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Former US Ambassador Oakley’s remarks, when he visited the Arta conference, about the brooding presence of Mohamed Siyad Barre’s ghost there, could not have been more apposite!

By I.M. Lewis

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London School of Economics

April 23, 2002

May I first say what a pleasure it is to be in Rome with my Italian colleagues and friends: my only regret is that Ambassador Gasbari is unable to be with us today. He is one of the last and most distinguished of those imaginative and dedicated public servants who directed the Italian Trusteeship Administration of Somali (A FIS. 1950- 1960). I had the good fortune to study at first hand that remarkable political experiment in the course of my anthropological field research in 1955-1957 when my travels around Somalia coincided with the first moves in the transfer of power between Italian and Somali personnel. This was a uniquely formative experience for me.

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In this short contribution to our reflections here, I seek to highlight the realities of current Somali politics and to expose the myths which have been created, and promoted, by different interest-groups to obscure and miss-represent what is really happening in the Somali vortex today. The motives of the various myth-making agencies are an interesting issue but in the present context of secondary interest.

  1. The Myth of the ‘Transitional National Government

Somalia’s so-called transitional national government in Mogadishu is certainly ‘transitional’ (in the sense of transient). Demographically, the wider ‘national assembly’ resembles an airport lounge, with a floating and continually changing population: a recent count estimated that only about a quarter of the original members, appointed in Djibouti, were still present in Mogadishu. These ad hoc changes have not made it any more representative. This UN-sponsored body remains as it was at its conception. It is neither national, nor a ‘government’ in the normal understanding of the term, as a political enterprise which governs through exercising effective, and legitimate sovereignty. It is rather a loose assemblage of mainly ex-Siyad era politicians and hangers-on, whose hired militia forces fitfully exert influence in those parts of southern Somalia which were invaded by hordes of Habar Ghidir tribesmen pouring south in the process of, and following, the overthrow of the wily dictator Mohamed Siyad Barre in Mogadishu a decade ago (Siyad belongs to the Marrehan clan of the Darod clan- family, while the Habar Ghidir to which the ‘interim President’ Abdiqasim belongs are Hawiye1).

The Habar Ghidir colonizers who have implanted themselves in parts of this region do not constitute a single force. They are split into mutually hostile segments of the clan associated with the various warlords who hold sway in Mogadishu (Hussein Aideed, Ali Atto [‘Thin Ali’], and other less internationally familiar figures). Split internally, the Habar Ghidir also confront warlords of other Hawiye clans (such as Muse Sudi Yalahow) who control different sectors of the ruins that are Mogadishu. Within the town, militia employed by the TNG erratically try to control three or four streets in the south of the capital. Further afield, the TNG exerts a fitful influence at Merka, and Kismayu and in parts of the Juba valley through their powerful but far from dependable current allies amongst the Marehan (Siyad’s clansmen). Their influence in this southern corner of Somalia is routinely challenged by the notorious Majerteyn warlord ‘Morgan'(Mohamed Said Hersi Morgan and his militia), and currently menaced by the’ Rahanweyn Resistance Army’ led by the colorful Hassan Mohamed Nur (‘Shatigudud’, lit. ‘Red Shirt’-evoking the romantic image of Garibaldi). Thus the vast inter-riverine area is a no-go area for the TNG. The most powerful of these figures (and various others) have banded together against the TNG as the ‘Somali Reconciliation and Restoration Council’. This is a loose political aggregate-based, in typical Somali fashion, on alliance against a common foe.

To the north-east, the leadership of the embryonic state of Puntland, based primarily on the Majerteyn clan (another branch of the Darod) and the militia with which it fought Siyad, is currently the subject of vicious fighting between those who support the redoubtable liberation leader, Abdullahi Yusuf, and his opponents.

Although all the Puntland contestants appear to be generally united in the assertion of their desire for local autonomy, so far this has not led them to seek to detach themselves completely from Somalia. There are good reasons for this. There are many Majerteyn clansmen in the port of Kismayu which they regard as their property. Kismayu (over which Morgan and his forces hover menacingly) is thus a kind of Achilles Heel for the Puntlanders.

