The uneasy peace
From the Esquire ME archive: October 2013
Failed State, right?
Well, yes… though there is this one unrecognised state in its northern reaches that is peaceful (more-or-less), has a booming economy and has been virtually untouched by Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda’s deadly African cousin. You could even call it a success story, in a region light on good news. But how does Somaliland say no to terror? And what Faustian pacts has it made to keep the bombs at bay? Sean Williams visits the Horn of Africa to find out.
When Al Shabaab insurgents bombed a UN compound in Mogadishu in June, I was eating lunch with Somaliland’s foreign minister. Anger followed sadness but no-one was surprised. Until then the world’s media had been repeating a tired mantra over and over again: Somalia is getting safer, Somalia is getting safer.
But Somalia isn’t getting safer. And everyone at the table knew it. Mogadishu’s zygotic government barely even controls the ’burbs outside its own capital city. That land, and far more beyond it, belongs to Al Shabaab, a deadly terror cell once described by Osama Bin Laden as one of the most important armies in al-Qaeda’s jihad.
There is, though, an anomaly: the northwest corner of Somalia, nestled between Ethiopia, Djibouti and the Gulf of Aden, is safe. Al Shabaab hasn’t struck this territory since a coordinated attack claimed over thirty lives in 2008. Five years without terrorism in many places is a given. In this part of the world it’s a miracle.
The minister, Dr. Mohamed Abdilahi Omar, looked up from his chicken and spaghetti (Somaliland’s Italian colonialist past surfaces in strange places), his face fixed in a doleful frown. “If we join Somali we become the target,” he said.
But Somaliland is Somalia, isn’t it?
Well, no. You won’t find the sky-blue Somali standard fluttering atop a flagpole in Hargeisa, the Somaliland capital. The locals are not Somalis, they’re Somalilanders. It has its own borders. It has a military, a government and even its own currency, the Somaliland shilling (although it’s so weak traders sit in the city centre swapping great piles of notes for US dollars). Somaliland is a country in all but name. And it certainly isn’t Somalia, a place that’s barely a nation by anything other than its name. That place, The World’s Most Failed State, has been torn to pieces by Al Shabaab, who are still killing hundreds, if not thousands, each year. Any hopes Somalia had of convincing the world that Al Shabaab was vanishing were dashed in June, along with the lives of twenty-two people working at a UN compound in Mogadishu. Or perhaps in April when the group raided the city’s courthouse and claimed twenty lives. Or, more recently, this September, when a car and suicide bomber ripped the roof off a popular cafe, killing fifteen people.
But while Somalia’s government, which received historic recognition by the US and International Monetary Fund last year, is trying to blast away its terror epidemic — Somaliland’s authorities have learned that you have to first build a country. That is something they’re doing very well indeed. But there’s one pretty big caveat: to be rid of the violence, Somaliland just might be keeping a deal with the devil. But more of that later.
Somalia and Al Shabaab have changed immeasurably in the past two decades. In 1993 Mogadishu was an all-out war-zone: Mohamed Siad Barre, a brutal despot who snatched power in 1969, had been ousted two years previously. His successor, a southern warlord named Mohamed Farrah Aidid, sparked a civil war that provoked the UN and US into action. That conflict crescendoed in October 1993 when two US Black Hawk helicopters were blasted out of the sky and onto the streets of Mogadishu, triggering a two-day guerrilla battle, an interpretation of which was immortalised in the 2002 movie Black Hawk Down.
Aidid was succeeded by his son and namesake, Hussein Mohamed Farrah Aidid, in 1995. Somalia had by then descended into a devolved, desiccated fiefdom ruled by a litany of warlords. Islamic judges, who had pounced on Somalia’s power vacuum to impose ever-stricter interpretations of Shari’a law, began to win real political clout. In 1999, militia loyal to the five major courts, known by then as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) stormed and won Mogadishu. Somalia suddenly found itself under the rule of an elite krytocracy preaching Islamic nationalism. Its philosophy would provide the foundation of Al Shabaab’s own radical ideology.
By the end of 2006, the ICU controlled Mogadishu and nearly all of southern Somalia. The central region of Galmudug still resisted its advances, as had Puntland to its north, and Somaliland — all of whom aligned themselves with the new Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The TFG, Somalia’s very own manufactured boy band of politics, was helped by the UN, US and Ethiopia. (As a Christian-majority nation, Ethiopia didn’t fancy an Islamist next door neighbour.)
To make things more complicated, the young, faithful militia who had propelled the ICU into power were beginning to form their own, harder-line groups. By the time Ethiopian troops busted into Mogadishu and toppled the ICU on December 28 2006, Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (‘The Movement of the Striving Youth’) or simply Al Shabaab (‘The Youth’, or even ‘The Lads’), were fit to continue waging war on the TFG. Al Shabaab’s jihad resembled less the Somali nationalism of its vanquished parent and more the global Islamism of al-Qaeda. That kinship reached its logical conclusion when it was officially twinned with the terror organisation in 2012. When that happened, a new wave of Afghans and Pakistanis flooded westwards to fight with them.
