Somalia: between violence and hope

David Hayes Harun Hassan
21 July 2009

The war in Somalia goes on. The sentence is so familiar that it could have been written on almost any day since 1991. Yet such familiarity does not lessen the pain of the many thousands hurt by violence and displacement, or by the hunger and poverty that war has also inflicted. Each latest death and injury, each enforced flight and disrupted schooling, hits with the rawness of the first.

Harun Hassan worked for Associated Press and the BBC in Somalia, and as a researcher for Human Rights Watch. He is now a senior editor in the Somali service of Voice of America

Also by Harun Hassan in openDemocracy

"'Not housewives any more': Somali women of the diaspora" (7 November 2002)
"Black Hawk Down: the Baghdad sequel?" (3 April 2003)      
"In Mogadishu objectivity is a luxury most journalists cannot afford" (9 April 2003)
"The ‘Axis of Anarchy'" (12 June 2003)
"Iraq: the lesson from Somalia" (2 October 2003)
"Somalia: exit into history?" (23 February 2004)
"America's two faces in Somalia" (8 August 2004) - with Michael Maren
"Yahya: death of a peace campaigner" (13 July 2005)
"Somalia twists in the wind" (12 April 2006)
"Somalia's new Islamic leadership" (13 June 2006)
"Somalia's thorny road" (2 August 2006)
"Somalia's stony path" (5 October 2006)
"Somalia slides into war" (3 November 2006)
"Somalia: diplomacy's last chance" (6 December 2006)
"Somalia at the crossroads" (10 January 2007)
"Somalia: the way forward" (13 February 2007)
"Somalia: Mogadishu's ghost days" (5 April 2007)                                   David Hayes is deputy editor of openDemocracy

There is an endless search for movement beyond the chaos, however. Somalis survive and build their lives as best they can amidst it - in the country itself, as well in the diverse (and sometimes flourishing) diaspora. Somalis recreate and sustain their homeland even in the absence of a functioning state - through local institutions and networks, through mobile and virtual connections, through conferences and gatherings, through clan solidarities. In doing so they keep alive the dream of a peaceful, sovereign and secure country where they can live in dignity. 

The ongoing conflict in Somalia may overshadow these efforts, but it never entirely eclipses them. At the same time it is hard for Somalis to explain to outsiders what after all this time the war in their country is actually about and why it has lasted so long. How is it that one of the most homogeneous societies in the world created a failed state with its own hands? What is the core problem: money, land, oil, clan, political leadership, the United States, Ethiopia, piracy, terrorism, kidnapping, environmental degradation? There is no simple answer. What then is the solution? Here, the answer is clearer: everything comes back to politics. 

The ingredients 

Every lengthy conflict can be divided into phases. In the case of Somalia, the roots of the current situation can best be understood by tracing a line of descent from what has happened since the second half of 2006.   

The story of these three years is of the rise to prominence of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) movement in the south of the country, and their brief takeover of the capital, Mogadishu; the lightning incursion and subsequent occupation of Ethiopian troops, ostensibly in support of the transitional federal government (TFG) of Somalia based in Baidoa, who ejected the courts from the capital only to face a burgeoning resistance from the even more militant al-Shabab militias; the presence of a limited and ineffective African Union peacekeeping force; the collapse of the TFG and its replacement; the withdrawal of the Ethiopians; the rise of piracy and a consequent revival of global interest in what is happening in Somalia. 

All these events within a relatively short period of three years have left Somalia still torn, with fighting in Mogadishu in the first two weeks of July 2009 resulting in dozens of deaths as shelling by al-Shabab and the forces of Somalia's president of six months(and former ICU leader), Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, battle it out in the streets; as many as fifty-one were killed and 212 injured in intense fighting on 12 July alone. 

In early January 2007, the defeat of the ICU by the Ethiopian troops in support of the Somali government of then-president Abdullahi Yusuf ignited an armed insurgency led by the Islamic Courts and clan militias from the southern parts of the country. Brutal clashes in the capital claimed the lives of at least 10,000 people - most of them civilians - and displaced up to a million others. The corrosive violence was aggravated by the Somali government's failure to pursue reconciliation with its emerging national challengers. Meanwhile Ethiopia's military tactics incurred strong international criticism. The widespread human-rights violations by all sides and in-fighting among the government's top leadership meant that the political, security and humanitarian condition of Mogadishu and south-central Somalia deteriorated even further. This situation remained constant throughout 2007 and 2008. 

