Dec 18, 2008

Somaliland: A Regional Bulwark Against al-Shabaab

Sample ImageIn the midst of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the threat of the extremist Al-Shabaab group, Somaliland represents a lone figure of stability as Somalia drifts.

Below is an article written by J. Peter Pham and published by the Business Daily:


The situation in the Horn of Africa is rapidly reaching crisis proportions and specifically United States policy towards the one time Somali Democratic Republic needs to be reformulated on the basis of something other than the series of unrealistic assumptions on which it has hitherto been predicated.

Recent events have underscored the deteriorating security conditions faced by the international community as a whole as well as by the Somali and their neighbours, it is time to concentrate on Somaliland, the one part of that geopolitically sensitive space where there is still a peace to be preserved.

As a headline of Jeffrey Gettleman’s news analysis in last Sunday [14 December 2008]’s New York Times proclaimed: “The situation in Somalia seems, improbably, about to get worse.”

While there are reports that the Ethiopian National Defence Force, one of Africa’s largest and most seasoned conventional armies, were establishing new bases in central Somalia, those positions near the border town of Balanbal appear more to represent a strengthening of Addis Ababa’s ability to intervene as needed in the future than a reneging of the commitment to substantially pull out by the end of the year. 

The Ethiopians, with good reason, expect trouble from the steady advance of Islamist insurgents spearheaded by al-Shabaab (“the youth”), a radical group which was formally designated a “Foreign Terrorist Organisation” earlier this year by the US State Department which argued that it is “a violent and brutal extremist group with a number of individuals affiliated with al-Qaeda.” 

Three weeks ago, the US Treasury Department slapped travel and financial sanctions on three leaders of the group. But even as it is progressively being encircled, the TFG [Transitional Federal Government], which barely controls a few city blocks in Mogadishu – and that only because the Ethiopians have not withdrawn entirely – is continuing to tear itself apart in literal squabbles over scraps. Tensions remain high between TFG “President” Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed and “Prime Minister” Nur “Adde” Hassan Hussein.

Thus the collapse of the TFG is not that far off; then the real problems begin. While al-Shabaab forces have been united in their desire to drive out the Ethiopians and the TFG, the group itself is internally divided into half a dozen or so factions that, despite the rhetoric of transcending regional or clan affinities, are divided along those very lines.

The faction led by Mukhtar Robow is probably the largest, with several thousand fighters, but its composition is almost exclusively Habr Gidr clansmen from the Hawiye. 

If in their last coming the Islamists were an annoyance to the lives of ordinary Somalis with the bans against watching World Cup football and chewing of khat, this time they have rendered themselves downright odious through their narrow-minded intolerance. Against this bleary landscape, the one relatively bright spot has been the Republic of Somaliland.

As I have told many Somaliland officials, one of the two most important claims that make on the attention of the international community is their country’s democratic constitutional politics.

Thus the significance of the upcoming poll for Somaliland’s future cannot be underestimated: take away the popular participation in and legitimacy of its institutions of governance, and the case for an independent Somaliland becomes that much less compelling.

The other important claim which Somaliland puts forward is its role as a bulwark for the international community’s security interest in preventing the spread of the chaos emanating from the rest of the former Somalia. The creation, equipping, training, and deployment of a modernised Somaliland coast guard constitute a key component of any viable strategy for maritime security in the Gulf of Aden and adjacent waters.

Furthermore, Somaliland is critical to humanitarian efforts throughout the region. However, because the international community does not recognise Somaliland’s claim to independent statehood, the Office of the UN Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has no mechanism in place to register these displaced Somalis while, for its part, Somaliland receives none of the bilateral assistance for relief and development which would ordinarily be forthcoming to a country which was trying to cope with a similar influx of refugees.

The incoming Obama administration would be better advised to deploy its resources in a rough triage that privileges saving what can be saved, rather than vain attempts to preserve that which is already lost.

To this end, a way must be found to engage Somaliland, supplying its under-resourced government and civil society with relief and development aid and security assistance needed to survive the wave of extremism and violence which will come to the region’s frontiers.