In search of a credible state

(a) Somaliland

The first and most spectacular event which followed the UNOSOM 2 withdrawal was a non-event: Somalia did not in fact blow up and revert to the pattern of wild clanic fighting which had existed during the period from January 1991 to December 1992. But neither did it manage to re-create a unitary state. At first, life went on pretty much in the same way as during the late UNOSOM 2 period, i.e. with a rough sort of peace disturbed by the occasional short bout of fighting between militias and, more frequently, by bandit attacks. This was not peace but it stayed at a low level of violence. Basically this was because the SNM zone needed a state but struggled to recreate one, while in the south those who had power did not want to return to a state. What happened in the south was the emergence of artificial ‘neo-clan leaders’ who were soon to be called ‘warlords’.[408] As two qualified observers, Ken Menkhaus and John Prendergast, noted at the time:

In the past [i.e. before 1991] the centrifugal tendencies of clan politics were overcome through a combination of foreign aid-fueled patronage and military coercion. While militia leaders still have the ability to intimidate local community leadership, they are nowhere near to possessing the kind of well-funded and intrusive security apparatus of the Siyad Barre regime … Politically, there continues to be powerful vested interest in statelessness … a growing number of Somali entrepreneurs are perceiving that their business interests will now be better served by the creation and recognition of some sort of authority, though one which will co-exist rather than challenge the mafia-based economy on which these merchants profit.[409]

During the heyday of international intervention, clan militia leaders had made a lot of money by renting land and premises to the UN force. Several of them invested this money in trade rather than in weapons, and with the stabilization of the situation in the north-west (i.e. ‘Somaliland’) and with the virtual loss of border control by the Ethiopian government in Ethiopia’s Region Five (the Ogaden), a truly ‘national’ trade network began to develop throughout all the Somali-populated areas. By late 1994, this trade network had become profitable. It was fueled by two factors, livestock exports to the Gulf countries, and remittances from refugees abroad (mostly in Europe and North America), as well as from migrant workers in the petro-monarchies. A new brand of businessmen, warlords-turned-entrepreneurs, started to develop. Although they could not be considered as really ‘modern’ entrepreneurs, they were in many ways reminiscent of the early European merchants of the 13th– 14th century who combined piracy, trade and extortionate money-lending to build the basis of Europe’s capitalist economy in the Late Middle Ages. The question of the state had therefore to be approached from a very different angle. The UN was aiming at ‘rebuilding’ some kind of a Somali state— which had never existed prior to colonization—in order to be able to restore Somalia to the system of nation-states, which has been the very basis of the UN idea since 1945. The UN was the only actor in the confused Somali situation of 1992–5 pursuing this goal for its own sake. Somali warlords had nothing against something called ‘the state’ provided they could control it and use it to plunder the rural areas by force while siphoning off large amounts of ‘foreign aid’. But they had no interest in a real ‘state’, an abstract entity devoted to public administration and especially to socio-economic management. So they fought alongside or against the UN inasmuch as they saw the UN helping them or preventing them from furthering their own business goals. Previously they had fought among themselves in 1991–2, when they still thought that they could re-create and control a ‘state’ entity as it had existed in the Siyad Barre days, i.e. a wealth-pumping machine. But by the end of UNOSOM 2, most of the warlords realized that there would not be any ‘state’ to conquer and rule in the foreseeable future even if some kind of order was needed to carry out their activities.


With the departure of UNOSOM the strength of the factions, weakened since the UN money which was used as their financial base, had vanished. They were now left with the necessity of establishing a mutually acceptable way of doing business. As Menkhaus and Prendergast aptly wrote: ‘It would not be too inaccurate to compare these initiatives to a meeting of the heads of Mafia families in New York City.’[410] These two authors called this ‘the radical localization of Somali politics’. The following factors were involved:

  • the weakening of the state-conquering factions after UNOSOM 2 left;
  • the birth of a new group of pirate entrepreneurs (purely on the southern flank of Puntland);
  • an upsurge in trade in Somalia;
  • a lack of interest in the re-establishment of a ‘normal’ state; and
  • a multi-lateralization of local networks of business control, especially in the various coastal harbors. Kismayo was the main prize, since the reopening of the Mogadishu harbor looked like an impossible dream.[411]

This was the ‘southern’ situation to which Somaliland had to adapt. In Somaliland, on the other hand, the whole effort of civil society was geared at re-establishing a state, meaning of course a Somaliland state and not an overall pan-Somali state. Those with money (usually very little) among the businessmen sought to back their clan in an attempt at achieving control, or at least in supporting its influence in the new state they envisaged. This is a key point: the populations of Somaliland had had their fill of violence from an avowedly pan-Somali state and they did not want that type of authority any more. The Siyad Barre dictatorship after 1978 had been a joint venture controlled by a consortium of Darood clans, mostly the Marehan, Ogadeni and Dhulbahante. Somaliland, being a product of the SNM struggle, was mostly an affair run by the Isaaq clan family. But the Somaliland regional experience had been so brutal and so destructive that the clanic entrepreneurship system held little attraction. Fighting for control, after the brief period of civil strife in 1992–5, was a non–starter. Apprentice warlords soon found that even their own Isaaq sub-clan would be loath to support them. They might gain influence, but any attempt at overall control would produce a reaction.

