Published 12 Feb 09
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
Somalia Stumbles along with Sharif
Somalia headed the list last month in my annual review of what would likely be Africa's most significant conflicts or flashpoints this year. At that time, I observed:
For the third year in a row, New Year's Day finds the greatest threat to African security to be the chaotic conditions prevailing in the territory of what was, until 1991, the Somali Democratic Republic. As difficult as it is to imagine, the internationally-recognized "Transitional Federal Government" (TFG), the fourteenth such attempt at a national framework for governance since the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre fled from the presidential palace seventeen years ago this month, is even weaker now than it was just one month ago when I described its authority here as "largely notional," since its writ barely extended beyond a few blocks in Mogadishu and in the provincial town of Baidoa where the rump legislature has been holed up.
As developments unfolded, the situation got so bad in Baidoa that the TFG's parliament had to meet in neighboring Djibouti during the last week of the month to elect a permanent replacement for Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, who resigned from the presidency on December 29. While the legislators were out of town, the interim regime lost it altogether as militants from al-Shabaab ("the youth"), an al-Qaeda-linked group that was formally designated a "foreign terrorist organization" last year by the U.S. Department of State, took over Baidoa and announced the imposition of their version of Islamic law. The election on January 30 of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed as head of the TFG and his entry last Saturday into Mogadishu, where a bombed out few city blocks constitute the full extent of the effective sovereignty of his "government," are unlikely be sufficient to alter the dynamics in the country, notwithstanding the wishful thinking that numerous African and other international actors continue to indulge in the absence of a grasp on reality, much less a strategic vision.
Even by the opera buffa standards set by the fourteen attempts at a national framework for governance since the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre fled from the presidential palace seventeen years ago, the selection of the latest pretender to the leadership of the nonexistent Somali state was farcical. Some 220 of the 275 members of the "Transitional Federal Parliament" – itself an unelected body created in 2004 at another conference center outside Somalia, in this case, in Kenya, after an $11 million powwow paid for by the international community – gathered in Djibouti in late January. Despite the absence of any legal authority to do so, even in their own ersatz documents, the parliamentarians then seated another 275 equally unelected colleagues who flew in and declared themselves to be representatives of the allegedly moderate Islamist opposition as well as civil society and diaspora groups. Obviously there is no shortage of people who aspire to belong to a legislative body, even if a study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Fund for Peace puts its effectiveness at the absolute bottom of the rankings, a dubious distinction shared with Burma's legislature which that benighted country's junta bans from convening altogether.
An electoral committee of parliamentarians then set up shop in the Djibouti Palace Kempinski, a five-star hotel on the Red Sea that bills itself as "redefining luxury in the land of the gods," and began taking applications for the presidency. Article 40 of the "Transitional Federal Charter" lists six legal qualifications for the office:
Any person shall be qualified and eligible to be elected the President of the Somali Republic, if the person:
(a) is a citizen of the Somali Republic;
(b) has attained at least 40 years of age;
(c) is a practicing Muslim whose parents are Somali citizens;
(d) is not married to a foreigner nor marry a foreigner during his term of office;
(e) is of sound mind and no criminal conviction for any serious offence;
(f) is of good character;
(g) possesses the capacity, competence, and experience to discharge the duties of the Presidency.
The committee, however, also required candidates to submit a résumé, a photograph, and, most importantly, an application fee of $2,000 to defray the panel's expenses which were no doubt considerable during the weeklong electoral process: the cheapest room at the Kempinski with sea view goes for $175 a night. In the end, fourteen candidates applied for the job, although one Somali activist noted to me in an email he could not understand how anyone could be desirous of the position and still meet the constitutional requirement of having a sound mind.
Under the provisions of the charter, in order to win, a candidate has to win the support of two-thirds of the electors in the first round of voting or a simple majority in the subsequent rounds. In the first round, Sharif Ahmed received 215 votes, mostly from the newly seated "parliamentarians" who were airlifted in with him, while Maslah Mohamed Siad Barre, son of the late fallen dictator, received 60 votes, and TFG "prime minister" Nur "Adde" Hassan Hussein got 59 votes, with the remaining votes going to various other individuals. After all candidates except Maslah withdrew, Sharif Ahmed won the poll handily, 293 to 126 votes.
