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More on Somalia

January 2, 2009


In a previous post [Somalia — Poster Child of Failed States], I discussed how difficult and hopeless things are in Somalia. The lawlessness that defines Somalia has made it a haven for pirates that has drawn the world’s attention, but not in a good way [see my post entitled The Return of the Pirates]. Radical Islamists are beginning to overrun Somalia making matters even worse (if that is possible) [“Somalis’ Choice: Join Islamists or Flee,” by Stephanie McCrummen, Washington Post, 22 December 2008]. McCrummen’s report is a personal one that paints poignant pictures of individual stories rather than simply providing cold facts about displaced persons and fleeing refugees. She writes:


By the time Mohamed Abdi Ibrahim decided to leave Somalia, life in the southern city of Kismaayo had become, as he put it with consummate understatement, ‘complicated.’ Young men there had long shouldered AK-47 assault rifles and joined clan militias. But as an Islamist militia known as al-Shabab took control this year [2008], it had become a place where boys were paid $50 to throw bombs, soccer fields served as militia training camps, and Islamist leaders walked into classrooms to take names of potential recruits. Ibrahim and two friends fled several months ago, just after the Shabab began beating people not attending Friday prayers and just before the group publicly stoned to death a 13-year-old girl it had convicted of adultery. The options for young men like them, it seemed, had narrowed to two: sign up or run.”


This is not the situation the Bush administration had hoped to leave in Somalia as it departs office.


The scenario now unfolding in Somalia is the one a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion nearly two years ago had been intended to thwart: a takeover by radical Islamists. At the time, Ethiopian forces ousted a relatively diverse Islamic movement that had briefly gained control of the capital, Mogadishu. In its place, they installed a transitional government headed by a warlord who allowed the United States to launch counterterrorism operations in the moderate Muslim nation. But the policy backfired, inspiring a relentless insurgency of clan militias and Islamist fighters. … The two-year insurgency has energized the most radical Islamist faction, the Shabab — ‘youth’ in Arabic — which the United States has designated a terrorist organization. Rallying young men with anti-Ethiopian rhetoric and a promised ticket to paradise, the group advanced this year across much of southern Somalia, including the capital, Mogadishu. Analysts predict the Shabab will extend its control after the Ethiopians withdraw, which they have promised to do within weeks.”


Having failed to secure a military solution, the international community is now hoping to find a diplomatic solution.


The United States and the United Nations are now supporting a political settlement that shifts power from [President Abdullahi] Yusuf and his circle to an opposition coalition that includes some of the Islamist leaders cast as extremists two years ago, as well as clan leaders who had been excluded by Yusuf’s government. Backers of the Djibouti agreement hope that the Ethiopian withdrawal, along with the political deal, will rob the Shabab of its cause. But the situation on the ground — and in swelling refugee camps … — suggests that the group is only gaining strength.


McCrummen returns to the story of Mohamed Abdi Ibrahim, who having fled Somalia, are now living in a refugee camp in Kenya.


It was morning in Dadaab, and Ibrahim was standing with his two friends, Mohamed Shuep, 25, and Hussein Hassan Adan, 16, in a huge, sweaty crowd — the same sort of exhausted, frustrated crowd that gathers every day at the barbed-wire perimeter of the camp. Their growing number is a testament to what Somalia has become: a place from which to escape. Out of a population of about 9 million, more than 1 million people have fled their homes, preferring drought-stricken regions of the country to the crossfire of militias battling for control of Mogadishu and other areas. Attacks on aid workers — most likely carried out by the Shabab, who equate them with foreign interference — have made humanitarian assistance almost impossible to deliver. Hundreds of thousands more people have abandoned the country altogether. At least 20,000 have taken their chances this year aboard rickety boats bound for Yemen, and many more have traveled on foot or in stifling smugglers’ trucks that bring about 5,000 people to this camp each month. Built in 1991 to accommodate 90,000 people fleeing Somalia’s last civil war, Dadaab is now a sprawl of more than 220,000 refugees — a desert limbo land of rounded stick huts and overburdened water taps emblematic of more than a decade of failed governments and peace initiatives. Ibrahim and his friends arrived a few months back. Like many young men, they left extended families behind and began their journeys alone, walking and hitchhiking toward Kenya. They became friends in the Somali border town of Dobley, where they worked in a restaurant and shared scraps of food and the shelter of a tree at night. Pooling their money, they eventually paid their way onto a smuggler’s truck crowded with people and goats.”


Kenya is neither a wealthy country nor a politically stable one. Trying to cope with the crush of Somali refugees exacerbates Kenya’s situation. That Somali refugees are willing to tolerate conditions found at the camp is a testament to how bad conditions are in Somalia. It also underscores how desperately people want security in their lives.


Mostly, people here wait. They wait to be registered, for food, for their leaders to stop fighting so they can go home. A bus that comes and goes from here has the word ‘wait’ painted on its side like an omen. There is a straw-roofed shelter inside the camp where men have passed years waiting — playing cards, arguing over politics, and following the rise, fall and rise again of the Islamists on the BBC. ‘There is no hope for Somalia,’ said Abdi Ahmed Mohamed, who was 23 when he arrived here in 1991 during the civil war. ‘All the people who could do something for their country are here as refugees. Pretty soon, they’re going to be fighting over empty land.'”


