World Defense Review


Published 26 August 08

J. Peter Pham

Strategic Interests

by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist

Somalia's Downward Spiral Continues

Last week, the "Transitional Federal Government" (TFG) of Somalia and the rump faction of the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS) led by Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad signed a peace deal after United Nations-brokered talks in the neighboring statelet of Djibouti. The accord, inked on August 18, calls for the withdrawal of the Ethiopian National Defense Force troops which have been propping up the TFG and their replacement with a UN peacekeeping force. Ahmed Abdisalam, the "deputy prime minister" who led the TFG delegation, pronounced the talks "very successful," a view echoed by Robert Wood, acting deputy spokesman at the United States Department of State, who declared that America "welcomes" the agreement and "reaffirms its support for rapid deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Somalia, and calls on all Somalis who seek peace and stability to support implementation." Unfortunately, the comity has been less than universal: beginning the day after the peace was announced, a constant barrage of mortars has rained down on Mogadishu's Villa Somalia, sometime seat of the TFG's largely-absentee "president," Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmad, underscoring both the would-be regime's utter lack of capacity and the consequent likelihood of continued, if not escalating, violence, peace accords and wishful thinking notwithstanding.

If this account has more than a whiff of déjà vu about it, it is because that just two months ago, on June 9, the "prime minister" of the TFG, Nur "Adde" Hassan Hussein, had signed yet another "peace agreement" with Shaykh Sharif after ten days of negotiations hosted by the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Somalia, Mauritanian diplomat Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah. The State Department likewise voiced its satisfaction with the accord, while insurgent attacks spiked and shells pounded Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmad as he tried to board a plane to get out of his putative capital. My judgment, expressed in this column on June 19, may have been severe, but is was correct and, in fact, applies to this latest diplomatic "success" as well:

Once again, the failure of international policy towards the former Somali Democratic Republic is rooted in the obstinate refusal to deal with reality. Specifically, how can anyone but the most process-bound functionary expect the TFG, an entity which otherwise lacks not only political effectiveness, but also moral credibility, to deliver on any accord? As for the other side, those interlocutors the TFG could attract were parleying precisely because they had no other cards to play a point underscored by the fact that the ARS central committee is expected to meet in the coming days to depose Sharif Shaykh Ahmad from his position in its leadership. In contrast, those opponents of the TFG who have real military strength, including the al-Shabaab terrorists, have no need to sit down with a literally broken septuagenarian like Abdullahi Yusuf who spends the majority of his time outside the country he pretends to lead and what little bit he is forced to actually be within it cowering in a bunker or making a run for the next flight out.

The fact is that the ARS is, as I pointed out in testimony to the Africa Subcommittee of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives nearly a year ago, a very broad coalition whose members have "little in common other a desire to drive the TFG from Mogadishu," one indication of which was that its central committee had no fewer than 191 members. I noted that while, "not all the members of the Somali opposition alliance are Islamists, much less Islamist terrorists," it appeared certain that "militant Islamists form the core of the movement." The faction that showed up to the Djibouti kaffeeklatsch were the moderates, who control neither effective force or much of a popular following, while the hardliners, who are based in Eritrea, where they enjoy the sponsorship of the rogue regime of Isaias Afewerki (see my report one year ago) and direct the activities of a large body of militants, did not deign to participate in the process. Meeting in the Eritrean capital of Asmara the day after the latest peace agreement was signed, members of the opposition alliance reiterated their allegiance to Hassan Dahir ‘Aweys, an al-Qaeda-linked hardliner who chaired the Islamic Courts Union shura during the brief reign of the Islamists in Mogadishu in 2006, as head of the ARS. The ARS rejectionists, including the members of al-Shabaab ("the youth"), which was formally designated a "foreign terrorist organization" by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier this year (see my March 27 report), have actually gone out of their way in recent days to signal their rejection of the peace process:

  • On August 15, two massive explosions rocked the road to airport as the TFG delegation was headed to for its flight to the Djibouti parlay. More significant than the fact that the attack forced the closure of the route was the fact that the bombers had operational intelligence on the movements of the internationally-recognized, but otherwise ineffective, authorities.

