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Mogadishu holds its breath

The 15-year rule of the warlords in Somalia has been ended by the Islamist militias, despite the not-so-secret arming of the "masters of the universe" by the US. Will there be a backlash by the US? Will the clerics come to an accommodation with the Transitional Federal Government? Why do the Islamists appear to have no concrete programme of governance apart from shutting down screenings of the World Cup? Abdulkadir Khalif reports from a city in suspense

THE EVENTS OF THE BLOODY Sunday of June 4 in Somalia sent shockwaves across the world. No one appeared to have anticipated the humiliating defeat suffered at the hands of the Islamic Courts Union by the once mighty warlords of Mogadishu, the country’s partly ruined capital. The Islamists’ victory marked a fundamental turning point.

For 15 years, the warlords were for all purposes masters of the universe and could dictate terms to all and sundry. No one in his or her right mind even a year ago could have imagined that powerful militia leaders like the skilful political manipulator Mohamed Qanyare Afrah, and the feared Muse Sudi Yalahow would be reduced to fugitives by a bunch of clergymen. 

"Keep the wheels of justice rolling," shouted an Islamic courts sympathiser when it became apparent that victory was theirs.

The decisive June battle was the culmination of a four-month-long violent confrontation between the "secular warlords" – who had formed a so-called anti-terrorism coalition and were reportedly being financed by the Americans – and the militia attached to the network of Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in the Somali capital. 

Now men with long beards have become the city’s new masters and everybody is waiting for their political agenda to be unveiled.

Soon after the militias of the ICU pushed the warlords to the outskirts of Mogadishu and squeezed others into isolated neighbourhoods, an outspoken cleric took up the microphone to explain to Somalis and the rest of the world what the Islamists stood for. 

Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the honorary chairperson of ICU, became the mouthpiece of the ICUs and everybody religiously analysed his statements for indications of what the future holds.

Though h is tenure as spokesman proved to be brief, for many people, it was soothing to hear a religious man saying prayers for people who were killed, injured or otherwise harmed during four months of street battles. 

"May Allah have mercy on their poor souls, he said. Never mind that the sheikhs’ forces were part of the violent confrontations, doing their share of the killings.

Without being too specific, the spokesman welcomed the offer by the leaders of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) to hold talks with the Islamists in the city. Based in Baidoa town, 240 km southwest of Mogadishu, the TFG broadly welcomed the change that has taken place in Mogadishu and appeared willing to woo the new masters. The ICU, however, seemed only prepared to look at what the TFG is proposing. To many observers, it was the first sign that the Islamists did not fully recognise the TFG as the supreme state authority in Somalia.

All eyes are now on the meeting in Khartoum in Sudan next month. Both sides appear to have conditions, but the one supported by the international community ought to prevail. 

The international community has therefore become the Islamists’ next public relations target. Sheikh Sharif welcomed the global family’s efforts to assist the Somali people to achieve peace, but also asked the same international community to leave Somalis to choose the government they want. The clergy also warned the international community against supporting those who have been opposing the interests of the Somali people for over 15 years. Since the Baidoa-based TFG was largely shaped by Somalia’s faction leaders, the statement may have even referred to the entire establishment of what was assembled in Nairobi, Kenya, as a result of two years of peace talks.

THE INTERNATIONAL community was cautioned against basing its perceptions of the situation against misleading information about Somalia. "Information reaching people outside Somalia is not correct," stated the ICU chairman, clearly referring to oft-voiced US "concerns" that the Islamic Courts are "harbouring" al Qaeda fugitives.

People in Mogadishu are fully aware that the international confrontation currently dominating the globe is centred on the so-called war on terror, led by the United States against what it calls "Islamic fundamentalists", who are bent on destroying the values and principles of the Western world. What worries people in the city, who have by and large welcomed the Islamist victory not so much on religious as on public order grounds, is the American reaction – which they fear could very easily turn into a backlash. They wish the US and its partners would realise that there are many people who have true Islamic principles at heart and who are only interested in implementing their programmes on their lands and with their communities without harming anybody else.

These different approaches are a source of conflict and have already lead to bitter civilisational confrontations in places as diverse as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Palestine and even in the very heart of the US. The Somali Islamists have attempted to reassure the international community, especially the West, that they are not part of such conflict. "The Islamic Courts that have restored peace and stability in the Somali capital are not terrorist hubs and are ready to collaborate with whoever wants to have a good relationship with us, including the US," said the sheikh in a widely circulated letter, which was copied to the US State Department.

For ordinary, peace loving Somalis, press statements and letters to world dignitaries do not reduce the tensions, anxieties and fear of the unknown that still beset them. What is needed is a clear policy affecting ordinary men and women in a significant manner.

