Somalia: Backing the Wrong Horse

Published: March 15, 2010

“Unless the UIC is considered as a black chapter in our history, Alshabaab’s activities can still be justified as they adhere to their initial principles in 2006”.
By: A. Mohamoud
More than a year has elapsed since President Sheikh Sharif was elected for the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia to succeed Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, who resigned after feud with long time ally, Ethiopia. With growing insurgency, a combination of religious fundamentalism and tribalism in Mogadishu, Yusuf became increasingly unpopular among the International Community which preferred a leader who originates from the capital and can appease the insurgency. Eventually, less powerful group chaired by Sheikh Sharif started a UN-brokered dialogue with embattled TFG in Djibouti after defecting from their alliance in Eritrea and finally signed an agreement that led into doubling parliament size with half of seats going into Islamist side.
At this stage, anything that can satisfy the opposition seemed inevitable as International Community preferred Sharif presidency to rout out the insurgency. The approach was somehow successful; soon after his presidency, some Islamist leaders who spearheaded the insurgency during its difficult times were assassinated as well as high officials from his government, including former interior minister, Omar Hashi, Higher Education Minister, Ibrahim Hassan Addow, Education minister, Ahmed Abdulahi Waayeel, Health Minister, Qamar Aden Ali, and Sports minister, Saleban Olad Roble (who recently died of wounds he sustained from suicide bombing targeted the officials in university graduation ceremony in December except the Interior minister, who along with Abdikarim Farah, former Somali ambassador to the African Union, died in another suicide bombing in June last year in central regions of Somalia while at the centre of a planned government offensive against extremists).
In 2006, Sharif headed the Union of Islamist Courts (UIC), an Islamist alliance that defeated US-backed warlords and then invaded the Transitional Government in its temporary seat, Baidabo before they were ousted by Ethiopian forces over Charismas eve. After Ethiopian invasion, UIC leaders including Sheikh Sharif sought asylum in Eritrea which supported the insurgency as part of its border war with Ethiopia. The UIC widely recruited school children for the war, and used civilians as human-shields to increase civilian casualty from the indiscriminate shelling of Ethiopian troops to further fuel the anti-Ethiopian sentiment that was on increase among Mogadishu residents. The president formed an apposition based in Asmara, and through the media hailed the Islamist militants as holy warriors, and denied their affiliation with Al-Qaida, despite the existence of such cordial relation with Al-Qaida since the 1990’s. He dubbed the Ugandan peacekeepers that were backing his predecessor- and now protecting him- as an enemy who came to support the Ethiopian occupation and encouraged insurgents to target them.
Surprisingly, the president has never regretted his past mistakes of glorifying terrorism, but much worse, he still commemorates it as a holy war, which today encourages those fighting his government. This week, President Sharif visited London, where he was saluted by huge masses of Somalis in the UK. Their motive is clear and to the point; the growing outrage across Somalis against Alshabaab and their indiscriminate bombing has played a major role in their show off to Sharif. “You should support us as you used to do when we were the Union of Islamic courts” the president appealed to the crowd. During the insurgency, Somalis in Diaspora collected huge sum of money to fund the Islamist operations, including suicide bombs that targeted government officials, Ethiopian troops and African Union peacekeepers. From the perspective of the war, and its devastating outcome that left a deep scar on the country’s recovery by turning it to Al-Qaida-infested haven, there was nothing worthy to celebrate or remind the public. However, the worst came when the president admitted using child soldiers. “When we could not find enough soldiers to deploy, we recruited children for the war” the president said in London simply without realising he was confessing war crimes, thanks to his local language, his sensitive remarks faded away without capturing the attention of child rights campaigners in London. Unless the UIC is considered as a black chapter in our history, Alshabaab’s activities can still be justified as they adhere to their initial principles in 2006.
However, after a year of Sharif presidency the TFG is yet powerless, and depend on overstretched African Union peacekeepers for its survival. The defection of its newly trained soldiers due to lack of payment is common with small arms supplied to them ending up with its mighty enemy, Alshabaab which its intelligence operates inside government premises, firing the airport whenever the president tends to fly or land.
After the failed bombing attempt of Detroit-bound flight by Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who had been trained in Yemen by Al-Qaida, the West has been alarmed over the increasing Al-Qaida influence in Somalia and Yemen. To cease the moment, president Sharif started to accuse his Islamist rivals of having link with Al-Qaida, an accusation he had long denied. In a commentary published on Guardian (Sunday, 7 March, 2010) president argued that Somalia is not a “failed state” (a term used by prestigious media-outlets including the Foreign Policy magazine). His arguments however, are not supported by the facts on the ground. The country is descending deep into chaos while his government, as its predecessors, is marred by massive corruption despite his claim of “transparency” referring to his government’s agreement with PricewaterhouseCoopers to ensure “accountability of donor funds”.
The TFG says it is planning an offensive against insurgents to take over the capital with the support of African Union forces and American air support. However, the US government has denied any involvement in the plan according to Reuters. In central regions of Somalia, Ethiopian-backed religious group, known as Ahlusunah Waljama’a (AHSJ), an alliance that combines two different ideologies, warlordism and religion, is fighting Alshabaab. Religious personalities have only one ambition; to defeat Alshabaab, who are threat to their ideology of Sufism and struck first by destroying the graves of their sacred Sheikhs. The warlords have joined the AHLS as cover-up.
TFG and AHSJ Agreement
In Addis Ababa, a discussion has been going on between the TFG and AHSJ to unite forces with AHSJ taking up seats in the government. But the plan, backed by Ethiopia and African Union, has divided the AHSJ and causesd uproar in the government. As history has shown, alliances are fragile in Somalia and cover-ups can hardly survive in the political storm in Somalia, particularly when a group is labelled as Ethiopian agent. Whether they are religious group or former warlords, AHSJ has no wider political representation because other Sufi groups in other parts of Somalia are not allied to their group. They have only some representation in Central Regions, and a political row has emerged inside the AHSJ prior to the agreement that was to be signed this week. The division seems to be geographical than ideological.
Power distribution among Somali clans is a complex issue, the 4.5 formula (4 for the major clans and 0.5 for those dubbed as minatory) has failed to satisfy them. This is so because no clan would accept to be minority. In addition, the inclusion of Islamist opposition groups to the government without looking to their clan identity is another obstacle. Whether you are Shiekh or mullah you still have your clan identity in Somalia.
More over, the previous power brokering between the TFG and Sharif Islamist group in Djibouti has altered power distribution system as it favoured Islamist side, whose representatives were mainly from one clan. Striking a deal with another group mainly represented by the same clan will weaken the government and other clans marginalized would back the insurgency. Back to square one.
In conclusion, the International Community needs to be vigilant and much organized in dealing with such difficult fluid situation. The failure to restore governance to Somalia rests on Somali officials, not the International Community alone. The most important role should be played by Somalis but the International Community need only to back the right leaders that could save Somalia from its chaotic situation. The record of the leadership should also be taken into account before we throw our weight behind him. An international team should be set to monitor funds to Somalia and track the property of corrupt leaders to avoid the abuse of donations and funds in a time donor countries are fighting recession and massive unemployment in the their countries.
The writer is Somali journalist based in London and can be reached at:

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