Dispatch from Mogadishu
The peace conference in Mogadishu concludes
Somalia: Concern behind the smiles
Forty-five days of work, 2,605 delegates and $6 million. These were the figures from the Somali Conference on Reconciliation which ended Wednesday in Mogadishu amid applause, celebration, singing and dancing, and the presence of the President of the Federal Transitional Government, Abdullah Yusuf, the Prime Minister, Ali Gedi, and a small international delegation including the UN Special Representative for Somalia, François Lonseny Fall (removed from his controversial post, which he vacates on today), ambassadors and the Italian envoy, Mario Raffaelli, who arrived in the capital by special flight. The mood of the attendees was positive but behind the smiles, one could made out signs of profound concern.
In fact, the most important components of Somali civil society – several clans, including the powerful Aer, Duduble, Soleiman and Murusade, as well as a few ex-warlords, such as Hussein Aidid, did not attend. Also striking was the absence of Islamists from the reconciliation conference, including moderates and representatives of the Islamic Courts, who, until last year, ruled in Mogadishu and in the countryside. Indeed, President Abdallah Yussuf, a Midgan Darood, displayed openness to other clans and opponents. In his closing address he pledged to step down in 2009 when his mandate ends. “We will yield power to anyone elected thereafter”. The old Abdullah let it be known that he would not run for office again, effectively sparking a war of succession among his acolytes.
The Chairman of the conference, the former interim head of state following the removal of Said Barre (January 2001), Ali Mahdi, spoke more frankly about the fate of Somalia. Mr. Mahdi, a Habr Gedir-Abgal, declared a few days ago, “The end of the conference does not mean the end to the challenges facing Somalia. The road is long”. Reading the main points of the final conference communiqué, which will be published today, the regret that "the Asmara Group and the remainder of the Islamic Courts” did not intend is expressed. The former includes Islamic leaders who have gone into exile in the Eritrean capital following the defeat of the Courts between last December and January, including its leader, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and the former Parliamentary Speaker of the current administration, Sharif Hassan Aden, who was removed following a dispute with President Yusuf and Premier Ali Gedi. The reference to the "remainder" of the Islamic Courts seems to be directed to Sheikh Hassan Daher Aweis, the historic leader of Islamic fundamentalism.
The policy of inclusion, which Italy has been promoting for some time through its envoy, Raffaelli, now seems to have received the benediction of Washington, which was convinced by Italy’s special envoy to abandon its intransigence. Raffaelli explained to them that peace is made between enemies and that serious negotiations could not be held if enemies were not given a seat at the table. However, the Department of State continues to be unwaivering on the fate of the "terrorists" – not only Somali, but also foreign, who are still in Somalia. It insists that they must be handed over. The targeted bombings carried out by the US last winter and spring were fruitless. The CIA appears to have a few intelligence problems on the Somali chessboard.
According to reliable, well-informed sources from within Ethiopian intelligence, the ferocious, fanatical Shebab Islamists (which means "youth" in Arabic and who are the equivalent of the Taliban), defeated in a bloody battle in January, are regrouping again in lower Jubbada, that is, along border with Kenya where they established their sanctuary last January, and in the north, along the frontier with Somaliland. They are training young men in weapons handling and in bomb-making. These individual are then sent to the Somali capital, Mogadishu, to carry out bombings against the government and Ethiopian troops, its allies.
The inability of the meeting organizers to unite all the actors of troubled Somalia around the conference table could result –as some observers and Somalis believe- in a repeat civil war among the clans that the Ethiopian troops will not be able to contain. The situation in Jilib, near Kismaayo, is extremely tense, where Shikali milias are warring with the Marehan. In central Somalia, the Murosade are clashing with the Hawadle.
Yesterday, in the large tent where the conference’s closing ceremony was held, there was a standing ovation for China’s ambassador, Guo Chongli, who, addressing the delegates, announced that his government would contribute $1 million to the reconstruction of the country. There was applause and giddiness as tribal elders and chieftains jumped for joy, as always happens when money is offered. This was one more advance in the Chinese conquest of Africa. Beijing’s diplomats are offering money everywhere in exchange for concessions and benefits. They then ask that governments turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, such as the use of forced convict labor from China to build roads, buildings and railroads.
On the last day of the conference, news of the death of someone who had been one of the major protagonists of Somali civil society and who could have been one of the architects of reconciliation, Ali Iman Sharmerki, flattened everyone like ton of bricks. Sharmerki, an Aer-Habr Gedir, working as Director, Editor-in-Chief and host at Radio-Television Horn Afrik, left Canada (where he became a citizen) eight years ago to return to his native Somalia and to contribute to the pacification of the country. On August 11th, he stepped on a remote-controlled land mine, set off by someone intent on spreading chaos. And, indeed, this may be the case.