The partition of Somalia and the politics of destruction

There have been some thought-provoking pieces recently on the balkanization or partitioning of Somalia. The best of these pieces, in my opinion, have been Professor Michael Weinstein’s “Kenya’s Premature Invasions of Southern Somalia Stalls Balkanization” published on Garowe Online and Abdishakur Jowhar’s “The End of Somalia: Scenario of Partition” published on Somalilandpress. Professor Weinstein’s piece is a methodical analysis of the realpolitik motivations underlying the efforts of Ethiopia and Kenya to establish statelets beholden to, and dependant upon, them within Somalia and the political trends within, and outside, Somalia supporting or opposed to such efforts. Mr. Jowhar’s piece, on the other hand, is the anguished and visceral cry of opposition to these efforts, and the Somali political actors that are, wittingly or unwittingly, supporting them, that can only come from a Somali patriot who feels the dismemberment of his country as deeply as wounds on his body.

This is an important topic that needs to be addressed seriously and both Professor Weinstein and Mr. Jowhar are to be commended for raising it in their inimitable ways. However, it is necessary to define our terms in order to bring clarity and transparency to the discussion or debate. In this context, we have to ask which “Somalia” is in imminent danger of being partitioned or balkanized? Professor Weinstein’s article is specifically concerned with the potential partition of south and central Somalia into fiefdoms and spheres of influence controlled by Kenya and Ethiopia respectively, thereby excluding Somaliland and Puntland from the central thrust of its discourse (in the interest of full disclosure, I should add that Professor Weinstein and I have exchanged correspondence on his piece). Mr. Jowhar’s piece also seems to have south and central Somalia as its principal focus, in view of its exposition of what it terms “state-lets” in that territory and its concentration upon Kenya, Ethiopia, IGAD and UNPOS as the external actors militating and scheming to effect partition.

The second term that needs to be examined and defined is “partition”. We all know that, in this context, partition means political division, however the fact is that the Somali people have been partitioned since the 1884/85 Berlin Conference at which the European Powers divided Africa between themselves. In the modern era, the Allied victory in World War II set the parameters of this division which has resulted in the partition of the Somali people between independent Djibouti, a resurgent Somaliland, the Somali state in Ethiopia (5th Province), the Northern Frontier District (NFD) of Kenya, and south/central Somalia, within which the autonomous region of Puntland has managed to avoid the anarchy and state collapse prevalent in the rest of the erstwhile UN Trust Territory administered by Italy. Thus, partition is not new to the Somali people; indeed it has been a feature of their political existence and reality since their first contact with European imperialism at the end of the 19th century. It’s not even new that it is Ethiopia and Kenya that are scheming to partition Somali people since both of these countries insisted upon sovereignty over some of their Somali neighbours in 1959 and 1962 respectively. In both instances, Britain acceded to the wishes of the Ethiopian and Kenyan governments, and granted Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia what is now termed the 5th Province in the first and Kenyatta’s Kenya the NFD in 1962, in both cases against the express wishes of the people of those regions and contrary to the promises made by Britain to them.

Since the “Somalia” which is the focus of this discussion is but one part of the territories occupied by the Somali people and which forms the residual rump of the erstwhile Somali Republic established in 1960 by the un-ratified union between ex-British Somaliland and the ex-UN Trust Territory, and since partition has formed the political reality of the Somali people since the late 19th century, we are forced to ask, why is the present prospect of the partition of south/central Somalia so noteworthy and different? Both Professor Weinstein and Mr. Shakur come to the same answer but through different routes. The danger, as Professor Weinstein sees it, is that “The Somali people would be deprived of a political community and their political self-determination.”, while Mr. Shakur sees Somalia reduced from nation to “a group of desperate wild tribes each entirely focused in a life and death struggle against the neighbouring tribe.” Thus, both writers see the dangers of the current potential partition of south/central Somalia in terms of the eradication of Somali nationalism and political self-determination.

Now we have reached the crux of the matter. As with all analysis of Somali politics, we have to address the issue of Somali nationalism and the fission-fusion paradox that defines its very nature and essence. It is not necessary to go into a lengthy analysis of Somali nationalism (which I have undertaken under separate cover), but suffice it to say that since their first experience of European colonialism, the Somali people have responded with nationalist, religious and cultural resistance. Modern Somali nationalism dating back to the end of World War II was characterised by its pan-Somali and irredentist focus with the goal of uniting all the Somali people in one state – the Greater Somalia vision that was endorsed and championed unsuccessfully by Aneurin Bevan (Deputy Leader of the British Labour Party) prior to his death in 1960. This dream of Greater Somalia developed in the heady days of anti-colonial nationalism and the agitation it spawned, marks the zenith of the fusion strand of Somali nationalist ethos. Indeed, the creation of the Somali Republic in 1960 through the ill-fated union of British Somaliland and Italian-administered Somalia was but the first step in the realisation of this dream.

