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World politics prolong the Somali conflict

Muuse Yuusuf


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I published this article few months back at some Somali sites, but I thought I should publish it again as the article seems more relevant now than before because of the current developments in world politics in which the United Nations Security Council has issued two contradictory resolutions in a very short time. I say contradictory because the first resolution (S/RES/1724 2006)
clearly shows how a lot of countries have been violating the arms embargo, and how the international community is determined to tighten the embargo. This resolution even threatens the use of any means necessary to enforce the embargo. However, just few days after the first resolution and to the disappointment of many from the international community including Somalis the USA-sponsored resolution (S/RES/1725 2006) which allows the partial lifting of the embargo to enable the deployment of foreign troops to prop up the Transitional Federal Government, made the first resolution mockery because on one hand the Security Council accepts that Somalia does not need arms, but on the other hand the Council seems to be saying it is OK to deploy troops and allows more arms in. The irony and question here is that: if the UN failed to take any action against those countries who had violated the embargo, what on earth would prevent from same countries and even more in supplying more arms now that there is a green light from the UN to go ahead with it. Who is going to patrol  the porous Somali borders in order to prevent neighbours from pushing arms in? After the first resolution, one would have hoped and expected from the Council to take even much tougher measures in order to enforce the embargo, and if the Council was sincere about the ICU and TFG engaging in political dialogue it should have done so thorough diplomatic avenues and not by opening up the door for more weapons, a door that the Council has been trying to shut since 1992. The only conclusion that one can reach from the two contradicting resolutions is that Somalia has become the new frontline of the war on terror and that it is the major powers who are now in the driving seat.


Therefore in this article I will try to highlight and evaluate how dynamics of world politics from colonialism to cold war, to the new world order in which the world is being polarised into the East (Islam) vs. the West, have all contributed to the start and continuation of the Somali conflict. In this article it is argued that it would be impossible to explain and understand the conflict without examining it through the lenses of world politics, and that if the international community is hopefully to find a lasting solution it has to put the conflict in the that context.    


Like its sister nations in the developing world, Somalia was colonised and new socio-political and economic systems were imposed or shall we say introduced to Somalis’ indigenous ways of organising themselves. Although the debate about colonialism is beyond the scope of a short essay like this, I will highlight one of the major legacies from the colonialism, which had shaped the socio-political and economics of the Somali nation. The first thing that pops up to my mind is the partition of the territories occupied by the Somali speaking people, who existed as a nation before colonialism, and also the introduction of a centralised modern state system. It is arguable that some of the ills that have been troubling Somalis since their independence originate from that historical action (partition), which prompted Somalis to engage wars against their neighbours, as that action still causes their internal division such as the re-emergence of “Somaliland.” These wounds have yet to heal, and maybe any comprehensive political settlement would depend on how the issue is resolved. Now while I blame that historical fact, some of you would disagree with me and say: it is clan which is the culprit because most developing nations had been through similar experiences but managed to survive as nation state and maintained their post-colonial states. But you do not have to look far away to find how post-colonial states in Africa and indeed in other parts of world are falling apart, for example see what is happening in Sudan, Congo, Rwanda, and Ethiopia where a border dispute with Eritrea claimed thousands of lives and is likely to cause more deaths – as you read this article Ethiopian and Eritrean troops are on war footing. 


Though the debate about clan structure: its strengths and weakness is beyond this article, I would argue that Somalis’ social structure is not worse than those of other societies in the developing world where different ethnic groups with different cultures co-exist as nation-states. This is because Somalis belong to one ethnic group, practise one religion, and more or less have one of the most homogenous societies in the world. Unlike some post-colonial states where multi-ethnicity made it harder in building nation-state during their struggle for independence, Somalis did not have that problem and nationalism was part of their heritage during their struggle for independence in 1950, and once they gained the well deserved independence they formed the Republic of Somalia. Unlike some anthropologists and historians who still want to believe in the segmentery character of clan structure and tend to blame it for Somalis’ ills, other schools of thought argue that the structure has been evolving since the introduction of the modern state structure and this has led to the transformation of Somalis from a nomadic tribal to a modern society. This school of thought contends that rather than being a divisive, segmentery and individualistic structure, which (according to some anthropologists) rends the Somali ungovernable, Somalis’ clan structure is a communitarian social order, which has  laws and rules that organise the socio-economic and political life of the Somali  hence law and order are maintained. To make a point, Somalis proved that, regardless of their clan affiliation, they could live together in peace and harmony - an example of this is how they lived in peace and harmony in big cities such as Mogadishu until some ruthless politicians manipulated the structure for political ends and this led to the collapse of the central government and the devastating civil war.