  • On August 17, soldiers from the Ugandan People's Defense Force whose 1,600-strong contingent makes up the bulk of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) were set upon by insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and automatic weapons as they were trying to remove an improvised explosive device (IED) planted on the roadside near the airport.

  • On August 18, the bodies of a Somali official working for the World Food Programme (WFP), Abdulkadir Diad Mohamed, and his driver were found near the southern town of Dinsoor. The two were, respectively, the sixth and seventh WFP employees killed in Somalia since the start of the year. WFP currently feeds some 2.4 million Somalis, although the number of those totally dependent upon food assistance is expected to grow to more than 3.6 million over the next twelve months according to a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) report released last week.

  • On August 20, mortars aimed at the Ugandan peacekeepers in central Mogadishu killed as least four civilians. The same day, grenade attacks in Beledweyne, the capital of the Hiran region, killed two Ethiopian soldiers and two civilians.

  • On August 21, a mortar fired by insurgents hit a mosque near Mogadishu's Bakara market, killing half a dozen civilians, while two dozen others were killed in fighting around the city. Meanwhile, in the southern town of Gedo, the head of the regional polio eradication program of World Health Organization (WHO), Bakal Mohammed, was shot in the head and left for dead.

  • On August 22, after several days of fierce fighting which left more than one hundred people dead and added another 35,000 to the more than million-strong ranks of displaced Somalis, al-Shabaab defeated a militia led by TFG "parliamentarian" and ex-"defense minister" Colonel Barre Hirale to seize control of the critical southern port city of Kismayo, the third-largest city in the benighted country. A spokesman for the Islamic Courts Union, Ibrahim Shukri, told Al Jazeera that the city "will remain under Islamic control." (The defeated Barre Hirale is precisely the type of warlord whose rapacity drove many Somalis into the embrace of the Islamic Courts movement in the first place.)

  • On August 23, Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout and an Australian colleague, Nigel Brennan, along with their Somali translator and two guards, were abducted as they travelled to the Elasha refugee camp southwest of Mogadishu. (One spokesman for the Islamists has denied responsibility for the kidnapping.)

An al-Shabaab leader, Mukhtar Robow, a.k.a., Abu Mansur, a veteran fighter alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, confirmed to participants in a media conference call last week that the attacks were indeed to show Somalis that the peace deal was "futile" and that "the jihad will continue, there is no peace agreement, the martyrs will move ahead on the path of jihad bath even if Ethiopians pull out" until "Islamic law is the constitution of the Somalis." Subsequently, the Los Angeles Times has reported that Robow both acknowledges al-Shabaab's ties to al-Qaeda and its desire for a closer relationship:

We are negotiating how we can unite into one. We will take our orders from Sheik Osama bin Laden because we are his students ... Al Qaeda is the mother of the holy war in Somalia. Most of our leaders were trained in Al Qaeda camps. We get our tactics and guidelines from them. Many have spent time with Osama bin Laden.

Robow also boasted, but offered no confirmation, that foreign fighters, including Kenyans, Sudanese, Iraqis, Afghans, Algerians, Indonesians, Chechens, and even Americans, had joined up with al-Shabaab.

Moreover, not only does the continuing violence highlight the strength of al-Shabaab and other insurgent groups and their potential for escalating the conflict as well as, correspondingly, the weakness of the TFG and the factions parleying with it but it is a constant reminder of the need for the type of security upon which any sustainable peace must be predicated upon. On this point, it's hard to decide which was the more delusional and/or cynical move, the Djibouti Accord's call on the UN Security Council "to accelerate the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force to facilitate the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces from Somalia" or the Council's unanimous vote two days later to extend the mission of AMISOM for another six months while urging "Member States of the African Union to contribute to AMISOM in order to ... help create the conditions for lasting peace and stability there."