While the people of this north-eastern region were until a few months ago making impressive progress in restoring civil society, recently they have descended into explosive acrimony. It is difficult not to see this as partly a reflection of the determination of Abdullahi Yusuf to hold onto power, in defiance of constitutional procedures he had himself helped to establish. It also appears in some degree to reflect the machinations of the TNG (whose present prime minister, Hassan Abshir Farah, is of course also Majerteyn) both through clan channels and through fundamentalist religious connexions. Abdullai, who successfully defeated an earlier fundamentalist incursion in Puntland, has played an important role in the formation of the anti-TNG Restoration Council (SRRC), and like that alliance receives support from Ethiopia.

To the north-west, we have of course the Somaliland Republic which, paradoxically, while lacking official international recognition, is actually the only functional state in Somalia today. It has also the nearest thing to genuinely representative government, and although there is still ample room for further improvement, is vigorously engaged in the reconstruction of the normal organs of civil society-social services, police, and military. In contrast to the unsuccessful attempts made in southern Somalia to rebuild the state from the top, in Somaliland state-formation is being achieved by building from the bottom, through traditional processes of local negotiation, starting at the district level(see A. Y. Farah, below, pp.) The myth, assiduously promoted by the TNG, the UN and some EC countries that Somaliland does not exist denies existing political realities in the Horn of Africa–as the Ethiopians have long recognized.

  1. Representative Legitimacy

A major theme in the mythology of the ‘Transitional National Government’ (in fact its creation myth), promoted by its adherents and apologists, is that the six-months-long Arta conference in Djibouti which hatched the TNG brought together actual representatives of all the component clans sub-clans of Somalia. Arta was supposed to be a meeting of the accredited traditional leaders (the ‘Elders’, odayaal), and to exclude warlords with evil reputations. In reality, it included a number of such unsavory figures as well as former generals in Siyad’s forces, some of whom are regarded by Somalis as war criminals. There were naturally some respectable and genuinely representative personages, but the majority lacked this status. Most of the most active figures, really only represented themselves, as with the aid of financial inducements provided by Arab and fundamentalist sources, they fought for leading positions. The choice of Abdulqasim (supported by business cronies including the Djibouti President and fundamentalist merchants) may have been inspired by the idea that, as an ex- Siyad minister who was also Habar Ghidir, he might be able to handle the turbulent and now Habar Ghidir–dominated politics of Mogadishu. Following the traditional rubric of clan distribution2, in setting up the TNG, he in turn appointed as his ministers a number of his business associates and colleagues from the ancient regime.

Former US Ambassador Oakley’s remarks, when he visited the Arta conference, about the brooding presence of Siyad’s ghost there, could not have been more apposite! This comment also applies to most of the major warlords and contemporary political leaders with the exception of Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal in Hargeisa.

Although the TNG does contain individuals from most of the Somali clans, the crucial fact is that, generally, these are not regarded by their clansmen as their own representatives. Hence, the ‘Arta faction’ as it is now designated, lacks representative legitimacy. This obviously hampers any efforts it might make to extend its appeal. Even in Mogadishu, where Abdulqasim is amongst his own clansmen, his support now appears less widely based than it was at the establishment of his ‘government’ over a year ago.

In fact, far from widening its power base, the very establishment of such an unrepresentative body has encouraged the Digil Mirifleh (Rahanweyn) to pursue their autonomist aims and generated the wider anti-Arta alliance of the SRRC. This continuing lack of popular legitimacy has obviously weakened recent attempts in Nairobi and elsewhere to attract warlords from the SRRC to change side.

III. The TNG at bay  

Lacking a persuasively representative core of political heavyweights with popular reputations, the efforts of the TNG to expand its ranks have also been handicapped by the adoption, from its inception, of an inflexible centralist state model directly replicating that of Siyad’s ill-fated regime. (It would obviously have been more intelligent if the UN and other parties involved in Arta had emphasized the political expediency of a loose federal structure.) At the same time, it is clear that the TNG has expended more effort on seeking to expand external rather than internal recognition.

