Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

"The courts are gone; warlords return to Mogadishu," January 15, 2007.

While traveling through Somalia in 1854, Richard Burton the British explorer observed that quote "The country teems with 'poets, poetasters, poetitoes, poetaccios': every man has his recognized position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines - the fine ear of this people causing them to take the greatest pleasure in harmonious sounds and poetical expressions, whereas a false quantity or a prosaic phrase excite their violent indignation."

History knows Somalia as a “nation of poets.”

More than a century later, in the introduction to an exhibit at the Smithsonian's Museum of African Art, Said Sheikh Samatar the Somali scholar drew a contrast with the West:

"Whereas in the industrialized West, poetry - and especially what is regarded as serious poetry - seems to be increasingly relegated to a marginal place in society," he said, "Somali oral verse is central to Somali life....Thus, it is a common, if amusing, thing," Samatar wrote, "to come upon a group of nomads huddled excitedly over a short-wave transistor, engaged in a heated discussion of the literary merits of poems that have just been broadcast while they keep watch over their camel herds grazing nearby."

Historically, Somali poets have assumed the burden of preserving history and shaping current events, mobilizing public opinion in support of war or peace, as they saw the need. Sayyid Muhammad Abdille Hasan, known to the British as the "Mad Mullah," forexample, deployed his verse in the fight against British colonialism.

The Somali Dervish Movement, a religious-based resistance to foreign domination in the first part of the twntieth century, produced a body of work that pitted the Dervishes not only against the European powers who were carving up the country, but also against their Somali collaborators.

Even poems designed to communicate military strategy, were full of lyrical passages. For example, this preamble by Dervish leader Sayid Maxamed Cabdulle Xasan, celebrates loyalty and bravery as it introduces a longer poem warning his followers about an ally who changed sides when he was threatened by enemy reprisals.

You did not leave me when the ignorant stampeded ...

You loaded your camels and came over to me when they defected
to the British generals ...

And I count on you during the dry season of the year.

A rosy cloud, a scud of white vapor, precipices of cloud flashing
with lightning,

Resounding thunder, flood water running over the parched earth,

The past night's repeated showers, noisy as the jibin bird

The heavy rain which fell, the longed-for rain of the spring,

Ponds brimming over, old campsites luxuriant,

Thorns become as tall as grass, thick undergrowth crackling-

I shall satisfy your needs as when one pours out salty water for a

And I shall entertain you with a poem as precious as a jewel.

On the other hand, the poetry of Salaan Arrabay, had an anti-war purpose. His best-known poem was "O Kinsman, Stop the War," a plea to stop a lengthy feud between two rival factions of the Isaaq clan in northern Somalia. According to Samatar, "Tradition has it that the poet on his horse stood between the massed opposing forces and, in a voice charged with drama and emotion, chanted the better part of the day until the men, smitten with the force of his delivery, dropped their arms and embraced one another."

"Now," writes Tamela Hultman in a 1993 article for the Ghanian Times, "in a break with centuries of history, Somalia's poets have fallen silent."

"Before Siad Barre's a mass uprising," she continues, "oral traditions were already in decline. The combined pressures of increasing poverty and political repression sapped energies, dampened creativity and curbed the free expression upon which poetry had thrived."

During the years following Siad Barre’s demise, a number of large mass graves revealed a legacy of what looked like an impending genocide. No one could have guessed that life in Somalia was about to go from bad to worse.

A disastrous period rarely discussed any more but well-known to Canadian history as the Somalia Affairn ensued. It outlasted four Canadian defence ministers, brought Brian Mulroney’s political career to a premature end, provoked the appointment (not the election) of the only woman Prime Minister ever, brought the elite Airborne Regiment to an end, left the Progressive Conservative Party with only two seats in Parliament, and inaugurated a twelve-year period of aggressive Liberal indifference toward Canada’s armed forces. You can find out more about it on the World Report website. All that was minor compared to what happened in Africa.

The Task Force Ranger incident which saw 18 American soldiers die in Mogadishu (and their commemoration in the movie Black Hawk Down) resulted in the American’s withdrawal from Somalia and began a devastating period of neglect. For more than a decade the wealthy and powerful nations of the world turned their backs on Africa, and Somalia was left with neither government nor international protection. The Rwandan genocide was about to begin. That would be followed by a civil war in Congo (Kinshasa) in which some 3.5 million would die, and another genocide a little north in Darfur.

