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A Confusing Mix in Somalia Conflict

The crisis in Somalia has deepened in recent weeks, despite the conclusion of another national reconciliation conference aimed at ending the conflict in the Horn of Africa country. Human rights groups say fighting has killed many people, with thousands having fled to displacement camps. Somalia has been ravaged by violence for almost two decades, as various groups have battled for political power. Ethiopian forces last year ousted the Union of Islamic Courts from Mogadishu, and this allowed the Transitional Federal Government – the TFG - to establish a semblance of authority in the capital. But groups of guerillas branded “terrorist insurgents” by the TFG have since emerged to battle Ethiopian and transitional government troops. In the first part of a series on the situation in Somalia, VOA’s Darren Taylor gives an overview of the current conflict.

Observers of the situation in Somalia say the conflict in the troubled country of about 10 million people has never before been as complex as it is now.

“The invasion by Ethiopia has thrown in a whole new dynamic into the violence, namely an army of occupation that is increasingly being targeted by a few radical elements, and creating an Iraq-type atmosphere in Somalia,” says Prof. Hagi Mukhtar, a Somali academic who teaches history at Savanna State University in Georgia, and who was – up until recently – a frequent visitor to his country of birth.

Afyare Abdi Elmi, a Somali international relations specialist at the University of Alberta, says the conflict has “multiple” causes: “Competition for power and resources, repression of the (former) military regime, colonial legacy, availability of weapons, widespread atrocities during the civil war, and politicized clan identity…. Moreover, Ethiopia, through its proxy warlords, was the principal spoiler of (previous) Somali peace processes.”

In June last year, the Union of Islamic Courts, a collection of groups led by clerics fed-up with lawlessness in Mogadishu, seized power from United States-backed warlords in the capital, and restored a measure of stability to the chaotic city. But the US alleged that the UIC contained sympathizers of the al-Qaeda terror group, and were harboring extremists who’d bombed American embassies in East Africa in 1998, and so Washington supported an occupation by Ethiopian forces that subsequently ousted the UIC and continues to prop up the TFG.

The main players in the present war for control of Somalia are TFG and Ethiopian troops on the one side, and loose groups of fighters described as “remnants” of the UIC on the other, with members of the public increasingly being caught in the crossfire.

“I don’t think there is a properly organized force of the Islamic Courts…. But there are some elements of the Islamic Courts who are still in the city who are targeting the Transitional Government and targeting the Ethiopians and any of their allies. It is like an insurgency because it is like what is happening now in Iraq,” explains Omar Faruk Hassan, the Chairman of the National Union of Somali Journalists.

A recent report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) group accuses all sides involved in the conflict of perpetrating gross violations against Somalis, including launching rockets into densely populated civilian areas, and executions of “innocent” members of the public.

On the fringes of the violence are about 1,500 African Union peacekeepers from Uganda, who are poorly resourced but are nevertheless guarding the airport and harbor in Mogadishu.

While analysts say the warlords who once reigned supreme in Mogadishu have been severely weakened by principally the Ethiopian presence, they agree that the various clans through which many Somalis define their lives remain important elements of the current conflict.

“Somalia is essentially a country of clan politics and the war that Ethiopia and its backers have now precipitated is rapidly evolving into a clan war - broadly pitting the Darod clan which dominates the TFG, against the Hawiye clan which supported the Islamic Courts Union,” says HRW Director in London, Tom Porteous.

“It’s all very complicated,” acknowledges Dr. Andre Le Sage, who’s Academic Chairman of the Terrorism and Counterterrorism Section of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a US-government think tank in Washington.

“A detailed analysis of the Somali conflict would ask any analyst to look at literally dozens of militia factions and warlords, people who claim to be governors of various regions, and transitional governments with cabinet ministers,” says Le Sage, who’s worked extensively in the Horn of Africa for a variety of organizations, including the United Nations, and served as a political advisor to Somalia’s National Reconciliation Conference in Kenya in 2004.

All the clans and sub-clans and a variety of Islamist insurgent groups that oppose the TFG and Ethiopia further muddy the waters of the present-day Somali crisis. But many Somali analysts say the description of the conflict as “clan-based” that often appears in Western media, especially, is misleading.

“It’s not a tribal war,” says Abdi Ismail, a Somali professor at the University of Minnesota. “This is a smokescreen designed to take the focus away from the real actors behind the fighting, and those are the warlords in the present transitional government and their foreign supporters.”

He equates the description of the Somali conflict as “clan or tribal based” with the situation in apartheid South Africa.

“That’s exactly what we were told when apartheid was fought by South Africans, that it was blacks killing the blacks; it was the Zulus killing the Xhosas and what have you. But once liberation came to South Africa, we realized it wasn’t about tribal wars; it was wars about power.”

According to Ismail, while there may be “extremist elements” in Somalia, the current conflict is largely between Somali groups who want freedom from foreign invaders, and the “illegitimate” TFG, which many observers maintain is not fully representative of all Somalis.

“When you don’t have a strong, democratic government, then chaotic things happen and people begin to find all kinds of associations to protect themselves. So rather than using tribal explanations as the cause of the problem, tribal struggles are the consequences of lack of order. There (are) really no clan wars in Somalia. It’s warlords who are using genealogical groups as a front in order for them to be able to do their dirty work,” Ismail contends.