The negotiations 

The first significant political manoeuvres came in November 2007, when President Yusuf and his uncompromising former prime minister Ali Mohamed Gedi parted company. The ensuing appointment of two individuals - a new premier, Nur Hassan Hussein, who worked on the humanitarian field, and a new special envoy, the Mauritanian-born diplomat Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah - changed the picture. 

These two individuals made contact with the main leadership of the insurgency, the ICU and former parliamentarians who had opposed Ethiopia's incursion. The ICU, led by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, was based in Asmara, capital of Eritrea (Ethiopia‘s bitter rival). These significant contacts led to ten days of talks between government and opposition in Djibouti, which resulted in an accord signed on 11 June 2008. The Djibouti accord provided for the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, a key insurgency demand; the cessation of hostilities, a key government demand; and the merging of the two militias to ensure security after the Ethiopian evacuation. 

The Djibouti accord, however, created a further rift within the transitional government. In December 2008, after a running dispute over the concessions given to the insurgents, President Yusuf announced the sacking of prime minister Hussein. However, Hussein had the support of the United Nations and the United States. 

The Ethiopians, unable to continue expensive military operations without political gains by the government they were supporting, also were looking for a face-saving exit. Ethiopia announced it would withdraw troops in accordance with the Djibouti agreement. All these sides put pressure on Yusuf to resign and let the premier negotiate with the opposition. 

The talks came to fruition in January 2009. The key achievements of the deal were the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops; the formation of a new government led by former opposition and ICU leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed; and the expansion of the parliament to 550 members, bringing together representatives of the TFG and ICU. 

The fighting 

A group of former Islamic fighters has continued the struggle against the new government. Those who are leading the two sides are religious leaders; those who are calling for - and imposing - more death and destruction are religious people, not (as before) warlords.  

Among openDemocracy's articles about Somalia:

Peter Hurst, " Somaliland's democratic lesson" (4 October 2005)            
Jawahir Adam, "Somaliland: a window to the future" (21 November 2006)
Edward Denison, "The Horn of Africa: a bitter anniversary" (12 April 2007)
Tom Porteous, "Somalia: a failing counter-terrorism strategy" (13 May 2007)
Anna Husarska, "Water problems in Somalia: a photo-essay" (9 October 2007)
George-Sebastian Holzer, "Somalia: piracy and politics" (24 November 2008)
George-Sebastian Holzer, "Somalia: ends and beginnings" (18 December 2008)
Gérard Prunier, "Somalia: beyond the quagmire" (25 February 2009)

The ongoing violence has disappointed the expectations raised when members of the international community welcomed the new Somali president to Brussels and pledged substantial funds in support of his government. A powerful trio - the United Nations, the European Union and the United States - all declared full support for Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and the Somali leadership, describing the new situation as "the best and most credible opportunity for Somalia for a long time". 

The bulk of the money promised to Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was intended to establish a security and police-force totalling 34,000 to be recruited from the nine regions of south-central Somalia which have been the focal point of the country's troubles. But as the president returned to Mogadishu to initiate the actions needed to unlock the assigned funds, his government came under attack from two (loosely allied) Islamic groupings: al-Shabab and Hizb-ul-Islam. 

Both al-Shabab and Hizb-ul-Islam (the latter itself divided) are in effect splinter groups of the former Islamic Courts Union, which have declared strong opposition to the new transitional government. Their fighters have pursued the war despite and against the package of political moves designed to bring it to an end by attacking rival Islamic (but pro-government) militias, capturing several of their bases, occupying areas and settlements outside Mogadishu - and (in July 2009) waging a ferocious assault inside the capital itself. 

The international community's response has in rhetorical terms at least been firm. The UN special envoy, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, described the militias' operations as an attempt to overthrow the government. A number of other authorities - including the European Union, the African Union, the Arab League, and the United States's under-secretary for Africa, Johnnie Carson - also condemned the attacks.

The new government attempted to regroup by assembling an impromptu force - including military personnel trained in Ethiopia and Uganda (inherited from Abdullahi Yusuf's unpopular government), several hundred former ICU fighters, and an equal number of militias from loyal clans. This body was in turn supported by about 4,000 troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), who had been defending the government and key installations in Mogadishu (among them the seaport, airport and the presidential palace). 

Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed retains considerable political capital in the south of Somalia, as well as in Mogadishu itself (where Abdullahi Yusuf's government failed to get the support of the local clans). However, the new president and government are faced with a highly-trained and well-led opposition that composes the most powerful military force in Somalia today. The main group, al-Shabab, has thousand of fighters who are determined to overthrow the government, force Amisom to withdraw and form an Islamic government. The other group, Hizb-ul-Islam, is less advanced in military terms than al-Shabab but is led by influential Islamist figures such as Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys. 

