President Aidid's Somalia


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President Aidid's Somalia
September 1995

A Report by
Harold G. Marcus
Michigan State University


On Wednesday, 20 September, international media were still reporting that General Mohammed Farah Aidid, the "warlord" of southern Mogadishu, had made a lightening strike on Baidoa, about 275 kilometers west of the capital; that, once again, he had violated territory belonging to a clan other than his own; that there had been considerable bloodshed; and that UN and other international relief workers had been taken hostage. When I arrived there on Wednesday afternoon, I saw a town full of people going about their daily lives, there were plenty of women and children in evidence, and the only guns I saw were in the hands of Aidid's soldiers or mounted on small Toyota trucks, the "technicals" which Aidid had invented to compensate for his lack of armored vehicles. If there had been bloodshed, it had probably been limited, since the Baidoans, who had suffered pillage, looting and rape at the hands of Siad Barre's troops in 1991, were not wary and fearful.

When I met Aidid shortly after deplaning, he explained that, as usual, the press had painted him as a monster bent on aggrandizement. In fact, the local elders had invited him, as president of Somalia, to Baidoa in order to mediate an interclan conflict that might have escalated to serious proportions. He was fulfilling his responsibilities to the country's transitional government, which had been proclaimed on 15 June 1995.The president also claimed that he had placed the foreign relief workers under house arrest, since many of their activities could be interpreted as interferring in Somalis's internal affairs.

The seven Americans detainees were a problem for my colleagues: (Truston) Frank Crigler, a retired foreign service officer who had been U.S. Ambassador in Somalia, 1987-1990; Rev. Harry Covert, who runs an all purpose international ministry; Rev. Paul Maxey, the head of Allied Medical Ministries; and Loren Crigler, a professional photographer and Frank's daughter. We were on a fact-finding mission to assess internal security and the consolidation of the new government. Although our visit had been arranged long before the Baidoa crisis by Ali Gulaid, Aidid's special envoy in Washington, we refused to enter Somalia until we had assurances from Aidid that the detainees would be released.

The key player was Crigler, who convinced the Aidid government that it was close to a public relations disaster which would have caused the withdrawal of all non-governmental relief agencies from Somalia. Aidid accepted this argument, but late on Wednesday afternoon he freed only the women, insisting on further talks on Friday before he would consider releasing the men. Aidid was obviously seeking international respect, especially from the U.N., which refused any recognition of his transitional government and had ignored its Decree of 12 September 1995, regulating non-governmental organizations and international relief activities. Although the terms of the detainees' release were never released, one can be certain that, on Friday, Mr. Erling Dessau, the representative of the UNDP in Somalia--who resides in Nairobi--had to concede some type of de facto recognition to Aidid's administration.

On several occasions during the next two days in Baidoa, Aidid and ministers mentioned that the USA and the UN remained hostile toward him, even as he went about the business of bringing peace to Somalia. They attributed the hubris to the United Nations' failure to pacify and reform Somalia as a tabula rasa, without reference to the country's politicians, particularly Aidid, who had ousted Siad Barre in early 1991. Admiral Jonathan Howe, who headed the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM), 1993-94, even implied that the leadership roles which the so-called "war-lords" played in the civil war and famines of 1991-1993 rendered them unworthy of high political office.

Aidid regarded UNOSOM's activities and rationale as colonialistic and began harassing the foreigners. When Howe ordered his capture or assassination, claiming he was the main opponent to change, the Blue Helmets killed or maimed several hundred Somalis. Aidid thereupon ordered his fighters to retaliate and, on their own terrain in southern Mogadishu's crowded neighborhoods, they shot down tens of UN soldiers, among them eighteen American servicemen. Howe failed to understand that Aidid, of all of Somalia's politicians, was the most consistent nationalist and that he was not going to stand aside and allow his country to become an experiment in state building by those ignorant of its political and cultural traditions. In a sense, therefore, it was Somali nationalism that derailed UNOSOM, and it is now Somali nationalism, embodied in Aidid, that is reforming and reshaping the country.

The president repeatedly pointed out that since the establishment of the transitional government, there has been peace in Somalia except for minor clashes as the new civil administration consolidates its authority, restores taxation, and returns to regions which have been anarchic since 1991. A modest national budget of U.S.$48 million, mostly devoted to reconstruction and rehabilitation, has been promulgated, but Aidid understands that his nation needs a free market economy, democracy, a limited central government, and a small army and police force, in contrast to Siad's controlled economy, its centralization of authority, and its huge army and security services. Aidid says that he wants to get government off the backs of the Somali people and permit them the freedom to prosper. At a rally in Baidoa on Friday afternoon, 22 September, the president told an enthusiastic audience of 12,000, that his government stood for a federation with Somaliland (the old British colony, whose claim to independence has won no international recognition), autonomy for Somalia's regions, free elections, and a multi-party system to replace clannism. He is confident that Somalis will build on their traditional democratic egalitarianism to create the modern institutions of a civil society.