Prof. Ahmed Samatar, Dean of the Institute of Global Affairs at Macalester College in Minnesota and originally from an area of north-west Somalia, says while the war in his homeland was once “a lot about clans,” it has since transcended these “narrow lines.”

“It’s true that some elements are clanistic (sic) - both on the side of the TFG and also on the side of the opposition. But now the situation has moved beyond all of the clan tensions, and now the struggle is focused on the involvement of the Ethiopian troops that have occupied Mogadishu, and have foisted their preferred person, President Abdullahi Yusuf, and his regime, on Somalis. The remnants of the Islamic courts are amongst the growing resistance to the Ethiopians, with growing constituencies in various kinship groups. But there are many who do not belong to the same kinship groups, who are part of the resistance movement,” Samatar explains.

“The issue really is over the legitimacy of the kind of authority that has to be running the country, who is responsible for that, who elects them, what kind of a constitutional type, what human rights, and what kind of a rebuilding of the socio-economic infrastructure of the country, after nearly 20 years of despair.”

While clan dynamics remain “very important” in Somalia, says Le Sage, “one cannot explain anything in the country according to tribal, or ethnic or clanic (sic) loyalties. You can help to understand the conflict by examining those loyalties and how they (Somalis) structure political competition, but clans themselves are not driving that political competition. You also have to look at the elites who are struggling for power – elites who come from clans and mobilize support through their clans. But it’s not a clan-based explanation or justification for this crisis.”

Hassan, the leader of Somalia’s journalist association, says “no one’s in control” of Mogadishu – “not the clans, not the TFG troops, not the Ethiopians. It is (a) free for all. The situation is more terrible than it has ever been. It’s a confusing mix of conflict. Whoever has visited Baghdad would see what has been existing in Baghdad. People are worried; they don’t know what is happening to them; you don’t know whether you’ll be attacked today; whether a mortar will hit you today; whether a bomb will explode (next) to you; whether a landmine will explode (next) to you; whether armed people will come and kill you.”

He says there seems to be an organized campaign by forces as yet unknown to eliminate “intellectuals and journalists” in Somalia. Seven reporters have been killed so far this year in the country, with others wounded in attacks and some having fled into exile after receiving death threats.

And whereas in previous times of conflict, groups of militia armed with automatic rifles would simply “spray targets” with bullets and “hope for the best,” Hassan says the gunmen now seem “much better trained.”

“Most of the assassinations in Mogadishu are being done with pistols, whereas before it used to be with AK 47’s. The killers seem more professional, more organized. The gunmen will wait for you at your home, or at a place where they know you will visit; the shootings are no longer random. And they plant landmines or roadside bombs.”

Hassan says “everyone” in Mogadishu seems to be carrying a concealed weapon, and that this has led to “total paranoia.”

“What do you do? You begin to suspect every single person that comes near to you. The fear is just terrible. It becomes your life. If you see people being assassinated, you don’t know who is doing the killing. Much of the killing is also based on revenge. People are taking advantage of the chaos with the Ethiopians here and all of that, and the confusion about the transition, to kill people they consider to be their political enemies.”

But a spokesman for the TFG, Mohammed Abdirizak, insists that the transitional authority has “full control” over Somalia.

“In all of these areas, government officials, state and local officials, never come under attack. Administrative functions in these regions are going on normally. In most areas of Somalia, the people accept the TFG. There is freedom of movement of people and goods. Commerce is happening – both land and air,” he states.

Abdirizak, however, acknowledges “a few problems” in Mogadishu, but says they’re “nothing to worry about…. Somalia is not Mogadishu, and it’s only in Mogadishu that the TFG is meeting resistance from a few insurgents.”

He maintains, though, that the capital is “completely in the hands of the government” and that “order” is being restored throughout the city.

Hassan says while the Mogadishu harbor and airport are operational, and Somalis are surviving largely as a result of remittances from their relatives in the diaspora and “handouts” from international relief agencies, he’d hardly describe what’s happening in the city as “order.”

“Life for most Somalis - and especially in Mogadishu – since last year has really gone down. Because when the Islamic Courts Union was here, people were not worried about being killed. Now, even in the markets, everyone’s worried about being killed, and some businesses haven’t opened. People’s lives are extremely difficult. Some don’t go out to do their business anymore,” Hassan explains.

This is in stark contrast to what Ismail says he saw in Mogadishu shortly before the Ethiopians occupied the city late last year.

“It looked like the city was being rebuilt; it looked much better than I’d seen it during the war years in the 1990’s - individuals were rebuilding homes and businesses. And although there was trash all over the place, there was still a sense of hope.”

And then Ethiopian troops entered the city en masse.

“What has happened over the last months since the Ethiopian invasion is that Ethiopian military forces have destroyed – literally, physically – one third of the city. That’s why something like 450,000 people have been displaced into the bush. So today it’s a much worse city than it was eight months or nine months ago, before the invasion.”

The TFG’s Abdirizak, though, appeals for patience.

“Somalia is rising,” he insists. “Life is returning to normal.”

But, quips Samatar: “The problem is that for most Somalis brutal violence is normal. We are still stuck in the same terrible cycle. We want to hear the word ‘better’, not the word ‘normal’.”