Somalia’s new Islamic leadership

Harun Hassan
12 June 2006

The situation in Somalia has taken a further twist with the victory of the Union of Islamic Courts. After months of intermittent fighting with militias controlled by various warlords, the courts's own forces took control of most of the capital, Mogadishu, on 5 June 2006 and established the rudiments of a new government. But is this the endgame, or merely the latest phase, of the fifteen-year-old conflict?

Whatever the answer, the Islamic courts have established themselves as a major force in Somalia's political struggle. This is the first time since the fall of the former government in 1991 that Mogadishu seems likely to come under the control of a single faction, if indeed the Islamic courts succeed in removing the remaining pockets still loyal to the warlords.

When the most recent period of fighting began in February 2006, few observers gave the courts a chance as they faced a collection of warlords who called the themselves the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter Terrorism (ARPCT), with the financial backing of the United States. The Islamic courts received popular support from many everyday Somalis and continued to gain a large amount of territory in a way that defied even their own expectations. The pinnacle of their achievement was to capture the building where the ARPCT was formed and to establish an Islamic court there.

In the process, they have defeated some veteran Somali warlords. Among them is Mohamed Qanyare Afrah, once the second most powerful warlord in the capital; with three others, he has fled to Jowhar, ninety kilometres north of the capital.

A test for America

The rise of the Islamic movement in Somalia in the past week has triggered major reactions inside and outside Somalia. While the courts have drawn widespread support from Somali citizens, the United States government has deep reservations.

A few days after the advance of the courts, the Bush administration announced that it will convene an international meeting to discuss political developments in Somalia.

Sean McCormack, the state department spokesman, said it was the "right time" to form what he called a "Somali contact group" in order to promote concerted action and coordination to support Somalia's federal institutions (by which he means the government headed by the interim president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, based in the town of Baidoa, 245 kilometres southwest of Mogadishu).

McCormack said the contact group will be open to interested parties from governments and international organisations, and suggested that "the United Nations would want to participate" in it. The signal of a more nuanced and multilateral policy from the US has found a ready response; the first "contact group" meeting will convene in New York on Thursday 15 June, with five countries – Britain, Norway, Sweden, Italy and Tanzania – so far confirming that they will be represented. The meeting will be chaired by Jendayi Frazer, the US's assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

The proposal is a signal that the immediate alarm and confusion in US analysts provoked by the courts's takeover has now been succeeded a more measured reaction. The United States and it's "proxy" warlords in Somalia have in the past accused the courts of harbouring foreign terrorists, without providing details. The courts say this claim is based on hysteria. But the United States remains anxious about the prospect of the growth of a strong Islamic movement in Somalia. After the gains made by the courts in Mogadishu, President Bush declared that he did not want to see Somalia become a "safe haven" for terrorists.

Meanwhile, the Union of Islamic Courts has offered a hand of friendship to the west – and that includes the United States of America.

In a letter signed by the (Mogadishu) chairman of the Islamic courts, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed says the courts want to end the bloodshed in Somalia's capital and rebuild the country.

More significantly, the courts leader has rejected any claim that the new Islamic movement in Somalia is sheltering terrorists – whether Somalis or foreigners. The Sheik said he would not object if journalists and other interested parties visited Mogadishu to see things for themselves.

Harun Hassan worked for Associated Press and the BBC in Somalia. He currently works as a freelancer

Also by Harun Hassan in openDemocracy:

"'Not housekeepers any more': Somali women of the diaspora" (November 2002)

"Black Hawk Down: the Baghdad sequel? "
(April 2003)

"In Mogadishu objectivity is a luxury most journalists cannot afford" (April 2003)

"The 'Axis of Anarchy'" (June 2003)

"Iraq: the lesson from Somalia"
(October 2003)

"Somalia: exit into history? "
(February 2004)

"America's two faces in Somalia" (August 2004)

"Yahya: death of a peace campaigner"
(July 2005)

"Somalia twists in the wind" (April 2006)

The Islamic Courts and Somalia

The new power in Somalia's chaos faces two huge challenges. First, a main obstacle to the Islamic courts's progress could come from the very fact that they have achieved so much in a short period. The courts were not ready to cope with the speed of their own advance, and this immediate success might have come too early for them. Second, the courts system overlaps with that of Somalia's complex system of clans. This means that the scholars leading the courts themselves have differences over Somalia's political direction.

