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SOMALIA’S NEXT RECONCILIATION ATTEMPT: CAN IT SUCCEED?

By Dr. Mahamud M. Yahye
Sunday, May 27, 2007

 

“Reconciliation implies forgiveness of past wrongs and a firm intention to go forward as one undivided nation.” – Hon.  Dame Roma Mitchell (at Australia Reconciliation Convention, 1997).

 

I.

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In almost the last two decades, the Somali people have endured one of the longest, bloodiest and most devastating civil wars in the world.  But unlike other cases in, for instance, Africa and the Middle East, Somalia’s civil strife had a unique feature: i.e., it led to the total destruction of the state, and Somalis had to live without a functioning central government for so long. Moreover, since the collapse of Gen. Siad Barre’s ruthless dictatorship in January 1991, around14 national reconciliation conferences have been held – all of them in foreign lands. None of them has, however, been fully successful and none of them has resulted in a real national reconciliation as well as the establishment of a full-fledged central government that could end Somalia’s excessively  prolonged nightmare. According to some estimates, this terrible civil strife has led to the death of about one million Somalis – either in the civil war itself or the ensuing famines – and to the displacement of millions more, both internally and externally.


By the middle of next month (June 2007), the 15th national reconciliation conference is scheduled to be held inside Somalia (or in Mogadishu, the capital, more specifically) this time around.  But many experts on Somali affairs – both nationals and foreigners – are very skeptical about this latest attempt for peace and reconciliation in that unlucky country. They are afraid it might meet the same dismal fate of the preceding 14 attempts unless some drastic changes are made in both the preparation as well as the leadership and conduct of the forthcoming reconciliation meeting. We also have to stop deluding ourselves by repeating the usual mantra or platitude of: “The Somali problem could only be solved by Somalis themselves”. The fact remains that after 16 years of fratricidal warfare, Somalis have miserably failed to end their country’s quagmire. Besides, many of the warlords, faction and political leaders are part of the problem, not the solution. And, thus, external help will be inevitable for the time being. 

 

II.

In this connection, the question that immediately jumps to one’s mind is: Why have the previous 14th attempts in peace and national reconciliation failed and resulted in the perpetual existence of civil unrest in Somalia up to the present moment?  In the opinion of the above-mentioned experts, the main reason is that there was really no focus on achieving lasting peace and national reconciliation or a full discussion of the root causes of the conflict.  Rather, the whole purpose behind these conferences was to bring about power sharing along tribal lines -- as if government work is not a public service for the good of the Somali nation, but a mere bounty to be distributed to the winning tribes of the battle. But the problem with this approach is that Somalia consists of an endless number of clans, sub-clans and sub-sub-clans. It would, therefore, be the height of folly to aim at satisfying this myriad of clans in terms of distribution of ministerial portfolios and high government positions.  As such, it was absurd to see Prime Minister, Mr. Ali Mohamed Gedi, form his first cabinet after the 2002-2004 national reconciliation conference held in Nairobi, Kenya, with a total of 91 line ministers, state ministers and deputy ministers (I gather, America, the only superpower in the world today, has about  15 federal cabinet members only!).

 

 In the past 16 years, some Somali clans have been convinced - sometimes under the guise of Islamic religion - that they can subjugate and marginalize other clans by force.  They have, however, failed to understand that, if Somalia’s recent history is anything to go by, no single clan can militarily defeat all other clans. In this regard, Saudi Arabia’s daily newspaper, Arab News, was right when it has recently stated in  an article, titled “Somalia: Time to Act”: “Somalia cannot be reunited on the terms of any one faction [clan].  Its people have to respect each other’s differences. Sixteen years of bloody anarchy have proved that no one faction [clan] has the power to impose its will on the others. Future peace has to rely on compromise and understanding.  There is simply no other way. And Washington’s money could help it happen”. [1]  

 

According to a leading columnist of America’s leading daily, the Washington Post (Mr. David Ignatius), a civil war normally comes to an end when the warring parties are totally exhausted and everyone of them realizes that their side cannot win this war alone.  In Somalia, it seems that this stage has not been reached as yet, and there are some clans who still have the illusion that they can militarily defeat all other major Somali clans and monopolize power and privilege through the barrel of the gun. I may add to this columnist’s view that a civil war could also be ended if the neighboring countries of the afflicted country have strategic interests in stopping it, as happened in Uganda after the overthrow of  Gen. Idi Amin’s brutal regime in mid-1980s, whereby next door Tanzania had intervened with a mighty force; or Nigerian and West African regional grouping (i.e., ECOWAS) forces that ended the ruinous civil wars in both Liberia and Sierra Leone. It is worth noting here that President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda was able to end the civil war in his country not by exclusively relying on his own ethnic group but through a powerful multi-ethnic political organization called “The Movement.”

