Somalia: Rocky Road to Peace

Peace talks in Somalia

Somali faction leaders Hussein Mohamed Aidid, Musa Sudi Yalhow and the Prime Minister of Transitional National Government Hassan Abshiir in Eldoret 31 October 2002.(Photo: AFP).

Peace talks involving hundreds of warlords are taking place for the 14th time since the collapse of the Somali state in 1991. The talks in Nairobi, Kenya, aimed at re-establishing a central government in the factionalized nation, have been dragging on for five months with little progress to date. Yet the current attempt at peace has generated more hope for a settlement than any of its predecessors, because of one significant factor: With Somalia now labeled as one of the world’s most likely havens for terrorists, the United States is taking an active interest.

The talks, which began in October 2002, have been troubled from the start. At the outset, hundreds showed up without invitations, and hotels threatened to evict delegates over unpaid bills. The talks themselves have been characterized as chaotic, with delegates criticized for turning the forum into a talking shop. Changing the venue from the Kenyan resort area of Eldoret to a college compound outside Nairobi didn’t help matters, as shouting matches, fistfights, and walkouts continued. While notorious Mogadishu warlords such as Musa Sudi Yalahow and Mohamed Qanyare Afrah boycotted the talks, others, frustrated by the conference’s slow progress, returned to Somalia. Meanwhile, interim agreements to cease hostilities have been violated repeatedly.

“The talks have been characterized by...the delegates' inability to agree on almost everything,” commented Adan Mohamed of Nairobi’s independent Daily Nation (March 7). Such a lack of cooperation cast a poor light on delegates’ commitment, wrote Mohamed. “There must be a lot of reasons why there is no progress, the obvious one being that there is actually no talking, just accusations, demands, stonewalling, and unwillingness on the part of most factions.”

The chaotic nature of the talks reflects conditions on the ground in Somalia. For the last 12 years, the country has had no national government, and has been controlled by heavily armed warlords. Observers say that all vestiges of the rule of government have disappeared amid constant fighting. Violence and discrimination against clans, minorities, and women are widespread. A fifth of the population has fled to refugee camps in neighboring countries and elsewhere around the world. Those who have stayed in Somalia have little access to healthcare or education.

Conditions such as these have been prevalent since 1991, when President Muhamad Siyad Barre was overthrown by opposing clans, and the Somali state collapsed. At that time, government services, foreign missions, and businesses closed, leading to the country’s diplomatic and economic isolation and the creation of decentralized governments organized by traditional leaders and warlords. Later that year, a region in the northwest of Somalia declared its independence, naming itself Somaliland. In 1998, local authorities in the northeast of the country followed suit, setting up the semi-autonomous region of Puntland within Somalia. 

In 2000, following a peace conference in Djibouti, an interim national government called the Transitional National Government (TNG) was established, consisting mostly of Mogadishu warlords and civil society leaders. But the U.N.-supported TNG holds little power even in Mogadishu, and continues to face opposition from the rulers of Somaliland, Puntland, and various armed factions. In 2001, a number of rulers met in Ethiopia and formed the Somali Reconciliation and Restoration Council (SRRC). Notwithstanding this effort, fighting has continued for control of territory between the SRRC and the TNG, and among factions in the southern part of the country.

As the current talks continue, one of the biggest obstacles faced is that most Somalis identify more with clan than with country. At the beginning of the talks in Oct. 2002, Zipporah Musau asked in the Daily Nation how ready Somalis themselves were to accept peace. “Is it possible [the delegates] are struggling for peace in a country whose people do not care whether they have a government or not?” she asked. “Anybody trying to reconcile them must take this [clannism] into account. Unless all clans are represented in government, there will always be factionalism and peace will continue to be elusive.”

But for the United States, anxious to fight terrorism on all fronts, peace in Somalia is essential. The United States turned its attention away from Somalia after May 1993, when the United Nations-led “Operation Restore Hope” humanitarian mission in Somalia failed, ending with the killing of 18 Americans and hundreds of Somalis. But Sept. 11, 2001 forced it to turn back. Somalia's long coastline and strategic location just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, not to mention official rumors of the presence of Islamic terrorist groups linked to Al-Qaeda, makes it an ideal breeding ground for militants.

Terrorism in Somalia goes back to the late 1980s, when an Islamist fundamentalist group known as Al-Itihaad Al-Islamia (Islamic Union) was founded in the southern Gedo region of the country. The group was established with the aim of creating an Islamic state in Somalia, and is said to have strengthened its position by creating businesses and forging links with successful Somali businessmen. Al-Itihaad is also widely credited with establishing Islamic courts in Mogadishu in recent years. Though these courts are run by the TNG, the Ethiopian government has alleged that Al-Itihaad militiamen have been integrated into the TNG's police forces. 

