The Forgotten Agenda in Somalia

January 05 00:04 2011 Print This Article

The early days of humanitarian intervention as protection from extreme forms of human rights violations was trumpeted as on the objectives by some of its architects and supporters. But after a series of humiliations and the recoiling from ‘assertive multilateralism’ , human rights have became a forgotten issue, with the glaring exception of the ‘rights’ of the peacekeeping troops.

Yet it is the possibility of another round of abuses in central and southern Somalia which threatens to return vulnerable Somali communities to the acute famine which characterized much of 1991-92 unless humanitarian intervention is not reoriented in a relevant and effective way.

These most vulnerable communities in Somalia need to be identified and the reason for the vulnerability need to be addressed; the UNOSOM military presence should gradually be restructured to protect those most vulnerable, specially women; more resources and diplomatic imagination must be employed toward resettling the displaced and rebuilding local government; and vocational and educational alternatives must be created for current and ex militia members.

Finally, culpability must be laid squarely at the feet of all of the militia leaders who have exploited Somalia’s population and resources in an absolutely criminal manner.

Famine and Human Rights

The famine that precipitate the December 1993 humanitarian intervention was rooted in the human rights disaster which followed the overthrow of Siad Barre’s regime in January 1991. The scale of destruction and loss was nearly absolute for thousands of families and hundreds of communities.  During the latter half of 1992, the Bardera-Baidoa-Luuq triangle degenerated into the most acute famine belt in the country.

The people of the fertile Juba Valley had been repeatedly victimized by the scorched-earth tactics of the Somali National Front (SNF) the Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM), and the United Somali Congress (Habr Gedir) militia as their forces looted livestock. Seeds, tools, and grain, destroyed water sources, raped women and killed men. It was these actions, primarily by the SNF, which directly caused the famine.

In the autumn of 1992, matters worsened considerably; Aideed and his force were not only primarily responsible for the looting and extortion which prevented aid from reaching the starving , but the atrocities which created large refugee flows to Kenya. The livestock losses have been ruinous for many pastoral and agropastoral families with the result that traditional coping mechanism – selling livestock and drawing on bakari (grain store) stocks – are no longer possible.

Ibrahim Mustafa, an official from the Somali NGO HARDA, called this period ‘the grave of our people’. Death tolls in Bardera in October 1992 were 385 per day; 20,000 people perished in Baidoa during the latter half of 1992, almost all being among the displaced and at least half were children under five.

The UN World Food Program reported that one-half of the people the south-central part of Somalia (500,000) had perished by December 1992; estimates by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies concur. A Save the Children Fund (UK) survey of the displaced in Mogadishu found that 85 percent of household did not have children younger than 12 months old, and nearly a third did not have children younger than five years of age. Nearly a quarter said their farmland had been taken by others.

In the Bay Region, UNICEF vaccination survey found only 10 to 20 children under five in villages which should number 80 to 100.

Insecurity and banditry remain problematic throughout southern Somalia, while the militia patiently wait out UNOSOM’s departure. Inter-clan conflict is intensifying over the rich agricultural land adjacent to the two major rivers, the Juba and the Shebelle, and the commercial gateway to this prized strategic region, the town of Kismayu. The SNA is attempting to spread its influence into the Bay Region and the Jubba Valley.

Further, Somalis have generally retreated to within their clan strongholds for security of mass internal displacement. In Gedo Region, the 1993 Gu harvest was extremely poor due to insecurity and climate, resulting in some population movement back to major towns from the rural areas, further stressing urban resources; it increased the desires of the Marehan sub-clan to move southward along the Juba River Valley to Kismayu, further destabilizing tenuous clan relations.

Politicians on all sides have manipulated the situation to varying degrees., stirring up ethnic tension and encouraging exclusion, especially at the political level. On the other hand, there have been talks between Rahanweyn and Marehan elders, as well as between the Ogadeni and Rahanweyn in Middle Jubba Region which should be encouraged and built upon.

‘Elders are the key element in clan reconciliation, not warlords or the UN. Only elders can solve disputes over blood debts, property or grazing rights’. The UN Secretary-General visit to Baidoa in November 1993 highlighted the ability of Aideed’s SNA to disrupt peaceful please by the victims of civil war for protection.

Identifying the Most Vulnerable

Most of the victims during the past three year were specifically target because of their weakness and vulnerability ( a function of their lack of military strength or minority status in an area); because of clan or sub-clan affiliation; and/or because in the case of agrarian communities – of valuable farmland covered by other clans – a problem which pre-dated the civil war and intensified during it.

A number of displaced interviewed by this author said that some people have changed their clan affiliation (i.e. taken on a new clan identity) to protect themselves. Smaller group, fearing domination, any petition to join a larger group.

Besides getting some measure of protection, this allows these smaller communities to participate in food or seed distribution from which they might otherwise be excluded by local authorities.

For example, in the Middle Juba Region, the Jaron and Heemie were Rahanweyn sub-clands but many of their number are now saying they are the Leysan sub-clan of Rahanwein, a much larger sub-clan. They fear being looted so they went to the Leysan elders to ask to be put under their protection.

The Map of Somalia’a clans is potentially being redrawn possibly at the expense of the weakest of Somalia ethnic groups – its own form of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the form of ‘clan cleansing’. Thousands of refugees and internally displaced fear returning to certain areas because of the perceived potential of being targeted based on their clan affiliation.

This is not only an issue in Bay, Gedo and Middle Jubba Regions but also in Lower Juba and Lower Shabelle as well, where Bantu, Rahanweyn and Digil farming communities, as well as smaller groups from the port city of Kismayu have been besieged by Ogadeni, Marehan and Majerteen refugees and targeted by the SNF, SPM and SNA, with full financial backing from the economic elite within the sub-clans that support them.

