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Dialogue holds the key to lasting Somali peace

Special Correspondent

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A last-ditch effort last week to salvage talks between the Somali government and Islamic Courts delegations in Sudan seemed doomed after the two sides failed to agree on who should chair negotiations to avert a new round of violence.

But even if the Islamists' objections to the presence of Ethiopian troops in Somalia and to Kenya co-chairing the discussions with the Arab League were overcome, the issue of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which shepherded Somalia’s peace process two years ago withdrawing from the exercise is even trickier.

With Kenya, the current chair of Igad, the Authority will have some difficulty maintaining its role in leading the talks. The Islamists want Nairobi out because, they say, it supports the sending of peacekeepers to Somali.

But an even trickier issue for the Igad is getting the Islamists to stop declaring jihads against Addis Ababa.

"Jihad is a word dreaded by non-Muslims," remarked Ali Hashi Awale, a sympathiser of the Union of the Islamic Courts (UIC) in Mogadishu. He endured a scorching sun on October 27 to witness the chairman of the UIC’s executive committee, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, announcing a holy war (jihad) against Ethiopian forces.

The landmark event took place after the weekly Friday mid-day prayers, when entire congregations moved from mosques to the city’s famous parade ground, known by its Italian name, "La Tribuna." For many, it was an emotional event to witness eloquent orators urging Somalis from all walks of life to face "the enemy" without fear of dying for the land and for Islam.

The clergymen announced the places designated for the registration of the jihadists. Men, women, students, elders, youth, rich, poor, and other members of the Somali society were called upon to use every means to drive Ethiopian troops out of Somalia.

The Ethiopian forces in question are officially admitted by the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, who says they are trainers numbering several hundreds with the mandate to act as instructors of the forces of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The UIC labelled Ethiopia its enemy number one, simply because it prevented the Islamists from overrunning Baidoa town, the TFG’s temporary base in Bay region, 250 km southwest of Mogadishu. 

Incidentally, the call for Jihad came just two days before the scheduled meeting between the TFG and the UIC in Khartoum. Tension between the two sides has been heightened by this unilateral declaration of war.

The Khartoum meeting, in its third round, was supposed to forge a consensus between the TFG and the UIC to the point of arriving at power sharing. A government of national unity in which each party’s ideals are reflected and individuals are accommodated is what the majority of Somalis would have preferred, but the ideological differences between the opposing sides outweigh the similarities.

Those coming from Mogadishu and Baidoa town to the negotiating table in Khartoum are all Somalis, speaking the same language, being Sunni Muslims, hailing from a common ethnicity and sharing matching cultural identity. For many people, these similarities should have provided enough brotherhood to pave the way for bilateral understanding in a matter of days.

Close observers of Somali politics, however, believe that differences between the main actors in the TFG and UIC are deep enough to limit success in peace talks. The TFG is guided by the Transitional Federal Charter, fully formed at Mbagathi in Nairobi during the Somali reconciliation conference (2002 Ð 2004) in Kenya. The Islamists uphold the Islamic Sharia laws, which is mainly derived from the holy Koran. 

"We, Somalis, do not live on a remote island far from everybody else, but in a densely-populated Horn of Africa region with diverse peoples, tribes and cultures, compelling us to survive in peace with others," is what TFG officials often say to justify their close relationship with the Kenyan, Ethiopian, Ugandan, Yemeni and Sudanese governments.

The UIC leadership only trusts those forces or governments willing to help it gather strength, as in the alleged case of Eritrea, Iran and Egypt. 

"Unless these countries are internationally tipped off to abstain from their direct and indirect intrusion into the entrenched social difficulties of Somalia, no peace talks will succeed," warned a TFG official in Baidoa. 

Not many Somalis expected a positive outcome from the Khartoum meeting between the TFG and the UIC. 

In a recent meeting in Nairobi of the US-created Somalia Contact Group, Somalia’s President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed accused the UIC of being led by radical groups and actively engaging in a forceful expansion across in Somalia. The US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, agreed with the president.

President Ahmed’s lack of trust in the Arab League as the sole arbitrator of the Khartoum talks was endorsed by the Contact Group. The president’s request to have Kenya co-chair the peace talks on behalf of Igad was endorsed. Unfortunately, Kenyan officials, by sitting in the conference, have upset the UIC, which questioned their impartiality.

UIC delegates led by its foreign affairs head, Dr Ibrahim Hassan Addow, brought forward two conditions before meeting with the TFG negotiators: Ethiopian forces to retreat from Somalia’s territory and the expulsion of Moses Wetangula, Kenya’s Deputy Foreign Minister, from the meeting’s chairmanship. 

The TFG’s preference for Igad in the chairmanship and the UIC’s preference for the Arab League indicates the two Somali sides’ orientation. On the one hand, the TFG is clearly pro-regional with the aim to have in Somalia a government in harmony with its neighbours, especially Kenya and Ethiopia. On the other hand, the UIC is clearly anti-regional, not caring for an amicable relationship with two nations collectively sharing over 3,000 km land border with Somalia. 

"Regarding the current situational analysis in Somalia, the arrival of neighbouring troops does not mean they are invading the country as enemies used to do a long time ago," stated a TFG supporter in Puntland in Northeastern Somalia. 

"IGADSOM peacekeeping forces will only assist the TFG’s institutions and welcome the Union of Islamic Courts and other armed groups to work with the T FG through a demobilisation programme. In doing so, Somalis will actually attain a prosperous future that can guarantee sustainable development in every aspects of humane life," remarked a political insider in Baidoa.

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This article was originally published in  The East Africa  on Nov 6, 2006

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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