The collapse of the Islamic courts: What future for Somalia and what impact on Somaliland?

The sudden collapse within 10 days of the Somali Islamic Courts as a governing body and the unconventional military fighting force against the Ethiopian army and the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFG) provides an opportunity and a threat for Somalis simultaneously.

The situation in the region and in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland is also similarly unpredictable and precarious. There is, however, continuity in that the Ethiopian intervention marks just another phase in a long line of outside interference in Somalia, internationally and regionally. The dangers of Islamist guerrillas, Somalis and non-Somalis – seeking revenge for what they see as a Western/Christian plot to keep a weak and divided Somalia permanently under their control, and of a relapse into the previous warlord-controlled anarchy remain high.

The similarities to Afghanistanor Iraq, in which a lengthy guerrilla war drains rapid military success through an expensive and dubious project are stark. Many see Ethiopiaas the instrument of the USA eager to destroy a regime it saw as linked to Al-Qaida and protecting those responsible for the 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and other atrocities.

Washington claims that the three main suspects are Comorian Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Kenyan Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan and Abu Taha al-Sudani of Sudan. The Islamists deny any al Qaida links, alleging it is intended to justify intervention. However, Ethiopia also has interests of its own, including the need to counter enemies such as Eritrea, and its long-lasting aim of maintaining a weak client Somali state.

The US has until recently, when it disastrously armed the warlords against the Islamic courts, been wary of direct intervention, and any repeat of the ‘Black Hawk Down’ of the 1990s when it was forced to withdraw from the country after sustaining losses of US marines. However, its support for overturning the arms embargo in the recent UN resolution, its provision of intelligence and surveillance to the Ethiopians, and its unilateralist attitude concentrating only on the war against terror have dismayed European diplomats, and certainly Somalis.

In the first known direct U.S. intervention, an AC-130 plane piloted by the Special Operations Command from the U.S.counter-terrorism base in Djibouti, attacked the southern village of Hayoin the week of 8 January 2007. According to US sources, an al Qaida member heading operations in east Africawas among the Islamists there, and may have been amongst those killed. Other strikes followed.

For six months the Islamic Courts had exercised a rough and ready rule over Mogadishu and the southern parts of the country, with some civil support, especially as they had routed the brutal and kleptocratic warlords. Although they have now either melted away or been pushed to the Kenyan border, there is still a long way to go to establish long-term stability in the country.

There is, however, a centrally- established government in control of the Somali capital for the first time since 1978, symbolised by President Abdillahi Yusuf’s first visit to Mogadishu. The President insisted that the Ethiopians were not occupiers and would leave soon. They “did not come to occupy Somaliaand they will leave Somali territories as soon as regional and international forces start to deploy”, he told the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.

Whether that government will stay in control and extend its authority throughout the country will depend on four elements. That is, whether it can control the warlords who previously looted and preyed upon the population, and many see the TFG as being composed of warlords itself. Secondly, whether it can rein in young lawless men with weapons but no hopes of employment except by using them, and to do so the government has equally to rein in the warlords first. Prime Minister Ali Gedi initially tried to weaken the warlords by telling all Somaliamilitias to disarm within three days and had over all their weapons at collection points. However, this is hardly realistic in a clan-based society which has been ruled by the gun since the fall of the Siad Barre government in 1991. Somalis think in terms of clan security and for the Hawiye clan, who are the major inhabitants of Mogadishu, to give away their arms to the TFG while the TFG forces mostly comprise Darood clan fighters, especially of the Majerteen (President Abdullahi’s sub-clan), was out of question. Therefore the disarming issue has been delayed after demonstrations against it in Mogadishu.

The third issue that the present government has to grapple with is: how to deal with the defeated Islamists, if not the leaders at least the rank and file. Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, chair of the seven-nation regional grouping of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, is urging President Yusuf to resume the Khartoum talks with the Islamic Courts that were broken off, as indeed have the European members of the Contact Group on Somalia who have been largely ignored by the unilateralism of the US. The Somali government under external pressure has promised an amnesty to Islamic Courts rank and file fighters, but says their leaders will face prosecution, those that are still alive, that is.

Lastly, stability will depend on the short- and medium-term actions of the transition government and the response of the international community, especially Somalia’s neighbours. There are worrying indications that the authoritarianism of the Islamic courts will be continued with a number of radio and television stations being shut down for 24 hours under state of emergency laws. The editors of HornAfrik radio and television, Shabelle Media Network, Radio Voice of Holy Koran and Al Jazeera Television were told to report to the National Security agency. Although they were able to resume broadcasting, threats to media freedom remain high.

In terms of the region, so far aid promises are minimal, far less than the cost of the bombs falling on Southern Somalia. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says his forces will leave Somalia within weeks rather than months since the cost has been ‘huge’ and beyond their means. He has already asked for international assistance for his ‘operation to curb extremism in the Horn’. In Mogadishu attacks on joint Ethiopian-Somali armed forces have already started with soldiers in armed vehicles being killed and injured. It is expected that these hit and run tactics will continue as long as Ethiopian forces are in Mogadishu.

The intervention has had heavy political costs at home (given that the country is almost equally divided along Christian and Muslim lines) as well as abroad. Zenawi’s increasingly-repressive government faces multiple internal challenges from the civil society, and within the Ogaden (the Somali region inside Ethiopia) etc. The ONLF (Ogaden National Liberation Front) attacked an Ethiopian convoy of armed forces in Region Five of Ethiopia and the Ethiopians responded by killing and burning villages in that region.

