Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
7 - 13 September 2000
Issue No. 498
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Toss up over Salad

By Gamal Nkrumah

Tens of thousands of jubilant Somalis lined the streets of the capital Mogadishu to welcome President Abdel-Kasem Salad Hassan after his triumphant return from the Djibouti town of Arta which hosted the Somali Peace and Reconciliation Conference bringing together some 3,000 delegates from all segments of Somali civil society. They were invested with setting up a Transitional National Authority. Salad was elected on 25 August by the Somali Transitional National Assembly, the newly-elected Somali parliament.

"The people of Somalia have opted for peace and reconciliation and intend to support this elected government. People clearly stated in demonstrations they are willing to forget and forgive and are ready to rebuild Somalia." Thus spoke the newly-elected president at the two-day meeting of the Arab League this week. Arab delegates were impressed with the straight-talking and businesslike manner of the seasoned politician. Salad speaks for a significant body of people uneasy at any threat to the territorial integrity of Somalia.

Even so, thousands of people in the northwestern breakaway republic of Somaliland protested against the inauguration of the new president. And Salad might provoke more riots if he were seen to use his powers unfairly. The danger, therefore, is that local bosses such as the leaders of Somaliland and Puntland - yet another breakaway state in northwestern Somalia - will incite violence against Salad solely to consolidate their local power bases.

Still, Salad should not let all this deflect him from the task. He is off to New York to speak to world leaders gathered for the United Nations millennium celebration. Salad should now seize on the wide international support and goodwill he enjoys to press home the point that Somali national reconstruction entails colossal financial assistance.

The Arab League's warm reception of the newly-elected Somali president at the gathering in Cairo this week was further proof of Salad's regional and international standing. It has been said that certain Arab states back some of the warlords who boycotted the Arta conference. The goodwill shown Salad by the Arab states should dispel any lingering illusions about the Arab League's support for his election. But, despite broad regional and international backing, the new Somali president faces formidable challenges and, it must be said, a difficult choice. Salad must resolve an impasse over the unruly warlords' refusal to acknowledge the progress achieved at Arta. There is little alternative.

Salad has to tread very carefully. Signs of weakness could too easily provoke a slide back into chaos. But by the same token, an overzealous castigation of recalcitrant warlords would be counter-productive. The central plank of Salad's policy seems to be to clip the wings of the warlords. He was warmly welcomed by the Arab League, but there is evidence that Arab support is conditional on his wooing, rather than crushing, the warlords. Salad cannot deal a decisive military blow to the warlords without risking a full-scale civil war and an inescapable bloodbath. More to the point, Salad is soliciting an "Arab Marshall Plan" to revamp the Somali economy and resuscitate the Somali state. There are signs that the Arabs will oblige. Nevertheless, it surely would not be appreciated if Arab largesse, meant for reconstruction and development, were to be squandered on battling the recalcitrant warlords.

Salad has nevertheless argued that he can only begin the difficult task ahead once the warlords have been pacified. "We will have to start collecting weapons from the militias for peace and stability in Somalia," Salad told reporters in Cairo. What he did not disclose is how exactly he proposes to disarm the warlords who boycotted the Somali National Reconciliation Conference which elected the Transitional National Assembly which in turn elected Salad as president of Somalia.

There are times when the appropriate response to presidential requests for assistance of elected but embattled African leaders are self-evident. A case in point is Sierra Leone: Sierra Leonean President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah requested international help and immediately got British armed support. In other situations, finding the adequate response appears to be an exceedingly hard task. The Somali case falls into that category.

Disarming the warlords is easier said than done. The problem is clear enough. The warlords have enough weapons at their disposal to fuel another bloody round of civil war. The warlords might well be marginalised by the international community, but they are by no means sitting ducks. There are few Western powers and fewer still international institutions that would undertake disarming the warlords. While Arab League officials are officially silent on the implications of Salad's proposals, the engagement of the Arab League, the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), as well as the engagement of neighbouring Arab and African capitals are crucial for the success of the Somali peace and reconciliation conference. Arab and African capitals with a vested interest in lasting peace and stability in Somalia must intensify negotiations and mediation efforts because only a comprehensive agreement between the newly-elected Somali legislature and executive and the recalcitrant warlords who boycotted Arta can put an end to the decade-long mayhem in Somalia.

