Mogadishu Dreams: will the Somali crisis ever be resolved? by Omar Khan
In the last few months, Somalia has hurtled towards the brink of war, seen a military confrontation, and been dragged back from the cliff edge by a fragile, last-minute agreement between regional leaders. Unfortunately, this instability is a common occurrence in the Horn of Africa nation. 2021 is a special election year for Somalia with the unrecognised breakaway state of Somaliland also heading to the polls, and with nearby difficulties such as tensions with Sudan and neighbours, Ethiopia and Eritrea entangled in the Tigray conflict, this year especially we can ask: why is the Somali crisis so difficult to resolve? Why has it lasted so long? And can there ever be lasting peace?
To understand the recent political deadlock and the violence it caused, it is important to understand that there has not been a true central “Somali” government since military dictator Siad Barre was overthrown exactly thirty years ago. Nominally, President Mohammed Abdullahi Mohammed, known as Farmaajo, leads the federal government but in reality, every region of Somalia is under a different authority with different rules, different ideas, different leaders, different loyalties and most significantly, different plans for the future of the country.
So what were they all arguing about? Farmaajo came to the presidency in 2017 through the complicated and highly controversial electoral system known as 4.5, based on indirect voting and clan loyalties. As we will see clannism is the largest and most onerous hurdle to achieving peace – although Somalia is more or less ethnically homogenous (with 85% being Somali), clans are a very important, long-established identity for most of the population. These clans have sub-clans which in turn can have sub-divisions. Since the electoral process was designed to respect the opinion of all clans (and sub-clans etc.) it became a multifaceted mess which of course meant corruption, fraud and bribery were fundamental pillars at every stage.
But this time was different. Last December was supposed to see the first direct elections in Somalia for over half a century. Great news, except nobody, could agree on what these were supposed to look like. For starters, creating an unbiased electoral commission proved impossible. Ongoing security threats include al-Shabaab, the notorious terrorist group that has fought an Iraq-style insurgency since 2009; violence in the Gedo region along the Kenyan border; and, the long-running problems of militias, bandits, warlords, pirates and various other terrorist groups. The Republic of Somaliland, which has ironically been a relatively stable, unrecognised autonomous state since 1991, was another point of contention. While anyone can be forgiven for struggling to hold an election in a warzone, the historical differences between the leaders run so deep that they took months just to decide where to have their first meeting – in the end, none of the leaders trusted each other so they each brought their own armies to the meeting with seemingly-ridiculous scenes of armed militiamen sitting in an airport in Mogadishu as their respective chiefs argued inside a nearby hotel.
Then things escalated. Fast. Farmaajo’s term expired in February and the powerful heavyweight states of Puntland and Jubaland, led by Presidents Said Deni and Ahmed Mohamed Islam Madobe respectively, no longer recognised him as president. With no contingency or agreement on the horizon, Farmaajo took the strategically poor decision to extend his mandate for two years via a parliamentary vote – this unilateral move was rejected by the upper house of parliament and opposition militia factions mobilised in the capital. Late April saw violent clashes between these militias and the government security forces which displaced over 60,000 people and even saw splits and desertions within the government’s forces. Needless to say, Farmaajo quickly rescinded his two-year extension.
Bullets firing in Mogadishu reminded leaders of the horrific conflict of the 1990s and 2000s, providing momentum to talks led by Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble which saw an agreement reached and a path laid out for parliamentary elections to be held within the next few months. “My government is reassuring to the country’s political stakeholders and to the Somali people that [we] will hold free and fair indirect elections,” announced Roble. Yes, you read right. Indirect elections. It turns out that the only way to compromise was to postpone the ambitious democratic experiment for another election year, though given the fragility of Somalia which was tragically exposed during the clashes in Mogadishu, this option is clearly best for now.
