Ten years after the overthrow of general Siad Barre, and the collapse of state institutions, Somalia remains shattered — despite the ‘election’ of a new president and parliament that enjoy considerable international diplomatic support, including the approval of the UN, countries of the region and most members of the Arab League. But since this international solidarity has not so far been translated into financial and military support, the government exists only in name and has no influence outside the Mogadishu suburb to which it is confined. And two former provinces —the northern regions of Somaliland and the north-east area calling itself Puntland — insist that they are independent states and will not rejoin the rest of Somalia to revive the old republic, although no country or international organisation has so far recognised either of them.
The republic of Somalia first came into being in July 1960, the result of a union between British Somaliland and the former Italian colony of Somalia, which included the north-eastern region that now calls itself Puntland. The first president of the republic, Adan Abdullah Osman, who held office until 1967, was succeeded by president Abdul-Rashid Ali Sharmarke. But he was assassinated by his own bodyguard in 1969 and Siad Barre seized power the same year by a military coup. The general wielded absolute power for 20 years until his removal in early 1991 by a coalition of clan militias which destroyed the unity and institutions of the country, reducing it to clan-fiefdoms.
Efforts to appoint a successor to Barre who would be acceptable to most of the clans began in neighbouring Djibouti, where Ali Mahdi (one of the warlords controlling the former capital, Mogadishu), was proposed, but failed to secure the approval of the clan representatives invited by the government of Djibouti. In 1995 the late general Muhammad Farah Aideed declared himself president but failed to obtain recognition. But Aideed managed to control most of Mogadishu and fought off the US troops that were there as UN ‘peacekeepers’ but who targeted him, only to be killed by a fellow clansman. To add to the confusion Aideed was succeeded by his son, who had been a US marine before his father’s death.
Meanwhile, Somaliland managed to set up a stable government and parliament, and succeeded in providing security for most of its inhabitants, who are now unwilling to join the rest of Somalia, which they consider to be unstable and unsafe. Although many of them do not particularly approve of their president, Muhammad Ibrahim Egal, a former prime minister of united Somalia, they are not willing to unseat him by violence.
In August 1991 the government of Djibouti organised a gathering of clan-leaders in its own territory which was given the task of electing a parliament and president to represent the old Somalia. The gathering led to the election of a 254-strong parliament and a president, 58-year-old Abdul-Kassim Salad, who had served as a member of general Barre’s cabinet for 20 years. The heads of state of the Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Yemen, and the representatives of 16 other states, all attended their inauguration in Djibouti.
Salad then appointed a prime minister, Ali Khalif Salaid, who in turn set up a transitional government consisting of 25 ministers. The new ‘leaders’ almost immediately installed themselves in a southern suburb of Mogadishu, where most of the ministers and members of parliament were obliged to stay in two hotels while the president took up residence in a private house, an indirect but unmistakable indication of the illusory nature of their power. And who lives in the nearby former presidential residence, Villa Somalia? Warlord Muhammad Husain Aideed, of course.
In fact the new president and members of parliament are little more than prisoners in Mogadishu. They have few revenues of their own and depend on local businessmen, who are the real power in the city and even control most of the warlords, to pay their bills. When they want to travel they have to use an airport 90 kilometres outside Mogadishu, because both the Mogadishu airport and seaport are closed. More embarrassingly, the warlords openly contradict the president’s public statements. When, for instance, Salaid said that the international airport and Mogadishu port would soon be opened, one of the warlords, Osman Hassan Ali Atto, countered pointedly that he “will not allow” the reopening of the port and airport before the convening of a new national conference and the appointment of a new government.
Clearly the new leaders have no mandate to rule the country and have no chance of imposing their authority on all its regions. Yet they continue to enjoy the support of international organisations such as the UN. The new prime minister, Ali Khalif, for instance, was received by the security council at a closed meeting attended by secretary-general Kofi Annan on January 10 — the first time a Somali official has been received so since 1991. The prime minister said in a newspaper interview that he planned to ask the world body to help his country to buy weapons and to put pressure on Ethiopia “which is occupying Somali towns and areas” to participate in the building of a viable structure.
Ethiopia, which has been disputing territory with Somalia since 1960, has no interest in the revival of a united Somalia. The current confusion also helps Addis Ababa to strike at Somali Islamic movements because it can invade the country freely. The movements have proved to be a thorn in the side of the Christian leaders of Ethiopia, and are described as “extremist” by Addis Ababa, other capitals in the Horn of Africa, and the Organisation of African Unity and the Arab League. Salad, anxious to secure their support, has declared himself to be “a moderate Muslim” who has “links to extremists”, adding that he would be pragmatic in establishing the principles of his administration. Significantly, he has chosen to make his declaration in al-Wasat, a Saudi-owned weekly, only two months after his appointment as president.
It is indeed unfortunate that Salad has dismissed out of hand the uniting principles and practices of Islamic government, preferring instead the divisive practices of clan squabbles.