Making sense of Somalia

IF IMPOSSIBLE is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools as remarked by Napoleon Bonaparte, the world may see the Somali Islamist fighters of the Union of Islamic Courts in Mogadishu reversing the trend of history by turning tables on advocates of the clash of civilisations, by inventing a new meaning for the concept of Islamism and by becoming alien contenders for the Nobel peace prize.

By Bashir Goth

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Published: Thu 29 Jun 2006, 9:56 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 1:35 PM

A bizarre idea you may say and I would agree with you as long as you and I are normal people living under normal circumstances. But imagine if you live 15 years in a state of lawlessness where your day starts with death and ends with death, where your only hope in life is to return safely to your family from the shortest trip to the bakery, where you live in constant fear of an imminent rape for the womenfolk of your household, where an hour without seeing a bullet riddled corpse at your doorstep is heaven’s gift, where your children’s lullaby is the sound of mortar explosions and their sleeping riddles is to compete with each other on figuring out which sound belonged to which gun.

Imagine if you live in a city that has been destroyed beyond recognition, where 90 per cent of your neighbourhood have either been killed or have left without any hope of returning, where ruthless warlords coercion you and rob you of anything of value that you own, where your relatives, your friends, your childhood classmates have either been murdered, crippled or have died on the high seas while seeking a safer place. Imagine you live in a city where the only familiar sound you hear, reminding you of the good old days and giving you hope for the future is the prayers’ call coming from your neighbourhood mosque.

This situation is the life that millions of Somalis have led since 1991 when the late military dictator Mohammed Siyad Barre was driven out of power by a coalition of clan militias in 1991. Ever since, Somalia has fallen into the hands of feuding warlords who have divided the country into fiefdoms and blocked 14 attempts by the international community to restore peace and stability to Somalia. Spreading a culture of gangsterism, big warlords have subcontracted lesser cronies, turning Mogadishu into the largest arms market in the Horn of Africa and a hiding place for terrorism. The warlords also made lucrative business by piracy and by making deals with international mafia companies that dumped all kinds of hazardous waste in Somalia’s and coastal areas.

It is amid this background that Islamic clerics have stepped in to establish Islamic Sharia Courts with the aim of protecting their neighbourhoods against the marauding militias of the various warlords. Tired of lawlessness and false hopes on stillborn transitional governments formed in foreign capitals, first in 2000 in Djibouti and in 2004 in Nairobi, the Somali people have found the idea of finding safety in their own neighbourhoods, setting up their own bakeries and groceries, sending their children to school albeit madrassas, and building their lives and peace in small steps to be more practical and attainable goals than building hopes on the return of a central government and restoration of peace and stability to a country that has been fragmentised beyond reparation. This is how local Imams preaching peace and brotherhood in the familiar language of Islam have won hearts and minds despite the terrorism stigma hanging over them like Damocles sword.

As the warlords who held the country hostage for more than 15 years found themselves cornered they cried wolf, succeeding to exploit Washington’s paranoia of Islamic extremism in the region and dragging it into another botched adventure in Mogadishu. The jubilation of the Somali people at the fall of the warlords from grace that they never earned was no less than the sense of liberation and freedom the people of Romania felt at the ousting and execution of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, a feeling that the US Administration needs to take note. The rise of the Islamists in Mogadishu, however, has sent fears through the region, drawing analogues to the march of the Taliban against the warlords in Afghanistan.

These fears are not unfounded as the ICU is not monolithic entity but includes a kaleidoscopic mixture of Islamic movements such as Al Ittihad Al Islami, Al Takfiir Wal Hijra, Al Islah and Al Tabligh. The Al Ittihad Al Islami, an organisation suspected by Washington of having links with Al Qaeda, was found to be behind the killings of foreign aid workers in Somaliland, the self-declared state overlooking the Gulf of Aden. Armed militants arrested in Hargeisa confessed that they had been taking orders from Ahmed Hashi Ayro, an Afghan trained militant and a senior commander of the ICU forces. Ayro is also accused of being behind the digging up of the old Italian cemetery in Mogadishu and dumping human remains in garbage pits.

Another senior ICU commander Shaikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is on Washington’s wanted list, is also former leader of the Al Ittihad Al Islami. His election as the new chairman of the courts, replacing the moderate Shaikh Sherif Sheikh Ahmed, may play into Washington’s fears of radicals taking control.

There are also worries that the ICU may whip up Islamic dissent in the hitherto peaceful and stable states of Puntland and Somaliland as well as neighboring Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya. Suspicion is also building up that the ICU may re-ignite the old Somali irredentism, thus inciting the sizable Somali populations in Ethiopia and Kenya to take up arms against their governments to realise the dream of greater Somalia. Ethiopia, which is already entangled in an internecine war with the Islamic oriented Somali Ogaden Liberation Front, and a sworn supporter of the now disgraced warlords and the TFG government holed in the remote Baidoa, seems to be the bigger loser of the new situation.

Riding on popular support, however, the ICU seem to be unfazed by all these concerns. Securing their grip on the capital, they have swooped on the remaining strong holds of the warlords bringing almost all strategic towns under control and closing up on Baidoa, the seat of the beleaguered TFG government, in an apparent attempt to pressure the TFG to accept their terms if not to storm the town and disband the parliament altogether.

Until now, Somalians may have admired the ICU victories, thanking them for ending the reign of the warlords, but the ICU forces will run into their first serious hurdle if they try to cross into Puntland or show signs of interfering with the internal affairs of Somaliland. People of these regions enjoy peace and stability under elected governments and parliaments. In a country where the clan is holier than creed, any advance into these areas will bring the ICU forces into clash with other clans other than the Hawiye to which they belong.

Press reports about ICU curbing freedoms, banning music and denying people to watch the World Cup, indicates a shallow understanding of the epoch-making change they have brought and could turn them into religious warlords; while handing over the power to an elected government and returning to the pulpits may earn the clerics world admiration and could even make them serious candidates for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Bashir Goth is a Somalian journalist based in Abu Dhabi

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