 

In the case of Lebanon, neighboring Arab countries could not anymore tolerate that country’s devastating 15-year civil war and so they convened a decisive national reconciliation conference for the Lebanese in the city of Taif, Saudi Arabia, in 1990. (I heard that the Arab countries had to reward or rather “bribe” the major protagonists in the Lebanese civil war with millions of dollars so as to induce them to sign the final peace treaty). Unfortunately, poor and backward Somalia had no neighbors or friends in the international community who had such vital strategic interests vis-à-vis that unfortunate nation. On the contrary, the international community had until very recently turned its back to Somalia, after the debacles of the US and UN humanitarian interventions in Somalia in the 1993-95 period. They have only woken up recently after the rise of the radical Islamist movement that restored some semblance of peace and stability to Mogadishu and its environs for a few months, until the latter was crushed by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) with the help of Ethiopian forces.

 

About two years ago, one of the Prime Ministers of the former President Abdiqasim Salad Hassan’s government in Somalia revealed over the BBC Somali Service that in an important conference held at Harvard University in Boston, Mass., USA, some high ranking Bush Administration officials indicated quite frankly that they did not favor the restoration of a central government in Somalia, and that it would be cheaper and more cost-effective for America to deal directly with individual warlords. This ill-advised policy had led to the rise of the fundamentalist Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and the defeat of the warlords backed by USA – something that later resulted in one of the bloodiest phases of Somalia’s ruinous civil conflict in the past few months. Nonetheless, the fact that both USA and Italy have recently appointed highly qualified veteran diplomats, as their new full-time ambassadors to Somalia for the first time in 16 years, is an important indication of the change of their previous misguided policies. 

 

Every student of Somali politics by now realizes that there are some Somali faction leaders and armed militia men who benefit from the current mayhem in Mogadishu and southern Somalia. These people have seized by force the property of other Somalis after the former moved from their arid lands in central Somalia and occupied the land of other clans all the way to Kismayo seaport near the Kenyan border. An Afro-American journalist by the name of Mr. Sunni Muhammad Khalid who reported from Somalia in the early 1990s confirmed this fact when he wrote: “The fabric of Somali society, at least in much of the southern part of the country, had broken down.  Guns became part of a dysfunctional new culture, a means to arbitrate disputes or guarantee settlements”. [2]  [And to gain power and privilege, I may also add].  Again, he writes in the same article, using the enormous destruction he had seen in Mogadishu as a metaphor for the devastation in Somalia as a whole: “What struck me most, however, was not the commotion created by the convoy. Rather, it was the surrounding tableau; literally every single building and standing structure was either pock-marked and riddled with bullets or was damaged by shells or grenades.  There was virtually no place that had not been touched by Somalia’s national self-immolation”. [3]  [Emphasis added]

 

 In a sufficiently comprehensive report, published in early 2005, the World Bank also concurred with this assertion when it said the following:  In South Central Somalia, for example, valuable agricultural land, urban real estate and seaports, have been taken over by armed clans for economic gains.  These stronger marauding clans have grabbed rich plantations and real estate owned by agricultural clans and indigenous groups, often leading to their displacement, or worse still, their enslavement.” [4] In this regard, many experts believe that the peaceful and law-abiding ethnic minorities in, say, Benadir (Mogadishu), Merca and Brava areas as well as Somali Bantus have been subjected to the highest level of oppression and injustices and have, thus, borne the brunt of Somalia’s warfare, simply because they have no armed tribal militias to protect them. This also confirms Mr. Hassan Mahadalla’s view that the root cause of Somalia’s civil strife is essentially a fight over resources in addition to the traditional Somali clan rivalry.[5] And these injustices/grievances have to be satisfactorily addressed before a real national reconciliation could be achieved.