This kind of claim from Ethiopia is not a novelty. Ethiopia and Somalia share a 1,000-mile border and have long had a troubled relationship. In the late 1970s, the two countries went to war over the Ethiopian territory of Ogaden, to which Somalia believed it had a historical claim. The Somalis were defeated and the relationship between the two countries remained shaky at best.

In 1993, Ethiopian defense minister Siye Abraha announced to journalists in Addis Ababa that Ethiopian troops had fought and defeated Islamic fundamentalists in Ogaden. But in the mid-1990s, Al-Itihaad took credit for a series of terrorist acts in Ethiopia including the bombings of hotels and restaurants, and the attempted assassination of an Ethiopian minister. Ethiopian forces continue to cross into Somalia in search of Al-Itihaad.

A review of the region’s press coverage throughout the 1990s reveals virtually no connection made by the media between Al-Itihaad and Osama bin Laden, who lived in Sudan from 1991 to 1996. The earliest reference from the regional press linking Bin Laden to Al-Itihaad comes in a March 2000 East African Standard report from Nairobi that states that Al-Itihaad is closely linked to Bin Laden. This situation changed dramatically after Sept. 11, 2001. A few weeks after the attacks, Ethiopia's government-owned daily, the Ethiopian Herald, wrote that Ethiopia had proof of links between Al-Itihaad and Al-Qaeda. In an interview with the London-based, Arabic-language paper Al-Hayat on Nov. 24, 2001, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said that the Al-Qaeda network existed in Somalia and that Al-Itihaad was the real power behind the TNG.

Zenawi’s accusation marked a turning point in U.S. policy toward Somalia. Soon after his interview with Al-Hayat, the Bush administration sought to freeze the assets of Al-Itihaad and invited Zenawi to Washington to discuss regional security. Toward the end of 2001, tension in the region grew as Somalia was identified by the U.S. government as a possible target for ''anti-terrorist'' action.

Meanwhile, the TNG continually denied reports that Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups were present in Somalia, and established a National Anti-Terrorism Task Force to investigate the allegations. It accused the Ethiopian government of interfering with Somali internal affairs and sending troops into Somali territory—an accusation that Zenawi admitted to be true in an interview with the BBC in February 2003—and distributing arms to opposing factions.

A U.N. report on the arms trade in Somalia supports this allegation. The report, which was presented to the Security Council in July 2002, claimed that Ethiopia has been selling small caliber arms, mortars, and anti-aircraft artillery to opposition forces in Somalia. The report also mentioned Iran, Libya, Latvia, Poland, and the United States as suppliers, and claimed that the United States supported Ethiopia, which in turn armed and trained Somali warlords.

As the current peace talks continue, some commentators have suggested that Ethiopia’s role in the conflict makes peace unlikely. According to Somali advocacy group Shanta Somali, in a statement published on March 12 in the London-based Somali online publication, “Unfortunately, once again our hopes and aspirations of forming a government of national unity from this conference are being derailed and sabotaged by the continuous and unmitigated interference of [the] Abyssinia (Ethiopia) regime in Addis Ababa.”

The peace talks, which are sponsored by Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, and financed by the European Union and the United States, are expected to draw up recommendations in key areas—such as land ownership, economic recovery, and disarmament—before moving on to a final phase of working out a transitional federal government. But so far, apart from setting up a few ground rules such as having a multiparty electoral system and establishing Islam as the state religion, the Somali factions have agreed on very little.

Part of the problem is that the delegates themselves do not inspire trust in the public. In an opinion article in the Daily Nation, Matt Bryden (March 12) said, “Most of the Somali political leaders meeting at Mbagathi are—in the public's perception—‘damaged goods,’ having either served in the [Siyad] Barre government or taken part in the civil war. Any future government in which they play a significant role will be a source of public anxiety and suspicion rather than trust.”

In another U.K.-based online publication, (Feb 23), M.M. Afrah wrote that Somali warlords “have reached a certain level in warlordism and tended to regard themselves as Somalia’s mandarins. That’s one of the reasons why they are anxious to maintain the status quo by all means. When you’re a warlord you don’t give damn about anything. Whatever it is, bring it on. The powerful clan is behind you.”

The TNG is also feeling pressure to make the Kenya peace talks yield results, but it can do little other than hope for the best. In an interview with the U.N.’s Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), TNG foreign minister Yusuf Hassan Ibrahim said, “There are tremendous difficulties facing Somalia… factions, the spread of weapons, militia, armaments. All these are tremendous, formidable difficulties.” In such a climate, peace seems an elusive goal—however, Ibrahim concluded, “If this conference doesn't succeed and there is no other alternative, then Somalia will be doomed.”