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Somalia: The Dynamics of Post-Intervention Political Failure

Dr. Michael A. Weinstein
Thursday, May 24, 2007

uring the first three weeks of May, the cycle of political devolution in Somalia that had set in after the military defeat of the Islamic Courts Council (I.C.C.) in December 2006 by Ethiopian armed forces supporting the country's internationally recognized but weak Transitional Federal Government (T.F.G.) continue, with tensions persisting among opposing actors and fractures surfacing within them.

The collapse of the I.C.C., which had sought to unify Somalia in an Islamic state based on Shari'a law and had gained control over most of the country south of the breakaway sub-states of Puntland and Somaliland, as an organized political faction left the T.F.G. with the challenges of providing security and reconciling disparate political forces in the country, which it has not yet succeeded in meeting.

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Facing determined resistance from a coalition of the Hawiye clan, I.C.C. militants and nationalists in Somalia's official capital Mogadishu, Ethiopian and T.F.G. forces launched a major offensive in late April that succeeded in breaking the armed opposition, but not in eliminating it. After a brief lull in violent conflict, the opponents of the T.F.G. -- particularly the jihadist wing of the I.C.C. -- switched their tactics from artillery attacks to roadside bombings and targeted assassinations that have continued on a nearly daily basis since May 5, including attacks on the T.F.G.'s prime minister and Mogadishu's mayor, former warlord Mohamed Dheere, who attributed them to Hawiye efforts to "sabotage" the government, which clan leaders denied. The Ethiopians and the T.F.G. have responded with weapons searches and arrests of suspected militants. At present, neither side has gained a decisive advantage.

Depending on external military support for its survival, the T.F.G. has relied on Addis Ababa as a stop gap pending the full deployment of a planned 8,000 member African Union (A.U.) peacekeeping mission (AMISOM), of which only a 1,400 member Ugandan contingent is on the ground. The mission suffered a setback and its future became clouded when, on May 16, a roadside bombing of an AMISOM convoy killed four Ugandan troops and wounded five others.

The tenuous situation of the T.F.G. is evidenced by the fragility of its military support. Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, is eager to withdraw from Somalia because of the financial burdens of the occupation, growing domestic opposition to it, the heating up of an insurgency in Ethiopia's ethnic-Somali Ogaden region (Somali Regional State) and the unpopularity of the occupation in Somalia.

Addis Ababa, however, is under A.U. and Western pressure not to withdraw until AMISOM replaces its forces, which is an increasingly unlikely eventuality as African states that have previously pledged their troops to the mission -- Benin, Burundi, Ghana and Nigeria -- hang back, citing security concerns and inadequate funding from Western donor powers and the A.U. The May 16 bombing of the Ugandan convoy has increased reluctance to contribute to AMISOM and has activated domestic opposition to the mission in Uganda.

The Western donor powers are aware that Addis Ababa cannot sustain the occupation indefinitely and that the occupation is counter-productive to the T.F.G.'s legitimacy. They are using their diplomatic and financial leverage to try to convince the T.F.G.'s leadership -- President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed and Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi -- to hold a planned National Reconciliation Conference (N.R.C.) quickly and to ensure that it represents all Somalia's significant political forces, including conciliatory elements of the I.C.C. and opposition sectors of the Hawiye clan. Although preparations for the N.R.C., which is scheduled to open in mid-June, are underway, its composition is yet to be determined and it is still uncertain whether or not it will be held.

The combination of a revived, though currently relatively low-level insurgency, half-hearted external military support and qualified diplomatic and thus far inadequate financial backing places the T.F.G. in the position of a weak protagonist. Its major advantage is the absence of a concerted opposition to it, yet that advantage is cut by the dispersion of independent power centers that attends the devolutionary cycle.

The T.F.G.: A Weak Protagonist

Although each conflict situation needs to be analyzed in terms of its own particular configuration of power and interest, developments in Somalia have fallen into a pattern that bears resemblance to the political dynamics of Afghanistan and Iraq. In all three countries, a regime or an ascending movement has been displaced by external military intervention followed by a foreign occupation propping up a weak central government that has not been able to control its territory and quell armed opposition to it. The three countries are also decentralized Muslim societies in which political devolution to regions, localities, sects, ethnicities and -- in Somalia -- clans occurs spontaneously when central authority deflates.

A post-intervention regime that is dependent on occupying forces and external financial aid finds itself under pressure from all sides. Domestic opposition mobilizes around a nationalist backlash against occupation and -- in contemporary Muslim societies -- around Islamism; local leaders strive to assert their control independently of the central authority; and external occupying and donor powers demand that the weak regime impose security and share power with disaffected sectors of the society. At the same time, the regime attempts to preserve itself intact as much as it possibly can, exacerbating opposition to it and alienating the protectors and donors on which it depends. Afghanistan and Iraq have been in this condition for several years with no end in sight; Somalia is in its early stages and there is no reason to believe that its prognosis is any different.

That the syndrome sketched above now characterizes Somalia is made evident in a series of interviews and press conferences by key players in the present conjuncture.

In an interview with Agence France Presse (A.F.P.) on May 21, Yusuf admitted that "terrorists" were still active in Somalia and then went on to criticize donor powers and international organizations for failing to support the T.F.G. adequately, complaining that the United States, the European Union, Western European governments and the United Nations had promised aid to reconstruct "a devastated country" but had failed to deliver and had confined themselves to performing "meager humanitarian work." Yusuf continued, saying that the T.F.G. needs US$42.2 million to hold the N.R.C. and has not yet received the funds despite promises that they would be forthcoming. He noted that Washington was appreciative of the T.F.G.'s efforts against "terrorism," but had not yet given "tangible assistance." A.F.P. reported that donors are reluctant to provide aid until they see the results of the N.R.C.

