By Mohamed Abdullahi
The recent International Crisis Group (ICG) briefing No 141 “Averting War in Northern Somalia” is a welcome addition to the continuing efforts of the international community to stop the war in Sool region between Somaliland and Puntland. The briefing is informative and depicts the dire consequences of a protracted war between the two states.
However, the release of this briefing about an impending open war, from an organization that prides itself for sound analytical foresight for imminent security crisis, six months after the eruption of hostilities is too little, too late. The conflict crossed the Rubicon as two deadly battles have already been fought since January 2018. A more apt title for this briefing, therefore, would have been “Stopping the War in Northern Somalia”.
I do not think this belated briefing will be taken seriously because ICG has not only failed to raise the alarm about the looming cloud of catastrophic armed clashes in time following the invasion of Tukaraq by Somaliland forces in January 2018, but the briefing is ridden with inaccuracies (listed below) and lacks fresh ideas to help trial new approaches to de-escalate the situation and stop the war. Accuracy of information and unprejudiced analysis are of paramount importance for the credibility of the ICG, its neutrality and independence go hand in hand with its legitimacy.
I see the ICG situation analysis of this war too superficial, skewed and in many places conceivably unbalanced. The majority of the briefing’s cited literature and sources are either outdated or biased (citation bias) against Puntland. The contributions of individuals with regional or tribal affiliations to Somaliland reinforces the perceived partiality of ICG in this conflict (author bias).
The briefing’s call for cessation of hostilities have already been tried and found ineffective. Its audience, the UN and Somalia’s international partners, had acted very swiftly to prevent a war between the neighbouring polities in January / February 2018 and asked President Muse Bihi of Somaliland to withdraw his forces from Tukaraq, an appeal he categorically refused to heed.
While there is possibly no prospect for ICG to retract any of the flawed arguments and assumptions in its briefing, one may hope to see corrections to the following inaccuracies.
The status and strategic geographical significance of Sool, Sanaag and Cayn (SSC) regions.
The briefing has rightly framed the descriptions of both Somaliland and Puntland within Somalia, but its monotonous semantic words “disputed, contested, vied for control, co-opt” about Sool and Sanaag regions paint a picture of a frontier, a no-man’s-land, a deserted land up for grabs. In my humble opinion, the authors’ lack of sufficient knowledge about these regions and regurgitated but fallacious narratives about the causes of this conflict might have given rise to such portrayals. In a completely different perspective, the authors could have inked a more accurate representation of the historical, geopolitical and socioeconomic significance of these regions and their people beyond the wrangle between Puntland and Somaliland to the unity, territorial integrity and independence of Somali nation as well as the ongoing peace and state building efforts in Somalia.
I would argue that the words such as “disputed, contested” have no place in Sool, Sanaag and Cayn regions lexicon. I think the briefing could have used the word “occupied” instead. ICRC Law of Occupation defines that “Territory is considered occupied when it is placed under the authority of the hostile army”.
It would also have been more befitting to describe this conflict in the context of Somalia’s three decades old civil war as an expansionist land grab and aggression of one region (or tribe) against its neighbouring regions. Whatever language is used, we should be under no illusion about juridical status of Sool, Sanaag and Cayn regions as part and parcel of the Federal Republic of Somalia.
The briefing language of “the neck of land that …” could be seen as another slant to ignore the geographic weight and position of SSC regions. A wilder claim in the briefing puts Tukaraq on“a major highway and trade corridor that links Sool and Sanaag to eastern Ethiopia”.
Tukaraq is one small village in the vast stretches of land in SSC regions; cities, towns, villages, rich countryside, beautiful highlands and stunning beaches that occupy one seventh of land area of Federal Republic of Somalia, from Lasqoray on the Gulf of Aden, the plains around Erigavo, the valleys in the outskirts of Garowe to the woodlands in Buhodle district on the border with Ethiopia. SSC regions land area is bigger than that of Galmudug or Hirshabelle States. Puntland is present in 80 percent of this territory whereas the presence of Somaliland is limited to the area along the tarmac road from Oog village to Lasanod.