“We will be the sunshine of the Horn of Africa if we have these polls,” claimed Ahmed Dheere of the Kulmiye Peace, Development and Unity Party, the ruling political party of Somaliland. Like the modern Somali state, Somaliland was born in war, blood and anguish with the painful memories of the brutal terror campaign against the Isaaq people during the Barre regime still alive today. And yet, as Somalia deteriorated further, Somaliland seemed to stabilise and, after long deliberations, establish the institutions needed for a functioning country with its own leaders, economy, passport, currency, and electoral system, which is ironic considering it is not technically a country. While it is far from perfect (like most countries in the world), Dheere correctly asserted that this year’s democratic elections would greatly aid Somaliland in its quest for development, peace and recognition. The polls held at the end of May saw the opposition Waddani party come out on top and by announcing a coalition with the third party, Justice and Welfare, the ruling Kulmiye party looks likely to be knocked out of power for the first time. Naturally, the fact that these elections have been delayed for ten years (due to drought and political scandals) is worrying, but if there can be a smooth transition of power and if next year’s presidential election (which will see Kulmiye President Muse Bihi Abdi seek a second term) can also go ahead peacefully, the former British colony can continue to progress. Combined with new economic opportunities opening up after the pandemic, such as an infrastructure deal with the UAE, a new era of development could begin in Somaliland. As leaders in Hargeisa now contend with the problems of minority clan representation (only one stood for election this year), reforming the opaque House of Elders, and that no female candidates won their races (only 13 ran), we ask why Somalia has been unable to find the same relative stability.
When President Abdirashid Shirmarke was shot dead by his own bodyguard as he stepped off a car in Los Anod on 15th October 1969, the seeds of destruction in Somalia were sown. British Somaliland (now modern Somaliland) and Italian Somaliland had only united and become independent nine years prior, but with widespread disapproval of the Somali Youth League’s leadership, Shirmarke’s death allowed revolutionaries Gabeyre Kediye, Abdulkadir Dheel and Barre to take control by force. After arresting and eventually executing the other two, Barre became the sole dictator, the self-styled Guulwade (Victorious Leader), and embarked on an aggressive campaign of scientific socialism based on the Qur’an. Whilst encouraging people to greet each other as jaalle (comrade), a key policy of his was to remove clannism and unify the people. Like with all problems he faced, Barre’s solution was to aggressively destroy any obstacle to his goal. After his policy of establishing Soomaliweyn (Greater Somalia; ethnic Somali irredentism) failed when he lost the Ogaden War against Ethiopia in 1978, because the Soviet Union, his long-time ally, backed his enemies, the Derg (socialist military junta in command of Ethiopia), Barre abandoned his left-leaning ideology, shook hands with Reagan and actively encouraged clannism and clan-based conflict. In particular, this allowed him to escalate his persecution of the Isaaq, Majeerteen and Hawiye (as well as other minority clans); National Security Law no.45 enabled the security services, alongside the elite Red Berets and paramilitary Victory Pioneers to launch a horrifying campaign of terror that involved murder, rape, forced displacement and the cutting of water supplies allowing thousands to die of thirst.
If you’re wondering what the dictatorship has to do with Somalia’s modern-day problems, please pay careful attention as this summary of the ongoing civil war becomes abbreviation-heavy, and yes, “ongoing” is the right term. As the Isaaq-based Somali National Movement (SNM) defeated Barre’s troops in the north, the Hawiye-based United Somali Congress (USC) advanced on the capital, fighting off the Red Berets and forcing Barre to flee and his regime to fall in January 1991. Barre’s army then split up into irregular security forces and clan-based militias. The USC’s provisional government was rejected by the other rebel groups across the country and the deadly bout for power exploded. The USC split into two factions, the Haber Gedir-based SNA led by Mohamed Farah Aidid and the Mudulood-based SSA led by Ali Mahdi Mohamed, and tore Mogadishu apart. In April 1991, the SNM declared the independence of Somaliland at Burao, encouraging the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF), led by Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed (who had attempted to overthrow Barre in 1978), to take more territory in the north eventually establishing the semi-autonomous state of Puntland. Then the UN, the kings of abbreviations, deployed UNOSOM I, UNOSOM II, and the US-led UNITAF to provide humanitarian aid using “all necessary means”. After the US failed to capture Aidid at the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, the UN eventually withdrew from Somalia in 1995 but during their time there, helped mediate between various clans, militias and rebel groups. Please note that there were many, many more groups vying for territorial control across the country almost exclusively based on clan loyalties.