All the while Somaliland, which had suffered as any other region during the Barre years, and its subsequent madness, was forging itself as a separate nation. It had enjoyed the briefest whiff of independence on June 26 1960, when it shook off British rule to become the State of Somaliland before falling under greater Somali rule just a week later. The region declared itself a standalone country again on May 18 1991, after Barre’s ouster. This May thousands lined the streets of Hargeisa to celebrate independence day.
Al Shabaab’s leadership, despite its international clout, remains Somali to this day. But the man who has masterminded it from the very beginning, Moktar Ali Zubeyr — known by his nickname Godane — wasn’t born in the south. His home town is Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, and perhaps not uncoincidentally, the one place in Somalia free from terror.
Hargeisa is a broken town with big ambitions. Giant new office buildings rub shoulders with crumbling, breeze-block shacks. Gleaming 4x4s growl down the city’s serpentine main street, the only tarmacked road in town, past young men on donkeyback who trot from house to house selling water out of yellow plastic drums. People jog in and out of traffic, while local outdoor markets, once empty through fear, now throng with shoppers.
A cramped old roofed bazaar sits in the centre of town, redolent of Arabian fables. But there’s no local chintz on offer, rather a load of first- and second-hand household goods: you’re unlikely to leave with a golden jug or a shisha pipe, but you’ll get a great deal on a Real Madrid shirt and some hair-straighteners.
Hargeisa hums with the entrepreneurialism of a newly-secure state. Dahabshiil is a money-transfer firm with an annual revenue of $300m, from the region’s estimated $1.6bn remittance market. It has 24,000 outlets and its CEO, Abdirashid Duale, is Somaliland’s richest man. SomCable is bringing high-speed Internet from neighbouring Djibouti. That will boost its flourishing media industry: Hargeisa alone boasts thirteen local newspapers and three private TV stations (few own a TV but it is becoming custom for men to spend evenings in barbershops and eateries, smoking, chewing khat — a local herbal stimulant — and arguing over the news). Somaliland is big on social media too, as locals connect with friends and family who made it out during the war.
That diaspora, a million strong, is returning, buoyed by peace (and tax breaks) allowing them to start afresh in the home they fled in fear. “I came here in 1993 and it was like Hiroshima after the bomb: no roofs, no roads. Madness,” says Ali Farah Mohamed, chairman of Bulsho (‘Community’) TV, a network he runs out of a smallish villa on the outskirts of town. He returned in 1999 from Toronto to fulfill his television business dream.
Abdikareem Salah Mohamud is a forty-two-year-old father-of- five who left Hargeisa aged seventeen for Australia, where he drove cabs in Melbourne to fund his studies. Now he owns Hargeisa Taxi, and his bright yellow sedans roll through Hargeisa offering rides anywhere for $3. It’s a tiny slice of New York glam in East Africa. “This is the only way we can build. If we start with small businesses like us,” he says, monitoring his fleet on a laptop at his house, “then the government and the country will grow.”
But you’re never too far from Somaliland’s bellicose past in Hargeisa. Perched upon a dais in the centre of town is an old fighter jet used by Siad Barre to bomb his people into submission. During those dark years fifty-thousand people died; many of whom were women and children who were attacked trying to escape into Ethiopia, just fifty miles west of Hargeisa. A few blocks down, the next monument is a scale model tank. Every major government or NGO building is blocked off by rows of anti-suicide-attack concrete walls, and surrounded by gun turrets. Outside the city, major roads are littered with the rusting carcasses of blown-out vehicles.
These physical remnants of Somaliland’s troubled history also point to the fragility of the present-day status quo.
Maroodi-Jeh’s players sprint to their fans on the touchline. Hawd FC’s striker just put his sudden-death penalty wide: Maroodi-Jeh are Somaliland’s best tribal football team for the second year running. Fifteen thousand fans packed inside Hargeisa’s football stadium go wild. Women in brightly-coloured direh (traditional Somali hijabs) scream and surge towards the pitch, stopped only partially by khaki-wearing police, who beat them with acacia branches. Dust flies; a kaleidoscope of pandemonium. The sound of stones smashing against the creaking old ground’s corrugated roof above is deafening. “This is nothing,” one man shouts to me as the crowds scatter. “You should’ve been here last year.” I spy a car that has been driven into the centre circle. “No chance,” he says, pulling me away from its beckoning driver and what I assume is his promise of a speedy exit. “That car belongs to the losing captain. It’ll be torn to pieces before it gets out of here.”
The green, white and red Somaliland tricolour might fly on every street corner. But the region is still deeply riven across clan lines. Violence often breaks out and minority clans, such as the Yibir and Gaboye, are still internally displaced in giant camps two decades after Siad Barre ethnically cleansed the country. “The government has made us forget our past,” says Abdirashid, a Yibir father-of-sixteen. He lives in one of the camps, in a tent next-door to his wife and kids. He can’t get work and makes a pittance conducting banned voodoo ceremonies outside Hargeisa.
“Most of these men support Al Shabaab,” a local journalist tells me one evening at dinner. “They’d never tell you though,” he adds, shifting into a hushed tone and chomping on a spice-infused chunk of camel fat. “I know a large number of Somalilanders who support the group… but not beyond lip service.”
