July 25, 2007 | World Defense Review

Mired in Mogadishu

Two weeks ago a “national reconciliation congress” that Somalia's ineffectual “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG), under pressure from international donors who are its only means of support, convened in a bullet-riddled Mogadishu garage finally got underway – and promptly adjourned after mortar fell nearby. Despite this inauspicious start, four days later at the State Department in Washington, Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey tried to put the best spin the deteriorating situation by choosing to not acknowledge the ignominious dispersal of gathering:

The United States welcomes the opening of the Somalia National Reconciliation Congress in Mogadishu on Sunday, July 15, and looks forward to continued deliberations over the coming weeks. We are encouraged by the remarks from President Abdullahi Yusuf stating that the Congress will address key political issues, such as power sharing and transitional tasks mandated by the Transitional Federal Charter, and that the Transitional Federal Government will implement the outcomes of the Congress. We urge all Somali stakeholders to participate constructively in the Congress and use this opportunity to establish a roadmap for the remainder of the transitional process leading to elections in 2009.

There is little likelihood of any of these benchmarks, much less all of them, being met. For one thing, the TFG is, at best, a notional entity whose day-to-day physical survival is due to the continuing presence of the Ethiopian intervention force which rescued it last December from certain collapse in the face of an assault by the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which at the time controlled Mogadishu and majority of the territory of the former Somali Democratic Republic and were threatening to overrun the provincial outback of Baidoa, the only Somali town where the interim “government” even had the pretense of running. For another, even if the TFG were able to hold elections, it would have little incentive to do so given that the only certain result is that a poll would result in “President” Abdullahi Yusuf, a Majeerteen subclansman of the Darod clan from northeastern Puntland, being repudiated by Hawiye clan which predominates in the country's sometime capital of Mogadishu.

In fact, the “national” conference – the first for the TFG since it was set up in late 2004 as the fourteenth attempt at an interim government – has been repeatedly postponed (three times since April alone) and only got underway this time because the European Union's special envoy for Somalia, Georges-Marc Andrea, together with Mario Raffaelli, the special envoy from the former colonial ruler, Italy, went in person to Mogadishu the week before to ensure that it did. Most of the delegates who showed up openly admitted that they did so because the international community was paying an extravagant cash per diem allowance equal to month's wages (originally over 3,000 clan elders and other notables were invited, but the number had to be pared down to just over 1,300 because funding shortfalls meant that there was only enough money to assure that many six weeks' worth of the dole). Excluded from this largesse were leaders of rival clans as well as Islamists, moderate and otherwise (the TFG did make a show of extending a late invitation to the foreign secretary of the ICU, Ibrahim Hassan Adow, now living in exile in Qatar, but he could hardly have been expected to travel to Mogadishu while the same Ethiopian troops who drove him and his allies out six months ago are still present).

In any event, the formal agenda for the “reconciliation congress” was limited to mainly clan issues with no real political questions on the table. The TFG “president” was not about to allow a discussion of his position to occur, much less in a city dominated by his clan rivals (the Hawiye ran most other Darod out of town in the early 1990s after the collapse of last real government, the Siyad Barre dictatorship). Nor was the position of its prime minister, Ali Mohamed Gedi, open to be filled since the incumbent enjoys close ties with the TFG's chief supporter, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who employed Gedi's father as a glorified valet in the 1980s. Likewise precluded was any real debate about allocations of the TFG's only source of revenue other than international mendicancy, fees collected at the port of Mogadishu. The latter, however, have been treated as little more than a privy purse by the president and prime minister, both of whom are proud owners of new villas in the capital of neighboring Kenya.

In this context, it is not particularly surprisingly that the TFG, its Ethiopian defenders, and the pathetically undermanned African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) find themselves facing a growing armed resistance which, as I predicted in a column nearly five months ago, is “repeating almost step-by-step the tactical and strategic evolution of the Iraqi insurgency.” Spearheading the insurgency is al-Shabaab (“the Youth”), an extremist group which I reported last year emerged within the ICU's armed forces and is led by a kinsman and protégé of ICU council leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir ‘Aweys, Adan Hashi ‘Ayro, who trained in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda before returning to Somalia after 9/11. Recent intelligence indicates that Shabaab efforts have been coordinated by Fazul Abdullah Muhammad, the reputed leader of al-Qaeda in East Africa who is on the FBI's “Most Wanted Terrorists” list with a $5 million bounty on his head for his role in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi , Kenya. Fazul, who is said to have been the target of the guided-missile destroyer USS Chafee's shelling of a stretch of the Somali coast last month, is reportedly working directly as intelligence chief for the Shabaab campaign.

