By Mohamed Mukhtar
Those who talk don't know what is going on and those who know what is going on won't talk.
- Larry Speakes
Somalia is a theatre for a proxy war. Inside Somalia, according to a leaked UN report, there are up to 8,000 Ethiopian troops supporting Somalia’s federal government and 2,000 armed men from Eritrea backing the Union of Islamic Courts. Ethiopia acknowledges that it has troops in Somalia but Eritrea rebuffs this claim vigorously. The report also suggests that the government enjoys the support of Yemen and Uganda while UIC receives help from Iran, Libya, and Gulf States. There are intermittent peace talks in Sudan between transitional government and the Islamic Courts. Since Somalia’s fate swings like hypnotist’s watch between Ethiopian camp and its opponents, the begging question is who can negotiate at these peace talks: masters or marionettes?
In Somalia, there is a distinct atmosphere of confrontation between those who push Somalia to move closer towards Ethiopia and those who want Somalia to have close relationships with Ethiopia’s opponents. Politically, Somalia is in a no-win situation.
When Arta conference, which enjoyed the support of Ethiopia opponents, was held in 2000, Ethiopia was displeased with the peace process and Abdiqasim's election as the President of the Transitional National Government of Somalia. Andrew Maykuth, Philadelphia Inquirer's correspondent, noticed this: “Some say he [Abdiqasim] got off on the wrong foot almost immediately after his appointment at the Arta Conference. He sought help from Arab countries, angering regional power Ethiopia. Ethiopia, miffed at the lack of respect from its neighbour, has funnelled assistance to several factional leaders, providing a greater incentive for them to oppose Abdiqasim's government than to join it.”
In January 2002, IGAD heads of state met in Sudan to discuss ways to complete the peace process that had started in Djibouti. They decided to hold a reconciliation conference between the TNG and the factions apposed to it. IGAD foreign ministers met again in February 2002 and issued a communiqué which read, “A Technical Committee comprising the Frontline States chaired by Kenya and including the IGAD Secretariat was established to work out modalities to facilitate the proposed national Reconciliation Conference for Somalia.”
Although Ethiopia was pretending to be a concerned neighbour, it could not accept a Somali peace process, which Ethiopia has little or no influence, to produce a functioning government. Therefore, it started to undermine the TNG through Somali Reconciliation and Restoration Council (SRRC), which was built up around a number of warlords and other faction leaders.
The subsequent failure of the TNG led to two years of plodding negotiations in Kenya and Ethiopia’s opponents were not cheerful about the Somali National Reconciliation Conference in which Ethiopia influence was apparent. The SRRC seemed to have emerged the winner when Abdullahi Yusuf became the new transitional president in 2004. Yusuf did the reverse of his predecessor and visited Ethiopia first and requested AU to send up to 20,000 peacekeeping troops to Somalia. As expected, the President received lukewarm welcome from Ethiopia’s opponents. It is now no surprise if Ethiopia’s opponents are trying to weaken Yusuf’s government through the Islamic courts.
Somalia dynamics change quite frequently and which country supports what side reflects that change. It is not matter of Arab countries against African countries. At the time of this writing, Yemen is siding with Ethiopia while Eritrea is siding with Gulf countries. Michael A. Weinstein observed this complex relationship in his article, Somalia Drifts Toward Fragmentation as Regional Powers Polarize: “Each member of the emerging blocs has its own reasons of state for choosing sides. The major frontline powers, Ethiopia and Kenya, have large ethnic Somali minorities concentrated in border regions and fear irredentist elements in the I.C.C.; Djibouti, the third frontline state, has a 60 percent ethnic Somali population, but is increasingly dependent on Arab investment; Eritrea is interested in weakening Ethiopia on account of their border dispute; Uganda is thought to be satisfying London and, perhaps, Washington; and the Arab states and Iran are keen on checking Addis Ababa so that they can achieve spheres of influence in the Horn of Africa.”
Now it seems history is repeating itself. There are intermittent peace talks in Sudan between the Somali government and its opponent brokered by the Arab league. The stated purpose of the Khartoum meetings is to continue the reconciliation process that had started in Kenya. Ethiopia is expressing its displeasure with these talks and encouraging Somali’s beleaguered government not to engage these talks wholeheartedly. On the other hand, the Arab League is committed to these meetings. Last July, Arab League Envoy to Somalia Abdalla Mubarak came to Mogadishu to accompany Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the chairman of the Islamic Courts Union, for talks with their interim government in Sudan. So there seems to be unchallengeable trend: when there is an Ethiopian backed reconciliation, others try to invalidate it. And when there is a non-Ethiopian backed reconciliation, Ethiopia tries to derail that peace process.
At the peace talks, only Somalis are presented to be the stakeholders. But in reality, Somalis have coaches and supporters who set the tone, terms and condition that talks progress. In other words, Somali delegates follow the instructions of their backers when they undertake peace negotiations. This does not excuse from Somalis choosing to be in an unenviable position but it explains a lot. It is hard to envisage how Somalis can have a meaningful reconciliation and take a viable route towards durable peace in Somalia while they are made to be puppets manipulated from above. As long as those who have real influence over Somalia are not at the negotiating table or Somalis are unable to take full ownership of the peace talks, everlasting peace in the Horn of Africa will remain a reverie.
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