Somaliland nationalism was based on federating clanic ambitions and setting limits, including for members of the dominant Isaaq clan family. This became obvious during the period of the Ahmed Mohamed ‘Sillanyo’ presidency (2010–17), when power escaped from the hands of the ailing President into the control of a palace camarilla. Then, for a brief period in 2016, the danger of illegal action and violence became a possibility. Previously, during the whole 1995–2010 period, I had periodically obtained ‘secret reports’ from the French Intelligence in Djibouti predicting some imminent uprising. These might have been real, fake or, even more probably, both, i.e. concocted by genuine French sources but unofficially, most likely at the behest of the Djibouti authorities.[412] The uprising was always supposed to take place among the ‘Samaron tribe’, i.e. the two Somali clans best known to the Djibouti-based French.[413] The tone was vaguely anti-British, with ‘Somaliland’ being a kind of metonym for perfidious Albion. The uprisings never happened, however much it may have been wished for in Djibouti. Regardless of the tensions between the Isaaq clans and the Dir in the west (Gaddabursi) or the Darood in the east (Dhulbahante, Warsangeli), who had all or in part fought against the SNM,[414] there were clashes—especially in the east—but never widespread fighting.[415]

(b) Puntland

The north-east is nearly homogeneously populated by Darood of the Majerteen clan.[416] Of course, the fissiparous tendencies of Somali clan politics were at work there as anywhere else, with the main tensions being between the Omar Mahmood, the Issa Mahmood and the Osman Mahmood, the three main Majerteen sub-clans. The other smaller sub-clans, such as Ali Gibrail, Siwakroon or Ali Suleiman, located in the extreme north of the country, did not have an independent political position. Since the end of the anti-Siyad Barre civil war, the north-east had regained a relative peace. The only fighting that took place occurred in early 1992, when the SSDF strongman, Colonel Yusuf Abdullahi,[417] expelled the radical Islamist group linked to al-Ittihad,[418] which had taken over the north-eastern ‘capital’ and main harbour of Bosaso.

After Yusuf had retaken control of the Bosaso region, he began to extend his influence over the Majerteen areas that he had controlled in his days at the head of the SSDF. The border problem with Somaliland came from the Dhulbahante, who were theoretically part of the former British colony but were in fact quite autonomous from both the Majerteen and the Isaaq. During the war the Dhulbahante general Ahmed Suleiman ‘Dafle’, longtime boss of the National Security Service (NSS), had committed massive atrocities and survived the conflict. He had recruited not only rank-and-file cannon fodder for the war against the SNM but also ‘special operative members’ of NSS who were Dhulbahante. Because of the usual clanic (and, in this case, sub-clanic) solidarity, a whole segment of the clan was both fearful of, and hostile to, the victorious SNM. Therefore the place of the Dhulbahante within the newly seceding state was far from easy. For Yusuf this provided a useful ‘social hinge’ with neighboring Somaliland if only he could restore his control over the Majerteen.

In February 1998 a large shir had started in Garowe, assembling all the populations of the north-east. It was in essence very much the equivalent of what had happened in Borama for the north-west and in a similar vein it aimed at state creation. Thus, on 27 July 1998, Puntland was born, with a cabinet named on 18 August and a parliament ‘elected’ on 16 September.[419] Behind all this was Abdullahi Yusuf managing his old SSDF network. This created a crucial difference with Somaliland, which can still be felt in today’s Puntland: the democratic factor was much weaker than at Borama. Of course, Mohamed Egal had also relied on influence networks at Borama but he had had to ‘win over’ the gathering of a guerrilla movement of which he had never even been a member, or cause people to overlook the fact that he had been very much party to the disastrous 1960 Somalia fusion, whose consequences the SNM had had to fight. In Garowe, on the contrary, Abdullahi Yusuf was a bit of a Frankenstein, trying his best to make the audience look away from the persistent scars of his catastrophic leadership of SSDF. And now that he had created that new entity, he carefully refrained from imitating Somaliland and proclaimed its independence.

Puntland was a country in everything but name, even if its new President pretended to keep it within the ‘Somalia’ fold, thereby cleverly isolating it from the rigidity of the international system and from pan-Somali nationalism. Thus the birth of Puntland was a double-barreled threat to Somaliland, which was all too aware of its intentions. Incidentally why could the Somalilanders not accept what had happened? Having been in Somaliland in those days, I tend to think that the cause was emotional. The origins of the SNM rebellion had been so deep-seated, and their eventual consequences so brutal, that in Burao in 1991 emotions were stronger than hard-headed political calculations. Declaring formal independence was, of course, a tactical mistake, which ended up exacting a huge price in the long run. Puntland could sit out the warlord anarchy of the 1990s and the later Ethiopian invasion of 2006, all the while benefiting from a discreet and unquestionable legal status, for what it was worth, till 2009. But bad as the anti-Majerteen repression of 1978–80 had been, it never reached the apocalyptic dead end of 1988 in the north. The Majerteen had been savaged but not destroyed, and there had been an end to it. The Isaaq had been in a different situation, at the receiving end of an attempted genocide, and like many genocide survivors, they were haunted by the thought that ‘they wanted us all dead’. This may appear to be a fine point unless one has witnessed it at first hand. The impact of the action can be seen in the depth of the scars it has caused. In both cases the perpetrators of the violence had been the very promoters, advocates and defenders of a policy of willful unity and brotherly reunion. In both cases the effect had been atrocities and mass murder. But it could be said that the Majerteen answer to Mogadishu’s violence was a kind of Melvillian ‘I would prefer not to’ while the Isaaq answer was ‘not over my dead body’.

Another factor in the different attitudes towards independence was the relationship with the south. In 1991 the main southern warlord was Mohamed Farah Aydid, who was an ally and supporter of SNM (he had even asked SNM for troops to help him conquer the south). As long as he was alive and as long as he was a major player in the south, a door remained half open for some sort of an Isaaq return to the notion of a unitary state. But by 1998 he was dead.[420] He had been a pretender to a ‘national’ position and now, with the progressive growth of Ethiopian influence over what had been ‘Somalia’, it was Abdullahi Yusuf who inherited his pole position in the race towards a possible restoration of a centralized government. And there had never been any strategic alliance or, even less, sympathy between and him the SNM.

