Somalia finally had a new government last month after Sheikh Sherif Shaikh Ahmed, former head of the Islamic Courts’ Union (ICU), was sworn in as president on January 31. The removal from power of the corrupt and docile transitional national government (TNG) and its president Abdillahi Yusuf (controlled by the US and Ethiopia) is undoubtedly a welcome development. But whether Sheikh Ahmed, and his new prime minister, Omar Abdul-Rashid Ali Sharmaarke, can restore peace and stability to the world’s worst “failed state” is an open question.
The main reason is that most Somalis will not fully trust a new regime dependent on the US and Ethiopia to rule. The two were responsible for evicting the ICU, replacing it with the TNG, and are widely seen as enemies of Somalia that want to keep it divided. The fact that Kenya is also an enemy of the “failed state” and a strong ally of the two complicates matters for the new government. The reason is that Barak Obama — the new US president — has family links with Kenya, where his father’s family still lives, and is on record as having said that he is still loyal to his East African homeland. The government in Nairobi is certain to urge Obama not to alter US policy on Soma-lia if it feels it is necessary to do so.
So far Washington has not made any attempt to modify its destructive and disruptive policies on Somalia. It probably feels no need to make public statements on the issue, as Sheikh Ahmed made a flattering approach to Obama after his election by Somalia’s parliament-in-exile in Djibouti on February 4. “America has become a force which supports peace ...We think the American view of Somalia is now positive,” he told Al-Shorouk newspaper.
This statement from a former head of the ICU shows how far Sheikh Ahmed has become a “moderate Islamist”, as he is generally described and as both the US and Ethiopia often refer to him. In fact, as soon as the ICU was driven out of power in December 2006, he broke away from the group and created the “moderate” Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia. Unlike him, the leaders of the Shabaab, the ICU’s main fighters, chose to stay and fight both Ethiopian forces and the TNG’s supporters. Not surprisingly, the Shabaab now controls most of southern and central Somalia, forcing the parliament to move to Djibouti.
In fact, parliament approved the election of both Sheikh Ahmed as president and Sharmaarke as prime minister in Djibouti, underlining the fact that neither the government nor parliament has any support in the country their foreign backers want them to rule. The Shabaab, which has widespread control and is supported by many Somalis, is not wanted by the US, Ethiopia or their allies, which classify it as a terrorist group allied to al-Qa’ida. Its members are referred to as “extremist Islamists”, while defectors such as Sheikh Ahmed are called “moderate Islamists” who can be trusted to run secular regimes. Not surprisingly, many Somalis, including secularists, would rather back the Shabaab and fight agents of foreign powers seen as historical and strategic enemies.
When Sheikh Ahmed first nominated Sharmaarke as prime minister and the parliament approved his nomination on February 13, the impression was given that at long last confrontation between the two largest clans (Hawiye and Darrod), which has ostensibly been the cause of the violence in the country, could be resolved. Sheikh Ahmed belongs to the Hawiye and Sharmaarke to the Darrod; a number of people were initially optimistic that the two clans were set to share power successfully. But Sharmaarke — the son of a former prime minister who had ruled the united Somali Republic before Mohammed Siyad Barre seized power in a coup — is a member of the Majerteen sub-clan, which put its northern region outside the influence of the TNG and continues to exclude its successor. The former president, Abdillahi Yusuf, though from the Majerteen sub-clan, also tolerated — indeed helped — the region to be independent of the TNG. And Prime Minister Sharmaarke will have no reason to act differently; the region may eventually secede totally, as Somaliland has done.
Somalia and Somali-land had been separately ruled by Italy and Britain respectively, but on becoming independent states in 1960, they united to form the Republic of Somalia. But now that the union is over, the northern region has reclaimed its old name, Somaliland, and the southern part continues to be called Somalia. Somaliland withdrew from the union when Siyad Barre’s rule came to a violent end in 1991 and has since lived in peace, though not a single country or organization in the world has recognized it. Many people there consider this unfair, arguing that it was Somaliland which insisted on unification in 1960 when the rulers of Somalia resisted it fiercely. They add that now that Somalia is in chaos and there is no hope of restoring peace for the time being, Somaliland should not be expected to wait in limbo indefinitely. Some even argue that recognition by the international community will enable Somali-land to look after its own population better and to work for the restoration of peace in Somalia and unification of the two regions again.
One constant source of sadness and anger for many Somalis, in both Somalia and Somaliland, is their justified belief that neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya — which have huge regions inhabited exclusively by ethnic Somali groups — and their western allies do not want the two to reunite or even prosper separately. Their aim is to discourage ethnic Somalis from seeking — as they often do — independence and ultimate unification with their neighboring fellow Somalis. The Kenyan and Ethio-pian governments have been doing just that for a long time by the use of violent crackdowns, which are ignored by the UN and their Western allies — despite the fact that international human-rights groups frequently expose what they classify as “systematic atrocities”, amounting to ethnic cleansing, particularly in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region. Human Rights Watch, for instance, accuses Ethiopia of war crimes and crimes against humanity there. It asserts that Ethiopian troops have burnt villages and killed, raped and tortured civilians in a counter-insurgency campaign against the Ogaden National Liberation Front.
But Human Rights Watch is not the only international group accusing the regime of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of committing atrocities in Ogaden and of deliberately blocking food aid to its people. Medecins Sans Frontiers (“doctors without borders”), a well-known France-based charity, lists the humanitarian emergency in the Ogaden as “one of the world’s ten worst”, accusing the Ethiopian government of blockading “separatist strongholds” during a famine, thus starving civilians. Zenawi simply denies both reports, and his Western allies and the UN do not take him to task over the accusations. The US considers Ethiopia its best ally in Sub-Saharan Africa and values Zenawi’s cooperation, particularly in its “war on Islamic terrorism” in the Horn of Africa and East Africa. Zenawi faces an election next year, and Washington is anxious for him to win. This explains why the US is ignoring his violations of human rights not only against Muslims in the Ogaden but also against the country’s Christian population. Because the prime minister is keen to win the next election at any cost, he has introduced new laws that enable him to punish human-rights groups, journalists and politicians if they criticize his regime or policies.
The US is not interested in opposing dictators like Zenawi because its main policy in the region is to keep Islamic groups out of power. This explains why in December 2006 Washington asked Zenawi to send the very troops accused of carrying out mass murder in the Ogaden to Somalia to drive the ICU out of the country. Now that that has been achieved and, even more dramatically, some former leaders of the ICU, such as Sheikh Ahmed, have been declared rulers despite not exercising any power, the US, its western allies and the UN claim that “moderate Islamists have been put in power while Islamic extremists have been ousted.”
But most Somalis regard this as nonsense and consider the new government led by Sheikh Ahmed as collaborators with the enemies of Islam and the Somalis. Zenawi reinforced their belief when he declared his backing and admiration for ‘president’ Sheikh Ahmed soon after his election by the parliament in exile. Zenawi certainly did no favor to the new government and its leader when he praised him. Not surprisingly, most people in Somalia side with al-Shabaab and former leaders of the ICU who are in exile in Eritrea, which is a declared enemy of Ethiopia.
Clearly, the new government cannot bring about the reconciliation it claims to seek in order to bring the population together again. For any new government to succeed it must give up its links with the US and Ethiopia, both unambiguously perceived as enemies of Islam and the Somalis. Sheikh Ahmed would be well-advised to return to his old organization and join his former colleagues in exile in Eritrea. The longer he waits the less likely it is that he will succeed in repairing his damaged reputation and credibility.