APOLOGISTS for the pre-eminent global superpower frequently complain that the object of their allegiance all too often attracts unfavourable publicity even when it does a good deed. Ask them for an example and they’ll invariably conjure up images so riddled with subjectivity that any resemblance to real events turns out to be purely coincidental. There are, however, exceptions. And one of these has unexpectedly reared its head in the Horn of Africa.
It ought to be acknowledged that the United States of America has played a positive role in the return of a semblance of sanity to the Somali capital, Mogadishu. It has done so indirectly and – surprise, surprise – inadvertently.
The US has long looked upon Somalia – the ultimate failed state in Africa, which has had no functioning central government since Mohammed Siad Barre was toppled in 1991 – as a likely hideout for Al Qaeda operatives, particularly those associated with acts of terrorism in East Africa. Somalia’s proximity to Yemen has helped to reinforce that impression, leading to the assumption that Islamist elements in Somalia must necessarily have some links with Al Qaeda.
This may not be an entirely spurious line of thinking, but the manner in which the US chose to pre-empt any possible threat serves as yet another reminder of its unwillingness or inability to draw logical conclusions from its previous mistakes. In this case, it chose to align itself with the so-called warlords who had made life a misery for Somalis since the early 1990s and therefore inspired a visceral hatred among their compatriots.
(If you’ll excuse a brief digression, it’s probably worth noting that the term “warlord” is more or less exclusively reserved for factional military commanders in lands that are generally deemed to have been denied the blessings of civilization. Such usage gives rise to the suspicion that there are racist connotations embedded in the term. Its dictionary definition is “a commander or commander-in-chief, especially where and when the military power is great (now usually derogatory)”. In my opinion, the word’s descriptive utility can triumph over any offensive implications, provided it is used in a non-discriminatory manner. That, of course, involves acknowledging that the Grand Poo-Bah of all warlords resides in the White House.)
It has been reported that the CIA surreptitiously funnelled funds – and quite possibly weapons – to the “secular” warlords, who had styled themselves as the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism. The nomenclature was widely seen as a marketing ploy. The US has neither confirmed nor denied the allegations, but officials who refused to be identified have, in conversations with media outlets such as The Washington Post and The New York Times, admitted American attempts to tackle Al Qaeda suspects without direct involvement in the nitty-gritty.
The hands-off approach wasn’t a nod to local sensitivities, nor the consequence of a lack of resources: 1,600 US troops are based in neighbouring Djibouti. However, the last time the US intervened directly in Somalia back in 1993, it lost two Black Hawk helicopters and 18 servicemen (it was alleged at one time that Osama bin Laden had a hand in the incident). Almost immediately afterwards, Bill Clinton withdrew all American troops; a year later, the United Nations, too, decided to leave Somalia to its fate.
Reports suggest that not all American officials were complacent about their government’s strategy: those familiar with the region realised that bankrolling the warlords would prove extremely unpopular with Somalis in general, and may well encourage the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. However, their warnings about the likelihood of counterproductive consequences went unheeded, and one of them was even transferred from the US embassy in Nairobi – which also happens to be home to the relevant CIA station. The available evidence suggests that the State Department was broadly at cross-purposes with the CIA and the Pentagon.
According to Aini Abukar Ga’al, a human rights officer for the Coalition of Grassroots Women’s Organizations in Mogadishu, “The warlords made it very clear that they had taken money from the US and that they were looking for Al Qaeda suspects on America’s behalf. This immediately gave birth to a popular insurrection against them. Ordinary people helped by blocking the roads, and even using their own weapons to fight. It’s what we’ve been dreaming of for so long.”
At the helm of the insurrection was an organization that until last week was called Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The warlords fled, and American analysts were left wondering whether this outcome was the worst of all possible scenarios as far as their government’s efforts were concerned. The overwhelming majority of Mogadishu residents, on the other hand, were more than relieved by the ouster of the warlords: they were positively jubilant.