Ethiopia had supported the SNM only because it was part of its anti-Siyad Barre strategy. But historically Ethiopia had been a threatening rival ever since it conquered the Ogaden in 1887, a position it reiterated in 1946–7 when it used British acquiescence to annex the Hawd. An Ethiopia-supported neighbor was the last thing a fledgling, unrecognized ‘secessionist’ state needed, especially as the Somalia cockpit was now overflowing with successors for Aydid’s leading role, including his own son Hussein, who had first come to Somalia in a US Marines uniform.[421] This was the beginning of ‘the time of the warlords’, undoubtedly the lowest point in the history of the Somali since the Second World War. Not only was the south skinned alive by the predators but the explosion of a new conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea—hitherto apparently good allies since the fall of the communist military regime—soon drew the still bleeding country into a secondary theatre of operations in that foreign conflict.

Secession[422] is a protective word: Failed conferences, foreign war and the warlord anarchy

Meanwhile, various efforts had been made to try to give more flesh to the bare bones of the Somaliland declaration of independence. On 10 April 1995 a ‘founding congress’ opened in Hargeisa.[423] Half-way between a traditional shir and a Western-type congress, it lasted till 6 May and dealt with the essentials: laying down the plans for a (very lean) administration, appointing a cabinet and negotiating local peace agreements to put an end to clan fighting. The first cabinet had been an emergency affair, slapped together at the behest of Mohamed Ibrahim Egal. But he was conscious of its unbalanced clanic composition, and it was reshuffled in September to accommodate non-Isaaq (Dhulbahante, Warsangeli, Gaddabursi) and even ministers from Isaaq subclans which were poorly represented in a Habr Awal-heavy government.[424] Accommodating the Dhulbahante was probably the most important point. That large Darood clan had been the northern bridgehead for Siyad Barre during the war against the Isaaq, and now it was a hinge group in respect of neighboring Puntland. The nomination of Mohamed Salah Nur ‘Fagadeh’ as Minister of Foreign Affairs went a long way to improving things. This former communist and trade union activist was both a Dhulbahante and a Somaliland patriot. He knew that in Laas Anod he was in a foreign country and he acted accordingly, interpreting ‘foreign affairs’ in a very broad perspective. In early 1996 the Somaliland Army retook Burao from Habr Yunis militiamen (Isaaq) supported by a group of Habr Gidir (Hawiye) from the south.[425] In a typical Somali situation, the southerners were not ‘fighting against secession’—they probably could not care less—but they had matrimonial or kinship ties with their Habr Yunis comrades.

Somaliland was slowly extracting itself from the Somali quagmire, but too slowly and without the proper legal tools. Its financial situation was such that the Berbera harbor remained the one cash cow and milking it (improvements at the time were financially unthinkable) only brought in about $30,000 per day, a drop in the ocean, helping to finance only 40 per cent of an already meagre budget.[426] Another Borama was in order but the means (and the time) were not available. So Sheikh Yusuf Ali Sheikh Madar called for a congress of clans to prepare for the constitution;[427] his SNM record and, perhaps more importantly, his belonging to a very respected and prestigious lineage having allowed him to do so.

The death of Aydid had been an ambiguous blessing for Somaliland. The most resolute and capable southern political leader, whom the UN ended up using as an ally after fighting him for years, was no more. The time of the warlords had now begun in earnest, something which deflated the centralist pressure on Somaliland (the warlords had no interest in a purely legalistic construction) but also increased the anarchy in the south. The international community organized a series of conferences which the cynical participants took as a joke and an occasion for a holiday.

The recent meetings in Cairo for a peace conference have been dashed again … the discussions were dominated by petty issues such as who should host the next conference. Since the fall of Siyad Barre six major conferences have been held in neighboring countries.[428] The whole essence is to make the international community pay for holiday trips for the Somali warlords. And the cruel irony is that after each conference the warlords agree to meet again in a country with better hotel facilities. Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt … What next? America?[429]

But soon the international community had more important matters to address in the Horn of Africa: on 6 May 1998 Eritrea attacked Ethiopia on a pretext.[430] This caused a new and major war to develop, which was not without impact on Somalia.

Since Ethiopia had long been considered by every clan or party in Somalia to be the hereditary enemy, the Eritreans prepared the ground to further their plan.[431] On 13 February both Ali Mahdi and Hussein Aydid declared to the Italian envoy, in a rare show of unanimity, that Ethiopia was Somalia’s main enemy. Almost immediately Aydid started to receive large arms shipments by boat through Marca and by plane to Balidogle, which he was supposed to use to support the ‘new’ United Oromo People Liberation Front (UOPLF), basically a rehash of Siyad Barre’s old WSLF. In the opposite camp the Ethiopians gave weapons to their old friend Yusuf Abdullahi, to the Rahanweyn Resistance Army (RRA) and to the USC–PM. There were so many weapons on the market that the price of guns dropped.[432] But since there was no central government, the RRA could attack Aydid’s forces, bringing the Ethiopian– Eritrean war directly onto Somali soil.

