Thursday, July 31, 2008

Somalia’s Power Vacuum and the Search for effective leadership

Since the collapse of Somalia’s central government in 1991, when the ex-military strongman Major General Mohamed Siyad Barre was ousted by the militia forces of the United Somali Congress (USC) headed by General Aidid, the man who instigated the movie ‘black hawk down’, several transitional governments evolved with the help of the international community though none survived past the prescribed five-year presidential term. The current state of Somalia may be attributed to lack of effective leadership. Leadership is a “…a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” (Northouse). While leadership entails influencing others, crops ups in groups, and aims to achieve common goals, the kind of leadership Somalia has been through is a subject of discussion here. The world has failed to understand Somalia and the nature of government that best suits the Somali people.


The struggle for Somali self determination began way back in the late 18th and early 19th centuries starting with the armed rebellion of Seyyid Mohamed Abdille Hassan alias ‘Mad Mullah’, a name given by the British colonial administration stationed in British Somaliland though the overall resistance started much earlier in the 15th century which saw Somalis defend their sovereignty against many Axumite kingdoms while rallying behind Ahmed Gurei alias ‘Gran’ or the ‘left handed’, the man who wrecked havoc on many Abyssinian kingdoms. “According to one legend popular in Ethiopia, Ahmed Gran was the issue of a Coptic priest and a Muslim harlot". A recent writer has more seriously suggested that the Imam may have belonged to a section of the Bija tribe.” On the other hand, it would be wise to delve in to the views of Somali historians and writers so as to know what they have to say about the man who played a special part in their history. Gran is much revered in Somali history, poetry and prose, and in folklore as a hero and a nationalist who struggled against Abyssinian and Portuguese conquest of Somali lands.

“However, Somali folklore suggests that he was in fact a Darod-son of a Somali woman and an Abyssinian Christian priest. The Somali nation, which considers him to be a great Somali hero, today believes this as a fact” (Aideed et al). The author of “the first footsteps in East Africa, Sir Richard Burton, a man who tirelessly traveled through Somalia and Ethiopia has left us an interesting history about Gran worth reading. Let’s glance at some paragraphs that highlight his military prowess and penetration in to Abyssinian territory and the majesty with which he fought precariously. "Supported with Arab mercenaries from Mocha, and by the Turks of al-Yemen with a body of Janissaries and a train of artillery, he (Ahmed Gran, also written as Mohammed Gragne) burst into Efatand Fatigars. In A.D. 1528 he took possession of Shoa, overran Amhara, burnt the churches, and carried away an immense booty. The next campaign enabled him to winter at Begmeder; in the following year he hunted the Emperor David through Tigre to the borders of Sana'ar, gave battle to the Christians on the banks of the Nile, and with his own hand killed the monk Gabriel, then an old man. Reinforced by Gideen and Judith, king and queen of the Saman Jews and aided by a violent famine which prostrated what had escaped the spear, he perpetrated every manner of atrocity, captured and burned Axum, destroyed the princes of the royal blood on the mountain of Amba Gesha and slew in A.D. 1540, David, third of his name and last emperor of Ethiopia.” Gran did fight but the manner in which he was killed by those he wanted to annihilate is worth reading. He was killed by a Portuguese musketeer on the 21st of February, 1543, in the battle of Wayna Daga in Ethiopia. The destruction caused by Gran still haunts many Ethiopians to this day.

Seyyid Mohamed Abdille Hassan alias ‘Mad Mullah’

The British Somaliland Protectorate Administration gave him the name ‘Mad Mullah’ for his refusal to pay poll tax. Seyyid Mohamed Abdille Hassan fought devastating wars against the British, Italian, and Abyssinian forces for 21 years. He was indoctrinated in to the Salihiya sect of Sunni Islam by the Mahdi of Sudan who at that time held the position of spiritual leader in a theocratic establishment. He is reputed to have also fought numerous Somali sultanates that relied on foreign colonial governments for protection. Seyyid Mohamed wanted a unifying government for all Somalis but had his hopes dashed by the combined forces of Britain, Italy, and Abyssinia. Despite fighting meticulously between the years 1899-1920, Somali double standards and tribal divisions hampered his efforts.