It is against that type of hopelessness that those in the humanitarian aid and development sectors work to overcome every day. Those involved in such work must be both idealistic and optimistic — otherwise the hopelessness and devastation they encounter on a daily basis would overwhelm them. They are a special breed of people. It will be a while before such people can perform their work inside Somalia itself. Things are changing, but no one knows if the changes are for the better. For one thing, the president has resigned [“President Of Somalia Steps Down Amid Pressure,” by Stephanie McCrummen, Washington Post, 30 December 2008].


Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf resigned [29 December 2008], conceding that Islamist insurgents had overtaken much of the country and that he had been unable to unite the perpetually fragmented Horn of Africa nation. ‘Most of the country is not in our hands,’ Yusuf said in a speech before parliament in the town of Baidoa, describing the nation as ‘paralyzed.’ Though there are more optimistic scenarios, many Somalis and other observers say that Yusuf’s resignation will help force the country deeper into a power struggle among clans and Islamist militias, which appear to be splintering along ideological lines.”


There is a glimmer of good news.


Though the hard-line Islamist group known as al-Shabab — which the United States has designated a terrorist group — has taken over towns across much of southern Somalia, other, more moderate Islamist groups are lining up to fight it. … A group known as Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama battled the Shabab for control of two towns in central Somalia. And a new militia calling itself the Juba Resistance Movement also vowed to fight the Shabab, whose extremist version of Islam is at odds with the more moderate tradition Somalis have embraced. ‘The people of Somalia reject the Shabab — they don’t want the Shabab,’ said Mohamed Amin Abdullahi Osman, who is allied with moderate Islamists and an opposition coalition that had pushed Yusuf to resign. ‘People in lower and middle Shabelle are ready to fight Shabab and take over the region,’ Osman said, referring to a central region in the country.”


The sad truth is that too often when moderates engage in conflict against extremists, the fighting turns all sides into extremists. If Somalia is to have any hope of a more stable and prosperous future, it needs help from the international community. It is also important that the moderates inside Somalia maintain their moderate positions while prevailing against the extremists. That was something that Yusuf could not accomplish.


Yusuf had come under increasing internal and international pressure to step down, and his announcement … was widely anticipated. The 74-year old leader’s administration was plagued by a relentless insurgency almost from the moment his transitional government was installed in a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion in 2005. Yusuf’s opponents accused him of ruling like the warlord he once was, encouraging clan divisions and finally blocking a U.N.-backed political settlement that many see as a long-shot hope for salvaging Somalia’s first central government since 1991. His government was never able to build coalitions and never controlled much more than a few city blocks in the capital, Mogadishu. In recent weeks, Yusuf had lost the support of the United Nations, the United States and, significantly, his Ethiopian backers. … The most optimistic observers said … that Yusuf’s exit would clear the way for the political settlement known as the Djibouti agreement, which promises a new government that includes moderate Islamists, clan leaders, intellectuals, businesspeople and others sidelined during Yusuf’s tenure. The hope is that a new government, along with the Ethiopians’ departure, could help undermine support for the Shabab, which has made a cause out of battling the Ethiopians and is the strongest force on the ground, according to analysts.”


To implement the Djibouti deal, however, Somalis will need a great deal of international support and that support has been difficult to find. The time to help implement the deal is fleeting.


On the ground, … a bleaker scenario [is] already unfolding, one best expressed by a Somali lawmaker who was busy … evacuating his staff members, money, family and possessions from Baidoa, where Somalia’s fractious parliament seemed to be disintegrating further by the hour. The lawmaker, Abdul Kadir Nur Arale, a Yusuf supporter, had already evacuated to Nairobi, in neighboring Kenya. ‘The militiamen in the area and the Shabab, they all feel that now is the time to act,’ Arale said. ‘It is time for the scramble for power.’ The speaker of parliament will assume the presidency until lawmakers choose a new leader, which is supposed to happen within 30 days. It is unclear, however, whether the 275-member parliament will be able to muster the necessary numbers to do so, as Yusuf’s supporters leave and others flee.”


With another outbreak of clan warfare looming ever larger, the international community’s window to act is closing fast. Prolonged conflict always aggravates tensions and makes national reconciliation much more difficult. In most cases, only a clear military victory ends such conflicts. This is not good news — especially for the United States.


While Yusuf’s resignation represents the failure of one more central government in Somalia, it also represents one more failure of U.S. policy in a region where American officials have long worried about the threat of terrorism. The primary aim of the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion that installed Yusuf’s internationally recognized transitional federal government was to dislodge a relatively diverse Islamist movement that had taken over Mogadishu. But two years later, the most radical wing of the ousted Islamist movement has emerged stronger, more battle-hardened and better-financed than ever. In addition, six known U.S. airstrikes inside Somalia have mostly stoked anti-U.S. sentiment. The strikes were aimed at alleged al-Qaeda operatives, including the alleged perpetrators of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. But only one target, a Shabab leader, has been confirmed killed. Meanwhile, Yusuf leaves behind a humanitarian crisis that some U.N. officials describe as the worst in the world, if measured by unmet need. Thousands of people have been killed and more than a million others displaced across the drought-stricken country.”


President-elect Obama certainly has plenty on his plate to keep him busy during the day and uneasy during the night. His ancestral ties to the area, however, provide him with an opportunity to make a difference where other western leaders could not. Aside from the issue of piracy, Somalia is not a strategically important country. The global economy can easily advance without it. But turning our backs on any part of the world is not the right thing to do. Finding a solution to the Somali problem will not be easy and it will not be quick; but ignoring it because it is difficult will only exacerbate the situation and will eventually lead to other unintended consequences like piracy and terrorism.

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