In many ways things were back to 1977. The old rebel leader Wako Gutu arrived in Mogadishu[433] and was soon to head an Oromo column and attack Ethiopia from Gedo, with Eritrean support. The Asmara regime also sent agents to Hargeisa where they tried to convince Egal to join the conflict. But given the history of Ethiopian support for SNM during the anti-Siyad Barre campaigns, their delegation’s reception was lukewarm. Somaliland was wise to keep away from that hornet’s nest. Indeed, things soon got worse when SNF factions started to fight each other in an attempt to pillage some of the Eritrean shipments. Kenya closed its border and the Ethiopian Army entered.[434] This was the high point of what the Somali on the coast called mussoqmassuq (mishmash, or clanic anarchy). Somaliland resolutely headed the other way when its parliament approved (on 12 May 1999) a resolution allowing for multi-party democracy ‘provided [parties] are not based on religion or clan politics’. When the UN information service interviewed President Egal a few days later, he answered tongue-in-cheek: ‘We have had a different colonial experience than those around us and it has stood us in good stead until now.’[435]

In the south the Ethiopians had taken Lugh with the help of a friendly SNF faction[436] and Garbahaarey from an unfriendly one.[437] In the US, Senator Donald Payne (Democrat, New Jersey) was lobbying for the organization of yet another ‘peace conference’, but this time in Hargeisa, in the hope of preventing Somaliland from falling into the Ethiopian–Eritrean war pit. Strangely enough, this effort indirectly helped the Islamists to gain ground. After the withdrawal of the Restore Hope forces, various strands of Islamistleaning groups began to reorganize and coordinate themselves geographically.[438] In the confusion, they looked for some kind of arrangement between their conflicting political interests and their partially converging business ones. Only God could be the umpire of business conflicts, and so the Islamists—from the mildest to the most radical—started to set up legal courts along Shari’ah lines. Their armed branch was separate from their legal organization. Ali Mahdi had been the first to introduce Islamic law (Shari’ah courts) in the north Mogadishu area and thereby managed to instill a minimum of law and order in his zone.

The Ifka Halane court organized a face-to-face debate between Hussein Aydid and Ali Mahdi; it then cleared all the roadblocks obstructing access to Mogadishu from the north, at a time when Aydid was importing new Oromo guerrilla fighters as back-up for his troops and when Ethiopian agents were killing isolated Oromo in the streets of Mogadishu.[439] Aydid refused to even contemplate a peace conference in Hargeisa, justifying his position by a commitment to Somalia’s unity and arguing that President Egal’s trip to Washington had not unblocked things.[440]

Somalia finally gets a government and the situation worsens

In December 1999 an IGAD summit in Djibouti devoted to ‘peace in Somalia’ came out with a resolution calling for an initiative to establish a government. The result was to trigger a large anti-initiative rally from the Islamic Court Union in Mogadishu. Somaliland, which this time felt a threat closer at hand than usual (Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh was a Somali ‘centralist’), immediately closed its border with Djibouti. In Bay province, the Rahanweyn leader ‘Shattigudud’ proclaimed the ‘administrative autonomy’ of his region while the European Union disparaged the whole idea, saying: ‘The famous Djibouti initiative appears to be an empty playing board onto which the various regional actors are putting their pieces.’[441]

The regional powers moved quickly: the Oromo (Ethiopian) OLF rebels were kicked out of Mogadishu, and Ethiopian troops crossed the border to hit al-Ittihad Islamist rebels in Goldogob (on 4 January 2000). Egal, who had attended the Djibouti meeting, declared upon his return to Hargeisa: ‘We will go to war if attempts are made by outside parties to unite Somaliland with the Somali factions.’[442] When Gaddafi, who trusted Egal’s secular political approach, sent him a memo suggesting that he should offer to become a reunited Somalia’s first President, Egal refused.[443] The Arta conference opened in Djibouti on 2 May 2000 with strong international community support.[444]

Twelve warlords’ conferences failed because their signatories could not implement the measures they had signed. President Omar Guelleh made direct contact with the major clan groups … he was very harsh with the warlords and this produced an immediate response with the Somali people; there was tremendous enthusiasm inside Somalia; so this is not a Western process of card-carrying party members or anything like that. It is a very Somali process … the elders have come forward in terms of delegations … this is where the question of fraction leaders will come up … the actual formation of the delegations will be a crucial step in the next few weeks … the idea is to have elections within two years … it is too early to know what the warlords will do. If the clans bring them into the delegations, they will have a role to play. But this will be a political process, not one based on the force of arms.[445]

This is an interesting document both for what it says and what it doesn’t say. It admits that all the conferences held for the previous five years were a waste of time, but this was not because the warlords could not keep their word. The basic reason was that the warlords, the very people asked to rebuild a state, were those who had destroyed it and could expect no benefits from its return. It also seemed to give a wide responsibility to ‘elders’ without actually understanding how the shir system worked. Why would these ‘elders’ (chosen by whom?) bring in ‘warlords’ unless it was in their clan interest? In any case, regardless of the warlords’ presence, the UN position was that ‘this will be a political process, not one based on the force of arms’. Blind faith seemed stronger than past experience. This was a Canada Dry conference: it looked like a shir, it cost more than a shir (after all, the UN was paying) but it was not a shir for the basic reason that all the arrangements were top down rather than bottom up. It was not a way of gathering contradictory evidence and then trying to reach a consensus but rather a way—once more—to jerrybuild a structure and ask public opinion to climb aboard. It was an attempt at aping a traditional process but it was synthetic rather than organic.

