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Past Special Report
Islamic Courts Union was Better Placed to Pacify Somalia
April 17, 2007
When the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) was driven out of Mogadishu in December 2006 by a combination of Ethiopian and the Transitional Federal Government forces, many pundits were quick to note that Somalia has once again squandered another chance of pacification and statehood.
This was based on the understanding that for the six-month period starting in June and ending in December 2006 in which the ICU was in control of Mogadishu and much of central and southern Somalia, a hitherto unprecedented period of peace, order and security was realized. In other words, the security situation was getting much better in this swathe of land that had only known and lived with over 15 years of statelessness, insecurity, clan feuds, thriving warlordism and lawlessness.
But five months since ICU was routed out of Somalia by the Ethiopian backed fire-power, Mogadishu has regained its notoriety of lawlessness, creeping insurgency against the occupiers and chronic insecurity.
So the question is why did Ethiopian-backed offense with tacit support from United States and a number of western powers decide to kick out the Islamic Courts Union out of Somalia when the Courts merited an opposite response, having already delivered stability and order to the whole of Somalia?
One of the lies peddled by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its allies Ethiopia and United States among others that ICU was a bunch of al-Qaeda operatives, sympathizers and terrorists hell-bent on turning Somalia into another Taliban-like regime was a straight lie, a lie that intelligently fits very well in the post 9/11 discourse where if you don’t like a given regime or organization, the easiest bet is to label it terrorist and al-Qaeda operatives. With this label, US and the coalition of the willing will be on your side, and this is exactly what TFG deed and indeed succeeded in duping the world.
The alleged link between ICU and al-Qaeda was at best mirrored on the now infamous WMDs the Saddam-al-Qaeda link that never was. The fact that ICU was headed by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a person listed by US as a proxy of the al-Qaeda terrorist network and the fact that Sheikh Aweys glorified Osama bin Laden by likening him to Nelson Mandela does not necessarily mean that ICU is a proxy of al-Qaeda or trying to turn Somalia into a Taliban-like administration. As such, it is not farfetched to state that ICU was filling the power vacuum in Somalia and trying to pacify the stateless horn of Africa country.
In order to appreciate the role of ICU, it would be important to note that in the last sixteen or so years, Somalia has been plagued by clan-based conflicts and warlodism especially in what used to be the capital, Mogadishu. During this tumultuous period, as many as fourteen attempts have been tried to form a central government without success. The formation of Transitional Federal Government in 2004 in Nairobi was the latest attempt, an attempt that is still struggling to endure itself to Somalia people despite of the fact that it is recognized by UN and many countries.
As these attempts to establish a central government continued to flop, Islamic Courts, imposing Traditional Islamic Law (Sharia) began to be active in the capital Mogadishu and increasingly became popular because of their ability to provide some semblance of order in a hitherto chaotic environment; a city that had been labeled the most dangerous in the world. By early 2005, these tribunals came together and formed the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a network aimed at expanding their influence and pacification across the entire country. Somali business leaders, many of whom fund their own private militias, began providing financial and military backing to the ICU in hope that the Islamists could bring wider stability.
One thing that these courts demonstrated is that religion was proving to be a unifying factor for the Somalia people than anything else. The fact that Somalia is predominantly a Sunni Muslim country played to the advantage of these courts and soon they started drawing support, loyalty and legitimacy from the people.
With this unprecedented support and legitimacy, the ICU’s area of control spread from the central region of Somalia south toward Mogadishu, the capital leading to violent confrontations between it and a coalition of warlords covertly backed by United States that were controlling the capital. These warlords, calling themselves the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT), feared loosing their influence and control of the capital to the courts and mounted deadly defensive attacks. Despite its name, the ARPCT probably did little to combat terrorism and was more interested in maintaining the lawless status quo in which the warlordism thrived.
Finally, on June 5, 2006, the ICU claimed control of Mogadishu from the US backed alliance. Though sporadic fighting continued for several weeks with fatalities reported in hundreds if not thousands, by July 15, the ICU had wrestled control of the entire capital from ARPCT. By this time, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys and Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed had emerged as the key leaders of ICU. The latter has since been touted by US as a moderate leader with little or no contacts with al-Qaeda.
