Somalia’s High Stakes Power Struggle

A group of Islamist courts have seized power across much of Somalia. Many outside observers are anxiously watching—and interfering—as the power struggle plays out between the Islamists and the official government.

August 3, 2006 11:17 am (EST)

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Though Somalia has been plagued by violence for much of the last fifteen years, fighting intensified in 2006 as militias loyal to the country’s Islamic courts began expanding their territorial control. They have forced out other militias run by the warlords who have been the primary power brokers in Somalia since the collapse of the country’s last stable government in 1991. The conflict is hardly taking place in a vacuum. Somalia’s neighbors are accused of influencing the nation’s internal violence to serve their own interests, while other countries are concerned the emergence of a dominant Islamist group could make Somalia a breeding ground for terrorism. As Robert Rotberg, director of Harvard’s Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution, explains, “Everyone’s meddling.”

What are the Islamic courts in Somalia?

Courts imposing sharia (traditional Islamic law) have been active in Somalia since the mid-to-late 1990s. In a nation that has been largely anarchic for the last decade and a half, these courts became increasingly popular because they demonstrated their ability to provide some semblance of order. By early 2005, eleven of these tribunals had joined the Union of Islamist Courts (UIC), a network aimed at expanding their influence within the country. Somali business leaders, many of whom fund their own private militias, began providing financial and military backing to the UIC in hopes that the Islamists could bring wider stability. With this support, the UIC’s area of control spread from the central region of Somalia south toward Mogadishu, the capital. On June 5, 2006, the UIC claimed control of Mogadishu from a coalition of warlords calling themselves the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT). Though sporadic fighting continued for several weeks, by July 15, the UIC had secured control of the entire capital.

Recent reports suggest Mogadishu’s residents are pleased with the UIC’s rule. The warlords’ militias were notorious for indiscriminate violence: Women and girls were often raped and locals could not move about the city without fear of being killed. Since the UIC took control, experts say there are noticeably fewer guns on the streets, and people move freely throughout the city without fear of attack. Historically, Somalis have been resistant to more extreme forms of Islam, and some of the UIC’s measures could well draw the ire of the populace. Cinemas have been banned, women have been pressured to wear veils, and people found watching the World Cup soccer tournament were reportedly beaten or fined, and in one instance, shot. Though many observers have drawn comparisons between the UIC in Somalia and the Taliban in Afghanistan, some experts point to distinctions. While Somalis are Muslims, they tend to be moderate. Boys and girls attend the same schools, alcohol is sometimes permitted, and according to an International Crisis Group report, most Somalis strongly oppose jihadi Islam. “It’s not likely that Somalis will embrace a Taliban-style regime,” Washington Post reporter Craig Timberg told Foreign Policy. “That said, governments don’t always reflect the will of their populations.”

Who are the UIC’s Leaders?

  • Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has been leader of the UIC since July 2004. A Mogadishu school teacher until 2003, Ahmed campaigned the community to form an Islamic court after one of his pupils was abducted and held for ransom. He was elected chairman of the court, which was able to secure the release of the boy and several other abductees. When Ahmed expanded his campaign against lawlessness in the capital, he won the allegiance of other Islamic courts.
  • Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys is a veteran of Somalia’s many conflicts. As a colonel in the Somali army, he was decorated for his bravery in the 1977 war between Somalia and Ethiopia. Beginning in 1991, Aweys led al-Itihaad al-Islaami, a 1,000-strong militia that was suspected of ties to al-Qaeda and designated a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department. Al-Itihaad al-Islaami was responsible for a string of attacks against Ethiopia until retaliatory strikes in 1997 inflicted heavy losses and the group disbanded. Aweys offered guidance to the Islamic courts forming at the time. As the courts banded together, Aweys emerged as their spiritual leader.

On June 25, 2006 the UIC changed its name to the Islamic Courts Council (ICC) and created two administrative bodies. One, an eight-member executive council, is headed by Ahmed. The other, an eighty-eight-member legislative council, is led by Aweys. It is not yet clear which of these wields more power.

What is the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism?

Formed in February 2006, the ARPCT is a coalition of warlords who have been the power brokers in Mogadishu for years; experts say they are the source of much of the violence in Somalia. Despite its name, the ARPCT probably does little to combat terrorism and is more interested in maintaining the lawless status quo in which the warlords thrive. Experts say the moniker is an attempt to make the group appealing to Western governments, highlighting their battle against the spread of an Islamic militia. The scheme seems to have worked: In June there were widespread reports the United States was providing financial support to the ARPCT. These reports resulted in a surge of support for the Islamic courts among residents of Mogadishu, who hold the warlords largely responsible for the rampant rapes and murders in the capital. Since their ouster at the hands of the Islamists, experts say the warlords who comprised the ARPCT have been largely marginalized.