So it immediately started to wobble as soon as the Interim Charter (adopted on 17 July) decided to assign the seats of the Transitional National Assembly (TNA): 44 seats for each of the four main clan families—Dir, Hawiye, Darood, Digil-Mirifle—plus 24 for the ‘minorities’ and 25 for ‘women’ (as if the ‘women’ had no clan). The TNA was neither a one-man one-vote parliament nor a clanic Senate like the Somaliland Guurti, but a questionable combination supposed to work in lieu of a popular election. The Transitional National Government (TNG) was inaugurated on 14 August (and rejected by the warlords on the 15th).[446] Eleven days later the unperturbed TNG elected Abdiqassim Salad Hassan, who had been the last Interior Minister of Siyad Barre and had only left at the fall of the dictator and lived as a refugee in Cairo.[447] In an evaluation of the results of the Arta conference,[448] Somalia specialist Ken Menkhaus coolly listed all the warlords, militias and clan organizations that had joined in the rejection of the TNA. It certainly did not give them an alternative majority but it added up to a mass opposition. Menkhaus also offered several alternative scenarios to the TNA–Salad Hassan ‘government’; the only credible one was a government that could stem from a federation of Islamist organizations. Though heads were shaken in doubt, in those pre-9/11 days it did not yet seem like such a threatening idea.

How did Somaliland then react to the Arta process? Basically, it did not. The northern drummer was playing to a different beat, and it had meanwhile passed a law authorizing political pluralism.[449] Egal declared: ‘This conference has nothing to do with us because it calls for reconciliation and we don’t have to reconcile with anyone.’[450] The new TNG President picked a combat cabinet, replete with members of Puntland and Somaliland clans, hoping to undermine the existing separate states. This included the new Prime Minister, Ali Khalif Galaydh, a Dhulbahante, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ismail Mohamed Hurre ‘Buuba’, a Habr Yunis Isaaq. But there was a discrepancy between this resolute attitude and reality. The President went to an Arab League meeting in Cairo[451] and asked for troops, particularly from Egypt and Libya, who had supported Siyad Barre since 1977 and the war with Ethiopia. The League did not refuse but did nothing. Egal wrote to the UN Special Envoy: ‘I am following through the Internet your efforts to secure for Abdulqassim and his group international support and credibility … But if you were to be successful you would only be sowing the seeds of civil war.’[452] In fact, neither Somaliland nor Puntland did anything to oppose the flimsy ‘government’ which had issued from the Arta conference. The southern Somalia public had welcomed the ‘President’ but there were two radical forms of opposition: one was ‘federalist’—the Rahanweyn had proclaimed their autonomy and so had Hiiran province—but the other was violent and came from the warlords: several TNA MPs were shot dead during November and there was an attempt on the President’s life (on 15 December). Musa Sudi Yalahow attacked the government’s ‘army’ head-on since the warlord had more troops than the government. Egal tried to take advantage of the TNG’s poor performance but the UN declared: ‘The commitment to the unity and territorial integrity of Somalia was reaffirmed by the Security Council in its Presidential Statement dated 11 January [2001].’

At around the same time civil society associations began opening mass graves dating back to 1988 but the United Nations flatly refused to provide funds for investigating those … Why this reluctance? I have come to the conclusion that when this genocide was being carried out here in Hargeisa and all over Somaliland, the international community watched with apathy, nobody moved a finger to even object or condemn, let alone stop it. So I think it is a sort of guilty conscience. If these things were investigated, the guilt of those who stood by would be revealed.

At the same time as Egal was saying those words—to another UN branch[453]—he was organizing a referendum on Somaliland’s independence, which was held on 31 May 2001 and resulted in a 97.09 per cent ‘yes’ vote. (The TNG condemned the referendum as ‘illegal’.) When assessing the way it was carried out, the UN had to recognize that ‘it was conducted without violence and the international observers were impressed by the level of effort the government and the people put forth in seeing that the voting was conducted in a fair and open manner’.[454] Not a shot was fired in Somaliland during or after the independence referendum. During that same month of May, over 300 people were killed in the south as the TNG struggled to assert its existence. This did not cause any change in the international community’s stance.

From an Islamist opportunity to the CIA coup

On 6 June the TNG announced that it had ‘nationalized’ the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). This was wishful thinking. Apart from the international community, the TNG had limited autonomous support while the UIC had much more. Fighting immediately started between TNG and UIC supporters.[455] But the 9/11 al-Qaida New York attack had an immediate impact on the Somalia situation. On 7 November the US government decided to close down and seize the assets of the financial transfer service al-Barakat Hawala,[456] a measure which was bound to have a catastrophic impact on the precarious lives of the Somali diaspora worldwide since remittances represented a major means of survival for Somali people. Randolph Kent, the UN coordinator who was keenly aware of the problem, declared: ‘Somalia is on the verge of an economic collapse unparalleled in modern history’. Following the al-Barakat closure, retail prices in Mogadishu went up 50 per cent. It was at the same time that the UNHCR decided to repatriate most of the Somaliland refugees still in Ethiopia. Around 70,000 still remained, and this was the worst time to send them back.[457] As I was living in Ethiopia at the time, I—as well as other expert colleagues—was repeatedly asked by the US authorities whether Somalia should be bombed in parallel with the attack on Afghanistan. We all argued against such a measure but the arguments—basically those presented in the first ten chapters of this book—were hard to summarize in immediately usable form. The key points were as follows:

  • Al-Ittihad was a weak parent of al-Qaida and could not take power anywhere.
  • In spite of Abdiqassim Salad Hassan’s Islamist-friendly stance, the TNG was far from being an ‘Islamist front’.
  • In any case, what would you bomb? What were the strategic targets available?

The only person of sufficient political standing in Washington who could answer this question reasonably was Ted Dagne, director of the Africa Division of the Congressional Research Service (CRS),[458] who wrote: ‘US officials are yet to present any proof of links between al-Ittihad, the TNG and al-Qaida.’[459] With this US panic as background, the warlords had a field day. Aden Abdullahi ‘Gabiyow’ bellowed from Addis Ababa, where he was trying to get Ethiopian support: ‘Somalia has become a haven for terrorists … There is no peace, no law and order, no nothing … our people are dying.’[460] Mohamed Said Hersi ‘Morgan’ took advantage of the atmosphere to attack Bardheere, while Musa Sudi Yalahow attacked Mahmood Mohamed ‘Finnish’, each assuming the role of an ‘anti-terrorist’ hero.

