Storm Warning: Somalia

By René Wadlow

Although Somalia is in a crucial geo-strategic position on the Horn of Africa facing the Arabian peninsula, the country has largely slipped from world attention except for specialists.

The government had disappeared in 1991, proving that people can live without a State. What order existed was the result of very local warlords and clanic chiefs. Many in the United States recalled Somalia as the location for the film Black Hawk Down and images of a dead US soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. These were scenes best forgotten, and, for many US decision-makers, an object lesson as to why not to get involved in African disputes.

Now, renewed fighting -- "the sharpest in 15 years " -- between some of the warlords and a revitalized Islamic movement, the "Union of Sharia Courts," projects a Taliban-type victory that could open a door to Islamic terrorists. The Union is led by Sheik Sharif Ahmed and seems to be gaining the military advantage.

In 1960, the Somali Republic was created by the union of a British colony and an Italian trusteeship area. Italy had possessed part of Somalia as a colony until the end of the Second World War. From 1945 to 1950, Somalia was governed by UN administrators. In 1950, it was returned to Italy under a Trusteeship Council mandate.

The Somalis speak the same language and practice the same forms of Islam. The divisions among the Somalis are not tribal but clanic, with clans being followed by subclans, lineages and extended families. Lineage is the most important identity, thus one has frequent intra-clan tensions as well as inter-clan disputes. It has been said that Somalis lived in societies with rules but without rulers. (See I.M. Lewis' classic study: A Pastoral Democracy Oxford University Press, 1969). There are Somalis also living in Ethiopia and Kenya, a fact which led to Pan-Somali aspirations and a 1977-78 war with Ethiopia in an effort to annex the Ogaden area where most of Ethiopia's Somalis live. These Pan-Somali efforts have always failed.

In such a clanic, largely pastoral society, one does not need state institutions to function. Clans are not all equal; some are severely disadvantaged due to their social status and thus their access to water and grazing land. There were, however, people who lived outside the clanic system. There was a small minority on the frontier with Kenya who were agriculturalists and non-Somali. There were also urbanized Somalis, especially those living in the coastal cities who no longer followed clanic authority, as well as a small but growing educated bourgeoisie.

The army was the only institution of the state that was not originally structured along clanic lines. After some eight years during which government posts, seats in Parliament, and government favors were distributed along clanic lines, in 1969 General Mohamed Siad Barre took control of the government. His ideology was an anti-clanic scientific socialism and he received support from the USSR, thus bringing Somalia into the Cold War. The Cold War helped to partition Africa into ideological spheres of influence. In order to counter Soviet influence in Somalia, the US increased its support for conservative Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.

Siad Barre, with the help of Soviet advisors, increased the size of the Army and the paramilitary forces. By 1982 there were some 120,000 men in the army with political commissars to develop ideological purity. Unlike the colonial period and the first years of independence during which the rural areas were left alone, Siad Barre extended government control to the rural areas, weakening clanic chiefs. Siad Barre also largely destroyed the independent bourgeoisie; some were jailed, more left the country to work elsewhere.

Then, at the time of the 1977-1978 Ogaden war with Ethiopia, there was a classic Cold War switch of alliances. A Marxist, Mengistu Haile Mariam overthrew the emperor of Ethiopia and looked to the Soviet Union for help. In 1978, Siad Barre abrogated the USSR/Somali Treaty of Friendship and turned to the US for help with weapons and training of the military. As Barre was uninterested in US liberal-democratic ideology, he returned to governing on a clanic basis with members of the lineages of himself, his mother, and his principal son-in-law. His style of government under US influence from 1978 until the end of 1991 ranged from autocratic to tyrannical.

With the end of the Cold War, neither the US nor the USSR had much interest in supporting difficult and unpredictable allies. Thus by 1991 both Siad Barre and Mengistu had been forced from power by rebel movements. While Ethiopia, having a long history of a weak but centralized government, was able to re-establish a state structure, Somalia returned to a pre-colonial structure but with few of the conflict-resolution techniques of pre-colonial times. Thus, in addition to traditional clanic conflicts over water and livestock, there was a clash between traditional clanic leaders and army officers who had gotten a taste of power under Siad Barre and who now wanted to set up little militarized kingdoms over which to rule.

