BOOK REVIEW: Understanding the Somalia conflagration: Identity, political Islam and peace building By Afyare Abdi Elmi Reviewed by Farah Abdulsamed July 14, 2011
Understanding Somalia’s conflict can perhaps seem like quite an arduous task. However, Understanding the Somalia conflagration by Dr. Afyare from Qatar University is well structured, simple to read, and offers a rational balance that is a useful reference to anyone with a passing interest, or indeed considering further research on Somalia.
The book traces the current unfolding and complex events back to their historical roots. It starts with a history of Somalia`s colonial period, when external powers divided Somali territories, and explains thoroughly the events leading to the catastrophic civil war in early 1991. It also presents an extensive analysis of Somalia’s civil war and the often confusing and troubled history of this nation.
The book (which seems to be a revised PhD thesis) is divided into nine chapters. The first three chapters set out the analytical framework of the study and offers wide conceptualization on the conflict in relation to multiple identity markers such as clan, Islam, and Somaliness. The discussions presented by the author are remarkable. Firstly, he investigates all the peace reconciliation efforts along with the roles played by foreign actors and greedy warlords. Secondly, the obscure notion of clan identity is well explained, something which is often embellished in other works. Afyare writes: “clan identity, in itself is not the cause of the conflict; it’s a mobilization instrument”p.34.
This is true because there are more issues that unite Somali people than clan affiliation, but it became the opium Somalia`s ruling class have used to divide and rule Somalis.
In chapter three, he seeks to explain why clan identity is conducive to the current civil war, its drivers and dynamics; and the consequences of clan politics and who benefits from such politics, and why. The author presents mixed explanations, including that exploitative colonial and country’s leaders has compounded inimical inter-clan relations. For example, the last regime’s divide-and-rule policies assured the docility of different clan groups.
The first six chapters of the book highlight the failure of the state in transforming the conflict, thus prolonging the civil war, the rise of political Islam, and the further Talibanization of Somali society.
Afyare attributes the Islamist rise to several factors. These include the political vacuum left by two decades of civil war that produced new generations of violent fundamentalists nurtured and inspired by what he described as “Islamic awakening” p.48. His thoughtful overview of Somalia’s history, civil war, clan identity and absence of a peace building mechanism helps to situate the current crisis in the context of the past and sheds light on many possible ways out of the gridlock.
However, the book also deals with key issues which initially seem somewhat unrelated, but soon turn out to be opposite sides of the same coin. At the geopolitical level the author draws a picture of Somalia as a country which can’t ever be fully recovered due the level of destruction that has taken place. His main argument is that the myriad of rival clans in the country find it hard to agree on everything and an Islamist political accommodation is the only way forward to resolve the conflict. This avowal sends the wrong message on many fronts and this is what sets the book apart from rest of the work.
The peculiar Islamist outlook the author proposes from time to time is overly entertained in his thesis. The explanation of the Islamic awaking, although well placed and dramatic, recites familiar works but contributes to no fresh insights. Furthermore, his Islamist take is questionable. A somewhat weak part of the book is the notion which underplays the imminent threat to neighboring countries like Ethiopia.
The chapter subtitle reads: “Islamic courts in Somalia: A vehicle for social change”p.63. This statement is certainly correct, but not sophisticated enough to explain minority radicals’ nature and the threat they pose to regional security that provoked Ethiopian intervention. Afyare’s analysis relies more on Islamist interviews for its dominant political force. This account, which I disagree with, provides the basis for generating several hypotheses on the likely form and trajectory of political Islam in the country.
The dominant role of extremists in Union Islamic Courts (UIC) as well as hostility to Ethiopia, including destabilizing units dispatched into Ethiopia’s Somali region long before the Ethiopian intervention in 2006, is barely covered and jihadi motives are not mentioned at all.
Nevertheless, Somalia conflagration is a recommendable introduction to a country which is increasingly the focus of the global war of terror. It does not deliver only the background information, but also repeatedly deprecates the international community’s sole ownership of Somalia’s initiatives.
