Gerald Owen, National PostPublished: Friday, January 05, 2007
While many eyes were on Lebanon, in July, I wrote a column pointing out another likely regional war, based on a rumour that Ethiopian soldiers had moved into Somalia.
Now, Ethiopian tanks and Mi G fighter planes have turned a Potemkin village of a Somalian government, a stage set for the international community's wishful thinking, into something real. The militias of the Somalia Council of Islamic Courts, which for half a year had controlled most of south and central Somalia, just melted away.
Much of the media spoke of the success of "government forces." An outstanding instance of such question begging -- I use this phrase in its technical, logical sense -- was the Toronto Star's headline a week ago, "Somali forces seize capital," as if the Islamists were not Somalis.
Little has been said in the past few weeks about one real Somali government with a track record. In 1991, when the rest of the country turned to anarchy or tribalism, the northwest formed a government, declared independence as "Somaliland," and has kept out of Somali civil wars, though no state has granted it diplomatic recognition. (The curious fact that the National Assembly for Wales invited the speaker of Somaliland's parliament in March, 2006, to open its new building in Cardiff, is not really an exception, though Wales -- about 10,000 Somalis live there--is sending some aid to Somaliland, with the consent of the British Foreign Office.)
Though no utopia, Somaliland may be a credit to the British Empire, because it is roughly the same region of Somalia that Britain once ruled; in 1960, the formerly British and Italian chunks of Somalia merged to become an independent state, while French Somalia became Djibouti.
There is also Puntland in the northeast, which formed a government in 1998, but more modestly claims mere autonomy, and its politics are somewhat entangled with those of the hitherto ungovernable or ungoverned remainder of Somalia. The name is a romantic claim to be the Land of Punt, to which ancient Egyptians travelled to buy ebony and incense-producing trees, most notably on a well-recorded expedition sent by the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut in the 15th century BC.
The regimes of both Somaliland and Puntland explicitly factor clans and sub-clans into their politics. The upper house of Somaliland's parliament is composed of clan elders. (Now there's a robust, unapologetic senate for Canadians to think about!) A comparable clan system in the Highlands of Scotland was ruthlessly rooted out by the Whig/Hanoverian predecessor of our own North American regimes, after the failure of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745.
But nothing like King George II's government is available to do the same in Somalia. Ethiopia knows how draining it can be to be an occupying power, and Islamist and warlord militias may well keep going a long but irregular war of attrition.
The new government has spoken sensibly about amnesty. It knows that, just as the people of the capital, Mogadishu, welcomed its arrival, so they had welcomed the order brought by the Islamic courts. That feeling faded when some of those courts became too strict, cracking down on Bollywood movies and the chewing of a mildly narcotic leaf called qat.
Clan and sub-clan structures and Muslim jurisprudence are what Somalis have in the way of a civil society that could in time ground a decent political order. The courts were an instance of a nation trying to reconstitute itself from the bottom up, largely on the initiative of clan elders, with the good result that customary law softened the harsher punishments of Shariah.
For lack of police, the courts formed militias. Then, as a 2005 report by the International Crisis Group put it, "a degree of inter-court co-ordination" became necessary, because Mogadishu -- though hardly a capital at the time, for lack of a state -- was so large and varied in clan makeup.
In the end, though, the umbrella organization did not evolve into a prudent enough government; jihadis were more politically pushy than old-fashioned jurists and elders. Provocative threats were exchanged between Courts Council leaders and the Ethiopian government. For the time being, the regional power has prevailed.
The Somalis had withdrawn in 1991 into a primeval, tribal world of their own, though jarringly accompanied by 20th-century assault rifles. All that is certain now is that Ethiopia has pulled Somalia back into world history, for keeps. One good sign is that falling demand has brought the price in Mogadishu of an AK-47 down to a bargain $18.