The Somali Political Cliffhanger

As the third round of the Khartoum peace talks ended in disappointment, the question on the minds of many stakeholders is “How would the Somali political riddle ever be solved peacefully?” How would a country that is allergic to political stalemates and is already fatigued by years of tail-chasing “peace negotiations” survive this round of disappointment?

There are no easy answers in this suspenseful saga.

Nevertheless, it behooves all objective stakeholders to refrain from pouring more fuel onto this fire. Furthermore, it is critical to contextualize the problem at hand in order to pinpoint the most serious impediment to the peace process.

Granted, the Somali political problem is constantly changing- today’s problem could be tomorrow’s solution and vice versa. However, at this juncture, nothing seems to present more serious challenge to the peace process than the constant drum-beat for more bloodshed by certain network of fear merchants.

This network is relentless in keeping the pressure on. They effectively dominate public opinion and push a dangerously simplistic notion that with a strong hammer and a determined mind, all political problems are solvable. To them, all that Somalia needs is one decisive war to “eradicate the Islamists” who they consider the only threat facing the Horn of Africa.

The Khartoum was aborted and indefinitely postponed when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) protested both the presence of (UN estimated) 8000 illegally deployed Ethiopian troops in Somalia and a special privilege afforded to Kenya in its newly appointed role as the vice chair of the conference- two political developments that the courts considered were advantageous to their counterpart, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

The TFG wasted no time. They immediately unleashed a barrage of inflammatory charges that accused the ICU of being guilty of crimes that, among other things, included the assassination of former Somali speaker of the parliament who was, ironically, known before his assassination as the most vocal critic of TFG president and his prime minister for their respective roles in ushering Ethiopian troops into Somalia. Even more dramatically as these charges were read immediately after the postponement was announced, they accused the courts of having a sinister global “jihadi agenda”, and for developing a terrorist hit-list to be executed in places such as Addis Ababa and Nairobi.
TFG spokespeople repeated the ominous sound bite that the ICU demands were nothing less than a declaration of war…

Of course these wholesale accusations are not entirely new as TFG representatives have either said or insinuated tem in the past; however, the timing is a whole different story.

Why this take-no-prisoner approach? Why in such haste? Has the TFG given up on any future peace talks and decided to place all its bets on Ethiopia’s kick-the-door-down military initiative?

Whatever the motive, one should never underestimate the fact that the demands made by the ICU resonate with the average Somali (especially the intellectuals in the Diaspora) regardless of clan affiliations.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi who was held with high esteem from his days as a freedom fighter based in Mogadishu, and later as a principled leader of his nation who reciprocated the favor by welcoming thousands of Somali refugees fleeing the civil war into his country is now widely known as the most dangerous political arsonist in the Horn- a masterful post 9/11 Terror-preneur who will exploit any opportunity to gain an economic or a political edge. And Kenya who enjoyed a similar esteem, as it hosted Somali refugees and facilitated a marathon peace conference that gave birth to the current TFG, has fallen from grace ever since it turned into a staunch supporter of the Ethiopian plan- a decision that many believe was designed to sustain the refugee industry that the Kenyan economy became so dependent on.

From their perspective, however, both Ethiopia and Kenya consider the ICU as an outfit of irredeemable extremists who could be menace to the peace of the region.

Ever since they came to power, the ICU has been under the microscope, both internally and externally. Some analysts are convinced that there are criminal elements within the courts. But that is hardly shocking since characters of all shades and persuasions have joined the courts in recent months.

At this stage of extreme anxiety, it is almost impossible to analyze with accuracy whether or not a given attitudes or positions will, in due course (as threats subside), self-calibrate.

Whatever the case maybe, there is an ample evidence indicating that the extremist element does not call the political shots.

Judging from their repeated declaration that their primary goal is to secure peace for their homeland, their appeal to the international community for understanding, and indeed their recognition of the legitimacy of the TFG and their willingness to share power with them, the moderate pragmatist element is clearly the propelling force moving ICU’s political engine.

These facts cannot be ignored.

Recently, when a female student asked the ICU chairman Sheikh Sharif Ahmed in a BBC broadcasted town-hall meeting in Mogadishu “Will you allow women to work in the media?”, the chairman answered reassuringly "Actually, I am happy a woman is asking this question – at a university campus."

Probing questions were streaming from all directions. However, at the end of the day, the message was laud and clear to the over 400 students who were in the attendance ‘it is a new day, and there is nothing to fear’.

“For years the Mogadishu air was filled with the smell of gunpowder…Today, the air is filled with appetizing aroma of the slow-roasting goat meat and onion-fried rice coming from the neighborhood homes”, said Abdulqadir as he echoed a sentiment widely heard since the warlords were chased out of Mogadishu.

How long would this peace last?