WATCHING from afar, people find it difficult to understand the intractability of the conflict in Somalia. The cycle of violence, almost mysteriously, remains uninterrupted. Peace breaks out. Victory is declared, as it was a couple of weeks ago when President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed’s Transitional Federal Government declared its triumph over the rival Islamic Courts Union and the clan-based militia fighting alongside it. And then the violence quickly erupts again.
In Somalia, it has been clan versus clan, Muslim Somalis versus Christian Ethiopians, for as long as anyone can remember. A recent United Nations report asserted that a dozen or so countries — Egypt, Eritrea and Iran among them — are engaged in trying to destabilize Somalia.
Why can’t Somalia arrest its downward spiral?
Well, let me tell you about my brief time as an emissary between Somalia’s two main warring factions; perhaps it might help explain in concrete — and human — terms why the conflict has become so difficult to solve and why the transitional government, backed by the United States and with the support of Ethiopia, is probably doomed to fail.
My career as an emissary began last July. A man in the executive directorate of the Islamic Courts Union, then in control of Mogadishu, telephoned me in Cape Town, where I now live. (I was born and raised in Somalia.) The man, who shall remain nameless, asked if I would “carry fire between the two sides,” as the Somali idiom has it.
The timing was understandable. Talks between the Islamists and the government had broken down; the Islamists were laying siege to Baidoa, the seat of the government, and Ethiopia was sending troops to defend the garrisoned town.
The choice of a mediator, however, wasn’t so readily apparent. “Why me?” I asked.
“Because the I.C.U. admires your opposition to Ethiopia, Somalia’s archenemy, and because of your avowed interest in peace,” he replied.
And, truth be told, I admired some of what the Islamists had accomplished. Indeed, they had done the impossible: in a series of fierce battles from March to June last year, they had routed the warlords and pacified Mogadishu. For the first time in many years, the city enjoyed peace.
Like many Somalis, though, I also had my reservations about them. Even though almost all Somalis are Muslim, very few embrace the union’s fervent brand of faith: the group supports Shariah law and it treats the federal charter, which is secular, with disdain. Then there was the matter of clan rivalry, which hinted that devotion might be masking politics: the top Islamists belonged to the clans known to be antagonistic to the president’s clan.
Of course, my feelings about the transitional government were also ambivalent. The government came into being in 2004 after a two-year-long national reconciliation conference held in exile. I supported the president’s desire for an African peacekeeping force to stabilize Somalia; at the same time, I was fearful that he was susceptible to pressure from Ethiopia.
Still, the Islamic Courts Union, as my interlocutor told me, was holding out a proposal that just might lead to peace. According to him, the union was offering to let the government move to Mogadishu from Baidoa and to let the president bring with him a force of 1,000 from his home province, Puntland.
I felt this was promising. A peace deal would not just bring stability — it would reduce the opportunities for foreign intervention by Ethiopia, which had thwarted every national and international effort to bring Somalia’s strife to a peaceful end, and by the United States, which seemed inclined to support Christian-run Ethiopia as a bulwark against the Islamists. (It didn’t help, of course, that the union’s defense spokesman had used the red-flag word “jihad” in his firebrand declamations.)
And so I called the office of President Yusuf to request a meeting. When I received a favorable response, I called my Islamist interlocutor to let him know that I would accept the mission. Excited at the thought of doing more than writing about Somalia to keep it alive, I bought my ticket and left for Mogadishu.
When I arrived in Mogadishu in the last week of August, the city appeared calm. That’s not to say that there wasn’t a hint of unease. Residents felt that they were under surveillance. And they were. Drones hovered above the city all night. War, it seemed, was in the offing.
My first meeting in town was with Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, then the spiritual head of the Islamic Courts Union; he struck me as being more reasonable than many others in the group. In all, I spent three and a half hours in our first meeting, much of it alone with him. We were in an office with a huge escritoire, and we were cramped, sitting very close to each other, a low table on which he placed his notebook and I mine and also our teacups between us, the door left ajar. He leaned forward to enunciate his words with the slowness of someone used to speaking to blockheads. (Perhaps he thought me a halfwit, come from Cape Town, on a dubious peace mission; a fool proposing that he and President Yusuf, his adversary, make up for the sake of Somalia.)
When I told him what prompted my visit, he confessed he had no recollection of agreeing that President Yusuf relocate to Mogadishu with a force from Puntland. The group’s position, he reiterated with emphasis, was that Ethiopia must withdraw its forces from Somalia before anything else could happen. He continued: “We control much of the country and the people are behind us. What does he control, this president, confined to Baidoa?”
THIS was not an encouraging beginning.
My subsequent meetings with the Islamists and their sympathizers were equally frustrating. There was no discussion of the peace plan that had brought me back to Somalia. Instead, the discussions centered on matters they deemed important: whether theaters should be open; whether girls could be permitted to wear jeans or go about unveiled; whether tea houses should play music, or young men watch soccer on television. There was no serious talk of governance.
What struck me in these conversations was the presence of Arabic. These men, I surmised, had received their education in Sudan, Libya or Kuwait. For the first time since the Middle Ages, Arabic was the lingua franca in Mogadishu; Somali was practically a second language.