Things had gotten so bad by early July that Mogadishu's famed open-air Bakara Market was shut down for the first time in living memory (the sprawling bazaar was open for business even through the madness of the battle captured in Black Hawk Down) as insurgents and TFG supporters, backed by Ethiopian soldiers, have turned the commercial center into daily battlefield – just on Sunday, at least one person was killed and several more wounded in clashes there. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at least 10,000 people fled the sometime capital city last week alone, bringing the net emigration figure to an estimated 275,000 since the beginning of the year. In addition, last week UNHCR had to reopen the closed refugee camp at Teneri Ber in eastern Ethiopia for another 4,000 refugees from southern Somalia. While African leaders went through the motions of renewing AMISOM's mandate for another six months, given the rapid spiral of violence from drive-by shootings to artillery and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fire to improvised explosive devices (IED) to suicide bombings, it is understandable why no one is eager to join the 1,600 Ugandan peacekeepers who have been keeping a low profile since they deployed several months ago (see my April 12 column, “Peacekeepers with No Peace to Keep“).

To make matters worse, the TFG's ham-fisted ways have not only driven potential Somali constituents into the arms of the insurgents, who are increasingly embracing a broad spectrum ranging from radical Islamists with foreign ties to irate members of sidelined clans, but have also succeeded in alienating international nongovernmental organizations. As the Voice of America's Alisha Ryu reported earlier this month, TFG officials have been harassing and intimidating humanitarian organizations that refuse to work under its control, including SAACID, a women's NGO involved in the largest demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration program in central southern Somalia, whose country director and her husband were briefly arrested on charges of being “Hawiye terrorists” (see SAACID-Somalia's press release on the incident). Meanwhile, as Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times wrote poignantly last week, “piracy off of Somalia's 1,880-mile coastline is a serious issue again, threatening to cut off crucial food deliveries to a population that is often just a few handfuls of grain away from famine.”

There is only one way to escape the downward spiral and that is by summoning the clarity of vision and mustering the political courage to squarely confront the facts on the ground and come to the following realizations which I outlined in this space four months ago and which bear repeating:

  • The recent escalation in violence cannot be interpreted other than as the wholesale rejection by Somali clans of the TFG as well as any foreign forces which are viewed as shoring up the that pretender government. The danger is that, since Somalia's homegrown Islamists were defeated but not eliminated as I called for in January while the Ethiopian campaign was in progress, the clansmen will align themselves with the ICU/PRM much like the Pashtun tribes backed and, in many cases, continue to back the Taliban in Afghanistan. Stop wasting time, money, political capital, and, now, lives on the TFG.


  • There is no hope of outsiders being able to reconstitute a unitary Somali state. Somalilanders – roughly half of whom have been born after the northwestern republic reclaimed its sovereignty upon the collapse of the Somali Democratic Republic in 1991 and have never even known themselves as Somalis – will never agree to turn back the clock and reenter into a union with the rest of the country. The inhabitants of the semi-autonomous northeastern region of Puntland which, while not as politically advanced as the Republic of Somaliland, is nonetheless making significant progress on its own, are likewise unlikely to want to chain themselves to the anarchic rest of the former state. As for the other Somali regions, their clans show little inclination to surrender their traditional freedoms, reasserted in the decade and a half since the collapse of the Siyad Barre dictatorship, to a new central regime. Consequently, short of employing overwhelming brutal force – and, even then, the odds of success are not good – there is little likelihood that Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again.


  • Given that the international community is both unlikely to use force to compel unity and unwilling to support extensive nation-building efforts, its primary strategic objective must therefore be to prevent both outside actors from exploiting the vacuum left by the de facto extinction of the entity formerly known as Somalia and those inside the onetime state from spreading their insecurity throughout a geopolitically sensitive region. On a secondary level the international community might also be interested in facilitating progress inside the failed state; however the outsiders' chief interests will be allocating their scarce resources where they can achieve some effect. The last point about security and scarce resources is particularly important since it was only last month that a “dangerous terror suspect” by the name of Abdullahi Sudi Arale had been transferred to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This detainee who served as a courier between the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan and their affiliates in the Horn of Africa, was captured in Somalia where, since he returned from South Asia last September, he has been part of the leadership of the Islamic Courts Union which he assisted by acquiring weapons and explosives and providing false documents for foreign extremists traveling to join their fight.


    When I put forward my proposal earlier this year, I acknowledged its limits:

    A policy like the one I have outlined may strike many as minimalist, to date the international community has shown little inclination to do much more than proffer empty words. Furthermore, my approach buys Somalis themselves the space within which to make their own determinations about their future while at the same time allowing the rest of the world, especially the countries of the Horn of Africa, to realize most of security objectives. In short, this strategy has offers the most realistic hope of salvaging a modicum of regional stability and international security out of an increasingly intractable situation.

    If last week's botched congress is any indication, the only thing that has changed is that we have wasted several more months and several more million dollars even as the insurgents gathered strength from the accumulating grievances of those marginalized by the TFG. If a foreign-funded kaffeeklatsch by the handpicked (and paid) invitees of a “government” with no grass-roots support is the most creative solution the international community's Africa policymakers can come up with, it is going to be a very long, very hot, and very violent summer in Mogadishu.


    – J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.


Read in World Defense Review