The new TFG leader, Sharif Ahmed was born in 1964 in the rural Mahaday district, northeast of Mogadishu. His family belongs to the Agonyar, an offshoot of the Harti sub-clan of the Abgaal clan of the Hawiye, the clan-family which predominates in Mogadishu and central southern Somalia. After attending a school attached to the local mosque in his hometown, Sharif finished his middle and secondary education at an Egyptian-run Islamic school in Mogadishu affiliated with Cairo's Al-Azhar University. He pursued studies at various Sudanese and Libyan institutions, including the University of Kordofan and the Open University in Tripoli. He returned to Somalia around 1998. By 2002, he had emerged as the head of an Islamic court in Jowhar, a town northeast of Mogadishu not far from his birthplace. However, when forces loyal to warlord Mohamed Omar Habeb, a.k.a. Mohamed Dheere, a close ally of future TFG "president" Abdullahi Yusuf and subsequently "mayor" of Mogadishu under the TFG, invaded the area, Sharif fled to Mogadishu where he taught in a high school and became one of the organizers of the Islamic courts in the chaotic erstwhile capital. Following the takeover in mid-2006 of Mogadishu by Islamist forces, Sharif Ahmed emerged as the chairman of the Islamic Courts Union, a position he held until the intervention by the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) at the end of that year scattered the Islamists. (It should be noted that the real power in the Islamic Courts Union was wielded by the extremist elements around the head of its shura, Hassan Dahir ‘Aweys, who controlled access to external support.) During this period, to his credit, unlike a great number of other Somali "leaders," Sharif Ahmed did not appear to have been tainted by corruption. He and his wife and their two young sons, Ahmad and Abdullah, were reputed to have lived rather modestly.
After the Ethiopians intervened, Sharif Ahmed fled to Kenya and eventually made his way to Asmara, Eritrea, where, as I reported here in 2007, he made common cause with the radical ‘Aweys and other anti-TFG leaders, both Islamists and non-Islamists, to found what would become the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS), serving as the coalition's nominal head during the period when it launched what was to become an increasingly brutal campaign against not just the ENDF and TFG forces, but eventually the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and, finally, those sectors of the Somali civilian population that did not acquiesce to its demands.
In early 2008, however, Sharif entered into negotiations with the TFG, eventually reaching agreement with Nur "Adde," although the deal was repudiated by hard line elements under the ARS umbrella, including al-Shabaab, thus sundering the group into an Asmara-based faction headed by Hassan Dahir ‘Aweys and one participating in continuing talks in Djibouti. While much was made of Sharif's reentry to Mogadishu in December after a two-year absence, it was hardly a triumphal return more an indicator of the rejection of his leadership by Islamist militants. As one Ethiopian military source in Somalia observed to me at the time, Sheikh Sharif only turned up in Mogadishu after he failed to produce any fighters for the joint TFG-ARS units envisioned by the Djibouti accords to replace the withdrawing ENDF forces and, having no other followers, he sought to recruit a base among his fellow Abgaal clansmen and, in the interest of appearing "representative," to pick up adherents among assorted ne'er-do-wells marginalized within their own clans.
The spectacular crumbling in December of Abdullahi Yusuf's regime, dominated as it was loyalists from his Majeerteen sub-clan of the Darod – and especially those from the former leader's Omar Mohamud sub-sub-clan in Puntland – gave Sharif Ahmed the opening he needed. With the backing the United Nations Secretary-General's Special Representative for Somalia, Mauritanian diplomat Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, who wanted to something to show for his labors, as well as other outside powers who have increasingly panicked as al-Shabaab faction progressively took control of most of southern and central Somalia and the country seemed on the verge of falling into even more dire straits (see my December 4 report), Sharif pressured the transitional legislature into seating the 200 individuals he had rounded up and presented to it as alleged representatives of the ARS. Having packed the electoral assembly, not surprisingly, Sharif won the poll (Maslah Mohamed Siad Barre actually would have won an absolute majority of the votes were it not for the presence of those added to the parliament at the last minute).