What role does Somalia’s government play?

Somalia’s internationally recognized transitional government wields very little power. Though it was created in October 2004, the government didn’t convene inside Somalia until February 2006. Because of Mogadishu’s lack of security, the Transitional Federal Institutions (TFIs), as the government is called, are based in the southern city of Baidoa. The TFIs include a 275-member parliament, which elected a president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, a warlord with ties to Ethiopia. Many of the parliamentarians and cabinet members are also warlords, including some of those recently ousted from the capital. President Ahmed appointed Ali Mohamed Ghedi his prime minister. Ghedi is an academic with no ties to any armed group, who for years sought to bring stability to Somalia by strengthening the nation’s trade and organizing its civil society groups. The prime minister survived a no confidence vote on July 31, but the session was so contentious that members of parliament were throwing punches and wrestling one another.

With the warlords pushed out of Mogadishu, tensions between the ICC and TFIs are rising. The government held talks with the ICC in June, but backed out of a second round in July. The parliament voted in favor of an African Union peacekeeping force against the wishes of the ICC. The African Union approved a force of Ugandan and Sudanese peacekeepers, but experts say the arrival of these troops is unlikely.

How do clans factor into the Somali conflict?

Clans are a fundamental part of Somali society, says Lee Cassanelli, an associate professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. “When everything else fails or falls apart, [Somalis] turn back to the clan,” he explains. “They perceive their self-interest as that of their kinsmen.” Though there are many different clans in Somalia with long, complex histories and loyalties, the current conflict has played out between two major clans.

Experts say much of the ICC’s support is drawn from the Hawiya clan—one of the largest in Somalia, though it is actually comprised of many smaller sub-clans. The other major Somali clan, Darod, tends to support the government. Though clan loyalties are an important dynamic in Somalia’s power struggle, experts say aspects of the conflict transcend these allegiances. For instance, President Ahmed is a member of Darod, though Prime Minister Ghedi, whom Ahmed appointed, is from the Hawiya clan.

What role do Ethiopia and Eritrea play in Somalia?

Tensions between bordering countries Ethiopia and Eritrea have been high ever since Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia in 1993. Five years later, the two nations commenced a two-year war stemming from a border dispute. Though the fighting subsided, the ill will has not.

Ethiopia has much at stake in the Somali conflict. “There’s a large part of Ethiopia that is nominally Somali,” Rotberg says, which gives Ethiopia an interest in seeing a stable Somalia. Furthermore, Ethiopia is a Christian nation with a sizeable Muslim population, and the Ethiopian government is concerned an Islamist government in neighboring Somalia could incite them. Ethiopia is a staunch supporter of the transitional Somali government, and in late July 2006 it reportedly sent troops to protect Baidoa, though these reports were denied. The Economist suggests Addis Ababa’s motives run deeper than a desire for stability: “A war against militant Islam in the region might make it a useful ally of America, bringing cash and diplomatic support.”

Rotberg says Eritrea’s motives are much more straightforward. “Eritrea wants anything that will cause Ethiopia pain,” he says. In the last week of July, an unidentified Ilyushin cargo plane landed twice at the Mogadishu airport, unloading what appeared to be weapons from Eritrea bound for the UIC. Though Eritrean shipments are not surprising, the arrival of the plane caused some experts to speculate that Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer, could be involved in the conflict as well.

What other entities have a stake in Somalia?

  • Saudi Arabia. Rotberg says money donated by Wahabbists in the Saudi government was one of the driving forces that led to the formation of the UIC, and that these Saudis wish to see radical Islam continue to spread in Somalia.
  • Al-Qaeda. Though there are few al-Qaeda members currently believed to be operating in Somalia, the country has been used as a transit point and safe haven by the perpetrators of several terrorist attacks in and around the Horn of Africa. The rise of an Islamist government could provide al-Qaeda with an attractive place to build training camps. Whereas Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys used to distance himself from al-Qaeda, in recent weeks he has spoken favorably of Osama bin Laden, likening him to Nelson Mandela.
  • United States. The United States would like Somalia stabilized so that it cannot be used as a haven by terrorists. Since its reported efforts to back the ARPCT failed, the United States is attempting to work with regional organizations to ensure a stable Somalia. Ted Dagne, a researcher for the Congressional Research Service, told a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee there is a danger of Somalia perceiving the United States as anti-Islam (PDF). "The label of some Somali groups as terrorists or extremists may have led some in Somalia to reach the conclusion that they are being labeled because of their religion,” said Dagne.
  • Somaliland. In 1991, the northern region of Somalia, known as Somaliland, declared independence from the rest of the country. Though it has not been recognized, Somaliland has functioned as a sovereign nation for years. Naturally, the Somaliland government would relish an outcome that would formally grant it autonomy.

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