Turarak is located on a major highway that connects Garowe to Lasanod, not a major highway to Ethiopia. By suggesting this fake strategic junction linking Sool and Sanaag regions to Ethiopia is a way to bring another security, economic and regional dimension to the conflict.
Somaliland’s motive in Tukaraq invasion.
The relations between Puntland and Somaliland have always been in parlous state since Somaliland had invaded and occupied Lasanod city in 2007 at the height of the war in southern Somalia between Union of Islamic Courts and the Federal government in which Puntland was deeply involved.
The briefing writes that “The capture of Tukaraq … was seen as a warning from Somaliland to the Somali government against getting involved in the contested areas”. Is this an intentional carefully crafted propaganda disguised as an expert analysis of the reasoning behind Somaliland’s invasion of Tukaraq? Look at the footnote! The unprovoked invasion on a peaceful village and its people could not be described as a warning. It was a planned attack to deliver Muse Bihi’s election campaign promise to forcefully reach the colonial boundary of British and Italian Somaliland (Yoocada), a symbolic but rather fanciful dream. I believe that it was wrong for ICG to make justifications for this brutal act of aggression in its briefing.
While Tukaraq invasion could be seen as the tipping point of this conflict for Puntland, it was Muse Bihi’s election campaign threats, wild claims and obnoxious insults on the Darod forefathers that have invoked the subdued but acrimonious aspiration of Puntland people to go to war against Somaliland and liberate Lasanod. This war is not “a gamble” but a rare opening for Puntland to liberate the 20 percent of Sool region, including the city of Lasanod, which has been in the hands of Somaliland for the last 10 years.
Number of armed clashes in 2018
The briefing claims 20 recorded armed clashes in Tukaraq since January 2018, a stark over-exaggeration of the situation. There have been only two armed clashes so far, on 15 and 24 of May 2018. The implication of this over-exaggeration may seem innocent unless you look beyond its descriptive measurement and scrutinize its message and effect on its audience. ICG does not need to lie about the number of armed clashes in order to convey a sense of urgency in this matter or to warn the gravity of the situation.
The war mongering rhetoric of Gas and Bihi
While the briefing selectively flaunted the bellicose nature of President Gas’s speeches, it chose to put on the record one nice remark from President Bihi’s inflammatory speeches. The briefing did not see noteworthy President Muse Bihi’s belligerent and incendiary threats of war and the link between his campaign promises to attack Garowe and this invasion to Tukaraq.
In his book, (Warriors, Life and death among the Somalis) Gerald Hanley described how he had threatened to kill a tribal chief if he did not stop his men from killing. He wrote “that threat to the chief was a sign of fellow savagery”. While I don’t justify any thuggish behaviour, President Gas will be forgiven, in the surreal words of Thomas Paine (The Crisis, 1776) “these are the times that try men’s souls”, for the way he reacted to Somaliland aggression. President Muse Bihi only understands the language of threat of force and death.
It is ironic that Mr Hanley was sent to prevent bloodshed between feuding Somali tribes 75 years ago, the kind of bloodshed between two Somali tribes (whatever a fancy name we might call them) that ICG briefing is warning against today.
ICG has based its analysis of Puntland vulnerability on rather outdated literature (the most recent one being December 2015) and few anecdotal evidences. Alshabaab in Galgala mountains and ISIS have been emasculated to the point that they do not pose serious security threats to Puntland. Similarly, there is no security threat in Mudug region as the UN SRSG Michael Keating recently confirmed in a UN Security Council briefing that “Galkayo is more peaceful today than for many years” through Galkayo peace agreement between Gal-Mudug and Puntland States.
Apart from the observable events; increased armed confrontations, concentration of men and weapons in Tukaraq area, intensive organization and war readiness and the belligerent rhetoric of the two parties, the briefing has failed to fully grasp and analyse other subtle but discernible changes in the attitudes of both parties.