Now let us turn the clock of the world history to the cold war era and let us read the Somali conflict through the lenses of that world structure. You will immediately see how Somalia, like many other post-colonial states, was caught in the whirlwind of that mighty power structure. History tells us that the big powers (USA and former USSR) used Somalia as a fertile ground for conducting and executing their political policies in their contest to prove the validity or the supremacy of their ideologies, e.g. communism v. capitalism! As a result of that, a bloody proxy war was fought in the region and many thousands of Somalis and Ethiopians were killed in the Ogaden war. Although there were many legacies from that power-structure, the worst legacy for Somalia and indeed for the whole region was the huge weaponry that was deployed in the region. To protect their strategic and security interests in the region, the former-USSR and USA-Western Europe had all carelessly supplied massive military arsenal to prop up the Mengistu and Siad regimes. Somalia, like many other developing nations, played its card to promote and protect its national interests, shifting its allegiance and alliance between the big powers. It was well known that Somalia once had the biggest army in the region where Russian-made MIG jet fighters were on display to either intimidate or quell the enemy. It has now been accepted that the Ogaden war was the beginning of the end of the Mengistu and Siad regimes, and that the civil war in Somalia started immediately after that. It has also been accepted that the huge military arsenal played a major role in fuelling and prolonging the civil war. After the collapse of the military regime, basically the whole country was swamped with deadly weapons from AK4 to bazookas and markets in big cities such as Mogadishu became arms market.


To re-fresh our memories, it was in public knowledge that during the cold war, the big powers supported regimes and states for foreign policy reasons.  And if there was a power vacuum for example there was a coup d’etat in a developing country either the USSR or USA would intervene to install or remove the regime in order to maintain their national interests. It was just few years back when we used to hear the CIA or KGB had foiled or supported a coup d’etate in an African country etc. However, at the end of the cold war, international institutions and organisations that sustained that cold war structure collapsed. For example, there was no more the Warsaw pact or socialist block. Again analyse the Somali conflict in the context of the post-cold war discourse and you will see how Somalis found themselves trapped again in that power vacuum where the structures that used to prop up ailing post-colonial states collapsed. This meant failing states such as Somalia were left to collapse and unfortunately there was no alternative power structure to uphold them, or even if there was a univocal structure, after defeating communist pact, the USA was in a withdrawal mood from world politics. The collapse of the bi-polar order also meant the end of the USSR and Yugoslavia who had both disintegrated into mini states. The international community is still being haunted by the images of the genocide that had been committed in former -Yugoslavia. Even Russia has not been immune from the troubles caused by the power vacuum and she is still limping with the Chechnya conflict. The birth of Eritrea as the newest state in Africa was a direct consequence of that power vacuum after the collapse of the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia, which was part and parcel of the socialist block.   


The international community actively sought to resolve the post-cold war Balkan conflict. Massive resources were allocated to settle it peacefully, and when the Europeans failed, it was the USA led NATO military intervention, which brought the conflict to an end. Now let us pause here to allow some critics who might say well the international community tried to help Somalis and that the Operation Restore Hope and the UNISOM projects were major international initiatives aimed at ending the conflict. However, what is missing from discourse is that that historical humanitarian action - though appreciated - failed because there was no long term comprehensive plan to settle the conflict and also due to lack of a long term political commitment by the international community. However, the international community stayed put in the Balkan region even after the end of the military hostility. Basically Somalis were left to cope on their own in the pretext of Somalia for Somalis.” But then apply that logic in the Balkan or other conflicts and the consequences would have been much worse.  And the Balkan conflict has not gone away yet. So that different treatment of those two post-cold war conflicts shows how world politics is to blame for the mess in Somalia. Which country would want to politically commit itself to a poor country like Somalia with no or little natural resources, Somalia that has lost its strategic importance once the cold war ended?


Now let us come back to the present day and put the Somali crisis in the new world order politics. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand how Somalis again found themselves being torn apart by the politics of the new world order, and how Somalia is being used as testing fields for the new political agendas of the big guys. Not long time ago the USA clandestinely supported the much hated notorious Mogadishu warlords - thought this backfired after the Islamic courts in Mogadishu defeated the warlords.  At regional level, it is an open secret how Ethiopia and Eritrea-sworn enemies-with dictatorial regimes are now settling their disputes in Somalia.