After my meeting with the Islamists, I headed for Baidoa to meet the president. When we met in his office, across the courtyard from his residence — he emerged dressed in gray, his bearing immaculate, hair groomed with care and face glowing, after a good night’s sleep. (How, I asked myself, was this possible in a town with no modern amenities?)
The president and I sat facing each other, and his intent stare reminded me that he and Sheik Aweys come from the same part of the country; I couldn’t help being mindful that the two of them had engaged in armed skirmishes in the early ’90s, soon after the structural collapse of the state. The sheik had led an Islamist takeover of Puntland; the president, opposing him, had won that round.
The president accepted my offer to open channels between the two sides. But it was another message from him that would ring in my ears: “I know what war is,” he said. “I have fought in three of them. I won’t attack Mogadishu, but if the I.C.U. invades Baidoa, someone will regret it. Tell the sheik this. From me.”
Back to Mogadishu. I met Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, the executive director of the union; also present was the interlocutor who had called me in the first place. Regrettably, my interlocutor would allude neither to our initial conversation, nor to his suggestion that the transitional government move to Mogadishu, with guarantees. As we spoke, officials came and went, some bowing low, others kneeling in deference to the sheik. It was clear that I was in the presence of a power — a power who was unwilling to confirm that he had knowledge of my interlocutor’s offer.
I had to wonder. Was the Islamic union negotiating in bad faith? Had I embarked on a peace mission that was doomed to fail? Or did the powers that be in the Islamic union reject the idea of a rapprochement with the government and forget to tell me? I chose to play dumb, and so I provided the sheik’s secretary with contact information for the president’s men — as if everything else was on track.
The following day, I went to meet Sheik Aweys at his home. I got lost on the way. He lived in a part of town unfamiliar to me. With no paved roads, and with the rains having created ravines with crumbly sides, and with no street names, the entire area was virtually impassable. My driver and I got stuck in the sandy chasms.
After I arrived, the sheik and I talked amicably, with his 2-year-old son sitting on his lap. I dared not share with him the president’s threatening remarks.
Before we parted, he commended me for my “audacious” attempt to bring the Islamic union and the transitional government closer. He suggested not giving up hope, however, adding that there was bound to be further need for my involvement once “the Somali people” routed their enemies, “and you know who these are,” he grinned. I offered to return in a few months.
I didn’t make it back. Over Christmas, Ethiopia, perhaps intending to provide a gift for the festive season to its American ally, invaded Mogadishu and expelled the Islamists. With thousands of Ethiopian troops in the country — and only a few African Union troops from elsewhere — savage battles took place in Mogadishu between the transitional government army (backed by Ethiopia) and the Islamists, supported by clan-based militiamen. Hundreds of people were killed. Now that there has been a lull in the fighting, it is regrettable that President Yusuf has both claimed victory and sworn not to engage in dialogue with the Islamists. I wonder if his refusal to negotiate from a point of strength will come back to haunt him.
Somalis are not religious extremists. But Islam has a revered place in their hearts and minds. The religion has cultural importance — Arabs opened up Somalia for their faith and their commerce around the ninth century; Mogadishu was a cosmopolitan city, where anyone from the Islamic world felt welcome.
Islam also has political importance. With the collapse of the Ottomans, the last Islamic empire, the Europeans — meeting in Berlin in the late 1800s — worked out a system by which portions of Somalia went to Italy, Britain and France. Because Menelik II, Emperor of Ethiopia, pleaded with his fellow Christians, claiming that his country was a Christian island in an Islamic ocean, Ethiopia was, in time, given a share in the land grab, the Somali-speaking Ogaden. This territory has remained the bane of Somalia’s blighted dealings with Ethiopia.
It could be that Sheik Aweys and his fellow Islamists are modeling their struggle on the first Somali to wage an anticolonial war in the name of Islam against Christian invaders. Maxamed Cabdulle Xasan fought for the reinstitution of Somalia’s religious and national dignity. A letter he wrote to the British government in the early years of the 20th century spells out his aims: “I want to protect my own religion. All you can get from me is war, nothing else. We ask for Allah’s blessings. Allah is with me as I write this. If you want war, I am ready; if you want peace, go away from my country.” So what can be done?
For starters, the international community must provide the wherewithal for the African Union to deploy 6,000 or so troops to keep the peace — soldiers who are not from Ethiopia.
But in the end, the only way out of the current impasse is to resume dialogue between the two principal parties to the conflict. I now know from personal experience how difficult this is. President Yusuf has said that the Islamists’ claim to represent a religious constituency does not sit well with his administration.
At the same time, the exiled Islamists are endorsing or openly engaging in violence. Assassinations of political figures, exploding roadside bombs in which peacekeepers or innocent bystanders lose their lives: these must stop.
Both sides must give. Most Somalis believe that the Islamists deserve a place at the table; they have been disempowered through invasion by an occupying force, which must withdraw, the sooner the better.
Genuine negotiations will not be easy. I found this out the hard way. But Somalis must consider the alternative: the violence will continue and the rest of the world will continue to use land as a playground for intervention.
Nuruddin Farah is the author, most recently, of “Knots,” a novel.