As the 1960 merger of the Italian and British colonies had been more based on a desire of the Europeans to withdraw than any Somali urge to merge, the former British area reorganized itself after 1992 and took back the name Somaliland. The Somaliland area is relatively stable, and in 1993 Somaliland reintroduced the structures of government: tax, customs, and banking. Somaliland has trade to Arabia and beyond through the busy port of Berbera and is helped by the remittances from in Somaliland disaspora in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, in East Africa, and some in Europe. However, there is a deep fear among many African governments that if one African state breaks up, many could follow the same pattern. Thus no African government wants to recognize the independent existence of Somaliland and Europeans and others will not go against the African consensus by recognizing Somaliland.

Thus, it is in the former Italian area and its capital Mogadishu where there is no established government. The area is divided into many small, separate fiefs under the control of a warlord. Fighting continues over the control of areas between two fiefs. The result is economic and political chaos, with most people living a day-to-day existence. Many of the youth have been taken into the forces of the warlords but receive no education and even little military training. There are also independent bandit bands interested in looting.

Since governments do not like anarchy, there have been numerous efforts on the part of neighboring countries to help the Somalis create a government. After many failed efforts, there now exists a Transitional Federal Government in the provincial town of Baidoa made up of clan leaders, some warlords, and some chosen from urban civil society. However, while people do not have much enthusiasm for a continuation of the armed conflicts, there is little enthusiasm for the return of government either. Attitudes of animosity, suspicion, and hostility are dominant, and it is unlikely that the Transitional Government will become an established reality.

Afghan Parallels

Into this void, Islamic groups that have always been around are now trying to take the high ground. The al-Ittihad al Islaami (Islamic Unity, often called just al-Ittihad) is a loosely structured group which has taken in floating Islamic fighters, many of whom had been in Afghanistan or Pakistan. They see the similarities between the chaos in Somalia and the time after the departure of the Soviets from Afghanistan when the resistance forces were fighting for control among themselves. They hope that with a Taliban-like ideology of "Order and Islam will solve all your problems," the people will help them come to power in order to put an end to the divisions among warlords.

Others, in particular the US, which has troops in neighboring Djibouti, also see the similarities and fear the rise of a Taliban-type government which might also open the door to Islamists from other countries, the creation of training camps for terrorism, and increased dangers to oil-producing countries.

There is the old saying that Nature abhors a vacuum, and we may see countries trying to influence events, much as Pakistan's military intelligence services contributed to the original victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Thus Ethiopia has sent troops to protect the Transitional Government which has its temporary capital in a small city of Baidoa. The Transitional Government, never very united, is now split between those who wish to continue with Ethiopian help and those who want to reach a compromise with the Shari'a Courts, now often called the Islamic Courts Council.

To make matters more complicated, the Transitional Government is trying to build links with an Eritrean rebel group in the belief that the Eritrean government is supporting the Shari'a Courts in order to counter the Ethiopian support of the Transitional Government. There were meetings recently in Geneva between representatives of the Transitional Government and the Eritrean Liberation Front, an armed insurgency against the Eritrean government.

Kenya also has direct interests in Somalia -- Kenya's northeast province is populated by ethnic Somalis. From 1963 to 1967 there was on-and-off fighting between Somalia and Kenya as part of the then "Greater Somalia" policy. There are also some 135,000 Somali refugees living in Kenya, some of them involved in an active arms trade.

There are many possibilities for miscalculations among the players. Thus, the situation merits close attention, and peacemakers must see what can be done so that Somali voices with a wider vision are heard.

René Wadlow is editor of the journal and is representative of the Association of World Citizens to the United Nations, Geneva.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2006

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2006, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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