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OM: Pessoa

Following the al-Shabaab bombing in Kampala, current plans to send more AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) troops into Somalia will simply jeopardise the possibility of a new moderate leadership emerging in the country, writes Abena Ampofoa Asare. Observers in the African Union, UN and international community at large would do well to look at Somaliland to the north, the author stresses. Solutions to Somalia’s civil war will not emerge in Kampala, Washington DC or Addis Ababa, Asare contends, underlining that a key lesson of Somaliland’s experience is that ‘effective government must come from within’.

Just as Spain was seizing victory in the 2010 World Cup, bomb blasts ripped through Kampala, Uganda, injuring soccer fans gathered to watch the final game of the first World Cup hosted in Africa. Over 70 people were killed and numerous more were injured. Soon afterwards, Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahedeen, a Somali insurgent group, claimed responsibility for these attacks. Sheikh Ali Mohamud Raghe, an al-Shabaab spokesman, told reporters in Mogadishu on Tuesday that the attacks on Kampala were a ‘message to Uganda and Burundi’ that ‘if they do not take out their AMISOM [African Union Mission in Somalia] troops from Somalia, blasts will continue…’[1]

These attacks should not have been a surprise. After numerous threats, al-Shabaab followed through on its promise to bring the fight home to the countries participating in the African Union’s (AU) peacekeeping mission in Somalia. Since 2007, the AMISOM troops supporting the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) have been al-Shabaab’s primary military obstacle in Mogadishu. It is hardly the first time that international peacekeepers have been drawn into the quagmire of the Somalian conflict; however, on 11 July, the al-Shabaab attacks were a sign of the high and ever-increasing stakes of the protracted violence in Somalia.

The violence in Somalia has once again emerged as a problem with regional and global implications. After the bomb attacks, President Museveni of Uganda swiftly vowed to take revenge on the Somalian terrorists; a Ugandan army spokesman declared the country able and willing to send 2,000 more troops into Somalia. A chest-thumping op-ed in Uganda’s Daily Nation claimed that Sunday’s attacks ‘give Uganda’s role in AMISOM the popular legitimacy it lacked’ and strengthened the country’s resolve to emerge victorious in Somalia.[2] For Uganda, what had been an international peacekeeping mission has now become a question of national security and patriotism. Avenging Uganda’s civilian dead is now part of the AMISOM mission. Neighbouring Kenya quickly warned al-Shabaab against attempting a similar feat in Kenyan territory.[3] President Barack Obama unequivocally condemned al-Shabaab, claiming that the attacks showed the organisation’s disdain for African lives and were proof positive of its links with al-Qaeda as part of a global wave of Islamist terror. Even Jean Ping, the current chairperson of the African Union Commission, described the Uganda bombings as an event that has ‘strengthen[ed] the collective determination of Africa to play its part in the struggle waged by the international community to stamp out the phenomenon of terrorism.’[4]

Clearly, the eyes of the world are once again on the hydra-headed Somalian civil war of Black Hawk Down infamy. This deadly conflict, which has destroyed millions of lives in the Horn of Africa, now threatens to seep deeper into East Africa and perhaps extend past African shores. And this time, the violence in Somalia is supposedly linked to a broader trend of fundamentalist Islamist terrorism. It is more important than ever to parse the intricate religious, historical and political web fuelling this deadly conflict or risk Somalia’s continuing deterioration into a playground for pirates and terrorists. After more than 20 years of civil unrest, the persistent suffering of the Somali people must be brought to an end.

Ultimately, we do not have to look too far to find an alternative path forward for Somalia. Just a few miles to the northwest the self-declared republic of Somaliland has been a beacon of hope, showing the world precisely what is possible in the Horn of Africa. Somaliland takes in thousands of refugees from Somalia every year. While Somalia’s al-Shabaab was plotting the Kampala attacks, a few miles away, Somaliland held a presidential election which by all accounts was free and fair. Although al-Shabaab warned Somaliland not to hold these elections, more than 1 million Somalilanders took to the streets and queued for hours to cast their votes.

Unfortunately, Somaliland remains politically invisible; the secessionist territory’s independence is not recognised by any of the world’s nations. The African Union, the United Nations and the broader international community would do well to look, and look closely, at Somaliland. The different trajectories of these two neighbouring communities offer a unique anatomy of both the causes and solutions of the Somalian civil war.

The collapse of former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre’s government in 1991 is as good a place as any to start. Siad Barre became Somalia’s president in 1969 and ruled the country with an iron fist, alternately supported by both the USSR and the USA in some of the Cold War’s most unholy alliances. Barre’s reign was marked by terror; village massacres and political executions were part of his regime’s order. Eventually, Barre’s political inconsistency and his abuses of the Somali people alienated both the USSR and the US governments, despite the millions of dollars of arms which these governments had already pumped into Somalia. Without the support of international allies, Barre became vulnerable to the various local groups arrayed against his regime. His 21-year dictatorship ended in disgrace in 1991. However, the violence in Somalia continued. Without Barre’s iron fist, the clan-based political rivalries which had been artificially repressed for two decades bloomed and a country swimming in foreign arms and local animosity was plunged into a vicious civil war.