Somali tribal segmentation

Despite being the most homogeneous nation in Africa, Somalis have been described by sociologists, psychologists, historians, and anthropologists as the most segmented race on the planet. Somalis are divided in to four major tribal divisions namely: Darod, Hawiye, Isaaq, and Digil and Mirifle. The Darod mostly live in eastern, central, and southern Somalia, the northern region of Kenya, and the Eastern part of Ethiopia known as the ‘Ogaden’ which is a disputed region. Darod produced the likes of President Shermarke , the last military ruler, Major General Siyad Barre, and the current transitional President.

The Hawiye occupy much of central and southern Somalia and have had a big stake in the Somali nation. General Mohamed Farah Aideed was a Hawiye, so were the first and second transitional presidents after the fall of the former junta. The land that composed the former British Somaliland is inhabited by the Isaaq tribe who trace their origin to an Arab immigrant sheikh who is thought to be buried in Maydh, a small town in that part of the former British protectorate. The Isaaq played a great role in the birth of the Somali nation and are reputed to have produced educated men and women who took part in the struggle for independence. In the meantime, this territory is seeking to secede from the rest of Somalia and has been described as a ‘haven of peace’ in Africa.

Digil and Mirifle occupy Somalia’s Bay and Bakool regions of southern Somalia and are known to be brilliant agriculturalists producing much of Somalia’s staple foods. They occupy Somalia’s bread basket regions. They also have had a share in the Somali successive administrations since independence.

Ironically, Somalis have a proverb that goes this way: “Me against my brother, me and my brother against my family, me and my family against my clan, me and my clan against the world (anonymous).”

Somalis have been described as ‘the Irish of Africa’-a reference to the war of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that startled the British Isles for decades. Likewise, there is no long lasting way out in sight to Somalia’s senseless wars as serenity is always short-lived in the Horn of Africa.

The Birth of a Nation

The Somali Democratic Republic was born in 1960 when the former northern British Somaliland and the southern Italian Somaliland incorporated in to what became known as the Somali Democratic Republic with headquarters in Mogadishu City. President Aden Abdille Osman, who hailed from the south of the country, became its first President. Formed from an amalgamation of warring tribes with Cushitic lineages, Somalis are homogeneous, practice endogamous marriages, speak one language which is Somali, share one religion that is Islam, profess the Shafi’i sect, and lead pastoral lifestyles though transformation in to urban structures triumphed as the world changed in to a global village subsequent to the arrival of the 20th century. President Aden Abdille Osman, upon completing his first time, retired from politics altogether and was replaced by Abdirashid Ali Shermarke who also hailed from the south most notably in the land formerly known as Majertinia and currently splashed on the world map as Punt land-in reference to the ‘Land of the Punt’ or ‘Land of Aroma’-an brand name from ancient Pharaonic suggestions originated by Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt who on a voyage to that part of the world in search of frankincense and myrrh for medicinal and spiritual purposes tumbled upon a land that would have an impact on much of her succeeding hierarchy and beyond. Undoubtedly, Somalis share physical features with the Nuba and Saida communities who produced many of the Egyptian rulers of antiquity. Also, similarities in cultural traits such as clitoridectomy and infibulations bring us to the idea that the two peoples share analogously edifying bonds. There is need for advanced anthropometric, archaeological, and social anthropological research so as to deduce the foundation of the Somali people and their relationship to ancient Egyptians.