Unfortunately, there was a nightmare lurking within the pregnant promises of the dream of Somali unity, and this evil first surfaced in the unequal and oppressive terms of union exacted by the leaders of Italian-administered Somalia from their less experienced and more naive brethren of British Somaliland. When the union constitution was put to them for ratification in 1961 in a national referendum, more than two thirds of the voting public in the ex-British Protectorate rejected it, while a similar majority in the ex-UN Trust Territory ratified it. Thus, did Somali nationalism and politics begin to swing from the fusion pole at one end of the spectrum towards the fission pole at the other. This manifestation of fission in Somali politics and nationalism reached its zenith during the final decade of the Siyad Barre dictatorship when political power became concentrated in the hands of only one sub-clan, with the inevitable result that the country fractured along clan lines and descended into the anarchic madness that continues to persist in south/central Somalia to this day.

The only part of the erstwhile Somali Republic that has managed to fashion a new model of politics, peaceful co-existence and underlying rationale for allegiance to a state across clan divisions is Somaliland, which has developed a functioning, democratic system of government rooted in local culture and traditions with a free and robust press. This system can be used as a useful and effective model by the people of south/central Somalia to establish a state, but it cannot be imposed upon them by any external actors, whether their intentions are benign or malign. The simple and inescapable fact is that the persistence of the fission tendency of Somali politics in south/central Somalia, and the attendant atomisation of society into vicious inter and intra-clan rivalries, is a legacy of the Siyad Barre dictatorship that has been co-opted and exacerbated by warlords, self-appointed ‘civil society leaders’, Islamist militias and Diaspora carpet-baggers in search of easy money and self aggrandisement. It is the ugly and venal tribalism of this politics, and its manipulations by external actors, that Mr. Jowhar decries so emphatically and eloquently, and which Professor Weinstein de-constructs so emphatically.

The fact that the people of south/central Somalia have reached the end of their patience with the anarchy that has blighted their lives for so long, and the self serving straw men masquerading as leaders that are maintaining it, is evidenced by the repeated, but unpublicised, missions of tribal leaders from this territory to Somaliland requesting its assistance in facilitating genuine, Somali-sponsored and Somali-driven, national reconciliation. Supporting and facilitating genuine, grass-root efforts at national reconciliation among its brothers to the south is a moral, religious, humanitarian and fraternal duty that Somaliland must and will discharge. It has always been the conviction of many, including this author, that national reconciliation in south/central Somalia can be best achieved with the active support, sponsorship and mediation of Somaliland. The proposals of successive governments in Somaliland to play such role have been repeatedly rebuffed by both the international community and the self-appointed and self-serving leaders of south/central Somalia, the very architects of its misery! Quelle surprise, as the French would say!

The fact remains, however, that the evil which grips south/central Somalia is not partition, nor is it the designs of Kenya and Ethiopia to carve out spheres of influence within this territory. Rather, it is the inability and unwillingness of the social, religious and political leadership of the people of this territory to voice a vision of politics beyond narrow clan allegiance and partisanship, i.e. to transcend the fission principle of Somali politics. Neither Kenya nor Ethiopia is evil in pursuing its national interest vis-à-vis the anarchy and violence across its borders – this is called diplomacy and foreign policy. It is up to the people of south/central Somalia to pursue their own enlightened self interest and develop a modus operandi for peaceful co-existence, representative government rooted in their own culture and effective institutions. Unfortunately, the long suffering people of this territory are afflicted by the twin, linked plagues of a venal and self-serving leadership and a disinterested international community which has delegated responsibility for them to the best harbinger of inertia known to man – a bloated and equally self-serving bureaucracy.

In conclusion, I cannot but agree with Professor Weinstein and Mr. Jowhar that partition of south/central Somalia into ‘spheres of influence’ between Ethiopia and Kenya, and that this process has not only commenced, but is already quite advanced. However, I believe that this fact is not the disease, but rather one symptom of an underlying malaise which is destroying this territory politically, economically and socially. The disease is a corrupted polity characterised by venal politics and the introverted, fissile nationalism that breeds and sustains it. The root causes of the threat and reality of partition lies within. I can only conclude with a co-opting a line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar “the fault dear Messrs Weinstein and Jowhar lies not in Kenya and Ethiopia but in ourselves”. Until the politics of destruction is eradicated from Somalia, its continued misery is assured as is the potential and danger of partition.

Ahmed M.I. Egal

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