Sworn in on the morrow of his win, the new "president" flew off to Addis Ababa to attend the African Union summit and to receive an astoundingly rapturous welcome from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on down. When, a week later, Sharif Ahmed finally went home to Mogadishu, however, the welcome was lest enthusiastic. He was met by news that Islamist opponents had formed a new coalition, the Islamic Party, to oppose him. Moreover, just hours after he made his entry into Villa Somalia, al-Shabaab was shelling the TFG presidential compound. Despite that inauspicious start, the new TFG head does not lack for boosters abroad willing to read into this "fresh start" what they will. As Dr. Michael Weinstein of Purdue noted succinctly in an online commentary earlier this week:
The optimism of some Western analysts concerning Sheikh Sharif's prospects demands a radical suspension of disbelief. The most extravagant among them, John Prendergast of the Center for American Progress, went so far as to tell CNN's Tricia Escobedo that the "ascendancy of Sheikh Sharif provides an opportunity to create an inclusive coalition governing Somalia from the center outwards." If that was not enough, Prendergast went on to say: "The fulcrum for change is in the hands of Sheikh Sharif's government. If he is able to put together an inclusive government – even if it's only on paper, even if it's only in Djibouti – I think it will quickly defuse any fervor of support for Shabaab." Prendergast's effusion beggars belief.
Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is far more complex, as is Sharif's alleged inclusiveness and moderation. Already there are reports, confirmed by nongovernmental sources, that in his bid to win over Islamist extremists, Sharif is permitting militiamen to segregate men and women in public transportation and to clamp down on freedoms which they deem "un-Islamic." Despite this pandering, there are few indications that extremists groups like the various al-Shabaab factions have given up the fight, despite the withdrawal of the Ethiopian forces and the installation of an ostensibly moderate Islamist president. In fact, just this Tuesday, several soldiers loyal to Sharif were killed when al-Shabaab launched an offensive against the town of Huddur on the Ethiopian border, where a number of TFG officials had taken refuge after the fall of Baidoa.
While al-Shabaab appears to be dividing into various factions and interests – the two most prominent are probably the group of several thousand fighters, almost exclusively Habr Gidr sub-clansmen from the Hawiye, led by Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, a.k.a. "Abu Mansur," and operating in the Lower Shabelle and Lower Juba regions of southern Somalia and a primarily ‘Isaq group operating near where the borders of Somaliland, Puntland, and Ethiopia led by Ahmad Abdi Godane, a.k.a. "Abu Zubeyr," and Ibrahim Haji Jama, a.k.a. "al-Afghani," who trained also with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and is a veteran of terrorist campaigns there as well as in Kashmir and in Somaliland – it should not be forgotten that all these share an overarching ideological vision based on a radical brand of Islamism that includes such highlights as the public amputation of the hands of thieves and the stoning of teenage rape victims, both events which have occurred recently in the port city of Kismayo courtesy of al-Shabaab-installed judges.
Moreover, this link to the larger ideological current of Islamist extremism enables al-Shabaab to enjoy a steady stream of support, expertise, weapons, and money from abroad. Several authoritative sources in Somalia estimate the proportion of al-Shabaab ranks made up by foreigners could be as high as one-fifth of the total, drawn from not only the East Africa region – including Sudanese, Comorians, and Zanzibaris – but also from the Greater Middle East and beyond. There have even been reports of up to several dozen U.S. citizens from the ethnic Somali communities in Minnesota and Ohio traveling to join al-Shabaab in the fight (Shirwa Ahmed, the 27-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen from Minneapolis who acquired the dubious distinction of being the first American suicide bomber when he carried out an attack in Somaliland last fall, was just one such recruit; on the incident, see my December 11 column).
And, of course, it is way too early to even ask what, if anything, Sharif Ahmed might do to ameliorate the piracy threat that emanates from the territory he purports to govern – a continuing security challenge that returned to the news last week with the release of the Ukrainian-owned, Belizean-registered freighter, the MV Faina, which was carrying thirty-three refurbished Russian-made T-72 tanks and other armaments when it was hijacked on September 25, 2008. The vessel was only freed by its Somali captors after the payment of a record ransom reported to have been $3.2 million. Unfortunately, in an interview with ABC News, his first sit-down with American media, Sharif came across as outright delusional on the piracy issue, promising that the non-existent Somali navy would patrol the coast while state security forces, which have trouble keeping asserting themselves beyond a few blocks in Mogadishu, would deal with the pirates on land.
While it is entirely possible that Sharif Ahmed's accession to the titular headship of the Somali state could herald an unexpected turnaround, it is probably more likely that the contrived nature of his "election" and the overall dynamics of the ongoing devolution of Somalia are such that it is but prelude to the wholesale unraveling of the transitional framework, opening the way for the conflict in the Horn of Africa to ratchet up to an entirely new level – one which those concerned with the immediate impact on the security situation in the subregion as well as the global repercussions of continued chaos there would be well advised to monitor closely.
— J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.
© 2009 J. Peter Pham
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