President Abdirashid Ali Shermarke was assassinated in 1969 upon arriving Las Anod airstrip by a 22-year old policeman and relative thus ending Somalia’s long cherished African model of democracy. “Shermarke had gained a mild reputation abroad as a troublemaker when he served as the nation’s first Prime Minister from 1960 and 1964, largely because of his efforts to obtain sovereignty over those parts of northern Kenya and eastern Ethiopia roamed by Somali nomads. His domestic policies, however, had produced little unrest. After a three-year out of office, he was elected President in 1967. He chose as his Prime Minister Mohammed Haji Ibrahim Egal, 41, who promptly proceeded to end the border frictions.”

Bloodless Coup: The dawn of a Revolution

Ironically, on the 21st of October, 1969, the same year President Shermarke was killed, Major General Mohamed Siyad Barre, seized power in a bloodless coup. The new military leader immediately imposed martial laws that led to the arrest, expulsion and execution of unfaithful cadres of the previous government ushering in a two-decade of rule by the gun and the proclamation of a succession of alien ideologies ranging from communism, socialism, and scientific socialism. Up till now, Somalia is in a power vacuum. Somalis are divided as to the cause of their political instability with some heaping blame on foreign intervention while others charge home grown agitators.

With the collapse of the central government, the country has been through the worst crises ranging from the death and displacement of millions to the absurd state of the economy, collapse of infrastructure, dumping of hazardous wastes, outbreak of communicable diseases, malnutrition, deluge caused by torrential rains, desertification and locust menace and the list could be endless. On the other hand, landmines pose a great threat to the unsuspecting civilian in a land where prosthetics are unknown. Insecurity has hampered relief operations for years with many humanitarian workers facing threat of abductors seeking ransom. Journalists have been targeted incessantly. Piracy off the coasts of Somali waters have become a lavish operation because of the hefty ransom paid by the ship owners. Thus, Somalia has been described by the United Nations as the most dangerous place to live.

Succession of ineffective Leaders

Upon chasing Siyad Barre’s hardnosed junta from Somalia, the United Somali Congress elected Ali Mahdi Mohamed as a transitional President. Ali Mahdi hailed from the Abgal clan of the major Hawiye tribe that still controls and inhabits much of Somalia’s Hiran region that is the source of power schisms, tribal animosity, religious fanaticism, national disunity, hatred, rape and murder, piracy, and a host of repulsive and hostile actions.

After the ouster of Ali Mahdi, the majority Hawiye established a legislative assembly that elected General Aideed as transitional President. Rather than cleaning the cob webs that tainted the Somali leadership and setting a prime example for the rest of the nation, Aideed embarked on a mission of revenge to an extent his actions received international condemnations. In his book, My American Journey, Colin L. Powell, former Chief-of-Staff, describes how they handled the hunt for General Aideed. “The UN special envoy, retired American admiral Jon Howe, put a $25,000 reward on Aidid’s head”. The American leadership failed to study the kind of people they were at war with. And that is what caused the whole operation to fail without much success. But it is Bill Clinton who paints a clear picture of the mistakes made by the U.S. Government as regards dealing with General Aideed. Clinton’s administration failed to recognize Aidid’s importance in Somali politics. The Clinton administration failed to exercise extreme caution. According to Bill Clinton’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell: “Howe, Turkish Lieutenant General Cevik Bir, the UN commander, and the American commander, Major General Tom Montgomery, asked for U.S. helicopter gunships and AC-130 strike planes to attack Somali strongholds”. The use of bigger fire power destroyed all prospects for exculpation and tenacity. In 1992, old George Bush ordered what became known as ‘Operation Restore Hope’. The operation became a fiasco after the killing of 19 U.S. Rangers and a dozen Pakistani soldiers.

