Last Domino Standing: On the Fate of Somaliland

J.Peter Pham, PhD

J.Peter Pham, PhD

In last week’s column, I argued that the situation in the Horn of Africa was rapidly reaching crisis proportions and that specifically United States policy towards the onetime Somali Democratic Republic needed to be reformulated on the basis of something other than the series of unrealistic assumptions on which it has hitherto been predicated. As events since then have underscored the deteriorating security conditions faced by the international community as a whole as well as by the Somali and their neighbors, it is time to concentrate on Somaliland, the one part of that geopolitically sensitive space where there is still a peace to be preserved. 


As the headline of Jeffrey Gettleman’s news analysis in last Sunday’s New York Times proclaimed: “The situation in Somalia seems, improbably, about to get worse.” As the Grey Lady’s East Africa bureau chief noted, the countries Transitional Federal Government (TFG) “looks as if it is about to flatline” as “the Ethiopians who have been keeping it alive for two years say they are leaving the country, essentially pulling the plug.” While there are reports that the Ethiopian National Defense Force, one of Africa’s largest and most seasoned conventional armies, were establishing new bases in central Somalia, those positions near the border town of Balanbal appear more to represent a strengthening of Addis Ababa’s ability to intervene as needed in the future than a reneging of the commitment to substantially pull out by the end of the year.


The Ethiopians, with good reason, expect trouble from the steady advance of Islamist insurgents spearheaded by al-Shabaab (“the youth”), a radical group which was formally designated a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” earlier this year by the U.S. State Department which argued that it is “a violent and brutal extremist group with a number of individuals affiliated with al-Qaeda.” Three weeks ago, the U.S. Treasury Department slapped travel and financial sanctions on three leaders of the group: the group’s founder, Ahmad Abdi Godane, a.k.a. Abu Zubeyr, an alumnus of al Qaeda’s Afghan training camps who is wanted for his role in the murders of Western aid workers in the Republic of Somaliland; Issa Osman Issa, a.k.a. Abdala Sudani, a military commander who, before al-Shabaab’s creation, was involved in the 2002 bombing of the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, and the simultaneous attempt to shoot down a Boeing 757 operated by Israel’s Arkia Airlines; and Mukhtar Robow, a.k.a. Abu Mansur, who is a military commander and perhaps the most prominent spokesman for the group. Last Saturday, in the key port city of Marka, Mukhtar Robow presided over the installation of one Sheikh Abdirahman “Siro” Ahmed at the head of a new administration for the Lower Shabelle region which lies just to the south of Mogadishu. The region which the newly-ensconced governor will preside over encompasses sea docks and airport facilities which play a critical role in the flow of humanitarian aide to a Somali populace which, according to a statement last week by Hilde F. Johnson, deputy executive director of UNICEF, “has the highest levels of malnutrition in the world.” On Sunday, al-Shabaab fighters continued their sweep across central Somalia, encountering no resistance as they took control of the provincial capital of the Galgadud region, Dhusamareb. On Tuesday, another group of al-Shabaab fighters entered the town of Balad Hawo, near the border with Kenya, chasing off TFG “parliamentarian” and ex-“defense minister” Colonel Barre Hirale who had been trying to raise forces there (this Barre Hirale is the same hapless warlord who lost the port of Kismayo, the third-largest city in Somalia, to the Islamists in August).


Even as it is progressively being encircled, the TFG, which barely controls a few city blocks in Mogadishu – and that only because the Ethiopians have not withdrawn entirely – is continuing to tear itself apart in literal squabbles over scraps. Tensions remain high between TFG “President” Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed and “Prime Minister” Nur “Adde” Hassan Hussein. In July, the latter managed to oust the former’s close ally, Mohamed Dheere, from his position as “mayor” of the sometime capital, replacing him with a pliable militia leader, Mohamed Osman, a.k.a. “Dhagatur.” Last week, TFG soldiers battled each other in the city itself after a unit guarding the “presidential compound” at Villa Somalia stoned a passing convoy of other TFG soldiers answerable to “Mayor” Dhagatur. Not surprising, neither Abdullahi Yusuf nor Nur Adde were present, both being out of the country as were more than one hundred TFG “parliamentarians” who had gone to Kenya on the pretense of attending a peace conference and have refused Nairobi’s demand that they to go home.