Tribal tension and rising unemployment are red rags to Al Shabaab’s recruiters. But the economy is helping, slowly, to create new jobs. And clan, too, while splitting Somalia into a hundred warring factions, plays to Somaliland’s advantage. One clan, the Isaaq, has dominated Somaliland politics for decades. Three of the region’s four presidents, including incumbent Ahmed Silanyo, have belonged to the Isaaq. Dahabshiil chief Duale is also a member.
So is Godane.
Hassan Dahir Aweys might have had the world’s most famous henna goatee. Al Shabaab’s septuagenarian spiritual leader has long given up the art of camouflage. His flame-red facial hair got a global airing this June when he was pictured being herded into police custody. Major Breakthough in War on Terror, wrote almost everyone. There’s no denying the group’s numbers are dwindling — a few years ago it boasted almost twenty-thousand soldiers; now that number is closer to five thousand.
But Aweys’ capture is misleading. Even the old man himself admits that he was forced into custody by infighting and a new, even more zealous younger generation. Two of his followers, American-born Abu Mansoor al-Amriki and British national Osama al-Britani, were killed in September. And his custody is already giving state officials headaches. “Aweys is seventy-eight and hasn’t won a battle in politics or the military for twenty years — he’s a loser,” says Ken Menkhaus, a political analyst at North Carolina’s Davidson College and former peacekeeping adviser in Somalia. “His arrest poses a huge problem for Somalia. If they turn him over to the US they will be seen as a puppet. If there’s a trial, his clan will revolt. He’s a son-of-a-b**** but he’s their son-of-a-b****.”
Internal revolts and major setbacks have put Al Shabaab on the back foot in recent months. But the situation is breeding another brand of ‘freelance’ jihadis. They’re the sort of brazen killers who would storm a UN compound. “Recent attacks show that Shabaab is still active, and its current leadership is more hardline. There’s been an increase in activity in the past month,” says Nicholas Kay, the UN’s special representative in Somalia.
And the group’s long-time leader is still sitting at the top of the pile. Last month Godane had co-founders Ibrahim Al-Afghani and Sheikh Mukhtar Ali Robow rounded up for dissent. Al-Afghani was shot dead while Robow fled (he’s still M.I.A.). Godane is the group’s leading man. His leadership is widely rumoured to have saved Hargeisa from Mogadishu’s bloodshed.
There is growing evidence that Somalilanders have helped fund Al Shabaab via Dahabshiil, which in turn has been blacklisted by the British bank Barclays for its alleged terror ties. The accounts of at least seven of Al Shabaab’s top brass, including Godane, have been unearthed as evidence that the multi-million-dollar company is encouraging Al Shabaab’s forays into Somalia, in order to destabilise it and push the case of Somaliland’s secession. This claim has been strongly denied by Dahabshiil’s CEO, Abdirashid Duale.
But experts argue that Godane’s clan background, and the Al Shabaab connections that come with it, are very significant for Somaliland’s safety. Davidson College’s Ken Menkhaus is one such person: “In Somalia when you’re faced with a standoff, you make a bargain. People are fighting and colluding at the same time.”
Somalis have always done business this way and the twenty-year crisis has only magnified it. It means that very few groups are willing to make irrevocable breaks with anyone else. “It’s true of piracy, terrorism, peacekeeping and politics,” he says. “The only word that I’ve heard that comes close to describing the situation is one from my eleven-year-old daughter: frenemy.”
Whether Somaliland’s President Silanyo and Al Shabaab’s Godane are indeed frenemies is a popular conversation in Somaliland. Hirsi Ali Haji Hassan, the Minister of Presidency, has long been rumoured to be an Al Shabaab sympathiser. He was arrested in 2008 in Burao, the capital of the Somaliland’s Togdheer province, for harbouring guns and grenades. The son of Religion Minister Sheikh Khalil Abdilahi Ahmed, Abu Hamsa (not to be confused with Egyptian-born Islamic fundamentalist Abu Hamza, now awaiting trial in the US), was Godane’s former secretary and driver. Hamsa and a group of Al Shabaab militants were arrested last year escaping Mogadishu. Hamsa was allowed to return. The list of strange coincidences goes on.
All of this makes it tricky for outsiders to know what to make of Somaliland. On the one hand it’s a country-in-waiting, rich in new business and a relatively healthy democracy. Hargeisa’s much-lauded book fair, for example, is now in its sixth year, and attracts literati from all over the world. That sort of development draws the international community into Somaliland’s run for independence, although full secession is still years away.
On the other hand, Somaliland is an intensely disparate place, where the monoliths of modern industry sit beside tribal displacement camps, and where an elite clan possesses the majority of power. Atop of all this is the Faustian bargain it has made with its most infamous son, Godane. No wonder the world’s leaders are hesitant to recognise Somaliland’s independence. And with Godane running a new order in freelance militancy, it might only take a handful of Al Shabaab’s soldiers to bring peace crashing down.
By Sean Williams