As the militias loyal to the ICU began expanding their territorial control, Islamic values and Sharia Law, the Transitional Federal Government of Abdullahi Yusuf that had stationed itself in the provincial town of Baidoa and its allies Ethiopia and US were alarmed by this turn of events. The TFG feared being routed out of Baidoa by the fast expanding ICU whereas Ethiopia thought that their key ally in the name of President Yussuf would be toppled. Compounded with the fact that Ethiopia has had long standing disputes with Somalia since the 1970s Ogaden war when Somalia claimed that Ogaden is part of its territory, the need to oust ICU was calling day by day. On its part, US was alarmed with the possibility of Taliban-like government emerging in Somalia and possible surge of international terrorism.
As I said in the beginning of this article, in post 9/11, the easiest way to get timely and unconditional US support in any war is to brand your enemies terrorists and this is exactly what TFG and Ethiopia did. Towards the end of 2006, the transitional government and Ethiopia became hostile to the courts and sabotaged several attempts to resolve the impasse. As hostilities between the ICU and TFG became imminent, President Yussuf categorically made it clear that his government was not interested in peace negotiations with ICU leadership finally culminating to arrival of Ethiopia troops in December 2006 to shove support for his TFG troops.
Within two weeks, the superior Ethiopian airpower and infantry divisions was no match for the ill-quipped and teenage boys that made the core of ICU fighters. The US occasionally joined in by striking several ICU hideouts and providing intelligence information to the Ethiopians. At this time, the ICU claimed that they are not yet defeated and al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri was in the news urging Muslims to "rise up to aid their Muslim brethren in Somalia" and urging the ICU to mount insurgency like war against the infields.
After the ouster of ICU in the capital and southern part of the country, the transitional government moved to the capital in an attempt to consolidate its power and authority but no sooner had the government settled than the city reverted back to its dark days. President Yussuf started on the wrong foot by sacking the TFG speaker of parliament for initiating peace dialogue with the defeated ICU and from this point it became clear that this latest outfit called TFG meant to establish a central government in Somalia could probably be another hoax.
With the Islamist fighters defeated and or hiding, the transitional government failed to gain any real foothold in Mogadishu. Soon, insurgency attacks mainly aimed at government troops and their Ethiopian allies intensified and the warlords’ started erecting their own roadblocks and exhorting the city residents of money and illegal taxes.
The Presidential Palace continues to be greeted with daily mortar power and scenes reminiscent of October 1993 Black Hawk humiliation when dead US soldiers were dragged in the capital continues to be replayed as the residents often drag and burn bodies of government and Ethiopian soldiers killed in combat with clan militias and remnants of ICU fighters. Within a short period of time, Mogadishu is once again slipping into the dangerous city in the world. Residents have been quick to bemoan the TFG for the mess and insecurity in the city.
The transitional government has since found it extremely difficult to regain control of the city. The government tried to persuade the warlords to disarm their militias and integrated them into the national army but to no avail. The dominant clan in the city, Hawiya, has been wary of the disarmament and insisted that if the government is sincere, it should also disarm the other clans in the country. Hawiya thought that maybe President Yussuf wants to punish them for largely supporting the ICU and the fact that there has been long-standing suspicion between Hawiya and the President’ clan, Darod, continues to complicate this initiative.
Anti-government attacks and protests continued to increase in early 2007 and to stem this tide, the government and Ethiopian troops launched another offensive against the insurgents in the city in March/April in which aid agencies described it as the worst fighting in 15 years. Fatalities could not be independently verified but conservative estimates put the dead at over 1,000 and much more in juries. The actual causalities could be several times higher than this estimate.
And to demonstrate that TFG is a powerless shell completely incapable of managing Somalia even with the huge Ethiopian presence, the Ethiopians military commanders were forced to conduct direct ceasefire negotiations with Somali clans and groups in early April. Since then, the two sides are observing a very fragile ceasefire.