Never mind that, as I have argued for nearly two years, that there is no way that the modest authorized force of 8,000 African peacekeepers will ever manage to do what the larger international forces, each at least four times that size, failed to do in the early 1990s. With African military capabilities already stretched to their limits by the hitherto unmet demands of the hybrid African Union/United Nations peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID), pledged troop contributions have added up to barely half of the force strength. And, so far, only Uganda has fully deployed its peacekeepers, although an 850-strong force, representing half of Burundi's commitment, finally showed up this year (see my report last year on the challenges faced by African peacekeeping).

Even if a force were to somehow materialize an effort that would take months, if it happened at all it is not quite clear what its mandate would be and which side it would support once it was fielded. While the TFG has never been noted for its political legitimacy or effective strength, it managed to recently surprise even longtime Somalia watchers with the depths into which it is capable of sinking. At the end of July, Nur "Adde" Hassan Hussein attempted to fire Mohamed Dheere, a close ally of Abdullahi Yusuf, from his position as "mayor" of Mogadishu which he has reportedly used to engage in massive extortion. In response, two-thirds of the cabinet including the "ministers" holding the portfolios for justice, defense, foreign affairs, and energy and natural resources resigned, denouncing what they described as "abuse of power" and "dictatorial tendencies" on the part of the "prime minister." The result was a deadlock within the TFG between the titular head of state and the nominal head of government. Consequently, neither man was even at the negotiations in Djibouti because both had been summoned to Addis Ababa where Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi attempted to mediate between them.

While the country they pretend to govern is literally burning down around them, TFG officials seem more concern about personal enrichment. Last week, Mohamud Ali Salah, who resigned as energy and natural resource minister earlier in the month, popped up in Kuwait to sign a deal, apparently approved by Abdullahi Yusuf, setting up a "Somali Petroleum Company" to explore for oil. The TFG will own 51 percent of the new outfit, while the Kuwait Energy Company and Indonesia's PT Medco Energy International will each own a 24.5 stake. It was not immediately clear whether or not this deal superseded one which the TFG "president" signed last year with a Chinese group (see my report on "China's Play for Somalia's Oil").

It should be recalled that the TFG itself, the fourteenth attempt at an interim government since the ignominious collapse of the Somali Democratic Republic in 1991, is the creation of a group of self-appointed "leaders" who met abroad at a Kenyan lakeside resort in 2004. According to its own charter, the TFG is supposed to dissolve next year after holding national elections. With the prospect of a poll being conducted nonexistent, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed is clearly maneuvering to extend his tenure by several more years, seeking to marginalize Nur "Adde" Hassan Hussein in the same way he managed to force out the previous "prime minister," Ali Mohamed Gedi, and monopolize for himself the TFG's international recognition and the aid money that comes with it. (Since 1991, the world has pumped more than $8 billion in foreign aid to the various transitional governments, an amount equal to about $1,500 for every Somali man, woman, and child and has virtually nothing to show for it.) The latest squabbles within the TFG drew a sharp rebuke from Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin who, venting in a Financial Times interview last week, blasted the TFG "president" and "prime minister" for being "the biggest obstacle to peace": "The main challenge now is not what they call the enemy. It's an intra-government crisis that is preventing them from focusing on the tasks they need to get done. There has been a lack of vigor and, if I may say so, a lack of commitment." Later, in the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry's weekly bulletin, blame was assigned directly to the quarreling TFG officials:

The presence of the President, the Prime Minister and the Speaker of Parliament, for talks in Addis Ababa for all of a week, indicates there has yet been little progress in resolving the dispute ... While the people of Somalia for sure are losing, the only people who benefit from their disagreements are Al-Shabaab or the Asmara-based opposition. Indeed, progress within the time remaining for completion of the peace process, and of the Charter, is only possible if the President and Prime Minister stop trying to remove each other. Neither can do so. They have a symbiotic relationship. However, one has to ask if the top officials cannot work together, how can they effectively undertake negotiations with an opposition with whom they have far greater philosophical and ideological differences than with each other.