A CIA delegation visited Egal in Somaliland, looking for storage sheds to rent. Egal made encouraging noises but said Somaliland’s help could only be obtained by diplomatic recognition. The CIA visitors were noncommittal. On 8 March the US Department of Defense held a public information meeting on ‘The Terrorist Threat in the Horn of Africa’, where ‘a senior official’ started his presentation by saying: ‘for those not familiar, the Somalia we are talking about is in the Horn of Africa’. When asked about an al-Qaida presence in the Horn, he answered: ‘I am not just really comfortable going into that level of detail … Bin Laden has saluted the Somali … Clearly it would be a place where it would be appropriate for al-Qaida members to go.’ When asked why some states recognized the TNG while others didn’t, the answer was: ‘I can’t tell you really. Well, it is a state anyway.’ A journalist commented: ‘We could have gotten more info reading a magazine.’ The US Treasury, the Department of State and the CIA tripped over each other, saying that there were no links between al-Barakat and al-Qaida that the CIA could find (the Treasury still refused to allow al-Barakat to operate again), while Dahabshiil (another Hawala, bigger than al-Barakat) was allowed to operate freely. In early May the TNG was allowed to receive a shipment of arms from Asmara comprising anti-tank weapons, which, in that context, could only be used against the Ethiopians (nobody else in the battle had tanks).[461] The official confusion was splendid.

On 3 May 2002 President Mohamed Ibrahim Egal died of natural causes and was constitutionally succeeded by Vice-President Dahir Rayale Kahin. On 8 October the new Somaliland President was ambushed in Laas Anod on orders from the Deputy Interior Minister of Puntland, Ahmed Aden. He was wounded and four of his retinue were killed. Ahmed Aden declared: ‘We are fighting for the unity of Somalia.’

The unity of Somalia was, meanwhile, entrusted to the former Kenyan diplomat Bethwel Kiplagat, who announced that he wanted to ‘work this out through consensus, persuasion and humor’. He would need that last quality in droves. The TNG was becoming more and more irrelevant and yet another a new conference was convened in the Nairobi suburb of Mbagathi to try once more to come up with a half-legitimate government. Its make-up was still based on the old Arta formula of the four clan families plus a smattering of women and minorities, 275 MPs in all, and once again it lacked legitimacy given the selection process.

Somaliland had just had a new presidential election to confirm Dahir Rayale Kahin, who had been an interim President since the death of Egal. This was a difficult election since Rayale Kahin was a Gaddabursi—a clan allied with Siyad Barre during the war—and he had even been an army Secret Service operative. That did not make him a very popular candidate and he won by only 80 votes out of an electorate of about 500,000. His opponent was the veteran SNM Isaaq politician Ahmed Mohamed ‘Sillanyo’, who was furious and asked for a recount. In the recount, Rayale Kahin’s victory was confirmed by a very slim margin (185 votes). This forced the Isaaq elders to intervene to make that thin margin good enough for the victory of a double outsider to be accepted. But the public feeling was that, since impeccable democratic credentials were so important for the overall fate of the country, the elders’ opinion should prevail. The paper-thin recount was accepted but the Islamists loosed their biggest terrorist attack on what they now perceived as a weak regime. The murder targets were all foreign and all those arrested were linked to alQaida. They all came from the south.

This pattern was paradoxical because, as the Islamists resorted to terrorism in Somaliland, they developed an increasingly popular—and mostly peaceful—network of action in the south. The prime raison d’être of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) was to enforce business contracts in a country which had no more courts, no practicing lawyers and no police, and it succeeded fairly well. So, little by little, the UIC encroached on other tasks: protecting money changers, guarding health facilities, enforcing neighborhood security and even removing garbage; in other words, step by step and in an informal way, the tasks of a state. And this took place at a time when the ghost of a state, supported by the international community, looked more and more irrelevant: the rump assembly had voted to bar members without secondary education from becoming MPs.[462] Moreover, 160 ‘delegates’ trying to devise the new authority were kicked out of the Nairobi Hilton because nobody agreed to pay their bills.[463] Finally, in October 2004, former warlord Abdullahi Yusuf was ‘elected’ by the ‘delegates’ as ‘President’. He immediately asked for the dispatch of 20,000 Blue Helmets and declared: ‘We are not a government in exile.’

At the same time, while the ‘new TNG’ was painfully trying to exist,[464] Somaliland organized parliamentary elections, still hoping to play the card of democratic institutionalization. An al-Qaida team came from the south to disrupt the process but they fell into an ambush, and were arrested after a gunfight in which four of them were wounded.[465] The attack had no local impact and changed nothing internationally. In Mogadishu, the reality of power was increasingly passing into the hands of the UIC, which was forcefully trying to present itself as completely distinct from al-Qaida or al-Ittihad.[466] The security situation in the capital had become catastrophic and Yusuf knew he could not go to Mogadishu to establish his government; so he took Baidoa as a shelter capital instead.[467]