The hardening position of Puntland government is the result of unprecedented outpouring of support from its people in response to Somaliland’s naked aggression. Although the briefing’s assertion is inaccurate, but even if the loss of Tukaraq and heavy casualties incurred by Puntland frogmarched President Gas, the much heavier casualties inflicted on Somaliland forced President Bihi to change the tone of his speeches and to offer negotiated settlement to the debacle.
Perceived bias of the briefing
The briefing language shows similarities with the lexeme in Somaliland media such as The Somaliland informer. Rashid Ali, ICG Project Director who hails from Somaliland, is believed to have influenced the gathering of information for ICG briefing No 141. All the citations in the briefing refer to literature gathered in Hargeisa (Somaliland) and Nairobi. ICG claim that its approach is “grounded in field research” beggars belief as it has no presence in Puntland nor has this particular briefing quoted a single source in Puntland State.
Rashid Ali claimed in a twitter message that ICG briefing saw the recent “UAE delegation to Puntland and suggested that it was Abu Dhabi using its leverage”. This comment became the joke of the day in Puntland and highlighted his ignorance of Puntland and its relations with the communities in the neighbouring sisterly nations in the Middle East. The UAE delegation was part of traditional mission to scope Karkaar and Eastern Sanaag regions and meet with Boqor Burhan Boqor Muse and Sultan Said Sultan Abdisalam. There were similar occasional traditional exchanges between UAE, Oman, Yemen and Puntland in the past.
African Union involvement
The briefing has recommended the use of “African Union Border Programme, which is part of the African Union (AU)’s Peace and Security Department”. There is no need for the involvement of AU Border Programme in this area. This conflict is taking place between two Somali states within the jurisdiction of the Federal government. Every nation has the right to demarcate the administrative boundaries between its states and regions as it sees fit. Using AU Border Programme will create more problems and violate the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Somalia.
Somalia has an independent Federal Boundaries Commission, a statutory agency established to resolve any boundary disputes between Somali Federal Member States. The Federalisation of Somalia is not yet complete, and one can appreciate the urgent need to explore the possibility of establishing a Federal Member State in Sool, Sanaag and Cayn regions as the best durable solution to this conflict.
Somaliland’s destabilising role in the region
The briefing has lent credence to the allegations of Somaliland’s support and collusion with Alshabaab and ISIS terrorist networks. The analysis that Somaliland “could stoke existing conflicts in an attempt to further sap Puntland’s military resources” must have been based on sufficient evidence about Somaliland’s ability to make contact with and channel military assistance to Alshabaab in Galgala mountains. Puntland has always warned of Somaliland’s destabilising role in supporting Alshabaab terrorists in the region.
That said, the analysts are out of touch with realities on the grounds in Mudug and South-central regions. There are no conflicts in the boundary between Puntland and its neighbouring state Gal-Mudug. Gone are the days when Somaliland politicians could instigate hatred between the Somali people in South – central regions.
The briefing has fleetingly touched on the causal link of this conflict and Somali state collapse. It could have made more compelling argument for firmer and sustained international pressure on Somaliland and Puntland to stop the war had it a) recognized the critical first step to withdraw Somaliland forces from Tukaraq and to return to the status quo ante b) explored options for lasting solution to the conflict in Sool, Sanaag and Cayn through the Somalia Federalisation and c) recommended peacebuilding and reconciliation between the communities in Northern Somalia (Darood/Harti and Isak tribes).
ICG could have broken the mould of standard crisis containment (truce, etc) and make bold recommendations of Somaliland troop withdrawal from SSC regions as the only durable solution for this conflict.
By trying to appease Muse Bihi, the international community is bearing witness to his violent behaviour. Puntland does not have a history of violence against its neighbours. It has never sought to acquire territory by force. It demands unconditional and complete withdrawal of Somaliland forces from SSC regions and a perennial peace with honour between the two communities.
Mohamed Abdullahi is a businessman residing in Garowe, Puntland State of Somalia.
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