Thus the collapse of the TFG is not that far off; then the real problems begin. While al-Shabaab forces have been united in their desire to drive out the Ethiopians and the TFG, the group itself is internally divided into half a dozen or so factions that, despite the rhetoric of transcending regional or clan affinities, are divided along those very lines. The faction led by Mukhtar Robow is probably the largest, with several thousand fighters, but its composition is almost exclusively Habr Gidr clansmen from the Hawiye. Operating near where the borders of Somaliland, Puntland, and Ethiopia meet is another major group, primarily ‘Isaq in membership, led by Ahmad Abdi Godane and Ibrahim Haji Jama, a.k.a. “al-Afghani,” who trained also with al Qaeda in Afghanistan and is a veteran of terrorist campaigns there as well as in Kashmir and in Somaliland. The various factions may well fall on each other, once they have dispatched their common foe.


And, despite the often-repeated shibboleth in ill-informed the Western circles that the Islamists will be welcomed by war-weary Somali as a “law and order” movement (see, for example, John Burnett’s New York Times op-ed last week where he misinterprets the motives behind one specific 2006 incident), the truth is that the radicals among them overplayed their hand during the brief rule of the Islamic Courts Union in 2006. Moreover, as Jeffrey Gettleman correctly observes, today’s Islamists are a much different batch than the earlier group: “The old guard included many moderates, but those who tried to work with the transitional government mostly failed, leaving them weak and marginalized, and removing a mitigating influence on the die-hard insurgents.” In addition to the indiscriminate attacks, use of civilians as human shields, and other war crimes for which a report released this week by Human Rights Watch indicts them (among other parties censured), al-Shabaab has recently committed grotesque violations of human rights, including the stoning to death before a stadium audience in Kismayo of a 13-year-old female victim of a gang rape for “adultery” and the sawing off of the head of a man who failed to properly submit with a dull knife. The barbarism of the former echoes the “justice” of Taliban rule of Afghanistan, while the latter incident, which was even videotaped and posted to the internet, recalls al Qaeda’s murders of local leaders, journalists, and other potential civil society opponents.


If in their last coming the Islamists were an annoyance to the lives of ordinary Somalis with the bans against watching World Cup football and chewing of qat, the ubiquitous evergreen leaf with amphetamine-like stimulant properties which Somalis chew with gusto, this time they have rendered themselves downright odious through their narrow-minded intolerance. In honor of ‘Id ul-Adha, the pilgrimage festival of sacrifice whose celebration throughout the Islamic world began on Monday, for example, al-Shabaab militants in Kismayo destroyed graves in the town’s cemeteries, accusing grieving relatives of the deceased of the “un-Islamic” practice of praying there and thus violating the strict monotheism enjoined by the Islamists’ Wahhabi-inspired (and financed) credo. Previously, the radicals had contented themselves with just targeting the graves of Sufi saints whose mystical faith and devotees’ prayers they found offensive.  


While the Islamists will either fight among themselves or unite in oppressing the southern Somali – or, more likely, do both – it might be the remnants of TFG itself which will spread instability to the semi-autonomous region of Puntland in the northeast. The septuagenarian Abdullahi Yusuf was a warlord in the region before and will likely retreat back to it once he is driven from Mogadishu. Puntland already has enough difficulties with legislative elections due at the end of the month and a presidential poll scheduled for January in which about a dozen candidates are competing against the incumbent, Adde Muse. The injection of a frustrated Abdullahi Yusuf into this highly-charged and ever-shifting political climate – one of the region’s more creditable politicians, Minister for International Cooperation Ali Abdi Awaare, unexpectedly resigned Sunday – will hardly serve to calm the waters.