 

III.

In my considered opinion, the best way to make the forthcoming national reconciliation conference for Somalia more successful would be to depart with the wrong approach of the previous 14 such conferences and to adopt a new, more rational and more objective process. In this connection, South Africa’s Peace and Reconciliation Conference, which was held a few years ago, and was regarded by most experts as a great success, could represent a good example to be emulated by us – Somalis.  The main idea behind this new approach would be to first address three basic questions: (1) What went wrong in Somalia? (2) What were the real causes (not just symptoms) of her civil war? and (3) Do the Somalis really want a central government? The major perpetrators/warlords of the Somali conflict’s heinous crimes over the years as well as the victims of such abominable crimes would then be brought under the same tent; then each party will have to tell its side of the story, i.e., make a full confession, after an amnesty had been accorded to every evil-doer who asks for forgiveness and solemnly undertakes – upon swearing on the holy Koran - that from now on he will abide by the rule of law and will never repeat the atrocious crimes of the past. (Perhaps it would be greatly beneficial if a Somali delegation could be sent to South Africa to study their example of conflict resolution very deeply). Unless and until we Somalis discuss openly the real factors that led to the terrible civil war of the last 16 years, the main actors and the dynamics of the ensuing chaos and the total collapse of our state, and the reasons for the failure of the numerous preceding reconciliation attempts, no real peace and national reconciliation would materialize or take hold.

 

Another reason why the forthcoming national reconciliation meeting may not achieve its real purpose is its seemingly poor/hasty preparation and the low quality of its leadership or moderating team. By now, the agenda of the conference and several sufficiently detailed papers on the fundamental issues surrounding Somali reconciliation and root causes of its prolonged civil conflict should have been prepared and made available to the intended participants. To the best of my knowledge, this has not yet been fulfilled. More importantly, some experts on Somali affairs think that the designation of Mr. Ali Mahdi Mohamed as the convener/organizer of the meeting was rather unfortunate. (He has no real qualification other than his clan affiliation). This gentleman may have been a good hotelier and a businessman, however his political record, as Somalia’s first president after the collapse of Siad Barre’s government was very poor. And many Somalis believe that, due to their lack of true statesmanship qualities, Ali Mahdi and his main rival, the late Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, share the responsibility for plunging Somalia into a real, disastrous civil war. I still vividly remember that when this opportunistic politician was asked why he had proclaimed himself in Mogadishu as the President of Somalia just a few days after Siad Barre fled the capital in Jan., 1991, without consulting other politicians/regional leaders, Ali Mahdi simply replied without any hesitation: “We control Mogadishu which is the most important place in Somalia and I don’t care about the rest of the country.” Furthermore, Ali Mahdi is believed not to be impartial or sincere in his efforts to organize the forthcoming national reconciliation conference. According to some insiders, he is vying for Ali Mohamed Gedi’s position and wants to replace him as Somalia’s next Prime Minister. On the other hand, Mogadishu, with its current level of insecurity may not be the best place in Somalia to convene such an important national gathering as nobody could fully guarantee the safety of all participants. It is worth mentioning here that, in a statement issued in Asmara (Eritrea), the opponents of the TFG, i.e., the leader of the now defunct Islamic Courts Union and the dismissed Speaker of Parliament, have called for a boycott of the said meeting by all Somali factions/interested parties, labeling it as an exercise in futility.[6] However, many observers regard their statements from exile as being irrelevant to Somalia’s current political scene.

 

IV.
In conclusion, if Somalis desire to fruitfully conduct a real peace and national reconciliation in their homeland, they should make their forthcoming conference radically different from the previous 14 national reconciliation attempts. As such, the crucial areas of preparation, leadership and conduct of the said meeting   have to be substantially altered.  It is not enough to bring into a single hall some cruel warlords, faction leaders and selfish politicians; then engage these men who hate each other’s guts, have no any degree of mutual trust whatsoever and wouldn’t keep their word, in a futile PR (public relations) exercise, or political shenanigans, by hugging and kissing one another on the cheek and finally, singing together, with total insincerity, Somalia’s famous political song during her struggle for independence: “Soomaaliyey toosoo/ Toosoo isku tiirsada/ Oo hadba kiinna tag daran taageera weligiiney” (Meaning: Oh, wake up Somalis/ Wake up and get united/ And always support whoever is weakest among you)[7].

