Once again, after many years, Somalia is in the news. Why so, and why is this article appearing in a newspaper in an old mill town on the Androscoggin River? Somalia is in the news because much has happened there in past weeks, and because Lewiston-Auburn is home to some 3,000 Mainers who are Somali-Americans.
They care about what’s happening back home, and about their family who may still be in the country. Our neighbors – the folks we found living here long before us – also care, because at work and on the street, people keep asking what on earth is happening in Somalia, thousands of miles away.
This is an overview of what’s happened, and what I think needs to happen.
“The most dangerous city on earth”
Some 16 years after the collapse of the Somali National Government, and some 13 years after the infamous day immortalized in the epic movie “Black Hawk Down,” Somalia remained a “no-go” country and a dangerous place. Warlords carved up the country, and controlled the lives of ordinary people.
Militias, who answered to the warlords, could do whatever they wished, including terrorizing the population, looting, shooting, raping and pillaging. Mogadishu, once a beautiful, peaceful and bustling city by the Indian Ocean, became known as the most dangerous city on earth. Hundreds of thousands died and more than a million Somalis scattered around the world in a diaspora as refugees. Until six months ago.
In June, something happened out of the blue. Since Somalia lacked government institutions after the fall of Mohamed Siad Bare and his regime, locals created a law enforcement mechanism: Islamic courts. The courts sprung up in neighborhoods, and were where one could file a grievance against another person. This modest arrangement saved lives in the absence of governance, and rather than taking the law into their own hands, people would take their case to the Sheikhs to solve everyday disputes.
It worked and people were happy, to some extent. Then the authority of the courts consolidated under one banner, and called itself the “Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia.” They became powerful, and threatened the existence of the warlords. The warlords labeled the courts as “terrorist.” But Somalis never thought the union of Islamic courts were a bunch of terrorists. Somalis have never been associated with terrorists. Somalis are moderate Muslims who have never threatened anyone, even as a government.
The notion that the courts were terrorists was utter nonsense.
The courts and the warlords exchanged harsh words, which led to open war on the streets of Mogadishu between militias loyal to approximately six warlords, and militias loyal to the courts. After days of fighting, the warlords were driven out by the courts and went on the run. Mogadishu returned to normal again.
The Islamic courts dismantled the roadblocks placed by the warlords. People went about their businesses without fear of extortion by unruly warlords and their merciless militia gunmen. The courts established neighborhood watch groups, and local policing for the people’s safety. There was a euphoria about the courts in Somalia, and abroad.
People applauded them, especially for taming Mogadishu, which was the center of the country’s problems. The courts earned the support of the Somali people. The Islamic courts gained prominence overnight and overran the country in one sweep, taking city after city with little resistance.
Watching from here, Somali-Americans thought this movement was a popular uprising of a people fed up with the mayhem of the past 16 years.
“Our reign will reach all countries”
However, the “Wadaadada,” (or priests, as Somalis call them) made mistakes along the way to their fame and prominence. They installed laws which prevented people’s leisure. When the courts came to power, the World Cup tournament was being played in Germany. Soccer, like it is in Europe, is the most popular game in Somalia and other East African countries.
When the militias of the Islamic courts appeared where people were watching these games, they closed them down, and the outcry was heard across the world. Then, there was a story about militias firing into a crowd of well-wishers at a wedding, because someone was singing. Of all the restrictions, however, nothing was more disturbing and intimidating than the courts’s ban on khat, a stimulant widely used in East Africa from which many earned their living, especially women raising the children of many dead fathers.
Further south, they even banned smoking. People caught bringing cigarettes into Somalia from Kenya were flogged, and their merchandise set alight. That was not all.
The Islamic courts irritated neighboring countries when they boasted their reign would reach all the countries in the region, and that they would march all the way to Addis-Ababa, the capital of neighboring Ethiopia. The statements raised eyebrows in Washington D.C., and elsewhere.
The United States wanted the courts’ help in finding foreign suspects connected with the bombings of American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. The Sheikhs either failed to hear or ignored this request, and maintained there were not any foreign fighters in Somalia.
At this point, the courts and its leaders were being watched by neighboring countries as well as the west. One neighbor, Ethiopia, had been nervous since the courts emerged. Ethiopia, which neighbors Somalia to the west, is an old foe which Somalia has engaged in three wars over a piece of patched land called the Ogaden.