This deliquescence of the Somalia ‘government’ and rise of the UIC caused a growing unease in Washington, where some elements of the Bush administration were still frustrated at not having attacked Somalia after 9/11. They found ready partners among the Somali warlords who wanted to resist any stabilization of the situation.[468] A group of self-proclaimed ‘armed ministers’ led by Mohamed Qanyare Afrah wrote to the UN to ask it not to lift the embargo on military equipment because they were afraid that Abdullahi Yusuf and the TFG would then be the only force allowed to obtain ‘legal’ weapons. On 18 February 2006, once the ‘armed ministers’ had secured CIA support, they created the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism (ARPCT). This ‘organization’ was basically a band of thugs whose main role was to try to eliminate the UIC. But they enjoyed barely concealed US support. On 20 March they attacked in an action that looked exactly like an illustration of the title of a recent International Crisis Group report.[469] Many in Mogadishu who knew only too well who these ‘restorers of peace’ were rushed to help the UIC. Most of these volunteers had no special ideological sympathy for the Islamists but they nevertheless picked up their guns to help them. The fighting was heavy (over 200 killed and 344 wounded) and the sole beneficiaries were the UIC forces.[470] US diplomat Michael Zorick, who had dared to criticize the piteous ARPCT attempt, was transferred to Chad,[471] and the State Department refused to answer Somalia Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi when he tried to contact Washington.[472]

By mid-June the UIC was in full control of Mogadishu, to the satisfaction of the public. But it had created the Supreme Islamic Coordination Council (SICC), which was quickly turning into an embryonic government rivalling the TFG. Up to then the UIC courts had mostly been composed of Hawiye of the Habr Gidir sub-clan and Ayr sub-sub-clan and limited to Mogadishu proper. But now the new courts were becoming local, and their composition and ideology changed. The rallying of volunteers to their side caused them to misjudge public opinion and believe they now enjoyed majority support. They spread all over Benadir and migrated north, occupying Harardheere and Obyo. Somaliland was not worried and said so.[473] But the Ethiopians were. Foreign Affairs Minister Seyum Mesfin flew to Baidoa and persuaded Yusuf to reduce his cabinet to 31 ministers while Ethiopian troops entered Somalia through Balambale. There had been 11 courts by early 2006 and by September there were 40. Among those, only three could be considered ‘radical’, while the others were, in the public’s eye, ‘the best government we ever had since the fall of Siyad Barre’.[474]

But the youth branch—Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, led by the young fighter Aden Hashi ‘Ayro’—had acquired a growing autonomy from the UIC, and the Supreme Islamic Coordination Council began to turn into a projection of al-Shabaab. In August it managed to reopen both the airport and the harbor, which had been closed for fifteen years, and sent troops as far as Kismayo, which it took without a fight. For a while it seemed that the Islamists had finally managed to do what everybody else had failed to achieve: create a reasonably popular national government where this was feasible. But this was without taking the Ethiopian government into account. For Ethiopia the fundamental problem was not the UIC but rather the support it had begun to receive from Asmara. Eritrean hostility to the EPRDF regime was frontal, and help had begun to arrive for the UIC—and especially for its Shabaab offshoot—ever since Abdullahi Yusuf was ‘elected’ President of the TFG. The Ethiopians deployed their army around Baidoa (2 October) and the radicals of al-Shabaab proclaimed jihad (9 October 2006), in spite of the opposition of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. The Shabaab attacked on 20 December and Meles Zenawi was pleased to be in a position to ‘fight back’ rather than invade.[475] A week later the Ethiopian Army, piggybacked by some TFG troops, entered Mogadishu. Ten days before that, the UN had passed Resolution 1724 creating the IGAD Peace Mission in Somalia (IGASOM), providing a universal fig leaf for what had become, in fact, a Western war against Islam.[476]

Was the Ethiopian invasion part of a fantasized clash of civilizations?

With Iraq and Afghanistan also in the picture, the resemblance to a clash of civilizations was strong but misleading. This was because the motivation for the Ethiopian intervention in Somalia was at least as much the support Eritrea gave to the UIC as the UIC itself. In the meantime, the TFG had blown whatever credibility it ever had by allying itself with the hated foreign invaders.[477] Groups of Eritrean soldiers and international mujahideen fleeing the Ethiopian onslaught were caught together at the Kenya border as they fled southwards and secretly detained.[478] Meanwhile, the official US war effort focused on Somalia as its latest field of operations and put its propaganda machine to work:

the grassroots effort is needed in Somalia. The population … needs to feel a genuine sense of empowerment, a sense of ownership and responsibility … it can be achieved for only $27 million per month but no funding has gone directly to the TFG currently trying to stave off the well-funded al-Qaida offensive … Meanwhile, in Somalia men are grabbing their weapons to fight a vicious alQaida on the front lines of the War on Terror without uniforms, without boots and without so much as a canteen. We should be ashamed of ourselves.[479] In this new alignment of forces, where the weak TFG was supposed to represent the bulwark of civilization against the Islamist hordes, the United States is using surrogate nations and financial aid to prevent Somalia from slipping further into chaos … The U.S. has vowed to support an African Union peacekeeping force and has trained elements of the Ethiopian Army which toppled Somalia’s anti-American Islamic government.[480]

Owing to global mismanagement of the situation, Somalia had become ‘a failed state that threatens the region’,[481] and about 100,000 refugees had fled the capital. The African Union decided to send another 8,000 troops,[482] and Somaliland remained determined to keep away from the organized mayhem:

Unable or unwilling to deal with the countless problems facing them, Somalia’s politicians have resorted to creating a fictitious world … a good example is the oft-delayed ‘Somali Reconciliation Conference’ that is supposed to take place in Mogadishu in June. Instead of bringing together the real antagonists in Somalia … President Abdullahi Yusuf, P.M. Ali Gedi and Ali Mahdi, the conference organizer, have opted to bring together carefully selected tribal elders who will rubber-stamp their agenda. Things have gotten so farcical that Ali Mahdi is talking about inviting elders from Somaliland to participate in his Mogadishu jamboree … Can anyone in his right mind believe that these people are going to do anything for Somaliland when they have failed so miserably in fixing their own problems? …. Their towns and villages are being occupied and bombarded by foreign troops and you would think that their first priority would be how to get their own house in order. But no, they would rather waste their time and poke their noses into Somaliland’s affairs.[483]