Since the rise of the Islamic courts-which came to existence in order to bring some kind of normality in a lawless Mogadishu during the reign of warlords, the media has been portraying Somalia as the new haven for the Islamic Jihadists and that a new Taliban-style state is in making. This has immediately triggered panic in the minds of contemporary global military strategists, security analysts, politicians and terrorist and Jihadists cells. Historically Somalis followed Sufism, and since the independence, the Republic of Somalia has been a secular state. Quite recently, an element of strict Wahabism puritanical order has been introduced in some part of Somalia as result of the Gulf-Egypt educated Somali elites returning to Somalia. But having said this does not necessarily make Somalia or Somalis a Wahabist state. This is because, as mentioned earlier, Somalis predominantly follow the Sufi traditions and they are likely to resist any changes forced on them though the aging? Sufi sects may find the Jihadist/Wahabist group (a new force in Somalia) a formidable force to contend with because of political Islam, and as the Jihadists will use the heresy discourse – an intimidating and powerful psychological tool in a Muslim country like Somalia - to silence/destroy whoever dares to question their doctrine. In addition to the Sufi sects, it is worth mentioning that there are Western–educated Somalis – who, with their economic (purchasing) power would want to keep Somalia as a secular state.


The new regional and global forces and agents with their political and security interests in Somalia are again fuelling the crisis, or put it bluntly some kind of new global proxy war that is similar to the politics of cold war is being executed in Somalia. The UN Monitoring Group report clearly indicates how about 10 countries are now more or less involved in the Somali conflict in order to pursue their own political agendas, and the Security Council’s decision in lifting the embargo partially and in deploying foreign troops when some kind of law and order have been restored to Somalis clearly demonstrates how the conflict has taken a new global dimension in which major powers will use it for their advantage.


Among other agents in the conflict are obviously the active and sleeping Al-Qaeda cells worldwide. With their cat and mouse game with the CIA and other security agencies, the cells will vigorously be pursuing their global Jihadist agenda in Somalia, and they would be happy to help out their Jihadist friends in East Africa. 


Understandably, and as a Somali proverb goes “a sick man seeks the advice of the many” – Somalis (leaders) would use the new opportunity to enhance their political agendas be it secessionism, Islamism, tribalism, secularism, regionalism, federalism etc, and will be playing their cards very close to their chests. You only have to surf the Somali Websites to see how some politicians are already exploiting the situation to advance their agendas.  Because of these new developments and pressures, if things go wrong in Somalia for example war breaks out between the “TFG” and the “Islamic Courts”, “Somaliland” vs. “Puntland”, “Islamic Courts” vs. “Puntland”, or let us say some of these emerging and existing entities collapse, or if a war erupts between Ethiopia and Somalia, it won’t be long before the poor Somalis will be again blamed for the chaos, and some analysts will be quick to depict clan structure as the main culprit and some anthropologists and their cohorts will say:  “look I told you I knew this would happen because of Somalis’ divisive clan system”!  But then the question is how on earth a historical and evolving social structure that Somalis, like many other societies, use to organise their socio-economic and political affairs has got to do with the failures of regional and global security and military policies, and how that social structure is supposed to maintain social cohesion and not to collapse under the pressures of the new mighty world polity – global war on terror with its multiple actors with their aggressive, unpredictable, opportunistic and exploitative policies and agendas?!!! Unless the sick man finds a wise and caring doctor, he is unlikely to be healed, and metaphorically-unless the international community is wise and caring - Somalis might sadly end up divided into secular and non-secular regions thus a prolonged civil war. I appreciate some readers of my article will accuse me of playing the “blame the other for your problems” game but my question is: why blame Somalis when the dangerous politics of the new world order is being battled out in their backyard just when Somalis are about to recover from a long illness.


Conclusion, to prevent Somalia becoming an experimenting ground for the politics and policies of the new world order, I urge the international community not look at the Somali crisis through the lenses of the new developments (“Islamic Courts” etc) which, under the new polity, implies a threat to regional and global stability but to treat it as an ongoing conflict with its peculiarities, uniqueness and challenges; a post-cold war conflict that the international community chose to neglect; a conflict that requires from the international community to come up with a creative thinking and a lasting solution based on a long term political commitment. I would particularly urge the Security Council to reconsider and annul the second resolution because deploying foreign forces and lifting the arms embargo partially will only re-inflame and re-fuel the conflict.


Muuse Yuusuf

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