“Oakley believed that the United Nations, including his old friend Admiral Howe, had made a mistake by isolating Aidid from the political process and by becoming so obsessed with tracking him down. By extension, he disagreed with our decision to try to apprehend Aidid for the UN.” There was deep division in the US Congress on the issue of withdrawing US forces from Somalia. “…as I learned in a White House meeting with several members; most of them demanded an immediate withdrawal of our forces. I strongly disagreed, and in the end we compromised on a six-month transition period. I didn’t mind taking Congress on, but I had to consider the consequences of any action that could make it even harder to get congressional support for sending American troops to Bosnia and Haiti, where we had far greater interests at stake.” Somalia was of no vital importance to the United States as stated by Bill Clinton. Inexperienced Bill Clinton ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia in 1993thus ending the much sought humanitarian mission. Aideed was killed by his own tribesmen in 1996. In August 2000, Abdikassim Salad Hassan who hailed from the Hawiye tribe, was inaugurated President. His presidency did not last the five-year limit.

Birth of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG)

Despite the formation of a Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in neighboring Kenya under the auspices of the international community in 2004, its usefulness is yet to be seen. Led by its President, ex-Colonel Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, an 80-year old former rebel who is reputedly the longest surviving liver transplant patient, the TFG is nothing more than a toothless tiger cowering under Ethiopian tanks in the town of Baidoa that is no bigger than the Vatican City.

The Union of Islamic Courts (UIC)

After living at the mercy of warlords for almost a decade and a half, Somalis founded living in Mogadishu and its environs formed an amalgamation of eleven courts known as the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) that seized power in a reverberating blitzkrieg in southern Somalia in 2006 pitying neighboring Ethiopia to intervene militarily, an operation that is still in effect with the consent of the U.S. Ironically, Ethiopia, alarmed by the rhetoric of the UIC leadership, sent an estimated 50,000 soldiers, reinforced by helicopter gunship, artillery and tank fire. In December of 2007, the UIC disbanded after being routed only to regroup with the assistance of President Afewerki of Eritrea, a man who is a bitter rival and maternal cousin of Meles Zenawi, the current Prime Minister of Ethiopia. The most worrying trend for the U.S. and Ethiopia is the presence of men perceived as a threat to the region especially Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweis, a former head of Al-Itihad Al-Islami, a ravenous, Jihadist, extremist religious group that wrecked havoc in the 90s and Aden Hashi Ayro, a man considered by the U.S. as the representative of Al-Qaeda in the region. Also, the vulnerable Red Sea that is a passageway for much of the world oil originating in the Gulf States could as well fall in the hands of a force to reckon with.

The irony is that, the U.S., worried by what it calls ‘terrorists’, has an armada of warships along the Somali coast with the sole mission of combating ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist hideouts’. In addition, the U.S. has a military base in Djibouti (formerly known as French Somaliland and then the Territory of the Afars and Issas) bordering the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, between Eritrea and Somalia. They have been stationed at Le Monier barracks since April 2002. “Djibouti is France’s largest foreign military base. Djibouti is host to several thousand French military personnel, including the 13e Démi-Brigade de la Légion Étrangère (13e DBLE - 13th Half-Brigade of the Foreign Legion).”

The U.S. is taking such drastic measures to avert incidents similar to the 1998 Embassy bombings of Kenya and Tanzania carried out by Al-Qaeda. Just recently, U.S. planes carried out bombing missions in the town of Dhusamarreb in the Galgadud region of Somalia killing the much sought after terrorist suspect Aden Hashi Ayro thought to have trained in Afghanistan. “An American missile strike in Somalia apparently killed a militant long identified as one of Al-Qaeda’s top operatives in East Africa on Thursday, but while Bush administration officials claimed success they also acknowledged facing an uphill battle to score lasting blows in their final months against the terrorist group around the world.”

Reconciliation in Djibouti

A reconciliation conference has just been concluded in neighboring Djibouti aimed at creating peace between the TFG and the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia hereafter referred to as the ARS. In a three-page document signed by both parties, signatory members will have to observe immediate ceasefire until the deployment of a peace keeping force that will pave way for the departure of Ethiopian forces within 120 days. To me, this agreement will not hold as long as there are other parties opposed to it. Representatives of a hostile jihadist faction fighting Ethiopian and TFG forces have categorically rejected it because they believe in the implementation of Islamic sheria.

