A strategy on Somalia

Since the routing this month of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) that ruled the country for six months, the main discussion has been about how the African Union can put together an African force to maintain peace in the Horn of Africa. Last week the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) approved a plan to send 8 000 African peacekeepers to Somalia on a six-month mission.

But the central challenge for the AU is to bring the focus back to where it belongs: finding a home-grown solution to the conflict.

The simple propping up of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) does not provide the answer. The reality is that there are three power centres that require engagement: the TFG, which is backed by Ethiopia; the UIC, supported by Egypt and Eritrea; and the unrecognised and peaceful Somaliland republic in Hargeisa in the north.

While the UIC has been displaced, it has not been defeated. By its own admission, it indicated that it was withdrawing temporarily from Mogadishu in the face of the Ethiopian force and that it would opt for insurgency. Fortunately, as the AU starts its annual summit this week, one of the UIC’s key leaders, Sheikh Sheriff Ahmed, has said that the withdrawal of Ethiopia would put an end to these plans. Although it is unclear whether his views fully represent the council, since most of the leadership is in hiding or incarcerated, his pronouncements nevertheless are an indication that perhaps a small window of opportunity exists to seek a broad-based solution.

Instead of concentrating on external tensions and military solutions, the home-grown rebuilding of a state should be considered the prime task at hand. A Centre for Policy Studies report points to two key elements that thus far have not attracted major public attention.

Firstly, rebuilding a failed state requires acknowledgement of the existence of clan tensions. Specialist John Drysdale calls for attention to be given to the fact that there are two competing sub-clans, the Abgal and the Habar Gidir wings of the Hawiye in Mogadishu. “Without reconciliation between the two major sub-clans in Mogadishu, where a future central government for Somalia was expected to be seated, any attempt at imposing an extrinsic national government on top of unfriendly independent power bases supported by Ethiopia … was folly,” said Drysdale.

Secondly, while southern Somalia is seen as a failed state, there is a part of Somalia in the north — known as Somaliland — which enjoys a stable government. A close examination of this experiment could point a way forward for all of Somalia.

Somaliland has a democratically elected Parliament and president, a thriving media and a home-grown economy. This has been accomplished by Somalians, with no outside interference, and is proof that local people are in a position to negotiate their own systems if left alone.

The leadership in Somaliland includes men and women committed to progressive governance. This is very different from the extremist Islam espoused by the UIC.

Recent dismissive statements by TFG leaders about Somaliland have inflamed public opinion, leading to huge demonstrations in Somaliland and calls for a war to defend Somaliland’s democratic gains. Since 1991, southern Somali leaders with weak power bases have been unable to let go of Somaliland.


While empathetic to Somaliland’s case of self-determination, South Africa is on excellent terms with all regional state actors, is a leading member of the PSC and has just taken up a two-year non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. It has welcomed the AU Commission’s report on Somaliland. Consolidating Somaliland’s fledgling democracy in a troubled region and managing the intractable anarchy in Somalia certainly represent serious challenges to the credibility of the PSC.

South Africa is well positioned to discreetly and consultatively undertake a diplomatic initiative that would work alongside an AU peace and training mission focused on the development of a regional peace. It should also use its experience to shift the focus of the Somali crisis to negotiations involving all local leaders.

Iqbal Jhazbhay lectures at Unisa and Zubeida Jaffer is an independent journalist

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