The author’s illustration of the international community’s routine symbolic interventions exemplifies the gap between reality and the theory which fuels endless war. The point he argues for is, if the international community wants the people of this troubled country to take responsibility for their lives, they cannot engineer solutions for them, no matter how smart these may seem.
He draws on a number of cases to explain the need to review over two decades of fruitless engagement. For several reasons I do agree with him in this. First, the failure of so many interventions puts a restraint on the search for a solution. Different peacekeeping missions, picking leaders, taking sides and trying to impose a government by force without tangible state building measures are the past actions which are synonymous with international community actions. The international community should stop its obsession with forming endless transitional administrations without state building measures. Secondly, while it is important for the international actors to allow a breathing space in which Somalis can devise solutions to their own problems, Somalis have to be allowed to make experimental decisions along with proven ones. The central argument here is that Somali’s need to decide their own fate and the international community should only support a “home grown solution”p.137.
The author illustrates how the clan issue is no longer a hurdle in Somalia since the Islamists came to power. Sadly, politicians are putting their interests before the nation and are prolonging inter-clan conflicts. The author offers alternatives to overcome 4.5 quota formulas like a “bicameral system where one of the houses can have clan representatives and another by districts or geographical formula”. However, Afyare is not enthusiast the system which he considers a tool to interfere in the country’s affairs. This interference comes mostly from neighboring Ethiopia, as Afyare elegantly puts it “were formula has been designed in 1996”p.93. According to him, Ethiopia has had different roles in the last 20 years. Kenya has a “facilitator and beneficiary’s role of the conflict”p.97, and Djibouti’s “peace promoter” roles are the major regional players in the country, p.98.
Warnings of foreign interventions are carefully documented in this book, in which the role of the international community and of the United Nations especially, makes for dismal reading. ''The UN, its backers, and the NGO’s in Nairobi control what is happening in Somalia” writes Afyare, p.131.
The US government’s add-on to the conflict is well highlighted and it can also be implicit in how the international community has dragged its feet on justice and accountability, fearful that growing instability in the country could spiral into further anarchy if it alienates its warlord allies.
Of course, one reason why Afyare could not provide space on the subject is because of the absence of domestic institutions and capacity that can support a comprehensive transitional justice process. Each of these issues can only be discussed when there is genuine national state building. Although international actors have repeatedly sermonized on the importance of justice and reconciliation, they have done little to exclude notorious warlords that have committed war crimes from the political process.
In addition to this, they supported and financed criminal warlords as published in recent Wikileaks cables. According to these, ruthless warlords like Gen. Morgan, Qanyare, Qaybdid and Bashir Raghe were to be the men on the ground and whenever the US needed support in the War on Terror they could be armed against small district courts in Mogadishu, which later sparked the UIC’s formation.
Accordingly, the international community has done nothing to promote justice not only in Somalia but even in their own countries. Many criminal warlords have fled to west and have been granted a safe haven. Currently, more than half of Somalia’s parliamentarians are former warlords and corrupted politicians who have played roles in bloody civil war. In recent peace agreement negotiations, the donor and UN have not even tried to exclude let alone to disarm them.
In the last pages of the book, the author offers recommendations for what is best for the country. He emphasizes the need for “revisiting the country’s federal system” (p.42) as mistaken policy choices have been made. At times, these recommendations are too abstract. The author does not discuss how they can be brought about, though there are many challenges in implementing these policies to be overcome.
Still, this book is an excellent contribution to the growing literature on state building and conflict resolution in Somalia. It presents a broad, diverse, and complex picture that is informative and vital for understanding Somalia. This is a book which is well-written, inventive and amazingly readable. It is fair to say Afyare is emerging as one of the most serious and thoughtful contributors on Somalia. Few academics have ever worked to develop a robust and principled policy toward Somalia that responds to the challenges of terrorism, statelessness and peace building.
UNDERSTANDING THE SOMALIA CONFLAGARTION
Identity, Political Islam and Peacebuilding
By Afyare Abdi Elmi
193 pages. Pluto Press. Price: Unlisted