrorism and extremist ideologies has become such an overwhelming strategic objective for Washington that it has overshadowed U.S. efforts to resolve conflicts and promote good governance. Counterterrorism is now the main policy preoccupation in the Greater Horn, enjoying the same prioritisation as did anticommunism in the Cold War era. To realise this aim in the Horn, it is averred that the Bush administration has too often nurtured relationships with autocratic leaders and favoured covert and military action over diplomacy. Sometimes that has even included feting in Langley (CIA headquarters in Virginia, USA) Sudanese officials suspected of having a hand in the massacres in Darfur or handing suitcases full of cash to warlords on the streets of Mogadishu.

In Somalia, the core of the Islamist militant movement remains intact after Ethiopia's invasion, its members' passions inflamed by the intervention. The leaders of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Uganda have used the spectre of war and the imperative of counterterrorism as excuses to crack down on political opponents and restive populations at home. The humanitarian situation throughout the region, fragile even in times of peace, is now catastrophic. Nearly 9million people have been displaced, and chronic insecurity severely blocks access to humanitarian aid for the more than 16 million people who need it. History will probably record the Ethiopian government's decision to team up with the U.S. administration for regime change in Somalia as a misadventure. Ethiopia has enough problems at home, brought into sharp relief when forces of an ethnic-Somali separatist group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, raided an oil exploration facility, killing 74 people, including nine employees of a Chinese oil company.

Armed separatist groups are now changing tactics. Unable to match the army on the battlefield, the Ogaden National Liberation Front has chosen the spectacular to draw attention to its cause. Only recently, a separatist group in the north tried something similar by kidnapping a group of British diplomats. Both horrific events can be attributed partly to fallout from Ethiopia's messy intervention in neighbouring Somalia.Initial battles last December were decisively in Ethiopia's favour. But like the Americans in Iraq, the Ethiopians in Somalia were ill prepared for the aftermath. A growing insurgency has delayed the withdrawal of its troops, exposing the government to attacks at home. It has also inflamed tension among ethnic Somalis in Ethiopia. And ironically, the Chinese workers killed near Ethiopia's border with Somalia may have been victims more of Washington's policy in the region than of Beijing's.

The U.S. has actively backed Meles Zenawi's Somali adventure. In doing so it has undermined multilateral efforts to bring about peace. And, beset by two large internal revolts by the Ogadenis and Oromos Ethiopia is at even greater risk, as a dictatorship with little popular support. It is also mired in a conflict with Eritrea, which has denied it secure access to seaports on the Red Sea. The best antidote to terrorism, according to Horn of Africa analysts say, is stability in Somalia, which the Islamic Courts had provided. The Islamists had strong public support, which had grown in the face of U.S. and Ethiopian interventions. As in other Muslim-Western conflicts, the world, undoubtedly, needs to engage with the Islamists to secure peace.

Now with world attention turning to the Horn of Africa on the suspicion that there are terrorist groups operating out of Somalia Ethiopia's role in the Horn conflict is being looked at differently. Ethiopia has a very simple objective in Somalia, it is to ensure that no government of national unity is formed and that terrorist groups linked to Al-Qaeda continue to be rumoured to be operating from Somalia. This ensures that it doesn't face a threat from a strong Somalia which has on more than one occasion entered into an all out war with Ethiopia. Despite its statements to the contrary, Ethiopia gains much from the status quo in Somalia. It is therefore no surprise that it linked up with the only other group that gain from the status quo, the warlords.

The objective for the United States being in the fray is quite different. It is simply to prevent Somalia from being an unwilling haven for terrorist groups linked to Al-Qaeda. To pursue that objective, the United States is handicapped by the fact that state authority is limited to only portions of the country. The United States has everything to gain from the formation of a broad-based all inclusive government and a stable Somalia while Ethiopia, at least in the mind of the Melez Zenaawi government, has everything to lose from such an eventuality.

In so much as this is true, one is forced to conclude that increased scrutiny of Somalia will reveal that Ethiopia's arming of warlords and sabotaging of every attempt at reconciliation derails prospects for peace in the Horn of Africa. And with so much of the world convulsed by crisis, little attention has been paid to this unfolding disaster in the Horn. The UN Security Council, however, did take up the issue, and in another cowardly act which will further cement its reputation as an anti-Muslim body, bowed to American and British pressure to authorise a regional peacekeeping force to enter Somalia to protect the transitional government and fight the Islamic Courts. So far, only Uganda has sent in troops.

Those familiar with Somali society can easily determine that clan loyalties far outweigh any potential appeal of religious extremism. Therefore, organisations such as Al-Qaeda can function only if there is chaos in Somalia. The return of law and order to Somalia is, according to one American analyst of the Somali situation, the draining of the swamp that is so much heard about from Pentagon officials.He adds: The question is, who is preventing the alleged swamp from being drained in Somalia? He continues: Once we recognise that it is Ethiopia, will recognition come that Ethiopia's activities ensure the continuation of a potentially hospitable environment to an organisation that represents a clear and present danger to the United States and indeed the world?

The African Union (AU) has backed Ethiopia's military involvement in the growing crisis in Somalia.