The collection of weapons now proposed by President Salad is quite simply unenforceable. Time is running out. Salad has to win over the warlords. He has no other option. He must be prepared to compromise and make concessions. But if resolving differences over Arta proves impossible for now, Salad and the warlords may be forced to consider a partial agreement while continuing discussions, through third party mediators if need be, on unresolved issues -- chief among which will undoubtedly be disarming the warlords. Moreover, enforceable regulations cannot be that easily formulated. The United Nations, the Arab League, the OAU and the OIC will inevitably be drawn in.

Last Tuesday, four Somali warlords flew to the Yemeni capital Sana'a at the invitation of the country's President Ali Abdullah Saleh who is currently stepping up mediation efforts between the four warlords and the newly elected Somali president. The Yemeni leader is a strong advocate of Somali national reconciliation and was in Arta to attend the swearing-in of President Salad.

President Salad is on a world tour to garner support for his nascent administration. It was a wise step to kickstart the tour in Cairo, the Arab League's headquarters. Still, optimism can easily lead to over-confidence.

"If a complementary peace conference for general reconciliation in Somalia is not held, we are going to resort to violence and struggle against the regime of the new president," Hussein Mohamed Aideed, the most powerful of Somalia's renegade warlords and leader of the Somali National Alliance (SNA), told reporters in Sana'a. "We are ready to negotiate with all parties to achieve a national accord, on condition that the results of the Arta peace conference are rejected," said Aideed.

One of the three other warlords visiting Sana'a sounded more conciliatory. "We are going to continue in Sana'a the process of reconciliation and we have agreed with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh on the need to put an end to the violence in Somalia and support a permanent peace," said Osman Hassan Ali, popularly known as Atto. Yemeni officials warn that Yemen cannot cope indefinitely with the half a million Somali refugees that have fled their war-torn country and now reside in Yemen.

There is still a powerful, albeit disunited, group of warlords that vehemently oppose President Salad. Chief among these, apart from Aideed, are General Abdullah Nur Gabyow, the head of the Somali Patriotic Front Movement based in the southern Somali port of Kismayo and the president of the northwestern breakaway state of Puntland, Abdallah Youssef Ahmed. Puntland, which has unilaterally declared its independence from Somalia, has not received international recognition.

Still, he might need good evidence of misdeeds and mischief-making to convince the international community to come to his defence.

In a separate development, Salad arrived in the temporary seat of the transitional Somali legislature and executive, Baidoa, a city ravaged in recent years by war, drought and famine. Baidoa, which is 250 kilometres northwest of Mogadishu and is also called the "City of Death", used to be controlled by Aideed's faction five years ago. But, Aideed lost the city after ferocious battles with the tribal militia of the Rahanweyin, the Rahanweyin Resistance Army (RRA), who were reported at the time to be backed by Ethiopia. On his visit to Baidoa, Salad was accompanied by RRA leader Hassan Mohamed Nur. Aideed, not surprisingly, considered this show of solidarity with his enemy a provocation.

Against this conflict-ridden background, marshaling sufficient funds from Western donors might prove somewhat difficult. Salad is asking for no less than $50 billion. Wealthy Somali expatriates can help, and so can European, Arab and Asian nations. Even so, it promises to be a difficult package to sell. But any attempt to solicit even a fraction of that amount would fall on deaf ears in Washington. The problem is that a shortage of funds could ultimately lead to the failure of the entire Somali peace and reconciliation endeavour.


Related stories:
Give peace a chance 31 August - 6 September 2000
Out of Arta 24 - 30 August 2000

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