Between pirates, terrorists, kidnappings, a failed state and now a Kenyan
invasion, it's hard to keep track of what's going on in Somalia, and why
it's going on. To help you distinguish your sea rats from your Al Shabaab,
here's an introduction to the wild world of Somali politics.
The news coming out of Somalia can be confusing. Just this past week,
there's been the ongoing Kenyan invasion, ostensibly sparked by a few
kidnappings on Kenyan soil. There's been violence in the capital, Mogadishu,
where the official government is trying to push a rebel Islamist militia out
of the city, the same militia that Kenya is fighting, except the Somali
president says they're not working together.
There's been a double kidnapping of aid workers from their demining
operation in Puntland, which has absolutely nothing to do with the
kidnappings that the Kenyans are worried about. And, in South Africa,
Wednesday marked a year exactly since a South African couple have been held
hostage by pirates, who captured them off the dangerous east coast of
Somalia and are demanding a huge ransom. To make sense of all this, it's
worth taking a look at the structure of the Somali state, as baffling as it
may first appear.
A good place to start is with the official government. Not that this will
get us far - after all, the government of Somalia has definitive,
unquestioned control of an area just a few kilometres square around
Mogadishu airport. But the Transitional Federal Government, as it's known,
is Somalia's recognised leadership. It participates in international forums
and attracts international aid money. Led by President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh
Ahmed, the TFG has been in place since 2007, kept - for the most part - safe
and secure in Mogadishu's presidential villa and government compounds by
thousands of African Union troops, under the banner of the African Union
Mission in Somalia (Amisom). It's a little disingenuous to label these
troops as African Union, as they're from only two African countries, Burundi
and Uganda; but they do have the AU's blessing.
The TFG's ineffectual, unrepresentative nature has its roots in one of the
international community's most disastrous international relations blunders
in the last decade. After more than a decade of civil war across much of
Somalia, a strong, unifying government emerged in about 2006. The Islamic
Courts Union was a relatively moderate Islamist group, and soon began to
impose some kind of stability in Somalia, starting with the rule of law. But
this was only a few short years after 9/11, and the US was terrified of
anything even remotely associated with Islam - all Muslims were radical, and
had to be anti-US. Tacitly the US encouraged Ethiopia, which had its own
domestic motivations, given the separatist leanings of Ethiopia's Somali
province, to sort out the Islamic Courts Union. Which they duly did,
invading Somalia and effectively destroying the first stable government the
country had had in nearly two decades. The TFG, operating in exile since
2004, was established in Mogadishu as a replacement.
The invasion caused a deep division within what remained of the Islamic
Courts Union. One faction, the moderate one, chose to keep negotiating.
Some have been incorporated into the TFG. The current TFG president is in
fact the former head of the Islamic Courts Union. It's impossible to
overlook the irony that the international community deposed Sheikh Sharif
Sheikh Ahmed when he was head of a government that effectively controlled
most of Somalia, only to support him just a few years later when he controls
barely a suburb of Mogadishu.
Another faction of the Islamic Courts Union, not unreasonably disillusioned
with the response of the West to attempts to introduce moderate Islamic law
in Somalia, turned radical. They looked to the Taliban and al Qaeda as
models of how to stand up for their beliefs.
They called themselves Al Shabaab (the Youth), and found that their
fundamentalist message resonated with a population that just wanted peace
and security. They swiftly gained control of vast swathes of southern
Somalia, with their de facto capital in the port city of Kismayo. They
immediately introduced harsh and strictly enforced Sharia law, and banned
all Western humanitarian organisations from the territories they controlled.
Their reach extended to the real capital, Mogadishu, while the TFG sat
around the airport, for most of the last five years Al Shabaab has
controlled Mogadishu's crucial Bakara Market, with far more direct influence
on the lives of citizens there.
In 2010, Al Shabaab formally aligned itself with al Qaeda, a propaganda move
more than anything else, but one that did influence its tactics. Al Shabaab
has been behind a number of suicide bombings that have claimed the lives of
hundreds, most notoriously the twin bombings in Kampala during the Fifa
World Cup Final in 2010 and killed more than 70. It is also supposedly
behind the kidnapping of tourists and aid workers in Kenya, which prompted
the Kenyan military's major offensive.
So the TFG controls a fraction of the country, and Al Shabaab a fair bit
more, but the majority of the country is governed by neither. Instead,
traditional clan structures, still strong throughout all the instability,
have replaced a conventional government. Clans had to remain strong, because
they were often the only institutions left. There are a number of clans in
Somalia and the interplay between each is beyond the scope of this article,
suffice to say that in many communities clans were able to imitate the
functions of government. They could provide rules, organisation and
leadership for places that had none. One example: when a young man marries,
he pays in a specified sum (often in the form livestock) to a central fund
controlled by the clan; think of it as a membership fee. This money is kept
safely, and when one member of the clan is ill, he can draw upon the fund
for his medical fees. An elegant solution to the problem of having no banks
The clans are, inevitably, deeply entrenched in the politics of the region.
Some are pro-Al Shabaab, some are pro-TFG, some want to be left to their own
devices and some are deeply divided. But they provide a semblance of
governance in areas where neither Al Shabaab nor the TFG can reach.
Even in a failed state, life goes on. But let's not forget that not all of
Somalia has failed. There are two regions in the north which operate almost
completely independently and have put together functional governments of
varying respectability. Less respectable is Puntland, straddling the Horn of
Africa. This is pirate country. Its economy is almost entirely fuelled by
the proceeds of its modern-day buccaneers and the influence of the pirates
spreads deep into the government.
Pirates operate with impunity from its ports, holding ships and people
hostage until ransoms are paid. It's become a sophisticated operation;
there's even a pirate stock exchange, where unscrupulous investors can put
up the capital needed to launch a raid. This is where the South African
couple, Bruno Pelizzari and Debbie Calitz, have been kept hostage and it's
where the two aid workers were kidnapped this week.
Puntland considers itself an autonomous entity within Somalia, but doesn't
much like the government in Mogadishu. Al Shabaab, too, holds little sway.
Even more isolated from Somalia proper is Somaliland, which, thanks to
Somalia's dog-leg shape, doesn't even share a border with southern Somalia,
just with Puntland. Somaliland is a great success story in the Horn of
Africa. Ever since its unilateral declaration of independence 20 years ago,
it has built a stable democracy and a government that does what a government
should do - build roads, facilitate trade, invest in healthcare and
education. It's no surprise that during the recent famine which affected
southern Somalia so badly, Somaliland was not only unaffected, but also able
to donate supplies to the relief effort.
However, its success remains largely unacknowledged by the international
community, which refuses to recognise it as an independent state and
continues to invest resources in propping up the TFG in Mogadishu.
This, then, is Somalia: a fractured, fighting and confused collection of
various groups that happen to fall within the geographical boundaries of a
supposed state. As a state, it has failed, there's no doubt about that; but
failed differently in different places, and for different reasons. And
perhaps in this realisation is the solution. To solve the problem one has to
address the causes and until it is recognised that Somalia is a multiplicity
of competing problems, each with its own solutions, then the problem of
Somalia can't go away. DM
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Received on Thu Oct 27 2011 - 15:39:28 EDT