Violence in Somalia continues, as human rights organizations accuse all sides involved in the conflict of committing gross violations against civilians. The focus is particularly on the conduct of thousands of troops from the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and Ethiopia, which last year invaded Somalia to oust the Union of Islamic Courts. The United States and Ethiopia had alleged that the UIC was sheltering terrorists from the al-Qaeda organization. Fighting between various groups for political power has raged in the Horn of Africa country for almost two decades. The TFG insists that, with the help of Ethiopia and the international community, it’s bringing order to Somalia. But many Somalis don’t consider it to be a legitimate government, and accuse it of incompetence. In the second part of a series on the situation in Somalia, VOA’s Darren Taylor focuses on the performance of the TFG and its contentious cooperation with Ethiopia.
Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government has proved controversial ever since its formation in 2004 following protracted negotiations in Kenya.
In Somalia, where ethnic politics often takes center stage, the TFG is seen as being dominated by President Abdullahi Yusuf’s Darod clan. Opposition to the TFG primarily comes from the Hawiye clan that supported the Islamic Courts Union and vehemently opposes the Ethiopian intervention force.
Some observers claim the Darod connived with the Ethiopian government to help them seize power, a claim vigorously denied by the TFG. The present charter mandates the transitional government to govern Somalia until 2009, after which elections are to be held.
“We are a legitimate government, recognized by the international community, and these allegations of bribery come from our enemies who want to see us fail,” says Mohammed Abdirizak, a spokesman for the TFG.
But Yusuf himself is a divisive figure. He is the former military strongman and ruler of the breakaway Puntland region who at first established his administration in the town of Baidoa. The town is far removed from the chaotic main city of Mogadishu where Yusuf has less support. The president’s fragile authority in the capital is bolstered by the backing of about 15,000 Ethiopian troops.
“A lot of Somalis despise this situation, and they despise Yusuf even more for cooperating with Addis Ababa, which has for a long time been considered an enemy of the people of Somalia,” explains Somali-born Prof. Ahmed Samatar, Dean of the Institute of Global Affairs at Macalester College in Minnesota.
In the 1970’s, Somalia and Ethiopia fought a bloody border war over the Ogaden, a remote and neglected part of Ethiopia that’s inhabited mostly by ethnic Somalis.
“The Somali government at the time claimed Ogaden as part of Somalia. They were roundly defeated by Ethiopia. And that defeat set in process the disintegration of the Somali state, and there’s still a lot of bitterness towards Ethiopia in Somalia,” says Tom Porteous, Human Rights Watch (HRW) director in London.
“Since the collapse of the Somali state, the Ethiopians have rightly been concerned about support by groups within Somalia for the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which is a Somali-Ethiopian group which is fighting for secession. It’s because of that that the Ethiopians have on several occasions since the mid-1990’s made military incursions into Somalia to defeat those it regards as its enemies. Mostly, it’s the Islamists that they’ve been targeting, but also the clan allies of those Islamists,” says Porteous.
Dr. Mohamed Diriye Abdullahi, a Somali linguist, historian and cultural expert based in Hargeisa, says Ethiopia has exploited American paranoia about terrorism, and has used a “hunt for terrorists” as an excuse to invade Somalia to force its authority upon that state.
But Dr. Andre Le Sage, the Academic Chairman of the Terrorism and Counterterrorism Section of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a US government think tank in Washington, says Ethiopia has “legitimate national security interests at stake in Somalia…. We have to remember that there were many individuals within the Islamic Courts leadership that were threatening to attack Ethiopia.”
Le Sage says Ethiopia could not allow elements that were sympathetic to terror groups such as al-Qaeda to assume control in a neighboring country. He says the Ethiopians were invited into Mogadishu by the TFG and have a duty to protect that fledgling administration.
Many Somali analysts, however, insist that the terrorist threat in Somalia is being exaggerated.
“The Ethiopian preoccupation with the Somali society did not begin with the rise of the Union of Islamic Courts. Ethiopia’s interest – for over one hundred years – has been to make sure that a Somali nation-state next door to it will be a weak one. Economically, this is good for Ethiopia. And also, the Somalis have no military capacity to invade anybody. This is a society in tatters, so how could the Ethiopians be threatened by something like the rise of the UIC?” Samatar poses.
But US and Ethiopian officials argue this is precisely why the UIC had to be driven from power in Mogadishu: to ensure that it did not build strength to a point where it could have done significant damage in the region. They say removing the UIC also ensures that Somalis benefit from some sort of formal governance – however weak the authority of the TFG may be.
“The fact that transitional federal institutions now exist, and that there’s a Transitional Federal Charter which lays out a roadmap to get from here towards elections (in 2010) and the establishment of a permanent government for Somalia – I think that was a major step forward that we achieved in the Eldoret – Mbagathi (Kenya) peace process,” says Le Sage, who worked as a political advisor to the conference that established the TFG.
Abdirizak insists the transitional government has made “great strides” towards improving the lives of Somalis in the short time it’s been in power.
“All citizens – even in districts of Mogadishu - have police stations; district commissioner offices are open, and functional; tax is being collected.”
He appeals to Somalis to be patient.