Doubts began to enter US minds as well: ‘Well, it begins to seem like the invasion was all tactics and no strategy; we overthrew Somalia’s first working government in fifteen years and replaced it with, hmmm … nothing.’[484] Jendayi Frazer, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, had considered in late 2006 that ‘the demise of the Somalia TFG would have a major negative impact on the Horn of Africa’; but by mid-2007 she was much less sure, saying, ‘it is hard to tell whether the situation is now better or worse than it was when Ethiopian troops, with the full backing of Washington, stormed Mogadishu’.[485] Other US diplomats who knew Somalia better had less hesitation: ‘Our attitude has been to consider the confrontation as one between us, the West, and radical Islam. This is not the real Somalia equation. It was a confrontation between a majority Darood government and a Hawiye Habr Gidir opposition that rallied behind the Islamic Courts. But we read it according to our own outlook and [US Ambassador] Ranneberger[486] is not really up on that kind of thing.’[487]

Eritrean President Issayas Afeworqi remained in the shadows since he could not fit neatly into the clash of civilizations. The security situation kept worsening—and masses of refugees kept fleeing the fighting, particularly from Mogadishu and Benadir, from where 173,000 refugees had fled by September, doubling the Dadaab camp population in Kenya. Somaliland feared that the US and Ethiopian forces could push into Puntland and bring the war to eastern Somaliland.[488] It reacted by widening its western perimeter and (re-)occupied Laas Anod in September. In Hargeisa many were conscious that Dahir Rayale Kahin was hoping to benefit from the mess in the south and postpone the next elections. New, harsher press laws were passed and mildly disrespectful journalists from the Qaran website were illegally arrested.[489] Rayale Kahin went to Addis Ababa and tried to convince Meles Zenawi that he and his UDUB party were the only true friends of Ethiopia, even asking if he would be ready to send troops to Somaliland in case of a Kulmiye victory.[490] Meles, who did not fear anything from Somaliland, prudently refused and said that Ethiopia’s alliance with Somaliland was with a state and not a party.[491] This did not stop Issayas from trying to form the anti-TFG exiles in Eritrea into an anti-Ethiopia alliance. This ‘alliance’ was born in mid-September in Asmara under the name of the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARLS). Since there were now two camps, the new ARLS forces—in fact, the old UIC—attacked Ugandan AMISOM troops.[492] ARLS was erratically anti-Ethiopian—mostly in the same way the US was blindly pro-Ethiopian. Though the clash of civilizations was lost in the fog, the clash of regional geopolitics was very much there.

 Since the nucleus of the ARLS was just a refurbished UIC, that meant that the ARLS was also, just like the UIC before, divided between radicals and moderates. The Eritreans did not manage to control ‘their’ Somali, resulting in the ARLS splitting in two. The moderates, led by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, left Asmara and went to Djibouti. The Islamists and their radical leader Mukhtar Robow remained in Asmara and refused to accept the evacuation agreement signed in Addis Ababa in October 2008, seamlessly flowing into a permanent insurgency against the TFG known as Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (Movement of the Fighting Youth), which is still violently active at the time of writing.[493]

In Kenya, the Dadaab refugee camp had reached a population of 230,000, half of them new arrivals during the previous eight months. On 29 December 2008 President Abdullahi Yusuf resigned from the TFG and in January 2009 former UIC chairman Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was chosen to replace him, belatedly reconciling civilization and geopolitics. On 19 March, Usama bin Laden, who seemed to have missed the proper distinctions, called for the overthrow of the new ‘Islamist’ President, considering the former UIC chairman to be a traitor. Even the Islamist camp became in turn prey to the typical Somali mussoqmassuq (clanic mishmash). After Aden Hashi ‘Ayro’ was killed by a US drone, the Harakat al-Shabaab not only survived his death but multiplied its terrorist attacks. The new Shabaab leader, Ahmed Abdi ‘Godane’, who succeeded Ayro, was an Isaaq of the Arap sub-clan who had failed to become a prophet in his native Somaliland. The second most important man in the Islamist insurgency was Mukhtar Robow ‘Abu Mansur’, a member of the very large and poorly regarded Rahanweyn clan family. Both men engaged in a fight for the control of the insurgency, Godane relying on the foreign jihadi while his rival sought the support of the native Somali fighters. At the time there were an estimated 2,500 Somali fighters in the ranks of the Shabaab plus another estimated 700 foreign jihadi.[494]

Facing them were the soldiers of the Somali Army—between 3,000 and 15,000, depending on how you counted them (their reliability was questionable)—and the much more solid 18,000 AMISOM forces (Ugandans, Burundians, Kenyans and Djiboutians), who made up the bulk of the TFG battle corps. There were also the Ethiopians, who by mid-2008 had 24,000 troops and who were not officially part of AMISOM although they received their budget through the African Union, which used funds from Brussels. But unlike their AMISON comrades, these Ethiopian forces answered only to the orders of their own staff officers. They were a foreign expeditionary corps rather than part of an international force.

The Godane–Robow conflict did more damage to the Shabaab than the clash of civilizations. By late 2007 the Ethiopians began to evacuate while the Transitional Federal Government tried to slowly ease itself into transitioning (it is still trying at the time of writing) and the ‘official’ Somali reality redefined itself under the new ‘Federalist’ label. This neither solved the Somalia contradictions nor brought any form of international support for peaceful Somaliland.

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