By Mohammed Mealin Seid
Ever since President Mohammed Siad Barre’s rise to power, in Somalia, gruesome incidents of injustice and grave human rights abuses have become the rule. To name just one among many examples, with the intensification of Somali National Movement (SNM) attacks in Northern Somalia the government forces killed 50,000 – 60,000 through summary executions, aerial bombardment and artillery shelling according to Africa Watch’s estimate, on top of other death tolls at the hands of SNM that, on a number of occasions, targeted civilians.
In the aftermath of the collapse of the central government on 26th January 1991, a fiercer civil war and more pervasive waves of violence started. As a result indiscriminate bombardment, extrajudicial killing, property confiscation, rape, collective punishment, slavery and torture have become part of life for many Somalis, even though some parts of the country enjoyed relative stability. As a matter of fact, in Mogadishu, alone, 25,000 individuals have been killed in four months civil war in 1991/92. Despite the interventions by UNITAF in 1992, UNISOM in 1992 and AMISOM in 2007 and the Ethiopian invasion in 2006 as well as dozens of peace conferences, Somalis are still deprived off peace and face bizarre human right abuses.
Strangely, all peace processes in Somalia circumspectly evaded addressing grievances and the past injustices presuming that peace and justice are not mutually reinforcing and peace talks need not to annoy powerful warlords capable of spoiling it. On the basis of this concern, from 1991 – 1999 main actors in any peace talk were the very warlords accused of human rights abuse, though the trend has slightly changed from 2000 onwards as civil societies were brought on board. Till today, Somalis see perpetrators of human rights abuse, including top military commanders of the military regime, ex-warlords/clan militia and Islamic Courts/Alshabaab top officers, spearheading the government business. This essay intends to rebut the efficacy of such presumption, and contrarily argues that addressing justice is the pragmatic antidote to the persistent failures of peace building efforts for the following reasons:
Firstly, regardless of power-thirsty elements in disguise, justice-seeking through regime change was the primary factor legitimizing the armed struggle against the regime. Up to date, fear of injustice pushed many people to cynically arm themselves and they sometimes trigger violence in response to hallucinations caused by the fear of injustice. This created, among locals, tendency to violence for survival and for securing one’s basic human needs. Thus, in the absence of robust justice system capable of assuring the public that grievances are addressed without one resorting to violence it is conceivable that resorting to violence and private revenge will continue unabated. To put it differently, fear of injustice armed most of the people and only assuring justice can disarm them.
Secondly, ever since the proliferation of the civil war the clan institution was overexploited and various personalities misused it for mobilization purposes to the detriment of others – i.e. either through heralding imminent danger from other clans or by promising lucrative situations should they support the initiative. Such misuse of the clan institution was instrumental in the commission of major incidents of gross human rights abuses which fomented grievances, antagonism, deep mistrust and bitter competition, among Somali clans, for resources and power that was observable as a formidable obstacle in almost all peace efforts in Somalia.
Addressing past injustice by targeting individual perpetrators will help to individualize guilt by revealing that all the perpetrator’s clan men are not guilty. This will reduce the anger that a victim and his sympathizers/clan might have for the perpetrator’s clan. On the other hand, perpetrator’s clan might have been of the opinion that he was doing their best interest and considered him as their hero. Singling him out by exposing his male-factors will inform his own clan-men about his true color and that will mitigate the tension they have with other clans and at the same time give more chances to righteous ones within in the clan to outshine the perpetrator.
Thirdly, Somalia adopted federalism, the enunciated reason being that due to protracted conflicts mistrust and cleavages grew up among clans that, allegedly, necessitate the creation of self-governing federations so as to subdue particular clan/s from controlling centralized power and misuse it to the detriment of others. Nevertheless, this is an illusory rationalization whose effect already contradicted its stipulated reasoning. It is illusive because it fails to address the root-cause(s) of the mistrust and the creation of cleavages among clans, which the author holds to be the mistreatment and injustice clans committed against each other. So, the logical starting point would have been addressing injustice for the sake of restoring trust among clans rather than institutionalizing the divisions among them. Even if one argues, rightly, that federalism could be a solution the way it is designed contradicts the reasoning given for its creation: whereas the rationalization talks about clan divisions as the primary factor necessitating the adoption of federalism regions, rather than clans, are used as the building block that form the federal member states thereby leaving the risk that particular clan/s dominate power, at the state level and misusing it, unresolved. Of course, evaluating the utility of federalism is beyond the scope of this study: we raised it just to signify that addressing injustice would have preceded the discussion about federalism and that even with the adoption of federalism addressing injustice is still paramount for federalism to supplement any peace-building.
