Somalia's warlords: Feeding on a failed state

Posted in Africa | 21-Jan-04 | Author: Abdulqawi Yusuf| Source: International Herald Tribune

Somalia's warlords

PARIS - Political solutions have been found for several longstanding conflicts in Africa in 2003 - in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and Burundi. The political arrangements in these countries may not necessarily usher in permanent peace and stability, but they at least afford an opportunity to work toward such goals.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for Somalia, where anarchy, violence and chaos have prevailed for 15 years. A national reconciliation conference - the 13th of its kind - has been sitting in Nairobi for 15 months, unable to cobble together a transitional government. As usual, all possible solutions are stymied by warlords, warmongers and wannabe presidents.

Who are these foes of peace and reconciliation in Somalia?

The warlords are the worst of the lot. They carry primary responsibility for the agony of the Somali people. They frustrated the United Nations peacekeeping operation in Somalia in the early 1990's, and since then have been undermining all efforts to pacify the country or to set up an effective national government. Their armed militias have murdered hundreds of thousands of Somalis and forced more than a million into exile.

The warlords have neither an ideology nor a political agenda. Their actions are solely driven by the pursuit of illicit enrichment and war booty. The individual fiefdoms they have carved out are used as a base for the exploitation of confiscated properties, plantations, ports and airports, as well as for drug trafficking, the issuance of fishing licenses for foreign concerns and for arms trade.

Because of the fortunes made by the first few warlords after the ouster of the dictator Muhammad Siad Barre in 1991, their numbers have been increasing in the last few years. In the capital, Mogadishu, there are no less than six warlords, each controlling a different section of the city and its rural hinterland.

The warlords are opposed to the creation of effective central or provincial governments, because of the danger such authority would pose for their illegitimate businesses. None of them, of course, would refuse if offered to head such a government, but none would accept a government led by another.

Then there are the warmongers, the financiers and business allies of the warlords. They run the plantations and manage the ports and airports; they organize the drug-trafficking and arms trade; they establish contacts with foreign companies for banana exports and fishing licenses. They promote the image of the warlords to the outside world as "faction leaders" or "clan elders," and generally put their racketeering activities in a positive light. Every year or two, they print new banknotes which are exchanged against the dollars or euros received by the impoverished population as remittances from relatives abroad.

The warmongers are as loath to have a peaceful settlement of the Somali crisis as the warlords. An end to the chaos and warlord-created fiefdoms would sound the death-knell for their insidious power.

Then there are the legions of wannabe presidents. Some of these have already anointed themselves - at present, between Mogadishu and the self-declared states of Puntland and Somaliland, there are no less than five presidents and several prime ministers.

Others are perpetual candidates for leadership. At the national reconciliation conference held in Djibouti in 2000, a transitional Parliament of 254 members was selected and charged with the task of electing the president of a provisional government. Forty-five of the deputies, almost one-fifth, immediately submitted their candidacies for the post.

The same circus is being re-enacted at the neverending Nairobi talks, with more than 60 declared candidates among 365 delegates. Most of the pretenders are disciples of the deceased dictator, Siad Barre, under whom they had served. They dream of a lifetime presidency and instant wealth. Whoever among the wannabe presidents does not win the keys to the shop will do everything in his power to thwart its exploitation by others.

Somehow, Somalis will have to find a solution to their sorrowful predicament. They will have to find in themselves as well as in their history and culture the wherewithal to overthrow the yoke of their homegrown oppressors.

The odds of this happening are long unless they get a helping hand from other countries, especially their neighbors, as well as from Europe and the United States. Such assistance should no longer be in the form of futile reconciliation conferences, but should focus on criminal prosecution, sanctions and isolation of those responsible for the unending chaos and conflict in Somalia. Die-hard warlords will never reconcile or disarm unless forced to. In the absence of a credible legal system in Somalia, only coercive measures by the international community could help bring to an end their criminal and murderous enterprises. The freezing of the warlords' ill-gotten assets, travel bans on them and their families, sanctions on foreign corporations doing business with them and the establishment of an international commission of inquiry on massacres and mass murders committed by them and their armed thugs would go a long way to pave the way for a real peace in Somalia.

Equally effective would be targeted assistance to those regions and areas where peace and stability have been secured through civilian-based governance. Helping those relatively calm provinces develop new institutions of self-government and laying the groundwork at the local level for democratic structures and mechanisms would serve as a powerful incentive for others to follow. On the basis of such self-governing units, a new Somali state could be established, perhaps with a federal structure. Attempts to find a magic formula for a rotating presidency among Somalia's warlords, warmongers and wannabe presidents are doomed to failure.

Warlordism breeds not only domestic terrorism and mayhem, but can provide a useful cover for international terrorist activities. The sooner the Somali people are helped to get rid of warlords, the faster another potential safe haven for terrorists will have been removed from the map.

The writer is general editor of the African Yearbook of International Law and a former lecturer in law at Somali National University, Mogadishu.