In the meantime, the waters off Somalia grow even more dangerous. Last Thursday, armed pirates seized an Iranian bulk carrier with 29 crew members, a Japanese chemical tanker with 19 hands on bard, and a German-operated cargo ship flying the flag of Antigua and Barbuda manned by 9 seamen. The attacks followed the seizure two days earlier of a Malaysian palm oil tanker with its crew of 39. A total of seven vessels have been hijacked in the last month alone, not counting a Japanese-operated cargo ship which managed to escape from attackers in two speed boats who had fired upon it in the Gulf of Aden.

The piracy is not only a symptom of the lawlessness on shore, but also a cause of it. In a reversal of the pattern when the Islamic Courts controlled most of Somali territory and had imposed a relative, if oppressive, calm, evidence is now emerging that at least part of the large ransoms being paid for the hijacked vessels is being funneled to the insurgency by the pirates, both to buy the Islamists' non-interference and to prevent any stable government from emerging which might hamper the lucrative maritime predation. Noting that the spike in attacks at sea has coincided with a rise in assaults on land by al-Shabaab and allied groups, Andrew Mwangura, head of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme, told Reuters last weekend, "The entire Somali coastline is now under control of the Islamists ... According to our information, the money they make from piracy and ransoms goes to support al-Shabaab activities onshore." While the UN Security Council has marginally improved the legal regime governing the situation with the unanimous passage in early June of Resolution 1816 which authorizes the naval forces of other countries to enter Somali waters to tackle piracy, the maritime attacks and the ongoing violence and instability on land will both continue to the detriment of the international community as well as Somalis with little prospect for improvement until the realist counsel I last offered in my May 1 column is taken to heart:

The international community needs to formally acknowledge de jure what is already de facto: the desuetude of "Somalia" as a sovereign subject of international law. Unitary Somalia is not only dead, but the carcass of that state has been putrefied; reanimation is no longer in the realm of possible. To apply Max Weber's thesis, a government like the TFG that does not even enjoy the monopoly on the legitimate use of force in its own capital much less elsewhere in the territory it claims as its own is no government at all. Instead of constantly trying to put the best face on a bad situation, ... the emphasis should be shifted to local Somali entities which have taken responsibility for governance in their respective regions. As I argued in the March/April issue of The National Interest, these latter the Republic of Somaliland, the Puntland region, and others should be progressively rewarded for achieving benchmarks of progress.

I am heartened that just last week even Jeffrey Gettleman, a New York Times correspondent whose analysis of the situation in the Horn of Africa I have frequently disagreed with, was moved to ask in the pages of the Gray Lady, "Does the international community have it all wrong in Somalia?" Gettleman went on to provide an answer his own query:

Nothing seems to be able to lift Somalia's curse of anarchy. And part of the problem ... is that the bulk of outside efforts have concentrated on standing up a strong central government, which may be anathema in a country where authority tends to be diffuse and clan-based. But the transitional government is essentially on life support. Its presence in Mogadishu, the capital, is limited to a few blocks that are constantly shelled. It is unpopular and, by extension, weak. Its leaders are consumed by yet another round of infighting ... But there may be another answer: going local ... [A]n alternative form of government that might be better suited to Somalia's fluid, fragmented and decentralized society ... is to rebuild Somalia from the bottom up.

Unfortunately, many American policymakers are either caught up in the election campaign or, in the case of exiting incumbents, either packing their golden parachutes or looking for a soft landing. Those not otherwise distracted (as well as their counterparts in rest of the world) are wont to be preoccupied with higher profile geopolitical challenges like Russia's menacing resurgence in Eurasia and Iran's unrelenting pursuit of nuclear weapons. Consequently, expect the wait for an approach that actually engages the realities of power, social dynamics, and political legitimacy in the Horn of Africa rather than repeating the failures of the past two decades while piously mouthing tired nostrums to be that much longer. In the meantime, the former Somalia will remain, as the U.S. State Department's Country Reports on Terrorism 2007, released April 30, noted, "a permissive operating environment and a potential safe haven for both Somali and foreign terrorists already in the region."

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.

© 2008 J. Peter Pham

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