On 23 September, we motored from Baidoa to Mogadishu, a trip which would have been impossible to make a short while ago. Our convoy was well secured by SNA soldiers, but there was plenty of unprotected traffic on the tarmac road, especially grain and produce trucks, so overburdened and swaying on their springs that they seemed always about to tip over; crowded buses, whose rickety and dented appearance did not dissuade their passengers from travel; and the ubiquitous technicals, whose men, mobility, and firepower ensured security.

The lack of conflict was probably responsible for the economic activity we saw everywhere, even in the market town of Bur Hakaba, where there were obvious signs of prior warfare. Thirty kilometers north of Afgoi, the capital of the Lower Shebelli region, begin the vast plains irrigated by the Webbi Shebelli river. The area was planted with sorghum, sesame, maize, and cotton, and alongside the road people hawked tomatoes, citrus, and bananas, ignored by the healthy looking camels, goats, sheep, and donkeys foraging in harvested fields.

As we approached Mogadishu, the density of population grew, and the civil war's damage became more obvious. Electric and telephone poles had been denuded of wiring, and the heavily used roads were pot-holed and rutted. Many buildings, perhaps a majority, were unroofed husks pock-marked by bullet, mortar, and artillery shells. From afar, the Agricultural University appeared its modernistic self, but a closer viewing revealed it as forlorn, stripped of anything of value but its walls. Alongside the road were the empty carcasses of automobiles and trucks, sometimes by themselves, but more often piled up higgledy-piggledy. As we drove along, we noticed the jerrybuilt homes of the urban dwellers, some houses under repair--a truly inspiring sight--and the rounded tents of displaced herders often sited in the compounds of the bigger, destroyed villas. What we did not see among the throngs of people walking along the road, or anywhere else in southern Mogadishu, or reportedly in the city's northern sector, were guns. What a contrast from my last visit in 1993, when all men, and a lot of boys, carried and used them!

Now only the soldiers brandished them, and they were busy at roadblocks checking vehicles and passersby for weapons, which, if found, they confiscated. The security was obvious as our group traveled widely around the town, and we were able one night to visit one of Mogadishu's better reopened restaurants. We even ventured into the crowded market--which has its own security--where women do the retailing for male jobbers and wholesalers and where most things were available (the shilling has now stabilized at about 6000/ to the dollar). Although I saw little malnutrition or poverty, food prices were so high that many in Mogadishu remained dependent on international food distribution. Medicines were scarce, even at a price, and, given the absence of laboratory and modern diagnosing equipment, Mogadishu's hospitals and clinics are unable to provide adequate care.

The city's streets, filled with refuse and debris in 1993, were being cleared and cleaned by armies of women and girls. Though Mogadishu remains without utilities, one can purchase water from men leading donkey-carts laden with fifty-gallon barrels; electricity comes through portable generators; and petrol or diesel may be purchased by the liter at road-side stations operated either by men or, surprisingly, women. Several entrepreneurs have established satellite-driven telephone systems, and, by booking far enough ahead, one may call anywhere at a reasonable price, but it is difficult for anyone to ring Mogadishu. There is some hope that authorities in north and southern Mogadishu may agree to reestablish the city's services.

They already collaborate in operating the capital's port, now loading more ships monthly with Somalia's excellent produce than in 1985. Until eighteen months ago, the banana industry was moribund, a victim of the civil war, and the largely Italian-owned plantations centered around Shalambot, about 127 kilometers south of Mogadishu, were abandoned. When Aidid secured the region, he contacted the Dole Fruit Company, which agreed to send in managers, mostly highly qualified Filipinos, to resume production. Shortly after the transitional government was declared, and after much hard work, the Dole-run operation began shipping fruit under the brand name of Sombana to the Gulf. The success inspired some of the Italian managers to return and, with the cooperation of some wealthy Somali merchants, to restore some of their plantations. Their produce, called Somalfruit, is going to Italy and to the European Community. The demand for the sweet Somali banana remains highly elastic, and the international market will take all that can be shipped. When, during the week of 15 October 1995, Ali Mahdi threatened to close the port, he was appeased with a percentage of the banana revenues.