In Somalia, the Islamic courts arose to fill a vacuum in 1991 after the collapse of the central government. As an initiative of Mogadishu clan elders and businessmen, they punished thieves and enforced contracts.

In 2006, after 15 years without a central government, the Islamic Courts’ militias moved to drive the warlords from Mogadishu.

Martin Fletcher writing for The Age in Melbourne is one of the few journalists to have visited Mogadishu recently. According to Fletcher, most Somalis detested the Transitional Federal Government (or TFG), which was created in 2004 after two years of tortuous negotiations in Kenya between rival Somali factions. It was stranded in the town of Baidoa until late-December 2006 because it dared not return to Mogadishu.

What struck Fletcher most forcefully during a week in Mogadishu this December was the gulf between the Washington’s view of the Council of Islamic Courts and that of the Somali people.

“To Washington, the council is - or was - a new Taliban: al-Qa'ida sympathisers who were turning Somalia into a haven for terrorists including those responsible for the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

“That may or may not be true,” Fletcher writes, “but most Somalis welcomed the rise of the council because it banished the warlords who had reduced their country to chaos during 15 years of civil war. For the first time in a generation, people could walk the streets in safety.

“Gone were the ubiquitous checkpoints where the warlords' militias extorted and killed.” The Islamic courts banned guns. “The Somalis who had fled the violence were returning from abroad. The council did reintroduce public executions, ban the narcotic qat, and discourage Western music, films and dancing.” Fletcher guesses “that seemed a small price to pay.” (Age Dec 30 06).

Benefits "included a drop in violence against civilians and a fall in food prices due to the abolition of warlord checkpoints that levied extortionate 'taxes' on transport. With help from Mogadishu's UIC, new sharia courts began to appear in other parts of southern Somalia” endquote (Whitehouse Socialist Worker Jan 5 07).

According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), the courts reflect the diversity of Somalia’s subclans. They spring from traditional conservative and Sufi Muslim courts that reject “Salafist” fundamentalism, in addition to courts run by the jihadis themselves. According to the ICG, the harshest sharia punishments were rarely imposed, because of the influence of traditional clan law. (Whitehouse)

"The court movement has always included a militant ‘jihadi’ wing--a fundamentalist minority that became more prominent as the ‘war on terror’ put armed defense closer to the center of the courts’ agenda. A few leading members of the court militias may have ties to al-Qaeda, including the teams that bombed US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. But jihad was never the courts’ reason for being.


"As the courts spread, they attracted financial support from Gulf monarchies, including Saudi Arabia. And as Ethiopian hostility to the courts grew, its regional rival, Eritrea, began to provide the court militias with guns....

Today, Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi emphasizes the courts’ connection with al-Qaeda in order to gain Western sympathy for an older and more basic Ethiopian concern--the large presence of Muslim Somali-speakers in his own country, in which Christians predominate.

"The last Ethiopian war with Somalia was a US-backed attempt by Siad Barre to seize Ethiopia’s Ogaden region--peopled by the Somali Darod clan--in 1977. The recent rise of the UIC has threatened to revive Somali claims on Ethiopian territory.

"Rather than wait for militant UIC contacts to develop among the Darod in Ethiopia, Meles decided to use his own Darod allies as a wedge to exert Ethiopian influence in Somalia. Darod Somalis dominate the new government now under Ethiopian protection in Mogadishu, and Darod fighters participated in the invasion....

Preoccupied with the spectre of Islamic terrorism, Washington has used a repressive regime in Ethiopia to replace a popular de facto government in Somalia with a widely reviled official one. It is a dangerous gamble. (Dec 30 06)

Whitehouse predicts that while the militias may carry on as guerrilla fighters, they will have trouble holding together, separated from their original base in the courts. The courts themselves, he says, are smashed. And under Somali conditions, they are unlikely to revive soon as a political force" (Whitehouse Socialist Worker Jan 5 07).

Fletcher thinks that “the best - but least likely - outcome is that the TFG offers some sort of power-sharing deal to the leaders of Somalia's powerful Abgal and Habar Gidir clans. A more likely scenario is that the TFG fails to impose its authority, and Somalia returns to the clan warfare that has plagued it since 1991.”

Somalia’s fortunes may be about to take another turn for the worse.

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