“Ironically, every crisis intervention and reconciliation rehearsed by the International Community ended in tatters due to Somalia’s strategic importance and political significance further inflicting grotesquely nightmarish feelings of misery for the peace-loving Somalis and exhilaration for the newly-evolved warlords and their foreign cronies who perceive any form of stability in the country as catastrophic to their political intentions. Thus, a myriad of confronting physical and mental upshots with profound results continues to consume the very fabric of Somali society in all localities.”

Nations of IGAD

The two tiny nations of Djibouti and Eritrea, both of whom play a role in the Somali conflict, have a border dispute that erupted in to war this month. The two are fighting over Mount Gabla, also known as Ras Doumeira, overlooking the strategic Bab al-mandeb straits, which are a major shipping route to and from Europe and the Middle East. Also, both states are members of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Formerly the Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development (IGADD), IGAD comprises the nations of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, and Uganda. All six nations have a hand in Somalia. Kenya is the staging ground for anti-terrorism missions for Somalia, Uganda has African Union (AU) peace keeping troops in Mogadishu, Ethiopia has occupation forces that have been accused of human rights violations, Djibouti has held several fruitless reconciliation conferences for warring Somali groups, Eritrea hosts Somali extremist assemblage, and also Sudan, the former headquarter of Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda (meaning the “the base” in Arabic), a nation that has terrorized its southern provinces and Darfur, has, undoubtedly, a gigantic stake.

Leadership Problem and Situational Approach

The enormity of tribal fragmentation that has afflicted Somalia for centuries can be remedied by having competent, knowledgeable, and committed leaders who tend to understand the fragility of the political atmosphere the nation is embroiled in. “Knowledge is intricately related to the application and implementation of problem-solving skills in organizations.” Only an impulsive out-of-nowhere invincible force will tilt the political landscape in Somalia. With each tribe suspicious of the other, those shadowy Somali leaders pretending to unify the nation will meet with hostility and resistance from the other side of the isle. Due to lack of visionary leaders, the political arena in the country will remain one shrouded in mystery and a humiliating one for those on the forefront to the humanitarian crisis. Those in the schism that has reduced the nation in to rubble are remnants of the former junta who had training in the former U.S.S.R., Yugoslavia, Communist Yemen, Cuba, East Germany, and other eastern European communist blocks like Romania and Bulgaria. With corroded tribal mindset, these men previously served as soldiers or communist propagandists. On the other hand, lack of leaders with crystallized cognitive ability seems to hold Somalia ransom. “Crystallized cognitive ability is intellectual ability that is learned or acquired over time."

The archetypes of leadership qualities set by Mahatma Gandhi of India, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, and the Dalai Lama of Tibet as has been recently discovered by various academic institutions with an eye on prospective leaders, though followed by a few governments of today, could set the pace for a contingency plan for many to emulate without shilly-shallying. Many failed states with far-fetched legacy of vengeance end up with never-ending geopolitical consequences such that chronic and sustained human flight, massive human movement and internally displaced persons (IDPS) become daily occurrences. Nations like Somalia, Myanmar, and Laos that have either been absorbed in political disasters, internecine wars, or distorted ideologies, could, as the dust finally settles, be compelled to dedicate their resources and intellectual will and emulate non-violent paths the likes of Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and Mandela trailed in their pursuit of liberty, peace, equality, justice, and human co-existence.

Lewis, I.M., “The Modern History of Somaliland”, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1965, p.208.
Mohamed Farah Aidid, “Somalia: From the Dawn of Civilization to Modern Times” New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1993.
Burton, Sir Richard, “The First Footsteps in East Africa”, London: Longman, 1856, p. 180-184.
Powell, Colin (1995): My American Journey, Random House, New York.
Ibid. 584
Clinton, Bill (550): My Life, Alfred A. Knopf, Random House, New York
Ibid. 552.
Northouse, Peter G. (2007), Leadership: Theory and Practice. Sage Publications. Thousand Oaks, CA.
Ibid. 48

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