While Aidid hopes that a growing economy will attract the cooperation of his political rivals, he also intends that his new government will spur the process of national integration. There are five vice presidents, two from the north. One of them, Muhammad Fareh (nicknamed Ashera, or the reconciler) has the important responsibility of convincing Somaliland to reintegrate with the rest of the country. The vice president talks about a federal relationship that will protect Somaliland, the ex-British protectorate, from the evils of the old, highly centralized government. He anticipates that the new relationship will be legitimated through referendum; and that the federal government will be responsible only for defense, international relations, currency, and for banking and finance regulations.

The vice president also anticipates that Somali's vigorous free market economy will pave the way for reunification. In his view, northern traders need access to the commerce of the south and the international status that only a revived Somalia can provide. He argues that Somalia needs a strong central government to protect the Somali economy from being victimized by foreigners, citing the example of the nation's fisheries, presently being exhausted by fleets of foreign trawlers and factory ships. The transitional government is looking for the few patrol vessels necessary to police national waters and to safeguard stocks for the new fisheries industry which Aidid is planning.

Ahmed Omar Jess, the minister of defense, an army officer who fled into the Ogaden to fight Siad Barre, agrees that only the threat of force will stop the international fish pirates. Otherwise, he is a very pacific man, who seeks to disarm the population and to demobilize the militias. Towards these goals, Jess is busily remaking the SNA's fighters into Somalia's new soldiers through drilling and training, by outfitting them with uniforms, and by instilling military discipline. He is even integrating the technicals into the new army by repainting them in a uniform and easily recognizable government camouflage pattern. The minister foresees a 15,000-man army, about the size of the old colonial force, to guard the nation's frontiers and to assist a like-sized police force in internal security. More soldiers are unnecessary, he explains, since Somalia no longer has territorial ambitions, thanks to the autonomy which Somalis now enjoy in the Ethiopian Ogaden.

Jama Muhammad Galeb, the new foreign minister, points out that the Aidid government has followed policies worked out in a series of national reconciliation meetings dating from March 1993 and ending on the morning of 15 June 1995. The last session, held at SNA headquarters in Mogadishu, was attended by 279 delegates from fifteen political movements and attracted 2000 observers. It approved an interim National Charter and endorsed three goals: to reestablish internal security, to rehabilitate the infrastructure, and to complete the program of national integration. At noon, Aidid and his vice presidents were elected, and two days later, a transitional government of thirty-one ministers was sworn in and began its work. Its existence is the important fact that demands international recognition, the foreign minister stressed, especially as Somalia goes about the business of renaissance.

Our mission also concluded that the government-in-being of Muhammed Farah Aidid is the major defining fact in Somalia. Even if the transitional government does not move to control northern Mogadishu, much of Murrehan country, and parts of Somalia's hinterland, Aidid has enough fighters and technicals to incorporate these areas. He wishes, however, to accomplish his goals in a relatively pacific way, as befits a national leader. His foreign critics and his Somali opponents may continue to paint him in demeaning terms and to demonize his person, but he is proceeding deliberately and cautiously to consolidate his government's authority; and his effort is being fostered and supported by most of Somalis' ethnic factions and especially by a war-exhausted people and their elders. How else can one explain the easy acquisition of Baidoa and his relatively untroubled foray to Awdile, on 24-25 October, seventy kilometers to the south. Can anyone doubt that Aidid and his men will soon be in Kismayo, where one of his vice presidents, Mohammad Haji Adam, has been in residence for several months softening up the opposition.

The international mindset against Aidid, sedulously sponsored by the those who supported UNOSOM or those who continue to see Aidid merely as another Siad, will change as the transitional government loses its militia-like character and becomes an administration. This difficult process is complicated by ministries which have no archives, poor communications, and by the country-wide surfeit of arms--the kalashnikov factor--which is going to make the reestablishment of civil authority a continuing problem.

Yet, judging from Aidid's prior record, the new people will persistently follow the nationalist script that they wrote during the civil war and the UN occupation. At this point, I see no combination of internal opposition that can withstand the inevitability of Aidid's success. The various players are not themselves offering a new vision or government for Somalia but merely reacting to Aidid's decisions and actions. They are weak, and while they can fulminate and threaten--as Ali Mahdi did after Aidid took Baidoa--they do not have the strength to stop the transitional government from consolidating its authority and gaining international recognition. Somalia, along with Liberia, Mozambique, Angola, and Rwanda, seems to be giving the lie to those racist critics who argued that Africa's problems were so intractable that only recolonization would solve them. Aidid is showing that left on their own, the Somalis, as an African people, can return their own country to peace and security and can revive its economy.


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