This jubilation cannot be interpreted as support for a potential Islamist agenda: it was simply a reaction to the fact that ordinary people could get about in the Somali capital without fear of violence, extortion or rape. The hired bodyguards that almost everyone – even taxi drivers – relied on for protection were suddenly no longer necessary. Sudden bursts of random gunfire ceased to be heard. Mogadishu hasn’t been so “normal” in 15 years.
The obvious question now, of course, is whether the relative calm can last, or will the debilitating anarchy of yesteryears return – within days, weeks or months? Almost equally pertinent is the extent to which the Islamists intend to enforce the shariah.
The ICU evolved from Islamic courts set up in Mogadishu by clans and sub-clans as a means of establishing law and order in sections of the city. They evidently proved remarkably successful, and therefore extremely popular even among those Somalis who weren’t particularly enamoured of Islamic laws. There are conflicting reports about the extent to which the courts have meted out the more dreadful punishments associated with the shariah (partly because until this month Mogadishu has largely been a foreign correspondent-free zone), but the impression one gets is that the extremes have thus far been avoided, else Somalis are likely to have been more circumspect about celebrating the ICU’s ascendancy.
The reports out of Mogadishu on this matter have been contradictory, but one development late last week could turn out to be a viable cause for concern. Since its inception in 2004, the ICU had been chaired by Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a former schoolteacher who became an activist after one of his students was kidnapped by a warlord-associated militia. He reputedly adheres to Sufi teachings, and his statements after the ICU established control over Mogadishu on June 5 were remarkably conciliatory, maintaining that the union’s primary aim was to establish peace rather than an Islamist state. A BBC report described him as “a youthful-looking leader” who “maintains a modest appearance, dressing simply in a long-sleeved Pakistani-style shirt and a pair of trousers which do not reach his ankles and cheap sandals” – which points to a tablighi-like sartorial sense, although it would be unfair to read too much into that.
The US was more concerned about Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who heads one of the 11 courts that made up the ICU and was once chief of the now defunct Al Itihaad Al Islamiya, an organization linked to Al Qaeda (at least in the American imagination), a background that earned him a place on Washington’s list of terrorist suspects. Last Friday it was announced that the ICU had been replaced with the Council of the Islamic Courts, with Aweys taking over from Ahmed as its chairman.
The inner dynamics of the renamed council, and thereby the implications of this change, are largely a mystery to observers outside Somalia: it does seem provocative, but that could turn out to be a superficial view. Some analysts have predictably compared the situation in Mogadishu with the Taliban conquest of Kabul more than a decade ago, which was initially welcomed by many Afghans because it spelt an end to the anarchy unleashed by the Mujahideen. That isn’t a ridiculous parallel, but the temptation to jump to conclusions ought to be avoided.
The erstwhile ICU was quick to enter negotiations with the transitional Somali government that was established in 2004, but has hitherto exercised little influence over the nation’s affairs; although ostensibly based in Baidoa, some 200km north of Mogadishu, its leaders – president Abdullah Yusuf and prime minister Ali Mohammed Ghedi – live in Nairobi. Both of them have been somewhat ambivalent about the Islamist takeover, initially welcoming it but subsequently combining their enthusiasm with reservations. Yusuf, himself a warlord, apparently enjoys the support of Ethiopia, which is wary of the prospect of an Islamist neighbour. The transitional government, which is supported by the African Union (AU), has been keen on introducing foreign (chiefly Ethiopian) peacekeepers – an idea that is anathema to the Islamists and, it seems, to most other Somalis as well. It is rumoured that the Islamists are supported by Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
It is quite conceivable that the respite Somalis have gained could turn out to be ephemeral. The shape of the future is contingent on a host of imponderables, including the intentions of the Islamists and the attitude of Ethiopia, the AU and, not least, the US – the unintended consequences of whose actions have created a chance for peace. It is, needless to chance, that ought not to be squandered. That’s mainly up to the Somalis, who constitute an unusually coherent nation in terms of ethnicity and religion, riven only by rival clans. The rest of Africa (and other interested parties) can help by facilitating negotiations. The worst possible step at this juncture would be any sort of armed intervention, which would be likely to set Somalia back at least 15 years.