Moreover, Puntland is, as I reported here two weeks ago, the epicenter of the piracy phenomenon that has so far this year involved attacks on more than one hundred merchant vessels, some 14 of whom are still being held captive along with their nearly 300 crew members. In fact, both of the two most spectacular prizes, the Ukrainian-owned, Belizean-registered freighter, the MV Faina, which was carrying 33 refurbished Russian-made T-72 tanks and other armaments, and the MV Sirius Star, a Liberian-flagged very large crude carrier (VLCC) owned by a United Arab Emirates-based subsidiary of the state-owned national oil company of Saudi Arabia, Saudi Aramco, which was carrying two million barrels of crude, are still at anchor in the waters of Puntland. Here again, Abdullahi Yusuf’s presence would be less than helpful to resolving a vexing challenge. It should be recalled that, as my colleague Dr. Martin Murphy, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and associate fellow at the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies of King’s College London, pointed out during a panel discussion we participated in recently on piracy in the Gulf of Aden, the TFG capo’s militia was responsible for winning the first big pirate ransom in the region when it seized a Taiwanese fishing trawler, the MV Shen Kno II, in 1997, and demanded $800,000 for the boat, $40,000 for its captain, and $10,000 for each member of the crew.


Against this bleary landscape, the one relatively bright spot has been the Republic of Somaliland. As I have repeatedly argued since the very beginning this column series nearly three years ago:


Since the [1991] disintegration of the Siyad Barre’s oppressive Somali regime into Hobbesian anarchy and warlordism, the international community has staunchly defended the phantasmal existence of the fictitious entity known as “Somalia.” Now, however, is the time for the United States to break ranks and let realism triumph over wishful thinking, not only recognizing, but actively supporting Somaliland, a brave little land whose people’s quest for freedom and security mirrors America’s values as well as her strategic interests.


This time last year, I reported here on the push, led by the U.S. Defense Department, to increase American engagement of Somaliland. After the visit to the Washington of an official delegation led by Somaliland President Dahir Rayale Kahin and Foreign Minister Abdillahi Mohamed Duale as well as a brief visit to Hargeisa by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi E. Frazer, I outlined a “road map” for moving relations forward. Unfortunately, little progress has been made in the months afterward and a certain momentum was lost when – contrary to the advice I offered in the Somaliland press to “consider the long-term strategic implications of their decisions as well as the [short-term] economic benefits” – the as-yet unrecognized state’s minister of water and mineral resources, Qasim Yussuf Ibrahim, made some ill-advised (and not especially transparent) deals regarding licenses that certainly did nothing to advance the country’s case for great power engagement, including a particularly odd undertaking with a former footballer. That misstep compounded already-present concerns about a certain amount of backsliding on due process and other procedural elements of the democratic process as the country moves towards elections in the first part of 2009 to make a the aspiring sovereign look like a joke. As I have told many Somaliland officials, one of the two most important claims that make on the attention of the international community is their country’s democratic constitutional politics. Thus the significance of the upcoming poll for Somaliland’s future cannot be underestimated: take away the popular participation in and legitimacy of its institutions of governance, and the case for an independent Somaliland becomes that much less compelling.


The other important claim which Somaliland puts forward is its role as a bulwark for the international community’s security interest in preventing the spread of the chaos emanating from the rest of the former Somalia. As I reported in September, according to information first disclosed by my friend Professor Iqbal Jhazbhay of the University of South Africa in an interview with Nairobi, Kenya-based Voice of America (VOA) correspondent Alisha Ryu, Somaliland authorities allowed French commandos to use the abandoned U.S. base at Berbera in the northwestern region of the republic as the staging area for the successful rescue of a French couple who had been seized by pirates as they sailed through the Gulf of Aden in the luxury yacht Carré d’As IV. Last week, Foreign Minister Abdillahi Duale used an interview with Reuters to offer the international community the use of ports along Somaliland’s 900 kilometers of coastline along the Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy patrols such as the first-ever European Union joint naval mission, Operation Atalanta, which took up station earlier this week. Somaliland should be viewed as a critical partner in anti-piracy efforts beyond the mere provision of facilities for members of the international community’s “coalition of the willing.” As historical anti-piracy efforts have shown, the development of an effective maritime regime requires not only military prowess by the great “blue water” navies of the world, but effective constabulary forces operating locally in the “brown water” of the littorals where marauders are wont to shelter. The creation, equipping, training, and deployment of a modernized Somaliland coast guard constitute a key component of any viable strategy for maritime security in the Gulf of Aden and adjacent waters.