“Rebuilding an entire country, rebuilding state institutions, is not an easy task. We understand that people get impatient and want to see results more quickly. But the best that the TFG can do – it’s doing it’s best,” Abdirizak says.
He credits Ethiopia with helping to establish “peace and stability” in Somalia – even though groups monitoring the situation in the country report ongoing fatal violence. Observers blame all parties - insurgents, government troops and occupying forces - for atrocities committed against civilians.
“I don’t see why anyone should pick on Ethiopia, which has helped to bring about peace and stability in Somalia. That’s Ethiopia’s only motive here. It’s in Ethiopia’s interests to have a safe and stable Somalia next door to it,” Abdirizak emphasizes.
But Abdi Ismail, a Somali professor at the University of Minnesota, disagrees: “If the TFG is doing such a good job, why are people dying in the streets every day? Why are TFG troops taking part in killings with Ethiopian troops? They say everyone they kill is a terrorist. Are women and children terrorists? And services? The trash is piled high in the streets! There is no water, no electricity.”
Abdullahi states: “The population associates them (the TFG) with the invasion and with the massacres by the Ethiopian troops. They’re actually a hindrance. I don’t think they have any more chances of fooling Somalia. The international community should totally disown the TFG. It’s not going to fly.”
Porteous says TFG and Ethiopian troops have been responsible for “serious violations of international humanitarian law” in the course of the recent fighting.
“On the part of the TFG, we’ve seen the rounding up of large groups of people who are effectively being ‘disappeared’ and put into detention centers and sometimes being quite badly mistreated. The TFG has also been responsible for failing to give adequate warning of attacks on civilian areas,” Porteous explains, adding that the TFG actions have resulted in the deaths of many innocent people.
“The Ethiopians themselves have been responsible for some quite serious violations, including very heavy bombardments of civilian areas without adequate regard to the safety of civilians living in those areas. And they’ve also been responsible for targeting medical facilities and hospitals; the pillaging and looting of those hospitals.”
The TFG’s Abdirizak dismisses the HRW report as a “collection of unbalanced anecdotes and allegations made by people on the streets…. The Ethiopian forces and the TFG forces are professionals and they did not carry out the atrocities and the crimes the report alleged.”
He says if people have complaints about the conduct of TFG and Ethiopian forces, they should approach the authorities and lay charges.
“We aren’t a bunch of thugs. If there is legitimate evidence of violations by our forces I can assure you that we will act,” Abdirizak says.
But Abdullahi says its “highly unlikely” that Somalis will report atrocities to the very forces accused of perpetrating the violations against them, and that in the absence of impartial international peacekeepers, Somalis are “at the mercy” of the warring parties.
Omar Faruk Hassan, the Chairman of the National Union of Somali Journalists, says Somalis can’t rely on anyone to protect them: “The situation is very, very serious now. The Ethiopians are particularly afraid to act against people who attack them, because they don’t want to be accused of massacring the people. The Ethiopians don’t know how to deal with the insurgents, who are hiding inside the homes of the people and throwing mortars at the Ethiopians and making bombs. At the same time, the TFG troops are also being targeted. And the Ugandans (African Union peacekeepers), there’s only a few of them who are guarding the airport, the seaport, the provincial palace. They are basically just observers. There is no security.”
Hassan believes TFG troops are often blamed for attacks that are, in fact, carried out by insurgents.
“The insurgents sometimes dress in the same uniforms as the TFG troops. So you don’t know who is who,” he says. “But TFG forces are also committing crimes and making mistakes. They are sometimes confused by the situation, and they don’t know who to target, so they just open fire and kill innocent people.”
Hagi Mukhtar, history professor at Savanna State University in Georgia, is convinced that the TFG deserves “more of a chance” to establish itself in Somalia.
“I still think it (the TFG) is an opportunity. After every attempt at some sort of unity so far, like the conference in Djibouti, like the negotiations in Kenya, people have condemned it and it has failed. I know the TFG is very flawed, but I say give it a few more years until its mandate is up and we’ll see where we stand then. Beggars cannot be choosers,” Mukhtar says.
But Samatar says it’s less the TFG, and more the Ethiopian presence, that’s causing most of the violence in Somalia at the moment.
“The Ethiopians are never going to get any kind of acceptance. The more they stay in Mogadishu and other parts of the country, the deeper the hate and the hostility towards the Ethiopians (will become). And that’s not good for the future of Somalia and Ethiopia. So the Ethiopians need to move out. If they stay, it will get worse. And it might then have other consequences for the whole Horn of Africa,” he warns.
Abdirizak doesn’t want to put a time frame on the length of the Ethiopian occupation, but says the TFG is dedicated towards governing alone and without any interference – as soon as this is feasible.
“It’s not in the interests of Ethiopia to stay here for a very long time. Just like the United States would not want to stay in Iraq forever,” he comments.
Ironically, says Ismail, the Ethiopian occupation is achieving what all other efforts at Somali reconciliation have thus far failed to do.
“Somali nationalism is on the rise; there’s a growing sense of uniting against what they see as a foreign invasion. Clans that previously fought are coming together.”
But Ismail acknowledges that it’s a “false unification of blood” and that this can only lead to more violence and suffering in Somalia.