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Somalia is at critical crossroads

By: Dr. Hussein Ahmed Warsame


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As Somalia enters 2007, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is the most powerful entity in the country, thanks to the military muscle of Somali’s historical arch enemy of Ethiopia. As late as December 24, 2006, that title belonged to the Islamic Courts Union (ICU).  In this opinion paper, I argue that the fall of the ICU is a loss for the Somali people. It brought many contributions that were worth saving. However, I also believe the ICU’s down fall was partly its making.  It underestimated the resolve of its opponents and overestimated its staying power. I also argue that the TFG played a major role in depriving the Somali people of what would have been a moral voice in Somali politics. Furthermore, I argue that the fate of the TFG will be just as disastrous if it does not learn from the mishap of the ICU. However, I also argue that failure is not inevitable if the TFG takes advantage of an emerging positive attitude of the Somali people towards conflict resolution.


Lost opportunities


The defeat of the abhorred warlords by the ICU in May 2006 was a positive development in Somalia. For the first time in 16 years, the Somali population in the capital city of Mogadishu and its environs were controlled by one group that does not draw its legitimacy from clan chauvinism.  The ICU leaders declared that they will rule by the dictates of the Quran. To the Somali people that spelled strive for honesty, fairness, and justice. Within a short time, the ICU leaders brought back a large measure of peace and security to Mogadishu and its environs. They also brought back a sense of fairness as they restored pilfered properties, including houses and land, to their rightful owners. These successes garnered support and recognition not only from the Somali people, but also from many Western countries and especially from the Arab and Muslim worlds.


The defeat of the warlords by the ICU was supposed to be positive news for the TFG as well, since these warlords were the main source of its impotency. TFG leaders should have initiated a direct face to face dialogue with the ICU leaders. Instead, they waited for a third party, the Arab League, to convene a meeting in Khartoum in late June. What the TFG forgot was that it was competing with too many detractors for the ICU leaders’ ears. That the detractors were more effective than the TFG was made apparent by the fateful mistake by the ICU not to send its top leaders, like Sheikh Sharif, to the first Khartoum meeting. The TFG sent all its top three leaders: the President, the House Leader, and the Prime Minister. The TFG felt belittled and said so. From there on, there were no assurances that the two groups were dealing with each other in good faith. Almost all the agreements reached during the first two meetings were violated right away. And in the third meeting, the two failed to even sit across each other.


Both groups were to blame for the failure of the Khartoum meeting. But I believe that the ICU leaders were the more intransigent of the two due to an asymmetry in power. The TFG share of the blame was related to the failure of its leaders to stop labeling the ICU leaders as terrorists and extremists, the TFG’s refusal to reverse an earlier request for peacekeeping forces, and the invitation of Ethiopian military “trainers” to Baidoa. The TFG blamed the ICU for continuously capturing new territories in contravention to earlier agreements. To add insult to an injury, the ICU leaders were claiming that they were invited to the new territories and were, therefore, not conquerors. This only made the TFG more scared and more dependent on Ethiopian protection which further aggravated the ICU intransigence.


The angrier the ICU leaders became, the more they lost consistency and focus, and the more mistakes they made. Instead of cutting their losses and playing their hand prudently, they pointed to Ethiopia as their target and raised their rhetoric against the US, not realizing that these are enemies you do not want to have. I suspect that instead of listening to warnings from well meaning Somalis who saw the futility of their intransigence, the ICU leaders relied on the advice of other Islamists who could not see the merits of their opponents’ concerns.


Both the ICU and TFG leaders also failed to see the virtues of concessions. If the two parties came to an agreement, the perceived fear in the West that the ICU was harboring foreign terrorists would have subsided and Somalia would have gained a functioning government. The Contact Group, which included the US, promised massive fund raising in Rome if the two groups would agree on a power-sharing formula in their second round meeting. Unfortunately, the two Somali entities, which seemed to be mutually more comfortable with zero-sum games, where some one has to lose, seemed uncomfortable with Pareto-improved games where both groups could be winners.


The ICU leaders underestimated the resolve of their opponents. Parallel to the Khartoum meetings, the US, Ethiopia and some hardliners in the TFG were hatching a backup plan for the elimination of the ICU “threat” by force. They were building reports and spreading rumors that the ICU was taken over by a group of intransigent international Islamists, called the Shabaab, who has links with Al-Qaeda. These Islamists, it was rumored, are not interested in reconstructing the Somali State, but in securing the Horn of Africa for the International Islamist cause. Thoughtless statements from the likes of Sheikh Indaade of the ICU that it will bring in foreign Islamists if pushed too far only confirmed the conjectured extremist image. Most Somali observers, except probably the hardcore supporters of the ICU, were aware that this negative image building exercise was a prelude to an eventual armed attack on the ICU.



