Mohamed A. Suleiman
Over the past few months Canadians, like the rest of the international community, were bombarded with horrifying images of the dead and the displaced that emanated from Somalia’s latest conflict. While this most recent flare up has the added fervor of the Ethiopian forces invading its neighbor to install a weak and unpopular Transitional Federal Government (TFG), it is important to note that the Somali conflict dates back to the late 1970s and the early 80s.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Back in those years the name Somalia was hardly known to Canadians and the number of people of Somali origin who lived in Canada was negligible at best. Because of unbearable conditions precipitated by the military dictatorship of the late Mohamed Siyad Barre and the chaos and confusion that ensued from his downfall, Canada witnessed an influx of Somali refugees who arrived here in earnest in the late eighties and into the nineties.
Canada which is known world over for its humanitarian stance opened its door and received tens of thousands of Somali refugees.
But while many of us found Canada a safe and comfortable home, the problems that drove us out of our homeland continued unabated. Resistance movements cropped up from both the North and South to counter Siyad Barre’s grip on power and to end the atrocities that the dictator’s regime committed against the Somali people, particularly in Northern Somalia.
This internal conflict that pinned the Somali National movement (SNM), which predominantly drew its following from the North, and the United Somali Congress (USC), which primarily drew its support from the South, against Siyad Barre’s regime culminated with the collapse of that regime early in 1991.
Although the combined efforts of the SNM and the USC hastened Siyad Barre’s downfall, the collapse of what was Somalia’s last national government reopened the North/South divide that was simmering underneath since the July 1st, 1960 union between the former British Protectorate in the North and the Italian Trusteeship in the South. The fact that the two regions that formed the union experienced different colonial administrations made the process of national cohesion and unity very complicated. The domination of the newly born government by southerners and the way the southerners interpreted the union in bad faith created an impression in the North that the union was a wholesale affair.
This discontent that was felt by the Northerners was coupled with the brutality with which Siyad Barre’s government dealt with the citizens of the north. With the mass murder, the looting, the rape of girls and women, the killing of innocent children, the bombing raids carried out by mercenaries on Hargeisa and vicinity, including refugees who were fleeing the onslaught, the roundup, the incarceration, the summary executions of scores of intellectuals and leaders, simply because they belonged to a distinct social group, engraved in the collective psyche of the people of the North, the former British colony availed itself of the opportunity and reasserted its nationhood and declared itself the independent Republic of Somaliland in May 1991.
Over the past sixteen years, Somaliland drafted and adopted a national constitution and it implemented a multi-party democratic system that is a rarity in the continent of Africa. Without an international recognition and the aid that this entails, Somaliland enjoyed stability and a relative prosperity created by the determination of its citizenry to make Somaliland a working model of sanity in an otherwise troubled part of the Horn.
While this has been the reality in Somaliland, the demise of Siyad Barre’s dictatorial rule heralded a new era in southern Somalia’s troubled saga. It ushered in an era of great upheaval where factionalism, warlordism, regionalism, and tribalism took precedent over nationhood and nation building.
During these testy times, Canada, with the exception of the ill-fated mission in the early 90s, stayed away from any direct involvement in the Somali conflict. However, Canada, through the international multilateral organizations, continued to channel humanitarian aid to Somalia to help alleviate the suffering of the populace.
Because of the complex nature of the Somali conflict, it was indeed prudent that the Canadian government avoid any kind of involvement except for the humanitarian assistance that it channeled through the multilateral bodies.
This having been the case, a group of Toronto liberal MPs has recently asked the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs to conduct a study of the situation in Somalia, assess the situation there, and recommend a course of action for the Government of Canada. Roy Cullen of Etobicoke North, Judy Sgro of York West, Alan Tonks of York South-Weston, and Boris Wrzesnewskyj of Etobicoke Centre, who all represent ridings with sizable Somali constituencies, have indicated that a window of opportunity which exists to avert a human calamity in Somalia and the region is rapidly closing. They added that while the TFG has successfully done away with warlordism and extremism, the difficult task of true reconciliation and comprehensive development remain.
This benign looking move by these four MPs is nothing less than political posturing that is designed to secure the Somali vote in the next federal election that could be called any time now. What is even more troubling than their dubious objective is the fact that these MPs, who represent areas with the largest concentration of Somali voters in the country, have not learned a thing about the roots and the complexity of the Somali conflict.