Ethiopia, with a large Muslim population, had a legitimate national security concern about its population becoming ruled by Islamists. Moreover, Ethiopia didn’t want to be sandwiched between two radical Muslim nations, Somalia to the east and Sudan to the west.
The third player thus far unmentioned is the “Transitional Interim Government of Somalia”, which was assembled two-and-a-half years ago in Nairobi, Kenya. The interim government enjoyed recognition by the international community, but lacked strength outside its stronghold of Baidoa, a city in southwest Somalia. It had neither an army nor police. The few hundred soldiers it could cobble were training when the Islamists took power in Mogadishu.
Power-sharing negotiations sponsored by the Arab League and hosted in Khartoum, Sudan, twice failed to produce an agreement. The sticking point was the law of the land. The Islamic courts wanted Somalia ruled under the sharia law, while the interim government wanted to adopt a secular constitution drafted during the Nairobi talks and ratified by the new parliament.
Things deteriorated, and the Islamic courts extended its rule over the entire southern Somalia.
When the courts’ rule encroached Baidoa, and their rhetoric rumbled the flame they had lit would engulf the world, red flags went up in Washington, Addis-Ababa and the world. Ethiopia prepared to take the fight to the courts, before the courts could bring it to Ethiopia as threatened. In early December, thousands of Ethiopian troops massed on the Ethiopia-Somali border.
Some troops were deployed at the garrison town where the interim government was based. Heavy military equipment was seen crossing into Somalia from three fronts, preparations for a preemptive strike against Islamic court fighters. Four days before Christmas, the first shots were fired and war broke out again in Somalia.
Ethiopia unleashed its massive, well-equipped, army against rifle-toting young Somalis promised paradise if they killed, or were killed by, the enemy. Within days, fierce battles were being waged on four fronts.
The Ethiopians, with all their weaponry, still faced setbacks against the poorly equipped, but spirited, Islamic court fighters. Soon the Ethiopians deployed their best weapons – gunship helicopters and fighter bombers. All hell broke loose, and pictures of dead fighters appeared on the Internet and evening BBC news broadcast. The climax came when Ethiopian bombers hit Mogadishu International Airport and various other targets.
I was shocked by the brutality of the Ethiopians. They used excessive force against lightly armed fighters, many who didn’t even know what they were fighting about. Ethiopian planes hitting Mogadishu enraged those who remember the Somali-Ethiopian war of 1977-1978, during which the Somali army liberated the Ogaden region and almost drove directly to Addis-Ababa, if not for Russian and Cuban troops stopping them.
The Ethiopians were accompanied this latest operation by approximately 300 interim government troops. The Ethiopians cleared the way with their heavy weapons, and the government troops followed. Mogadishu fell, and the Islamists fled to southern port city of Kismayo.
With interim government troops and Ethiopians in pursuit, the court fighters made a final attempt to repel these attackers before abandoning Kismayo and disappearing in the countryside. The war was over; the interim government is now in charge of Somalia.
Anger of a united Somalia
What is the way forward now?
Somalis should stop, breathe deep, and think. It’s been years since any government operated in our country. Many lives have been lost, and Somalis everywhere have been affected. The Ethiopians, and others like the foreign fighters rumored to have fought for the Islamic court, would not have been in Somalia if we have not destroyed the country in the first place.
Too many Somali kids have died; this madness must stop now.
The Ethiopians need to head home soon, perhaps when African peacekeepers arrive in the country, as Ethiopia has removed its threat, and has propelled the interim government to power.
Though the Ethiopia of today is different from the Ethiopia that Somalia warred with years ago, Somalis are still allergic to Ethiopians. The welcoming of Ethiopia for helping the interim government will be a short-lived honeymoon.
Somalis don’t like to be colonized. The British monarchy could not tame Somalis in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Resistance was so furious, the British uses fighter bombers – new tools in the art of warfare – against Somali fighters headed by a Mullah called Mohamed Abdullah Hassan.
Given this, Ethiopia needs to leave Somalia soon, before its armies are confronted and innocents are killed. If that happens, they will see the anger of a united Somali people.
Mohammed S. Abdi is a member and liaison for L-A’s Somali community. He lives in Auburn.