A UN peacekeeping mission attempted to intervene in Somalia in 1993, but retreated in 1995 after US troops suffered casualties in Mogadishu. Into this vacuum of effective power entered the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), a group of shari’a-based courts with political ties to Eritrea and ideological ties to the stringent Saudi Islamic reform movement. These courts took on the task of governing a country wracked by civil war and offered education, healthcare and security services, within a system of government based on shari’a law. In Mogadishu, the business community, civil society and other local organisations rallied together to defeat the warlords terrorising the capital city. Where international peacekeepers and foreign soldiers had cut and run, the UIC, working with the local population, struggled to extract peace and order from chaos.

Notably, aspects of the UIC order were harsh; thieves had their limbs amputated, murderers were executed and cinemas and soccer were banned. But to a people who had survived more than a decade of civil disorder and violent anarchy, the courts’ leadership was a welcome corrective to warlords focused on looting and destruction. Although the UIC’s conservative and singular interpretation of Islam was a shift from the plurality and tolerance of traditional Somalian religious practice, the UIC’s religious justice became popular in parts of Somalia. The UIC formed a military wing, where past and present leaders of al-Shabaab got their start, and battled the warlords for control of Somalia.

After September 11 and the consolidation of the global war on terror, the United States government’s Manichean division of the world lumped the Somali Islamic courts in with a global Islamist threat. In 2004, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was formed, with the support of the United States, in order to wrest control of Somalia back from both the warlords and the Islamic courts. From the beginning, it was difficult for the TFG, which was formed in Kenya, to garner local support. Eventually the TFG moved to Mogadishu, but both the UIC and local warlords refused to accept the government’s authority. By 2007, a weak Somali transitional government called for international military action to help destroy the Islamic courts. Ethiopian forces – bolstered by the United States’ blessing and with the support of some its arms – entered the fray to destroy an organisation supposedly linked to al-Qaeda. However, this same organisation had won the respect of many Somalis by rescuing parts of the country from chaos and random violence. Although Ethiopia’s military action in Somalia decimated the UIC, it also forever de-legitimised the Transitional Federal Government.

The internationally supported Ethiopian invasion was the worst possible strategy for winning the hearts and minds of Somalis. The political rivalry between Ethiopia and Somalia is the stuff of legends; at least twice in the 20th century, the tense relations between these two countries deteriorated into full-out war. In the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia has historically been the military heavyweight with imperial aspirations, and even the local folklore reflects the historical enmity of these two populations. The TFG’s decision to use Ethiopian arms to secure the country immediately undermined this leadership’s intent and national identity.[5] Immediately, the UIC members dodging mortar shells and escaping into exile were rendered nationalist heroes fighting for their country’s independence against foreign imperialists. The future of the transitional government was doomed, particularly when massive humanitarian crises accompanied the invasion and reports of war crimes against the Somali people began to surface.

The foremost ethnographer of Somalia, I.M. Lewis, penned a letter in 2007 criticising the European Union’s ‘astonishing, and imperialistic behavior … in completely ignoring Somali public opinion and its overwhelming rejection of [the TFG]’.[6] All of the international support in the world could not give the TFG the one necessary thing it lacked, the support of the Somali people. If anything, the meddling of Ethiopia and the United States doomed the TFG’s prospects as the population’s distrust of the Transitional Federal Government and disgust at violent international intervention grew. As Lewis explained, the Somalian people would never forgive the TFG leadership ‘for the atrocities which had been committed in its name.’[7]

Three years after the invasion, Ethiopian troops have withdrawn, but there are still scores of foreign soldiers (from Uganda and Burundi, among other places) in the country. The transitional government remains unable to hold much ground, despite the installation of Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a man with considerable religious credibility, as president. Foreign soldiers are still charged with the tall task of training government troops, defending the government’s territory and winning the hearts and minds of the Somalian people.

Most importantly, the UIC soldiers who were bombed and pursued by American and Ethiopian forces during the invasion have returned to Somalia radicalised, bitter and with the mantle of martyrdom firmly affixed to their shoulders. This is al-Shabaab – a new organisation of Somalian youth led by members of the former UIC’s military wing. Appropriately, the organisation’s name means ‘youth’ in Arabic. Many of the radical young men in al-Shabaab’s ranks may have only experienced stability during the brief period when the Islamic courts ruled parts of Somalia. These men came of age in the shadow of civil conflict and foreign military incursions and are the reconstitution of the most extreme elements of the former UIC.

A recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report on al-Shabaab describes the Ethiopian invasion as the event that turned the loosely organised Islamic courts coalition into a much more centralised and extremist organisation.[8] Of course, the power of al-Shabaab is not unchallenged in Somalia. The ICG report offers a blueprint of ways to de-legitimise the hard-line insurgent organisation. Al-Shabaab is not the sum total of Somalia’s religious community; there are factions within the broader Islamist movement amenable to a political settlement with the transitional government and other organisations which have arrayed in opposition to al-Shabaab’s fundamentalism. Suicide bombs in Mogadishu, harsh social prescriptions and the destruction of Sufi holy places and shrines have rallied popular disapproval of al-Shabaab. More than anything else, the Somali people are weary of the chaos of war; al-Qaeda-style ideas of permanent military jihad do not retain much lustre to a people who have already contended with the ramifications of permanent warfare.

In this context, the Kampala bombings must be seen as what they are, a baiting of the bear. By bringing the Somalian fight to the international community so crudely, al-Shabaab is counting on an aggressive international response. More civilian deaths at the hands of AMISOM soldiers will close off the renewed possibilities for moderate leadership to seize the reins from al-Shabaab and discredit the transitional government. Similarly, the rampant anti-Islamic rhetoric of the US war on terror will alienate the moderate elements of Somalia’s Islamist movements. Once bombs begin falling in earnest and fighting intensifies, the Somalian struggle will once again align with the script that poses national patriots against foreign aggressors, and the al-Shabaab will have already won the ideological struggle for the Somali people’s support.

In its March 2010 report, the ICG’s policy recommendations focus on the need for the transitional government to make inroads with Somali people by collaborating with moderate elements in the Islamist movement. It calls for new attempts at outreach and coalition-building. Unfortunately, the transitional government remains unable or unwilling to do this work. Plagued by corruption and ineffective diplomacy, the transitional government as recently as March 2010 was requesting more international support and funding to hold its ground against al-Shabaab. In fact, international support is the very last thing that would lead to the government’s success. At the centre of al-Shabaab’s critique of the TFG is the claim that it functions as a Western puppet government. If the TFG has not been able to convert considerable international support into effective governing institutions in the past six years, it is naïve to suppose that pumping more resources into the government’s hands would provide a better result. At this point, the federal government must win the support of the Somalian population on its own terms. If it remains unable to do so, alternative local leadership with greater local support and vision will rise up and fill the void.

The United States and the African Union must leave off nation-building in Somalia. Effective solutions to the Somalian civil war will not be cooked up in Kampala, Washington DC or Addis Ababa. One of the key lessons of Somaliland’s experience is that effective government must come from within. In the words of the former Somaliland president Dahir Rayale Kahin, ‘you can’t be donated power… We built this state because we saw the problems here as our problems. Our brothers in the South are still waiting—till now—for others.’[9]

Somaliland’s national cohesion has been bought at a high price. This territory suffered particularly under the Barre regime. Somaliland is knit together by its history and years of brutal violence and resistance. In 1991, following the demise of Barre, the territory declared itself independent. Although Somaliland’s independence is not widely recognised because of African Union protections of the colonial era’s state boundaries, the Somaliland community has struggled to independently build a national community.

Somaliland successfully demobilised the militia that existed during the Barre region and found a way to absorb these young men into a stable society. It has held multiple national elections, created a constitution and has built a modest economy, supplemented by members of the Somaliland diaspora living abroad. Most importantly, Somaliland has secured a treasured peace on its own terms and by its own efforts. In the past 20 years Somaliland’s struggle has been for world recognition. Yet, ironically, it is precisely the country’s isolation from the international community that has allowed it to develop home-grown peace and stability. Without the dubious direction of international experts and unable to rely on international economic assistance, Somaliland has reconstructed itself with self-reliance, accountability and local investment as its touchstones.

It would be naïve to expect Somalia to simply recreate the history of Somaliland, but it may be time for those who care about peace in Somalia to study the lessons of the Somaliland experiment. Adding more AMISOM soldiers is not the recipe for peace in a country which has recently dealt with foreign invasion. Somalia’s most pressing struggle is to develop a leadership that is supported by the local population and which has the country’s peace and stability at heart. This will not be an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist organisation, but it will also not be a weak ‘federal’ government that can only stand because of the international community’s support.

Rather than dismissing Somaliland as a threat to national integrity and sovereignty, the African Union would do well to support and study Somaliland as a country which offers a unique blueprint of home-grown development and provides an important image of peace in the Horn of Africa.


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[5] Said S. Samatar, ‘The Islamic Courts and Ethiopia’s Intervention in Somalia: Redemption or Adventurism?’ April 25, 2007.
‘Even as we speak, Ethiopia’s flag is flying--- nay, undulating beatifically in the red, green, golden stripes and all—over Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, and this at the invitation of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government. This is surely an ironic development, in view of the fact, that for ages, Ethiopia stood, in the eyes of the Somalis as the putative foe of the Somalis.’
[7] Ibid.
[8] ‘Somalia’s Divided Islamists,’ Africa Policy Briefing No. 71, International Crisis Group, May 18, 2010.
[9] Jeffry Gettleman, ‘Somaliland is an overlooked African success story,’ The New York Time, March 6, 2007