As you can see, clan identity is incredibly important in Somalia with political loyalties, cultural traditions and even occupations deriving from them. In spite of the scars of the Barre regime, as anarchy descended on the country, society was able to function, albeit with instability and limitations, because of the clan system. The Xeer compensatory legal system (as opposed to the punitive system adopted by most countries) and local economies are intertwined and worked well given the state of the nation. That is not to suggest that people did not suffer. Indeed, today over 2.7 million people across Somalia are expected to face crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity by mid-2021. The number of those in need has consistently increased over the last three years, from 4.2 million in 2019 to 5.2 million in 2020 and 5.9 million in 2021. Adult literacy and access to clean water both decreased. Over 2.6 million people are internally displaced and more than 28,000 refugees and asylum seekers are expected to require assistance and support in 2021, highlighting the current humanitarian situation.
As some major groups reconciled, other rival factions continued their bloody campaigns, with Ethiopia and Eritrea (embroiled in their own war) now actively engaged in Somalia, supporting opposing militias. In Djibouti, 2000, the Transitional National Government (TNG) was formed under President Abdiqasim Salad Hassan as the first attempt at a unified leadership in a decade with all the necessary organs required. However, lack of territorial control and the inability to raise taxes led to the TNG’s bankruptcy and peaceful replacement by the slightly better-designed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), under Yusuf Ahmed, in 2004. At the time, central Somalia was in anarchy and the south was a constant warzone between rival militias. In the midst of the chaos, a powerful group, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU; later SICC) emerged as a strong coalition of ideologies ranging from moderates to hard-line Islamists with influence balanced out between them. Connections with al-Qaeda however led the US to support the Warlord Alliance (not a joke) against the ICU. Despite the CIA funnelling $100,000 per month to the warlords, the ICU defeated them in May 2006, took control of Mogadishu and pushed further south taking vast territories. Vying for influence, Ethiopia, under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, invaded Somalia with the TFG to defeat the ICU who peacefully withdrew from the capital at the end of 2006. The ICU then split with their military wing, called “The Youth” or al-Shabaab, becoming a guerrilla force against the TFG-endorsed Ethiopian occupation. The ICU moderates led by Sharif Sheikh Ahmed fled to Eritrea and formed the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia.
Now the current status of the Somali Civil War comes into effect. When Sharif signed the Djibouti Agreement and became the president of a coalition with the TFG (including support from Puntland) in 2009, al-Shabaab radicalised further. The African Union deployed AMISOM (eventually including Ethiopia) to support the Somali government and both were soon joined by the US military in the fight against al-Shabaab who declared allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2012. Over the last decade, al-Shabaab has fought other terrorist groups, including its ally al-Qaeda and even itself, and has steadily lost territory as Sharif and his successors Hassan Sheikh Mohamed and Farmaajo continued the campaign against them – al-Shabaab now draws most support from rural areas and is a continuing plague facing the country. Various operations, including Operation Indian Ocean, have been relatively successful in curtailing piracy which emerged during the anarchy with no eyes on the Somali coastline. International cooperation has improved year after year, evinced by the arms embargo being lifted to help supply the war on terror. With time and stability, this lays the foundation for development projects and regional peacebuilding. As implied by its name, the TFG was replaced in 2012 by the current federal system respecting the rights of regional authorities in Jubaland, Puntland, South West, Galmudug, Hirshabelle and the small state containing Mogadishu, Banaadir.
Why is the Somali crisis so difficult to resolve? It is not quite right to say that the current phase of the civil war is between the federal government and al-Shabaab, though that is the main source of violence. In truth, the factions, militias and warlords are still at war but it is now more of a cold war where leaders use influence and the political system as their weapons. It should be stressed that the time of using artillery as weapons is still fresh in many memories and rivalries still run deep. In a country with so many issues, it is hard to see any hope for peace, but the fact that regional leaders came to an agreement this year and that fresh elections are on the table is a hopeful sign – it is just unfortunate that there had to be violence before the agreement was met. While some may say the international community’s meddling has only exacerbated Somalia’s problems, now is the time for them to work with regional leaders to accelerate the country’s development, not to use foreign aid as blackmail but as a useful means of cooperation. Ultimately, a peaceful Somalia is possible but only when leaders can both put the needs of the people first and can find a solution that works within the intricate clan system, not against it. While Siad Barre encouraged jaalle as a greeting, we can have hope that no matter their background, more and more Somalis can simply greet each other as brother.