Many more city residents have fled to the countryside for fear of renewed fighting in the city where nobody trusts the government and its Ethiopian ally even an inch. But despite of this anti-government wave, President Yussuf is going ahead with plans to host an all-inclusive and clan based reconciliation conference in the capital in May 2007. It is yet to be seen what would come out of these conference if it would ever materialize.
Although Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who was captured by Kenyan and US authorities as he tried to cross over the border under a hail of Ethiopian firepower, has publicly accused US for supporting the Ethiopian offensive, the US maintains that he is a moderate that the TFG should work with in trying to fix the Somalia problem. While in brief sojourn in Kenya before he was deported to Yemen, Sheikh Sharif is reported to have met with US ambassador to Kenya in which the local media reported that US insisted Sheikh Ahmed must be involved in peacebuilding and reconciliation initiatives in Somalia.
As the talk of this conference gets underway, it has been reported that many clan elders have insisted that the Ethiopian forces occupying Somalia must leave first otherwise the conference would achieve little if any. This is a very hard pill for the government to swallow for it wholly owes its power and presence in Mogadishu to the Ethiopian forces. Ethiopian has also found itself in the same position as US in Iraq and Afghanistan. It cannot leave now for its protégé government of President Yussuf will not be able to wither the storm of ICU insurgency and clan militias. Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in Africa is also finding it hard and expensive to continue maintaining its forces in Somalia but there is rumors that their stay is being financed by US dollars, a rumor that further irks and isolates the largely anti US and Ethiopian population.
African Union, which was supposed to deploy a peacekeeping force to replace the Ethiopian contingent, is in a more beleaguered position. It is finding it hard to get and deploy more troops to Somalia. Already, the Ugandan force of 1,200 men is in the capital but the target of 8,000 peacekeepers is becoming an illusion. For those countries willing to contribute troops, they are not sure who will pay for it for AU’s experience in Darfur in terms of funding peacekeeping is quite wanting. Rwanda, Senegal and Nigeria have all hinted at contributing troops but the ongoing hostilities in the capital in which already there have been Ugandan fatalities might scare them. Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia have been ruled from contributing troops to Somalia mainly because they are frontline states with extensive interests in Somalia, interests that might worsen the situation.
Any US support is unwelcome. Many Somalia don’t want anything to do with US presence and support in their country just as they dislike Ethiopia. However, the irony is that these people will shout death to America but in the following weeks you find the same faces lining up in US Embassy in neighbouring Kenya seeking asylum and applying for immigrant visas.
What is coming out clearly in this hullabaloo is that ICU was better placed to pacify Somalia than any of the previous attempts. TFG is continuing to be a cropper however the good news is that some leaders of ICU have expressed desire to establish a broad-based and all-inclusive government in Somalia. In a recent conference in Leicester (April) that brought together various Somalia leaders, Prof Addou, the then ICU foreign minister, observed that all Somalis have to put aside their differences to wage a common, national front to regain their sovereignty.
The former foreign minister also acknowledged that the ICU could have made some mistakes, “but they were minor.” To him, more troubling were the actions of some hot-headed ICU members not approved by the leadership. It is true some cinemas were closed, property was burned, secular radio stations closed, football matches disrupted and khat (a popular stimulant) banned. This were small miscalculations that some elements of the ICU made but the least the international community and TFG could have done was to support ICU restore security and order in the whole of Somalia and slowly and gradually engage with ICU leadership for slowing down some of their “unpopular” activities/policies and start a national and broad-based dialogue to establish a central government in Somalia incorporating TFG leadership.
This roadmap could have saved Somalia its current problems. It is thus clear that international community once again failed Somalia people in their attempt to establish self rule and at minimum, they should apologize.
For record purposes, Prof Addou said in Leicester that “not a single terrorist act occurred during ICU rule, and that ICU was completely opposed to terror”.
Dominic Pkalya is a student in the MA in Media, Conflict and Peace programme at the University for Peace