This policy has been coupled with pursuing arms procurement, contrary to the official UN arms embargo and TNG propaganda proclaiming its ‘peaceful mission’ .The UN has turned a blind eye to these violations. With these weapons, such militia units as the TNG has been able to recruit, have been sent to maintain the Habar Ghidir hegemony of farms, seized from Rahanweyn owners along the lower Shebelle, and to assist clan allies in Merca and Kismayu. It is not surprising that the TNG is now known generally simply as the’ Arta faction’ and has lost further legitimacy in the south as well as in the north. It is now literally fighting for its survival. Meanwhile, misinterpreting the TNG’s real lack of power, external players in the Somali drama (Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan), have tried to encourage significant negotiations between it and the southern warlords. (There seems to be an increasing recognition that Somaliland, and to some extent Puntland, are separate issues: and indeed their leaders have shown little interest in joining these southern conferences).

Such negotiations are hampered by the TNG’s insistence (supported by its UN and Arab patrons) that it is the ‘government’, in contrast to the warlord ‘factions., sometimes inaccurately described as ‘rebels’. It seems unlikely that any meaningful dialogue will take place unless this pretension (which is essentially mythical) is abandoned, and Abdulqasim resigns and throws his hat into the ring. I do not say that this would necessarily lead to a successful and harmonious outcome. But it would surely help by bringing the world of political rhetoric in closer touch with reality. (Of course, in order to protect their interests, the Habar Ghidir are likely to do their utmost to maintain one of their leaders in this key position.)

From the perspective of political realities, it is clear that, by its adherence to this false pretension (that it actually governs Somalia and is a government indeed as well as a word), the TNG has paradoxically become a major obstacle to political reconciliation in southern Somalia. Although the UN presumably hoped that the TNG would be the engine of reconciliation and state rehabilitation in Somalia, this is manifestly not the case.

Given the character of Somali political uncertainties, it is particularly unfortunate’ that the UN rushed with such indecent haste to bestow official recognition on the TNG immediately its formation was announced. It would have been wiser to hold recognition in reserve as a carrot, to be awarded when a viable nation-wide government was actually achieved. To throw away such an important card in exerting pressure on Somali political maneuvers was a serious mistake on the part of the UN which has further complicated and delayed efforts to solve southern Somalia’s political paralysis. Misleading and disingenuous UN propaganda, as well as superficial and often inaccurate media reporting not least, I regret to say, by the BBC (which in its innocence has been subject to Somali nepotism) has further obscured the real situation in Somalia3.

The Arta leadership has actually shown little evidence of serious efforts to reach out to its adversaries in Somalia. It is equally clear that the southern Somali warlords (who are far from being national heroes) have given little indication of having any strong interest in achieving a viable government that could serve the public interest.

Over ten years of fruitless so-called ‘peace conferences’ should be enough to discourage even the most hopeful envoys of peace. Here we encounter another common misconception, unreflectingly promoted by the UN and various NGOs with their own interests and agendas.  Basic problem is not one of peacemaking. The various parties in southern Somalia are not in a continuous state of armed conflict: fighting is intermittent in the usual Somali style to which Somalis are long accustomed, with their impressive tolerance of insecurity and precariousness. It is not ‘peace’ which is missing. What is missing are the conditions for sustained agreement on access to resources, and the means of survival and social improvement in southern Somalia.

This urgently requires public agreement on how to share the economic resources of the south in a way that is initially acceptable to the major local leaders and which, ideally, can eventually be directed towards a more just distribution to the general population. No doubt this will have to involve some acceptance of claims based on theft and pillage.

To understand what is at stake here and what the major forces favoring the status quo really are, we need to know more about the political economy of warlordism in southern Somalia.

Such basic information, which I hope subsequent contributions may provide, is essential in formulating realistic assessments of how a more stable order might be established in southern Somalia.