Ethnic re-adjustment are bound to occur during periods of intense civil war when people seek security within their own clan areas. The unknown variable, and one which must diligently be investigated, is the extent to which these readjustment are forced.

Many of the militarily impotent Rahanweyn and Bantu communities and some of the coastal people of mixed descent south of Mogadishu, such as the Bajunis have been principal victims as the conflict increasingly moves toward the river mouths and the some of the best irrigated farmland in Somalia.

The perception amongst the Rahanweyn community is that if international forces left, they would again be overrun by either the militias of the Marehan, Ogadeni or Habr Gedir; the same is true for the Rahanweyn, Digil and Bantu populations of Lower Juba Region.

Various Darod sub-clans (Majerteen, Ogadeni, and Marehan) have, for years, been moving slowly into the Juba Valley and Kismayu, using the upheaval of the last three years to intensify their land-grabbing in some of Somalia’s richest agricultural areas, using their newly acquired wealth to not only weather the famine, but prosper. Typically, in mid-October Jess’ Ogadeni forces – allied with Aideed – captured Jilib on the Juba River north of Kismayu.

Protecting the Most Vulnerable

As UNISOM draws down its troop presence at the regional level, the resumption of major militia activity and advances is almost guaranteed. Already, inter-clan fighting is increasing, encouraged by UNISOM’s Passive approach to violence between Somalis.

In some regions there is a spillover of militia activity from major towns – from which the international troop presence had dispersed these militias – to smaller towns and villages or along the road networks. For example, in Bay Region there was fighting in Qansa Dhere and Dinsor and security again began declining on the roads as early as October 1993.

Throughout 1993, claims by UNISOM that South Mogadishu was the only real trouble spot through-out the country was inaccurate, as banditry and insecurity have remained endemic problems throughout most of the regions of southern Somalia, targeted at both Somali civilians (who demonstrate their fear by remaining by the hundreds of thousands as the newly urbanized displaced and as long-term refugees in neighbouring countries) and international NGOs.

Conversely, sweeps and patrols by French forces out of Baidoa into the villages gave farmers enough of a sense of security to return to the rural areas and plant earlier in 1993 helping to reignite commercial activity, a key ingredient of famine prevention strategy by local community.

As the reduced UN force plots its mandate, thought should be given to placing small detachment of international forces outside the major towns in areas judged to be most vulnerable to raids and attacks from the militia forces. Troop presence should be stepped up at harvest time and in support of post-harvest marketing activities, as well as for the protection of grain storehouses and livestock of militarily weak communities.

Alliances between clans and control over towns and villages shift regularly. If anything, the Somali militias are patient, and will re-emerge if and when the UNOSOM presence is reduced. A UN official acknowledged that Somali National Front (Marehan) for example, ‘ has not demobilised and their militia have hidden their weapons.’

Their emphasis on political involvement and public de-emphasis of the military option, has led many observers to conclude perhaps prematurely that the SNF as a militia has broken up. But when asked about his community’s ability to defend itself against the SNF or Aideed’s SNA one shiekh in the Bay Region said ‘we are counting on the Americans’, which was echoed by many of the displaced.

Given the draw down of UNOSOM troops, much lower cost (i.e., lower technology, less reliance on air transport), more dispersed troop presence must begin to be establishded.

Satellite towns and villages would benefit greatly from small, preventive, irregular patrols, and from an expansion of the seasonal Harvest Escort Program, which escorts farmers to markets in order to sell their goods, encouraging urban to rural repatriation, thus lessening the need for an extremely large and costly UNOSOM troop presence in Major towns, ostensibly there to protect humanitarian services for the displaced and vulnerable.

Assigning Culpability

In developing future responses to the ongoing Somali crises, it is critical to remember what triggered the intervention in the first place:

The primary cause of the disaster was the ferocious fighting between the heavily armed clan -based forces of the so-called ‘warlords’ all dubious relics from the [Siad Barre] era, who seek to rule Somalia and have wrought such devastation and suffering, especially among the less bellicose southern cultivators who produce most of Somalia’s grain (I.M. Lewis)

Specific responsibility should be placed at the feet of the militia leaders who helped organise these atrocities. No advantage should be given to any of these warmongers either by conferring external legitimacy on any one of them or particularly targeting any one of them.

Considerations about their future (imprisonment, war crimes trials, and banishment from the political process) should be carefully weighted against the pragmatic search for reconciliation and containment of conflict.

Nevertheless, as the militias reorient their positions in an attempt to take advantage of any developing political process, the international community should remember and publicise what they are responsible for. Rakiya Omar and Alex de Waal (Africa Rights, UK) graphically point to the importance of an honest analysis of the root causes of Somalia

To define the problem as a humanitarian crisis that demands a charitable solution is politically naïve and drastically narrows the range of options …. When the stress is on the material assistance, without considering the underlying power relations and the human rights context, the result is to prolong human suffering … Aideed aims to ‘liberate’ the farms and rangelands – but only for the benefit of his own followers.

Meanwhile, his rivals plan to restore property to ‘legitimate’ owners – to restore the former elite to power. Either way, the minority farmers will remain powerless and on the edge of hunger.

The optimistic argument would be that it is not too late to begin to address these issues. Beyond that, future ‘humanitarian interventions’ should be open-eyed about the power politics which produce famine, and the impossibility of avoiding substantial engagement, with all the attendant risks and responsibilities.

John Prendergast,

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