Fourthly, addressing past injustices by holding the perpetrators accountable for their actions has direct effect in stopping ongoing as well as preventing future abuses not only by disciplining the culprit and giving lessons to others but also by revealing the truth. By knowing the details of what happened, how it happened, who participated in the crime/ abuse, and what motivated it/them, the public will be in a position to participate in a meaningful political discussion and to make informed choices. Simply by knowing the righteous ones from the perpetrators and by revealing systematic and institutional patterns of human rights violation will give the war-weary Somalis a chance to put their trust on the right individuals and institutions. At the individual level, victims will feel that their justice needs are at least recognized.
More importantly, targeting perpetrators will contribute to the eradication of the culture of impunity that has been the rule, rather than the exception, in Somalia for more than two decades where individual or group’s share in the national cake was proportionate to its power grab and brutality. Till today, the Somali public see ruthless warlords, ex-military commanders of the military regime and ex-jihadists inaugurated, at the blessing of the UN and western countries, as national/regional presidents, military/police generals and ministries not because they repented or demonstrated remorse for their malefactors but because they have such bloody history. What message does this spread among millions of Somalis youths born during this period and who have never experienced functioning government and justice system? Absolutely not more than convincing them, ‘this is the way to become elite commander, president or minister’. Reversing this practice by targeting perpetrators, instead of rewarding them, is likely to influence change in attitudes and subsequently change in behavior.
Fifthly, presumed major obstacle against addressing injustice is not in place anymore. The failure of UNITAF and UNISOM missions that allegedly tried to disarm and bring powerful warlords in Southern Somalia to justice swayed many academician, peace activists, diplomats and ordinary people to believe that the starting point for peace making should be reconciling warlords and then establishing a government that enjoys their support so as to distract them from spoiling the peace process. Stemmed from this, many have clearly argued that addressing past injustice will annoy powerful perpetrators whose agreement is required for peace talks to win. Nevertheless, this option, which was the major stumbling block to address injustice, did not work despite plenty of attempts.
The good news here is not only that the presumption is rebutted but also the existence of powerful warlords that can dismantle peace-building fade into oblivion ever since the alliances of warlords’ defeat by Union of Islamic Courts followed by Ethiopia’s occupation and AMISOM intervention. Since then, it is AMISOM forces and the financial backing of international organizations and wealthier countries that looms large in matters of security and politics in Somalia. The author contends that these resources and the timing it coincided could have been used, more efficiently, to address injustice.
Sixthly, the existence of well developed social system capable of addressing injustice in a tailor-made fashion, rather than rigid west centric retribution justice, is another opportunity that emboldens the move towards addressing injustice and increases its chances of success without harming the peace building efforts. Islam, the religion followed by almost all Somalis, embodies various measures, directed to both the victim and the perpetrator/s, that supplement each other to satisfy man’s sense of justice. Where it encourages the perpetrator to repent and ask forgiveness of his/her victim it heartens the victim to resort to patience, exert forgiveness and to be grateful to His/her Lord who saved him/her from being an evil-doer. Though Islam compellingly suggests the victim to forgive his/her perpetrator/s especially when they ask for, it leaves the decision to punish or pardon the perpetrator/s for the victim’s choice. In the meantime, by the combination of glad-tidings and warnings it convincingly preaches the perpetrator to purify him-self of the sin by shouldering the appropriate punishment for that. Thus, we argue that by taking into account the victim’s need for recognition, sense of revenge and restoration as well as perpetrator’s need for rehabilitation and the social need for restoring broken relations, not to mention that it enjoys wide-spread acceptance among Somalis, Islamic justice system is an outstanding opportunity that can effectively be exploited for addressing past injustices in Somalia.
Parallel to this is the Somali customary system known as Xeer which in a way is adapted from the Islamic Sharia and gives the final authority to it. It is mainly, if not solely, based on negotiation and consensus which is an essential instrumental to address past injustice amid peace building efforts.
To sum up, unlike triggering conflict that needs less effort, time and resource, peace building is painstaking task and needs to be all inclusive and legitimate which cannot be secured by abandoning one the most burning issues, namely addressing injustice, to the benefit of scare-mongering and self-obsessed perpetrators. Due to the benefits it brings along and the shrinkage of its costs addressing injustice is momentous and any talk of peace in Somalia that glosses it over is self-defeating. This does not mean addressing injustice is a panacea that will spontaneously heal the three decade conflicts, but to insist that evading it is the missing brick that makes the architecture of peace building in Somalia flimsy.
Mohammed Mealin Seid
Mohamed is independent Socio-legal Researcher.
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