Intelligence Brief: Somalia

Posted in Africa | 18-Oct-05 | Author: Michael Weinstein

Women line up to vote in Hargeisa during the first multiparty parliamentary elections in the breakaway Somaliland.

The stateless territory of Somalia at the eastern edge of the Horn of Africa drifted toward greater division during the week of October 3, when its breakaway northern region of Somaliland held multi-party parliamentary elections, completing the process of formalizing and institutionalizing an independent mini-state.

Meanwhile, in the country's center and south, violent conflicts between rival militia continued, a senior military officer representing a faction of the deadlocked Transitional Federal Government (T.F.G.) was assassinated, a U.N. security officer was killed in a previously peaceful area and the T.F.G.'s President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed denied rumors that he was planning to invade the capital Mogadishu from his base in the town of Jowhar.

Although it is most frequently called an "anarchy" or a "failed state," Somalia is most accurately described as a society with varying degrees of regional political integration and no effective and legitimate central authority. Along with Somaliland, the region of Puntland has a functioning government and other regions have incipient authorities. As Somalia's complex clan-based society has adapted to statelessness, it has slowly emerged from chaos into a pattern of imperfect decentralized order that might eventually result in national political integration, a break-up into mini-states or a chronic condition of political indetermination.

Somalia entered its stateless condition in 1991, when a number of regional insurgent groups overthrew the dictatorial regime of President Mohamed Siad Barre and were unable to agree on a national political formula. The country, which was formed in 1960 as a union of the former British protectorate of Somaliland in the north and the Italian colony of Somaliland in the south, descended into a civil conflict, in which the clan-based leaders of the insurgency attempted to consolidate their regional control. Almost immediately, the region encompassing the former British Somaliland declared its independence and built its own institutions. Puntland followed in 1998, declaring "temporary independence," pending a national accord, and was joined by Southwestern Somalia.

Regional integration has been most successful in areas that are dominated by a single clan and has not proceeded at all where rival clans contest one another. Mogadishu, where many of the rivalries converge, has become a flashpoint of instability.

With a population estimated at approximately 10.5 million people, a predominantly pastoral economy, no strategic resources and a rudimentary industrial base that has been decimated by civil war, Somalia's strategic significance resides in its close proximity to Arabia across a stretch of the Red Sea. Given its geographical position, Washington and European powers have in interest in stabilizing Somalia, primarily because its fragmentation has provided the opportunity for Islamic revolutionary movements, including al-Qaeda, to gain a foothold in weakly governed areas. An additional cause of concern is the appearance of domestic Islamist movements and of Islamic courts with their own militia that have arisen in response to the authority deficit. [See: "Do Al-Qaeda's East Africa Operations Pose a Threat to U.S. Interests?"]

A U.S.-led humanitarian and nation-building intervention under the auspices of the U.N. was initiated in 1993, but was withdrawn in 1995 after a firefight in Mogadishu resulted in U.S. troop casualties. Since then, Western powers have attempted to pressure Somalia's contending factions to reach a national accord. Their efforts appeared to yield some success in October 2004, when the T.F.G. was formed in Kenya out of an agreement among regional militia and political leaders, and was recognized by the Western powers. [See: "Intelligence Brief: Somalia"]

The T.F.G. quickly froze into deadlock, as President Yusuf -- Puntland's ex-strongman -- removed the factions supporting him to Jowhar and his opponents based themselves in Mogadishu. Yusuf refuses to constitute the T.F.G. in Mogadishu, claiming that conditions there are too unstable to do so, and his rivals are equally firm in their insistence that the city be made the seat of government. Far from being a symbolic dispute, the row over the capital reflects genuine power struggles among groups that are jealous of their autonomy and have not reconciled.

Somaliland Consolidates

Remaining separate from the struggles to its south, Somaliland has gradually evolved into a fledgling parliamentary democracy, after completing a process leading from local elections in 2002, through a presidential election in 2003, to the recent multi-party contest for an 82 seat parliament. Although Somaliland is not recognized by any state -- African states do not want to set precedents for secession and the great powers would prefer a national accord -- it issues its own currency and passports. The three parties contesting the parliamentary elections are clan based and share a consensus that Somaliland's primary interest is to maintain its independence and to have its sovereignty recognized by the international community.

Somaliland's relative success in nation building, despite its poverty and its dependence on remittances from the Somali diaspora, is due to the disposition of its clan leaders to resolve their differences through negotiation. After Barre ordered the bombing of Somaliland's capital Hargeisa in 1988 in order to quell resistance to his regime, the region's population became overwhelmingly pro-independence, encouraging cooperation among its leaders.

Although international recognition is not imminent, Washington issued a statement on October 3 congratulating Somaliland "on holding peaceful elections with significant voter turnout" and calling on the parliamentary parties "to strengthen the democratic transition in Somaliland and serve as an example for greater Somalia." Along with an Ethiopian pledge to ship goods through Somaliland, Washington's shift toward a regionalist approach increases the probability that Hargeisa will achieve its aims and secures its present autonomy.

Yusuf Bids for Advantage

As Somaliland cemented its autonomy, Yusuf moved to strengthen his hand by cultivating support from Ethiopia and Yemen for the military forces that he controls and seeks to increase. Somali media reported that T.F.G. ministers allied to Yusuf had been sent to Addis Ababa to negotiate for the provision of more Ethiopian trainers for the army that the president is building, and to Yemen to firm up a deal for anti-aircraft missiles. There are already approximately 200 Ethiopian military instructors training Yusuf's forces and their presence has aroused opposition from the T.F.G. factions based in Mogadishu.

Resistance to Yusuf was manifest on October 7, when Colonel Mohamed Mohamud Raghe, who was involved in training the emerging military force, was assassinated in Mogadishu while visiting relatives. Analysts in the region warn that Yusuf's power play threatens to drive a deeper wedge into Somalia's divisions by drawing in the country's traditional rival Ethiopia. Nonetheless, Somalia media also reported that the T.F.G. mission to Addis Ababa would meet with U.S. military officials to discuss "anti-terrorist" cooperation. Despite a U.N. arms embargo on Somalia, Washington seems to be ready to ignore Addis Ababa's reported military aid to Yusuf and to league with it in taking sides.

In an interview with al-Jazeera Television, Yusuf denied that he was planning to invade Mogadishu, reaffirmed his commitment to locate the T.F.G. in Mogadishu when it was safe to do so, was skeptical about dialogue with his T.F.G. opponents, and firmly rejected negotiations with Somaliland and Puntland.

The Bottom Line

As Somalia continues its evolution towards a more regularized regionalism, it is too early to predict whether the present stage will be a prelude to a viable federation, an irreversible process ending in fragmentation or a harbinger of persistent indetermination.

Somalia's future will in great part depend upon the degree to which Addis Ababa succeeds in its efforts to gain a sphere of influence in the country. Appearing to have accepted the facts on the ground, Washington is shifting its strategy toward collaborating with Addis Ababa and taking its side throughout the Horn of Africa. By doing so, Washington is abandoning its hopes for regional integration and settling into balance-of-power politics. That approach will yield advantages if Ethiopian initiatives are effective, but courts the danger of greater instability if they are not.

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