There are, however, those who see logic in this decision. The Somali government, which was formed two years ago after months of bitter wrangling among Somali factions, was the 14th attempt to establish a new government for the country. When the new government was formed, President Abdullahi Yusuf was recognised not only by the African Union, but also by the United Nations. To prevent Somalia's transitional government from being crushed in its final stronghold in the south-central Somali city of Baidoa, Ethiopia dispatched thousands of troops as well as aircraft in a major campaign. The Ethiopian campaign has been successful to date, with Ethiopian troops capturing Mogadishu and scattering the ICU's fighters.

Ethiopia's longtime rival, Eritrea, had troops in the country for about four months prior to the invasion. A confidential UN report drafted by the Monitoring Group on Somalia in late 2006 states that "2,000 fully equipped combat troops from Eritrea" arrived to the north of Mogadishu in late August, and redeployed to different areas held by the ICU. According to high-level sources in Somalia's transitional government and U.S. intelligence, these Eritrean troops never left the country.

Eritrea has a history of violence with its larger neighbour. Eritrea fought a bloody campaign for independence from Ethiopia, which had annexed it in the early 1960s, and has since fought a border war with Ethiopia from 1998 until December 2000. Eritrea supported the ICU as a proxy intended to destabilise Ethiopia, Dahir Jibreel, an international cooperation official for Somalia's transitional government, says. Ismael "Buubba" Hurreh, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation for the Transitional Government of Somalia once confirmed that Eritrean soldiers had been fighting on the front lines alongside the ICU. This revelation sheds further light on how Eritrea has actively helped the ICU try to topple Somalia's secular government. While the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia's report makes it clear that Eritrea greatly assisted the Islamic Courts prior to the outbreak of the conflict with Ethiopia, this is the first confirmation that Eritrean troops have assumed an active combat role.

The transitional government, on the other hand, is dominated by the warlords and terrorists who drove out American forces in 1993. Organised in Kenya by U.S. regional allies, the TNG seriously lacks internal legitimacy, which is why it has turned to Somalia's archenemy, Ethiopia, for assistance. If this war continues, it will affect the whole region, do serious harm to U.S. interests and threaten Kenya, the only island of stability in this corner of Africa.

What does the future hold for Somalia? In the best case scenario, observers say, the country will be de-centralised into smaller manageable units. Each unit will need to develop its own economic base and modern institutions, including all levels of education, to allow it to exist as viable entity. If Somalia evolves in this way it will also be able to tap the potential resources of the country more efficiently. The sum of the decentralised units will make up a strong nation with many functioning elements.

A study group commissioned by the European Union with the assistance of the UN Development Office also concluded in "A study of Decentralised Political Structure for Somalia 1995" that the country should be de-centralised into "a federal or confederate or even into decentralised unitary state." The study also concluded that the "bottom up approach," which essentially means the building of political structures in which full participation of the civil society is ensured, was the only viable option for the reconstitution of Somalia as a nation. It also explicitly acknowledged the failure of big centralised structures to bring peace. The so-called Northern Recovery Area, which is made up of two 'states' - Somaliland and Puntland, is leading in the implementation of the "bottom up approach."

It is also possible, according to another school of thought that Somalia could break up into a number of tribal republics following the example of Somaliland, which seceded in 1991. Somaliland's justification for secession was based on the historical fact that it was a British colony while the rest of the former Somali state was an Italian possession. Many Somalis question the validity of this argument. The breakaway of Somaliland will undoubtedly encourage some other groups to do likewise. This could be a devastating option to choose because of the potential for disputes over land jurisdiction. Puntland is already involved in such a dispute with Somaliland and because of the Somali nomadic way of life the tribal habitats constantly changing frontiers. There are no tribal designated areas, and usually no clear tribal frontiers in the Somali territories.

The notion of breaking up the country into tribal republics could well prove unworkable. The regional state of Puntland may, however, be laying the foundations for the reconstitution of the Somali nation. The international community has attempted, on several occasions, to bail Somalia out of the current quagmire through a series of mediations, reports and intervention by the United Nations, none of which have borne fruit due to failure to diagnose the genesis of the problems plaguing this country. It is important to view the current conflagrations and Somalia's statelessness in the context of the country's history which has been punctuated by turmoil . Nomadism is a key variable as well. The international community should try to put the Somali issue in its proper historical perspective to understand the underlying root causes of the Somali crises. Somalia is now experiencing a process of re-birth, constructing a new nation from scratch.

This natural process will take time to crystallise and to become established. The actions of the international community have so far been directed at stopping or slowing down this evolutionary process by proposing unworkable political solutions to the successive crises. Many efforts have been devoted to the application of the wrong solutions, and very little to understanding the real problems. This is why a dozen reconciliation conferences have failed in the last eight years. The 1992 UN intervention also failed. According to experts on the Somali crises, the international community can only help if it will accept that the Somali problems have to be solved by the Somalis themselves. An evolutionary process should be left to take its natural course.

A new Somalia has been taking shape for some years now, but interference by some of the regional powers in the country's internal civil conflicts, together with the uncoordinated actions of the international community, are only serving to prolong the civil conflict. It should be stressed that Somali clan politics is treacherous and can be extremely frustrating for those who do not understand the country's political structures and the way that the delicate balance of power is maintained.

About the Author: Eliezer Wangulu is a communications consultant in Puntland.

Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group's Africa Media Network Project.

More Information on the UN Security Council
More Information on Somalia
More Information on Ethiopia and Eritrea
More Information on Peacekeeping


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