It is here that confusion still reigns. The leaders of the Islamic Courts, having led a successful uprising against the warlords, say they want to let the people decide what they want. But so far, no single person or group has come up with a blueprint of how to regulate day-to-day life in Mogadishu, let alone Somalia as a whole. "If nothing is being proposed while the architects of the Islamic Courts are glorifying themselves as the leaders of an uprising, the whole show could turn out to be a repetition of what happened when ragtag rebels uprooted the regime in January 1991 without a replacement plan," said Aidarous Ahmed, a city-based intellectual.

"The ICU leaders appear preoccupied with expansion of the territory under their control rather than establishing basic rule, for instance, in the capital," added another city resident who was upset by the militia’s moving north to capture other districts. "The ICU are gradually becoming reactionaries, by simply reacting to what other stakeholders in Somali affairs like the TFG, Igad and US are doing," remarked Hawa Ali Mah, a trader. "They simply say no or yes to whatever is proposed, rather than coming up with their own initiatives to boost public and business confidence," she added.

While the Islamists contemplate on what to do next, the transitional government is facing up to the new realities with renewed dynamism. It has invited the ICU to talks to discuss what is good for the entire nation. The next move by the TFG was to legitimise the National Security Stabilisation Plan, which includes seeking foreign peacekeepers to help restore law and order. 

The leaders of the Islamic Courts reacted angrily when they heard that the MPs in the Transitional Federal Parliament were to debate the plan. "We will never accept deployment of foreign forces on our soil, no matter if the MPs at the transitional parliament approve it," stated Sheikh Sharif.

The majority of the MPs voted for peacekeepers on June 14, exactly the some day that forces of the Islamic Courts seized Jowhar town, the stronghold of Mohamed Omer Habeb, the warlord who hosted the TFG for eight months before it moved to Baidoa.

One of the most remarkable developments of the past couple of weeks was the Igad ministerial meeting in Nairobi. They sympathetically responded to a plea by the Somali Prime Minister, Prof Ali Mohamed Ghedi, who requested the regional body to militarily intervene in Somalia even if the UN did not lift the arms embargo against the country.

"Developments in Somalia are going to affect not only the Somali people, but also the people of the Eastern Africa region," cautioned Prof Ghedi. President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed met the humanitarian affairs commissioner of the European Union, Louis Michel, in Nairobi to discuss bilateral collaboration. The president reportedly left the Kenyan capital assured that the EU was going to help re-establish ties between Somalia and its important continental partner. Promises of assistance in cash and in kind were made.

His meeting with Jendayi Frazer, the US Undersecretary of State for Africa, also in Nairobi, was also making promises to the beleaguered president. The US thus appears to have moved a step closer to recognising the vital role of the TFG in Somalia.

Whether it is right or wrong, many people perceive the US policy of countering suspected terrorists hiding out in Somalia by supporting warlords to have dealt a terrible blow to the government formed with the direct help of Igad and with the endorsement of the international community.

The Islamist victory appears to have come as a rude awakening for the US, which has opted to assemble a Contact Group for Somalia. A meeting in New York on Somalia chose Norway to lead the contact group of US, Tanzania and the UN (with the possibility for expansion) to work towards stabilisation of Somalia. Since the contact group is targeting the empowerment of the existing federal institutions under the TFG, it is a good start," remarked Dr Hussein Hagi Elmi. But sidelining the crucial role of stakeholders like Somalia’s frontline states, Igad countries and the Arab League may render the initiative potentially handicapped, he added.

AMID THE TENSION AND uncertainty, the people of Mogadishu are impatiently waiting for the leaders of the Islamic Courts to put forward an action plan for the attention of anxious citizens. 

Last week, the situation appeared to change dramatically, with the replacement of Sheikh Shariff by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a reputed hardline Islamist who is said to be on a US terrorist "watch list."

But the impression persists that the Islamists suffer from a shortage of programmes and perhaps talents. As things stand, the only visible service delivery seems to be the scurrying about of "technical" battle wagons and militias of turbaned youth and the closure of movie houses, denying sports fans the chance of watching football’s most cherished spectacle – the World Cup.

At least the people in Mogadishu are enjoying their first days of peace in a long long time, though the rush by clans and subclans to form their own Islamic courts is amusing many people. Nearly 20 courts were formed in the first 10 days after the warlords were chased out of the city.

These latest developments, though farcical, still managed to provoke a new round of confrontations in Mogadishu. Sheikh Shariff had warned, "Any groups that do not conform with the agenda of the Union and resist handing over weapons will be treated as remnants of the defeated warlords and punished accordingly."

Under Sheikh Hassan, the Islamic militias proceeded to attack and capture a roadblockmanned by the Habar Gidir clan. At the time of going to press, the clan was massing armed fighters in the area, and bloody clashes seemed likely.

Abdulkadir Khalif
E-mail: [email protected]


The opinions contained in this article are solely those of the writer, and in no way, form or shape represent the editorial opinions of "Hiiraan Online"

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