Yusuf's interview followed visits to Mogadishu by Italy's deputy foreign minister, Patrizia Sentinelli, on May 19, and U.N. emergency relief coordinator, John Holmes, on May 12, and the appointment of John M. Yates as U.S. special envoy for Somalia on May 17.

In remarks to the press after her visit, Sentinelli said: "I believe the transitional government cannot perform its duties due to lack of local support and the different political groups in the country do not feel represented in the government." Yet Sentinelli added that she was "optimistic" that the T.F.G. would implement "good governance" in Somalia and promised that Rome would provide "partial funding" for AMISOM and the N.R.C. She repeated the international consensus that the N.R.C. should be inclusive and that the presence of Ethiopian forces in Somalia is "unacceptable" in the long run, calling for rapid and full deployment of AMISOM.

In an interview with Rod Nordlund of Newsweek magazine, published on May 21, Holmes, whose visit to Mogadishu was cut short by bombings near the U.N.'s offices there, said that the situation in the city is "not absolutely normal" and confirmed that the T.F.G. had hindered the distribution of aid to 300,000 internally displaced persons (I.D.P.'s) by closing airports, demanding "visas" from aid workers and levying "taxes" on shipments. Holmes said that the T.F.G.'s claim that there were only 40,000 I.D.P.'s was "not helpful" and insisted that Somalia had undergone "the worst single displacement of people this year anywhere in the world."

He also criticized the T.F.G. for calling its opponents "terrorists," which does not "encourage reconciliation," and remarked that Addis Ababa is in the same situation that Washington confronts in Iraq -- unable to leave on pain of the T.F.G.'s "collapse" and "unable to stay without arousing more enmity and creating more terrorists."

In an interview with Voice of America on May 19, Yates said that he would try to "encourage" the Hawiye to participate in the N.R.C. and would "push" Yusuf to "continue political dialogue."

The disconnect between the T.F.G. and the donor powers is encapsulated by their differences over the N.R.C. Yusuf remains committed to a clan-based conference that will not threaten the T.F.G.'s present structure, whereas the donor powers -- while they have been constrained to acquiesce in the clan formula -- "push" for greater inclusiveness and a political agenda. The result of the dispute thus far has been the scaling back -- announced on May 19 -- of the N.R.C. from more than 3,000 participants to 1,325 due to, according to its chairman, Ali Mahdi Mohamed, insufficient funding. Although the conference is scheduled to be held in less than a month, representatives, who are supposed to be selected by clan leaders and elders, have yet to be chosen.

As an insurgency takes root in Mogadishu, threatening the N.R.C., Yusuf has attempted to win support of segments of the Hawiye by negotiating separately with leaders of its sub-clans who have not been able to consolidate in a unified front. Yusuf has also reached out to Mogadishu warlords, who had not cooperated with the T.F.G. before the rise of the I.C.C., in order to broaden his base without impairing his control over the executive. None of these measures has either improved the situation on the streets or placated the donor powers.

The T.F.G. has also undergone splits in its own ranks. On May 12, Gedi fired Hussein Aideed, the T.F.G.'s deputy prime minister, who had joined the political wing of the I.C.C. and a dissident T.F.G. parliamentary faction based in Eritrea. He also fired Barre Hirale, the T.F.G.'s defense minister, who was the major warlord in the key southern port city of Kismayo before the rise of the I.C.C.

Hirale became disaffected with Yusuf after the latter's Majerteen sub-clan of the Darod clan took control of Kismayo's administration, marginalizing the Marehan sub-clan, whose militias have since expelled the Majerteen leadership from the city, leaving it outside T.F.G. control. On May 22, the T.F.G. fired the first commander of the national armed forces, Col. Abdirisak Afgadud, after he had been accused of instigating the ouster of Kismayo's administration.


After a year's political roller coaster ride attended by many casualties, Somalia now and for the foreseeable future appears to be running along a bumpy track that has become familiar in Afghanistan and Iraq, on which a weak and dependent central government imposed by external powers and insufficiently supported by them attempts to preserve itself against a fragmented opposition and disparate local power centers, and strives to concede as little as possible to its protectors and donors, each of which has its own interests and none of which has the political will to change the situation.

With no strong unifying domestic force on the horizon, PINR expects continued devolution accompanied by half-hearted efforts to arrest it. At present, the hopes of the West rest on the N.R.C., which will be the 15th attempt in as many years to bring stability to Somalia through a clan-based formula. If the conference actually comes off and it is "inclusive," it will initiate a protracted process with uncertain results. If it is not held or it is not broadly representative, Somalia's political collapse will persist.

From the perspective of the West, the presence of radical Islamism in Somalia makes it more difficult to abandon the country as the great powers did after the fall of Siad Barre's dictatorship and the failure of a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the early 1990s. Yet there is no sign that the new danger will trigger sufficient commitment to overcome it.

During the first three weeks of May, factional and inter-clan conflict continued to break out in various regions of Somalia, accompanied by crime and a spike in piracy that has imperiled the delivery of humanitarian aid. Tensions between the executive and parliament, as well as clan conflict, also surfaced in Somaliland and Puntland. PINR simply notes these developments without going into details, because they continue a pattern that has been documented in previous reports. [See: PINR's Africa Archives]

The T.F.G.'s protectors -- Addis Ababa and Kampala -- are in a bind and out on a limb, respectively. Their limited efficacy will diminish over time. Donor powers will not open their purse strings widely unless they see progress, but their caution will help ensure that progress is not forthcoming.

The problem is that Somalia is too strategically important for too many actors to be left to work out its own political destiny, yet not important enough to call forth whole-hearted commitment to its future.

Report Drafted By:
Dr. Michael A. Weinstein

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