[dehai-news] csis.org: No Simple Narrative in Somalia Drama

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From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Tue Mar 10 2009 - 07:53:32 EST

No Simple Narrative in Somalia Drama

By Michael Weinstein

March 9th, 2009

As the coalition of Western donor powers, the United Nations, the African
Union, and regional African states, such as Kenya, Djibouti, Uganda and
Burundi, see it, the narrative of Somalia's contemporary political history
pits the country's new and expanded Transitional Federal Government (TFG)
against an armed "insurgency" composed of "spoilers," "extremists," or
"terrorists" operating under the banner of "radical Islamism."

Just a cursory reading of that narrative shows that it has nothing to do
with an objective political analysis of the most complex and complicated
conflict in the world today, but is a piece of propaganda-a good guys vs.
bad guys drama straight out of a Hollywood B movie-that would awaken
contemptuous amusement were it not for the fact that the parties promoting
it appear to believe it themselves and to formulate their policies and
strategies in its terms.

It is to be expected, of course, that the coalition's rhetoric would be
tendentious. Its members were the ones who contrived the new TFG or found it
in their interests to support it, and, as a consequence, want to believe
that it will be able eventually to succeed in governing Somalia, which has
been effectively stateless since 1991, and to convince others to share that

Nonetheless, the narrative is a sheer expression of baseless hope that is
meant to pass for a plausible projection.

As opposed to the coalition's simplistic narrative, the political situation
in Somalia is so complex, convoluted and fragmented that it is impossible to
draw any grounded conclusions about how it will mutate. The myriad interests
constituting the country's power configuration include the divided factions
within the TFG, the factions of the armed Islamist opposition, Islamists
outside the armed opposition with their own militias, clan families,
sub-clans, regional power centers, micro-political interests at the local
level, legitimate and criminal business interests, the semi-autonomous
sub-state of Puntland, the self-declared independent Republic of Somaliland,
Ethiopia pursuing its own agenda apart from the coalition, and Eritrea
seeking to blunt Ethiopia and the coalition. On the ground, some of these
factions and interests form alliances with each other and then fall out,
interests overlap and cross-cut, and uncertainty and distrust proliferate.
Both the weak TFG and the coalition of "stakeholders" are not driving the
situation, but are enmeshed in it like all the others.

Attempting to describe accurately the power vectors operative in Somalia,
simply at the present moment, would involve writing a long book that would
be outdated by events before it came into print. Such a study might discern
some underlying patterns, but there is no one who will undertake the
thankless task, so one is left with the option of criticizing ideological

The back story of the new TFG begins with a policy shift in late 2007 by the
Western donor powers, which bankroll the transitional institutions, to move
from support of the TFG to pressuring it to accept a power-sharing agreement
with the conciliatory faction of the opposition Alliance for the
Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS-D), which is dominated by Islamists and led by
the new TFG's president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad. The shift was made
because it had become apparent to the donor powers that an Ethiopian
military occupation of Somalia, which was mounted in late 2006 in order to
suppress an Islamic revolution in the country, had failed abysmally, as
remnants of the Islamic courts regrouped, initiated an insurgency, and
became powerful enough to take and hold substantial swathes of territory.

With the primary interest of the donor powers being to block the emergence
of Islamist control over south and central Somalia that might eventuate in
safe havens for internationalist Islamic revolutionaries, their policy shift
represented a concession to the realities on the ground. Whereas they had
earlier stood fast against negotiations with the Islamist opposition, they
now sought to "isolate" the "extremists" within it by co-opting the
conciliatory faction and forcing it on the clan-based TFG.

Through a series of negotiations in Djibouti in the second half of 2008, the
donor powers-spearheaded by the U.N.'s special representative to Somalia,
Ahmedou Ould Abdallah-engineered an agreement in which the transitional
parliament was doubled in size to 550 members, allowing Sheikh Sharif to
bring in 200 of his loyalists as a bloc, insuring that he would be elected
to the presidency by the new parliament. As part of the deal, Sheikh Sharif
was given an extension of the TFG's term for two years from August 2009 and
had to concede to choosing the members of his bloc according to the TFG's
clan representation system, and to naming a secularist prime minister, Omar
Abdisrashid Sharmarke. Sheikh Sharif quickly made sure that Sharmarke named
two ARS-D loyalists to run the Internal Security and Interior ministries,
and a teacher without military experience to preside over the Defense

By jamming a predominantly Islamist faction into a clan-based government,
the donor-led coalition appears to believe that it has created a "national
unity government," where in fact it has concocted an improbable hybrid that
is engineered to fail.

There is no love lost between Sheikh Sharif and the donor powers; he
represents their fall-back position and he knows that, so he will strive to
continue his power play and try to take control of the TFG's institutions
and build a machine. Yet he has very little leeway-his Islamist base has
organized and is pressuring him to alter the TFG's constitution and
institute Shari'a law throughout Somalia, and the coalition is exerting
counter-pressure on him to govern "inclusively" and maintain the secular
constitution. Meanwhile, the armed Islamist opposition groups, which
control most of the southern regions of Somalia and are active in its
central regions and its capital Mogadishu, have declared that they do not
recognize the new TFG and will continue to oppose it militarily. In their
counter-narrative to the coalition's story, Sheikh Sharif has been bought
off by a Washington-led conspiracy against Islam and has become its cat's
paw-another B-movie script with no more and no less plausibility.

Add to the tensions within the TFG, the conflicting pressures on Sheikh
Sharif from his base and his "partners," and the armed opposition's
confrontational stance, Ethiopia's support for and training of warlord
militias from Somalia that are dedicated to taking back their regions from
the Islamists and are not loyal to the new TFG, and one begins to understand
the complexity of the present power configuration, which will not succumb to
any simple narrative.

The account above only scratches the surface, and Sheikh Sharif realizes
that. In a revealing interview with IRIN, he said that the TFG is "broke and
broken," and that it was too early to tell whether the donor powers would
give him sufficient support to achieve security and offer at least some hope
for improvement in the lives of Somalis. The Wall Street Journal quoted an
anonymous diplomatic source who said that although the donors would support
the new TFG, "we are not going to suddenly open a spigot that wasn't
previously opened."

Somalia is not living in a cowboy movie in which the peace-loving people,
led by their valiant sheriffs, face off against the "spoilers," but
encounters a looming and many-sided civil conflict that might descend into
civil war. One could waste one's breath hectoring the donor powers over
their lack of resolve, their hypocrisy, and their obsessions with piracy and
terrorism that afflict them with tunnel vision and spin them into political
fantasy, but they are simply pursuing their own perceived interests at the
expense of other actors.

The point is that whether or not they know that, the other actors do and
will devise their strategies accordingly.

Michael Weinstein is a professor with Purdue University's Department of
Political Science.


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