In fact, it was the return of Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys from Asmara that inspired the opposition to launch its attack on the government. Sheikh Aweys is another former prominent figure in the ICU who once worked alongside President Ahmed. However, when Ahmed himself left Eritrea in early 2008 to begin negotiations in Djibouti with the TFG government, Sheikh Aweys was sceptical - and stayed behind in Asmara. As the talks in Somalia progressed, the differences between the two leaders grew wider - to the point where their political coalition, the Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia (ARS), broke apart in May 2008 after only eight months of existence. 

The mediation 

There were attempts, in Yemen and Sudan, to reconcile Sheikh Ahmed and Sheikh Aweys. These came to nothing. As the Djibouti process evolved in parallel, Sheikh Aweys's animosity towards Sheikh Ahmed intensified. Some of Somalia's best-known scholars and most influential clan elders intervened in a fresh attempt to arrange a ceasefire and find a path towards reconciliation. These too have proved abortive. Sheikh Aweys has said that he will not sit down with Sheikh Ahmed until the latter relinquishes the presidency and Amisom troops are withdrawn. 

President Ahmed, by contrast, has declared his readiness to talk to Aweys and other opposition figures. In an attempt to ease the conflict, his government has accepted an earlier demand from the scholars and signed a document approving Islamic law as the basis of all Somalia's legal systems, after this had been approved by the cabinet and the newly expanded parliament.

The exit 

The military threat to the president represented by al-Shabab and Hizb-ul-Islam means that he is unlikely to accept the opposition's demand to withdraw Amisom troops, which are one of his few ostensible protections (despite being widely disliked in Somalia, in part because of their shelling of civilian areas during periods of fighting). Indeed he wants the African Union to build Amisom's troop-strength to the original planned total of 8,000; as the conflict in early July 2009 escalated, Somalia's prime minister Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke said that he expected more Amisom soldiers to arrive within days. Sheikh Ahmed also seeks to secure the financial support pledged to train new police and security forces. 

There is broad agreement between the Somali political leadership and international actors that this government represents a confluence of two contrasting ideologies - western-backed secular governance and moderate former members of the Islamist-led insurgency. The process that led to its formation saved the transitional federal institutions (parliament, charter and government), led to the withdrawal of the resented Ethiopian troops and brought elements of the Islamic agenda into Somalia's formal political mechanisms. 

Now the process, and Somalia's opportunity for a political way forward, is again at a crossroads. The  daunting security challenges mean that the president will have to take specific steps in order to save his government from what has become a major threat. These include communicating a consistent message to the Somali public, the opposition and the international community: over Amisom, the training and promotion of former ICU commanders, the merging of the former and new militias into a modern armed force, and persuading Somalia's international partners to convene a second donor conference aimed at raising money specifically for Somalia's rebuilding and development. 

There is a very delicate political as well as security task involved here. Somalia's infrastructure has been devastated by the years of war. The president needs evidence of progress in reconstruction that can put the skills of Somalis tired of figting to use in job-creating contributions to the rebuilding of roads, houses, schools, airports and ports. But this in turn requires that he secures and keeps the support of the clans and clan-elders of the areas where al-Shabab and Hizb-ul-Islam operate. The two militias control large areas but do not necessarily have the support of the local clans. The government, if it can surmount the pressing militia challenge, has opportunities to make progress. 

This in turn makes it vital that the international community implement its promises to support the Somali government financially and politically. It has to speak out against the groups and individuals that are accustomed to derailing every possible channel for peace and progress. This is a task that combines short- and long-term objectives, in which different international agencies need to be involved. 

The United Nations would, for example, perform a valuable service if - as recommended by Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah - it initiated a commission to map the human-rights violations and acts of violence against Somalis during almost twenty years of war and mayhem. In a similar vein, the appeal by fifty Somali MPs and civil-society leaders in Nairobi on 15 July 2009, asking that the international community help to strengthen Somali institutions, focuses on an important part of the current agenda. 

Somalia's insecurity remains deep-rooted. Yet the political process of 2008-09 has given Somalis a chance to take back control over their own destiny. It is the best they have had for a long time. If this one too is drowned in violence, Somalis will be obliged to continue to build their country as best they can without the functioning state and set of institutions that remain just beyond their grasp.

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