  1. What Can Outsiders do to Help?

The first principle is not to respond unthinkingly to calls from Somali politicians, warlords and self-declared ‘intellectuals’, to rush to assist their ‘peace’ negotiations. These are usually simply partisan strategies to engage foreigners in providing one form of largesse or another and are very seldom made with sincerely positive objectives.

Somalis are perfectly capable of negotiating agreements if and when they really want to. Foreigners should in general stay outside Somali negotiations. Consider the pathetic record of UN involvement: it is a sad warning to the ignorant and innocent.

The most obvious way in which foreign intervention may help, if executed intelligently and cleverly, is in rewarding internal Somali self-help initiatives, demonstrating approval of positive efforts and disapproval of their opposite. Here, in the present context, the most sensible political step the EU could take now, I believe, would be to accord the Somaliland Republic international recognition. It is the leading success story in Somalia’s failed politics, and in terms of political realities, it is frankly absurd to treat southern Somalia’s TNG as the government of a state, when neither exists functionally.

As a Somali specialist with a pedigree of nationalist involvement going back almost fifty years, I feel very strongly that in the present Somali political context, the old English proverb ‘Half a loaf is better than none’ should be our guiding motto. I believe that this obvious, but nevertheless dramatic step would administer a serious jolt to what passes for political thinking in southern Somalia. Such an initiative would make it clear that the international community is tired of being strung along by endless Somali talk which gets nowhere. It would show that the EU is sometimes serious when it talks about’ civil society’, ‘good governance’, and even ‘democracy’. There is the potential here for an important ‘demonstration effect’ which would inject an element of serious reality into southern Somali political calculations.

It would, I think, be particularly effective as a spur to Somali action and positive thinking if Italy played a leading role here. That would be a remarkable Italian coup de theatre: At the same time, Italy which has already a number of development projects in Somaliland, might consider establishing a course in the Italian language at Hargeisa University, and, perhaps even, an Italian cultural center. Pragmatically, this timely recognition of the positive progress that Somaliland has made would also encourage the Somalilanders to redouble their efforts to strengthen and further develop their fragile democracy. This international action would naturally solve one sector of the Somalia problem, and encourage local and international interests to concentrate on the intractable heart of the matter in southern Somalia.

Somaliland’s recognition might be a little awkward for the UN and the OAU, with its rather dated mantras. But, as well as the Somalis who in the heyday of their national fervor vociferously campaigned for a single national state, these organizations are partly to blame for the currently protracted Somali debacle. If democracy means anything, surely, the wishes of the northern Somali people, as expressed overwhelmingly in their independence referendum, last year should count for more than empty and, I fear, somewhat hypocritical OAU platitudes about the ‘sanctity of African unity’ applied to countries whose history4 is disappointingly poorly understood.

Somaliland was the first Somali territory to become independent on 26 June 1960, joining ex-Italian Somalia in a shot-gun marriage when the UN trusteeship ended on 1 July of the same year. Over the ensuing three decades, there were many political crises in what proved to be a turbulent relationship which finally ended in the general uprising sweeping Siyad from power in 1990 when Somaliland finally re-asserted its independence. Somaliland has now been effectively independent for over ten years and there is no immediate prospect of it re-entering a marriage that has died through neglect and ill-treatment.

I believe that even, in Italy ten years’ separation is generally regarded as a definitive sign of marriage breakdown! For those who are unfamiliar with the Somali political economy, it should be stressed that this political separation in no way endangers the common interests of these two divisions of what is ethnically as single nation: Recognition could usefully be accompanied by establishing an international agency to provide coastal protection against illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping along the entire Somali coast. The institution of common communications (e.g. postal services) might also be envisaged as well as collaboration in educational and medical services.

In addition to rewarding positive developments, is there anything that can be done by members of the international community about negative initiatives? The present international terrorist crisis with exaggerated5, but not totally unjustified, US suspicions about Islamist influence in Somalia would seem to offer a new opportunity to seriously try applying the so-far theoretical arms embargo. Although it unfortunately also affects poor, innocent families, US action against the Islamic al-Barakat bank seems likely to have the positive effect of reducing funds available for local arms purchase in southern Somalia.