It is believed that the chairman of the courts, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed is more "even-handed" than some of his colleagues. He is said to favour the idea that the new courts should work alongside Somalia's existing government in Baidoa. Sheik Ahmed has already offered to negotiate with the interim Somali government. In return, the government said it has already started talking to the new movement.

It also known that at least one of his colleagues has a difference of opinion about approaching the interim government. One of the Islamic courts's prominent leaders, Hassan Dahir Aweys, is firmly opposed to the interim government. He loathes the interim president, Abdullahi Yusuf; this animosity has its roots in 1992, when Yusuf defeated an armed campaign against him led by Aweys's al-Ittihad movement in northeastern Somalia.

Colonel Hassan, a former head of the military wing of al-Ittihad (an organisation the United States regards as a terrorist organisation), has always harboured a more ambitious plan for Somalia involving a more direct implementation of sharia law.

In an August 2005 interview, Hassan said he would have wanted to establish an Islamic government in Somalia and anywhere else where Islamic rule would be appropriate but that the west is opposed to Islam and is "trying to stop us from ruling ourselves in Islam".

He went beyond Somalia and said he would like to see Islam leading not only in Africa but across the world. "We'll see the possibilities of that but we do not have a particular style in mind, Hassan Al-Turabi [the Sudanese Islamic spiritual leader] or otherwise. We just want Islam to rule our country and people, and we want other communities and the world to support us in doing this."

When asked if he is a man of peace, Hassan said that if peace is conceivable to achieving this they would do it but if to fight was more conceivable then they would take that route. "Peace and war go hand-in-hand in every society, Islam is not an exception."

However, Sheik Ahmed has, after recent achievements, said the courts would not force anyone to embrace Islamic law and that it is up to the Somalis to decide. "We were attacked and are still in defence. That is where the situation still is." He has urged the world to understand that what happened in Mogadishu was a public uprising and has to be respected as such.

The regional prospect

Inside Somalia, the courts have several hurdles to overcome. Two especially difficult ones are the elders, and clan politics. First, some clan elders are still standing between the courts and the warlords. The courts leaders believe that they would have swept the warlords from Mogadishu last week but that the involvement of these elders hampered their operation by persuading the courts to halt the firing while they negotiated the surrender of two warlords. The courts believe this lost them momentum. The longer the remaining warlords still occupy parts of the capital, the more chance they have to regroup and consolidate.

Second, clan politics could prove an even bigger obstacle to the courts. The courts militias also belong to various clans. At the same time, clan elders are just protecting their clansmen and fear that if the warlords (among them Muse Sudi and Bashir Rage) surrender their weapons, they would fall into the hands of rival clans. The courts cannot give an assurance on this point as they themselves are still based on clan lineages.

The courts may, despite these obstacles, sort out Mogadishu's problems. Any failure to proceed with significant changes to the capital – such as removing the checkpoints, opening the air and seaport – will only spread doubt among the rest of the community who might begin to suspect that the Islamic courts will become just "another faction" in Somalia's numerous factions.

The courts have already received major indirect support from neighbouring Kenya; after its government banned Somali warlords who are fleeing the country enter its territory. Kenya has been a refuge for Somali politicians for many years, along with tens of thousands of Somali refugees.

The Kenyan authorities have already arrested and deported a wealthy businessman who backed the warlords involved in the recent fighting in Mogadishu. The businessman, Abdurashid Il-Qayte, boarded a plane to the United Arab Emirates where he has business interests. Kenya has not stopped there; it called on all other countries to stop sheltering Somali warlords who failed to cooperate with the current Somali government.

But the lack of a united front by the international community remains a major drag on Somalia's political process. Italy, Yemen, Egypt, Eritrea and Djibouti are thought to back various Somali factions. More importantly, the Ethiopian government has been a major player with its longstanding backing of Abdullahi Yusuf, the "dean of Somalia's warlords". Yusuf's close ties with Ethiopia is one of the reasons why he has failed to move the government to the capital, and this has cost him substantial support in the south of the country.

America's cautious response to the developments in Mogadishu will be at least a short-term reprieve for the courts. The United States, still haunted by the failure of its intervention in the country in the early 1990s and without any official representation in the country since 1994, now says it will digest the contents of the letter sent by the courts leader before it makes an official response to the new developments inside the country. It is a further small sign of progress that Washington is likely to be very careful about who it supports in Somalia in the coming months.

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