Furthermore, Somaliland is critical to humanitarian efforts throughout the region. As a report by the independent nongovernmental advocacy group Refugees International noted last month, “Somaliland offers a more stable operating environment than the rest of the country, and international NGOs and UN agencies have been able to run programs with fewer security constraints. Moreover, aid agencies have a functioning government to interact with, including ministries and an elected Parliament.” In fact, nearly 100,000 Somalis from the south have sought shelter in Somaliland. However, because the international community does not recognize Somaliland’s claim to independent statehood, the Office of the UN Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has no mechanism in place to register these displaced Somalis while, for its part, Somaliland receives none of the bilateral assistance for relief and development which would ordinarily be forthcoming to a country which was trying to cope with a similar influx of refugees.


Its secular and largely democratic politics as well as its attempts to forge ties with the West have earned it the ire of al-Shabaab and other Islamists – to say nothing of the hostility of the TFG which, despite its inability to control even one city, still views itself as the sole sovereign of was once the Somali Democratic Republic. On October 29th, suicide car bombers struck the presidential palace, the Ethiopian consular and trade mission, and regional offices of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the Somaliland capital of Hargeisa, killing at least 25 people and injuring scores of others. The attackers, whom analysts believe to have been sent by the al-Shabaab faction led by Mukhtar Robow and Ahmad Abdi Godane, were apparently acting on the basis of a fatwa issued two years ago by Hassan Dahir ‘Aweys, the nominal leader of hardliners among the Islamist insurgents and chairman of the erstwhile Islamic Courts Union’s shura, which authorized the “killing of the Jewish and American collaborators in the northern regions.” Regrettably, the attack forced the evacuation of international technical experts and the shut-down of the voter registration process for a month before the efforts resumed last week. As al-Shabaab and its allies advance, more attacks are expected as well as greater tensions between Somaliland and Puntland, especially if Abdullahi Yusuf decamps back to his old fiefdom in the former region, which has claimed a part of Somaliland territory that was within the borders of the British Protectorate and bequeathed to Somaliland upon its original independence in 1960.


 The situation in southern Somalia is dire, perhaps irremediably so, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack’s incredible assertion on Tuesday that the TFG is an “institution work[ing] a better future in Somalia” notwithstanding. With all due respect to Assistant Secretary McCormack’s stubborn “faith-based” confidence that the international system will somehow produce “a responsible international force in Somalia to help provide some security and therefore some stability, and allow some of these weaker institutions to start to take hold in a positive way,” the incoming Obama administration would be better advised to deploy its resources in a rough triage that privileges saving what can be saved, rather than vain attempts to preserve that which is already lost. To this end, a way must be found to engage Somaliland, supplying its under-resourced government and civil society with relief and development aid and security assistance needed to survive the wave of extremism and violence which will come to the region’s frontiers. And if it appears premature to move to de jure recognition of Somaliland’s de facto sovereignty, perhaps some sort of “interim special status” might be concocted to throw the Somalilanders a lifeline of access to international political and economic institutions. Certainly if the United States and its allies lack the foresight and imagination to support the one stable and politically legitimate authority in the Somali lands, they will only have themselves to blame for the strategic repercussions – throughout the Horn and beyond – when the last piece standing is toppled over by the other falling dominoes.



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