The Arab League and the African Union (the latter reversing its support for intervention after only a day) have both called for the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces from Somalia, as has the European Union and the new UN Secretary General. Despite the bombing of one of its border posts at Har Har, the Kenyan government has so far been sympathetic to the new rulers in Mogadishu, despite its rivalry with Addis Ababa. It sealed its 700km border to fleeing Islamic Courts fighters and arrested 11 of their leaders fleeing across the border. It also called for a summit of regional leaders to discuss new developments.

Ali Gedi, maintains, however, that Ethiopian forces will be needed for some months to shore up his weak, small and inadequately trained army. On previous experience, it will take several months to finance, assemble, equip and deploy the 8,000-strong regional peacekeeping force called for by the AU. At the moment it appears that the deployment of African forces from the region to maintain peace in Somalia would be more generally accepted by the people as a more attractive alternative to Ethiopian troops. It is very difficult to imagine the TFG controlling Somalia without the support of the Ethiopians because the former has no effective armed forces or capacity to rule a war-torn country. Nor does it appear that any peace-keeping forces from the region would be in a position to defend the TFG from local militias or the remaining supporters of the Islamists. The warlords are also returning to Mogadishu and cities like Kismaayo and Jowhar, although not officially as heads of militias but rather as members of the TFG Parliament. One of the strongest Mogadishu warlords, Suudi Yelahow, travelled through Hargeisa on his way to Mogadishu, being welcomed by the UCID party chairperson, Speaker of the Parliament and the Mayor of Hargeisa since the warlord was always sympathetic to Somaliland independence.

For Somaliland the message might be more mixed. There were signs inside the country in areas like Burco that there was some sympathy for the Islamist message (although historically there has always been such support) given the failure of Hargeisa to bring much development or prosperity (although one needs to be cautious about seeing radical Islamism as appealing just to the poor).

Suspicions remain in relation to the TFG whose leader was the previous leader of Puntland and responsible in their eyes for much of the border instability between the two Somali entities. On the other hand the leader of the Islamic courts Sheikh Aweys had been found guilty in absentia of planning Islamist attacks in Somaliland, and the Islamic courts movement in general was very keen to harness Somali nationalism to Islamism and very opposed to federalism in general and Somaliland’s independence in particular. In previous years foreigners were killed in Somaliland by a group linked to the radical jihadist elements in the Courts, but the courts authority never extended to Somalilandwhich with a functioning secular legal system never established shari’a courts unlike in the south. There has been no response from the Islamists supporters in the media or the general Somalilandpublic. It appears that the Somaliland authorities managed the situation in some parts of Somaliland very well before the war in the South, such as releasing the Burco Sultan who was imprisoned briefly for forming a committee to press for the application of Sharia law among the Habar Yonis sub-clan of which he was one of the sultans.

The situation is calm in Hargeisa and other regions, with the Somaliland government proclaiming neutrality in relation to the situation in the South. Certainly the Islamists fleeing Mogadishu and other cities which the Union of Islamic Courts controlled did not attempt to take refuge in Somaliland believing it unsafe or unable to gain access by land. There will be demonstrations called for by the government to proclaim Somaliland’s independence and sovereignty.

The only significant incident was when Ali Gedi, following the Islamists defeat, declared all the Somali borders (including Somaliland) closed for flights, ships or vehicles by land. There was an immediate response from the Somaliland Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdillahi M. Dualle, saying that Gedi’s announcement was not relevant to Somalilandsince the latter is a separate state. He further declared that airports and seaports within Somaliland territory were open as normal to all commercial flights and ships. Passenger flights and ships carrying livestock for the Hajj season continued to arrive in Somaliland without interruption. In an interview immediately after Somaliland’s response to closing the Somali borders, Gedi said that the TFG had no intention of attacking or sending forces to Somaliland- a wise move given the relative strength of forces and the fact that Ethiopia remains close to the government in Hargeisa. According to local newspaper Haatuf President Rayale will travel to Ethiopia shortly, although the aim was not stated. Somaliland-Ethiopian relations remain strong. There is constant consultation on issues of border and trade security, and the Ethiopians living in the country were not affected by the war in the South.

The other positive move for Somaliland is that the cold war between it and the autonomous region of Puntland has died down as the focus shifted to the conflict in South and Central Somalia. Puntland and its forces were defending the TFG in the South as well as defending their own territory from the Union of Islamic Courts. Therefore the Puntland militias stationed in Sool region (historically part of Somaliland) facing Somalilandarmed forces have been reduced in numbers.

Whilst the threat from Islamists have receded for Somalilanders, there remain both external and internal problems. Having brought the TFG to power, how will Ethiopiadeal with Somaliland? Will they persuade the TFG to leave Somaliland alone, or persuade Somaliland to dialogue with the TFG in order to mitigate one danger facing them of the tie-up of Somali nationalism to political Islam?

The recent airstrikes and the ongoing conflict has compounded the suffering of the population in Southern Somalia already experiencing drought and poverty. The existing high degree of uncertainty and instability which for a time the rule of the Islamic Courts did something to abate is now back and whilst it would be unlikely for the Courts to be able to regroup for some time, the possibilities of renewed violent warfare remain high.

Adan Abokor and Steve Kibble, Progressio, 17 January 2007