Are there other ways in which pressure could be brought to bear on the southern leaders (warlord and TNG alike)? A large number of rich politicians have families (which they regularly visit) safely lodged as ‘refugees’ in western countries, with state housing and financial benefits.

For example, I believe that at the time of writing at least two TNG ministers are enjoying their local council accommodation in London boroughs’ near where I live. I think the same applies to various warlords and other dubious characters who regularly fly back and forth to Europe and North America when things get hot in Somalia. Is there an opportunity for some discreet pressure here? Cannot also something be done internationally about the printing of money, which is used cynically by merchants (not all Islamist) and the TNG to manipulate prices and make a killing at the expense of the poor people of Mogadishu? Surely other economic pressures might be developed to make life less easy for the masters of death in southern Somalia.

Apart from this, I think southern Somalia might benefit from being left to its own devices, cordoned off to reduce its ability to disrupt positive trends elsewhere in the country. So isolated, it would I hope, eventually, be stimulated to follow the example of Somaliland (and until recently Puntland) in moving towards more internationally acceptable forms of social and political organization.

Of course, if this path is followed it runs the risk of exposing the general population in southern Somalia to further fundamentalist propaganda since this flourishes where government and social services are absent. But this is happening already. If the West wishes to counter this and, at the same time contribute to the betterment of the appalling conditions in southern Somalia, it should do its utmost to encourage secular developments through local Somali NGOs with convincing programmes in health and education. At the same time, it would be sensible to support the extension of secular education by distance learning with wide use of radio.

The problem of Islamic fundamentalist propaganda obviously transcends the Somali scene. It is, actually, an issue which can never be resolved unless the West is prepared to confront its primary source in Saudi Arabia. Western oil interests in the Gulf make such action a particularly delicate matter: but the problem clearly needs to be addressed.

1 The Somali nation as a whole is divided into six clan-families: the Dir, Isaq, Hawiye, Darod, and Digil and Rahanweyn. The Digil-Rahanweyn (‘Digil Mirifle’) speak their own distinct language, ‘ Af- Maymay’, many being bilingual and also speaking the related Somali language. In addition to speci?list occupational groups of leatherworkers, metal-workers, hunters, etc(the Midgans, Tuma1, and Yibir) there are Bantu and Arab communities in various degrees of’ Somalization'( see I.M. Lewis, A Pastoral Democracy, London, 1961, 1982, and 2000; ital. trans. Una Democrazia Pastorale, Milan, 1983; also A Modern History of Somalia. Boulder, 1988.

2 The shifting politics of Somali clan allegiances require more than a casual familiarity with the names of Somali clans. The pioneering analysis of Somali clan dynamics is Massimo Colucci’s Principi di diritto consuetudinario della S(}malia italiana meridionale, 1922. The first professional social anthropological study is my Pastoral Democracy. This is followed by the outstanding work of A. y. Farah; see below. Recently Virginia Luling has published her indispensable analysis of clan dynamics in the Benadir, A Somali Sultanate, London, 2002.

3 The BBC Somali service, whose broadcasts used to be carefully monitored by independent language specialists no longer are and consequently rely entirely on Somali broadcasters whose neutrality is widely questioned by the listening Somali public around the world. There has been a stream of complaints, and the service seems to have lost the authority it used, to enjoy for impartial Somali reporting. This is not surprising since the service is headed by a Somali closely related to the Habar Ghiddir ‘interim President’ of Somalia. Since the ON information service (IRIN) in Mogadishu is also headed by another close Habar Ghiddir relative, the TNG hardly needs its own information service!

4 See Lewis, A Modern Hi…tory of Somalia, Boulder. r988; Blood and Bone: The Call of Kinship in Somali society, London. 1994. For an admirable exposition of the present dual political organization of Somaliland. Combining ‘modern’ and traditional principles of representation. see J. Drysdale. Stoics Without Pillows: A Way Forward for Somaliland, London,2000.

 5 See Post, below, pp.

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