Have lessons been learned?


I am not arguing that the Ethiopian invasion is the result of the ICU intransigence. Ethiopia and the US have their own geopolitical and ideological objectives in the Horn of Africa and they pursue them with guile. However, I am arguing that if the ICU were more willing to share power with the weak TFG, their ideological enemies would not have found such an easy pre-text to invade Somalia.


The main loser in this saga is the Somali people. Young Somali lives were lost on both sides of the conflict. The Ethiopian Prime Minister confirmed that Ethiopia lost 500 fighters, not including their Somali alliance forces. Given the superiority of the Ethiopians in armaments, the loss of Somali lives on both sides, must be at least four times the Ethiopian loss. But Somalia also lost the opportunity to have more inclusive government. A power-sharing agreement between the ICU and the TFG would have ushered a new era of governance in Somalia: one that is based on a constitution that accommodates clan, regional, religious and civil society concerns. But it was not to be.


In business governance, we consider decisions made in the past that may not have relevance for the future as sunk costs. It is given that the TFG was not elected but nominated by powerful warlords and interested third parties. Its top leaders are said to have come at the behest of Ethiopia and the US. It is also given that TFG used Ethiopian forces to help gain power. But these are sunk costs. Dwelling on them will only detract the Somalis from handling their real concerns: governance and reconstruction. Furthermore, it will be too costly, both in human life and in material terms, to try to reverse those decisions. The crust of the matter is that the Ethiopian invasion is only an epitome of the internal conflicts in Somalia. The question is has the TFG and the Somali people learned any lessons from the mistakes explained above?


Suggestions for the way forward


There are credible signs that the Somali people inside Somalia are so tired of armed conflicts that they would accept any power that would give them peace and security. How else could one explain the fact that in most of the cities, like Jowhar, Beletween, and Kismayo, the defending militias melted into the night before ICU forces even arrived? Or the fact that Mogadishu fell to the alliance of Ethiopian and TFG forces with no bullet fired? The most logical explanation is that there are local citizens who took upon themselves to communicate with both sides of the conflict in order to save their people from any more destruction. It seems that these citizens were able to convince the weaker sides that they could not win while informing the stronger sides that they could come to the city unopposed if they would agree not engage in revenge killings. These observations point to a readiness on the part of the population to be governed. The question is whether the TFG is ready to govern.


With the power of the invading forces, the TFG is now the single most powerful force in the country. But it should have no fantasies that the problem was resolved. There will be no peace until viable and more inclusive governance is affected. The TFG should, therefore, use its new status with caution. It should invite the subdued ICU leaders for a dialogue and make every effort to share power with them. For starters, I would suggest that the parliament be expanded immediately by a number of Islamist members in accordance with the so called 4.5-clans formula. ICU leaders should be allowed to nominate these new members. They should also be given some ministerial portfolios. Other civil society groups must also be accommodated. But priority must be given to the ICU. Under no circumstance should the government negotiate separately with individual clans. The advent of the ICU has reframed the Somali conflict into one mainly based on principles: Islamism versus secularism. Even though the more prominent leaders of the ICU seem to be from one clan, the movement has support and representation from all Somali clans. Similarly, the TFG includes all Somali clans. That is partly why most rational Somali people did not interpret the recent defeat of the ICU as a defeat of certain clans. The government should not reverse that positive trend. In the mean time, the Ethiopian forces must be replaced with peace keeping forces as soon as possible. But more importantly, the government must train inclusive Somali security forces.


On its part, the ICU should disarm and abide by a rejuvenated and duly adjusted constitution. Engaging in a guerrilla war will only prolong the misery of the Somali people. By not fighting in urban centers, the ICU has, in my opinion, saved lives and as a result garnered more goodwill. They should not waste that goodwill by engaging in a guerrilla war.


Somalia is at cross roads. If the government repeats the mistakes of earlier victors and ignores reconciliation efforts, Somalia will continue on the road to oblivion. On the other hand, if it learns from earlier mistakes and engages earnestly in honest reconciliation efforts, its controversial decision to take power with foreign forces could have a silver lining. It could bring back governance and make reconstruction possible. The ICU leaders should also learn from their mistakes and become more reconciliatory.


Dr. Hussein Ahmed Warsame

University of Calgary

[email protected]

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