 

For this reason, civil societies, traditional leaders, intellectuals, Somalis in the Diaspora and 3-5 political organizations to be formed along ideological lines and not the infamous 4.5 tribal formula - all have to be given a greater say in handling the forthcoming national reconciliation conference, with security help from the military forces of the African Union. Otherwise, unlucky Somalia would go back to square one, with very dire consequences for her hapless population, who have not experienced real peace, stability and economic development in the past two decades or so. But whether or not we Somalis want a central government, it will be imposed on us as other countries won’t tolerate – for their own security and wellbeing - a stateless, anarchic Somalia to become a safe haven for international terrorists. We should also keep in mind that tribalism and the restoration and running of a national full-fledged government are very much incompatible.[8] Finally, the American columnist, David Iganatius, was right when he has concluded an article recently posted on some Somali websites, under the title of “Somalia: Ethiopia’s Iraq”: "It’s like Iraq and Afghanistan, in other words. A decisive military strike has destroyed one threat [i.e., ICU].  But what’s left behind, when the dust clears, is a shattered tribal society that won’t have real stability without a complex process  of  political reconciliation and economic development.[9]  [Emphasis added].  Or as the famous Somali poet, the late Noor Ali Qonof, would have liked to say it: “Heshiiskoodu inuu daacad noqon la hubsan doonee.” (Meaning: Whether [some Somali clans’ peace] agreement becomes genuine will be seen later).[10]

 

May God almighty bless Somalia and protect her from her own sons.



Mahamud M. Yahye, Ph.D.

e-mail:  [email protected]



[1]   See the editorial of Arab News, May 10, 2007.

 

[2] Sunni Muhammad Khalid, (Somalia – Searching for the “Star of Mogadishu”), Horn of Africa Journal, Vol. No. XVI, No. 1-4, Dec. 1998, p. 66 

 

[3] Ibid., p.68

 

[4]  The World Bank, “Conflict in Somali: Drivers and Dynamics”,  January 2005, p.7

 

[5] Hassan Mahadalla, “The Somali Conflict: Clan Rivalry or the Cabals of a Few?”, Horn of Africa Journal, Vol. No. XVI, No. 1-4, Dec. 1998, pp. 163-170.  See also Prof. I. M. Lewis,  Understanding Somalia (Haan Associates, London, 1993), Part One; and his other seminal works on Somali culture, history  and  politics. 

 

[6] Source: BBC Somali Service’s news bulletins  on Thursday,  May 24, 2007.

During Eritrea’s struggle for independence in 1960-80s, when Somalia had a strong functioning central government, Somalis had extended a great help to her, both morally and materially.  However, Christian-dominated Eritrea has repaid Somalia by supporting a radical Islamic movement that is bent on suppressing personal freedom, democracy and moderation and on setting up another Taliban regime in Somalia.

 

[7]  This was the signature national song, introduced in the 1940s  by Somalia’s foremost nationalist political party, the Somali Youth League (SYL), which banned tribalism and which eventually led to the liberation of Somalis from their Italian colonizers in 1960.

 

[8]  See a 2-part article on this topic, entitled: “Tribalism: the Cancer in Our Midst” by googling under that title or the present author’s full name.

 

[9]  Washington Post  (USA),  May 13, 2007; p. B07

 

[10]  Noor Ali Qonof composed this long poem, with the refrain of : “La hubsan doonee”  [It will be seen later], when two rival clans engaged in a bloody fratricidal warfare in the Mudug region of Somalia in the early 1950s – most probably over water and pasture. They   ultimately signed a cease-fire agreement thanks to the intervention of the Italian colonial administration.  However, knowing the mentality of Somalis – who, unlike other peoples of the world, seem to act first, and think later about the consequences of their actions – Noor Ali Qonof  was not sure whether this peace agreement would hold for the long haul or whether it was worth the paper it was written on.



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