Somalia had no national government over the past 16 years. During these years most of the country, with the exception of the self-declared Somaliland Republic, was ruled by warlords who forcefully carved the state into tribal fiefdoms. During their reign of terror these warlords have committed heinous crimes against defenseless civilians. The militias that they commanded maimed, killed, raped, extorted, confiscated, and terrorized civilians in an indiscriminate fashion. Although there are no official statistics, it is estimated that hundred of thousands of civilians were killed during the past sixteen years. Millions of others either fled the country or were internally displaced.
The TFG which these MPs appear to be legitimizing is itself made up of ruthless warlords, outright opportunists, and ragtag remnants of Siyad Barre’s regime. It is the government that had just recently, with the help of the Ethiopian army and the United States firepower, killed hundreds of civilians, destroyed their homes and livelihoods, and drove half a million people out of their homes in the capital Mogadishu, all the while denying international relief organizations to provide emergency relief supplies to the displaced.
The window of opportunity that the liberal MPs are talking about has never been open for the Somali people over the past three decades, and the human calamity that they are talking of averting has already befallen on the Somali people. This grandstanding by these MPs has more to do with political opportunism than a genuine concern for the suffering of the Somali people. They are panic stricken by the rising popularity of the Conservative Party and the sure inroads that the party will make in Ontario in the next federal election.
Before these liberal MPs drag Canada into Somalia’s quagmire, let us just do a reality check and see whether what is going on in Somalia is something that warrants Canada’s direct involvement.
The atrocities of monumental proportions that were committed against the Somali people over the past three decades are well-documented by the international human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Africa Watch. Many of the people who perpetrated these atrocities are freely operating in Somalia and many of them are senior officials of the TFG. Unlike South Africa, Somalia had no Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and unlike Rwanda, Somalia had no Human Rights Tribunal set up by the United Nations. The warlords and the gangsters that terrorized the Somali people over the years continue to do so with impunity even as we speak.
With the lack of a legitimate authority that has the interests of the Somali people at heart, it will be prudent for Canada to stay away from any direct involvement in Somalia so that Canada’s good name will not be smeared.
It is worth noting that the European Union (EU), in reference to the latest fighting in Mogadishu, suggested that the Ethiopian government and the TFG forces committed war crimes and that an investigation to this effect is warranted. It will be wise for Canada to add its voice to that of the EU so that those who committed crimes against humanity could be tracked down and brought before the full brunt of the law.
The involvement of the United States government in the conflict in Somalia complicates things further more. The so-called war on terrorism that the Bush administration is waging around the globe is impacting on the volatile situation in the country.
The neighboring countries of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti are jockeying for positions for their share of the millions of dollars that the US government committed to the so-called war on terror in the Horn of Africa. Kenya and Ethiopia have particularly manipulated the Somali situation to their advantage and continue to fan the US suspicions that Somalia is a hotbed for Al-Qaeda related terrorists. We all heard how the Somali warlords themselves swindled hundred of thousands of dollars from the American taxpayers in the name of fighting terrorism in Somalia.
What is more troubling in this picture is the fact that the US government is so dogmatically fixated on its believe that Somalia poses a threat to its national interest. Contrary to its own intelligence reports and assertions by many American academics and diplomats who are familiar with the Somalia situation, the US government continues to turn a blind eye to the blight of the Somali people. It continues to legitimize an illegitimate government and, even more horridly, continues to approve and support the Ethiopian invasion and occupation of Somalia.
Two recent articles, one entitled “Somalia: The Search for Big Oil” which was published by the Journal of Canadian Business on April 19, 2007, and one entitled “Somalia: The Other (Hidden) War for Oil” by Carl Bloice who is a BC Editorial Board member and lives in San Francisco, may in fact help connect the dots.
Defenseless civilians are being maimed and killed even as we speak and the country remains under foreign occupation. These heinous acts are clearly sanctioned by the US government and any attempts to counter them will be futile. Therefore, the best that Canada could do is stay away from the murky waters of Somalia.
At this point in time, there are too many fingers in that little pot and they are all tainted with blood.
Mohamed A Suleiman
E-mail: [email protected]