Somalia has experienced a devastating conflict over the last two decades. What originally appeared to be a national civil conflict has now taken on regional and international dimensions. The fighting directly and indirectly has left hundreds of thousands of Somalis dead, created millions of refugees, destroyed the environment and finally reduced to ashes a heritage and civilisation more than 12 centuries in the making. Somalis have been searching for a home-grown solution that will bring lasting peace to the country. Somalis have a strong tradition of settling conflicts, but in the absence of a strong and accountable government local peace-building efforts are often fragile. More than 14 reconciliation conferences have been held, but have proven ineffective as they were donor-led and not representative of wider Somali views.
While the international community has a role to play, it often does not know how. In the past, misguided political and security policies have led to ill-fated foreign interventions. The history of Somalia in the last 17 years, and especially within the last two, has been one of interference by regional and international actors, missed opportunities and a failure to understand how to engage with Somali society.
Beneath the gaze of international attention, at the local level peace-building and conflict resolution activities are resulting in real gains for Somalis. This challenges the international perception that Somalia is a country of anarchy. Rather, it is a country without a national government, but not without local mechanisms for settling disputes and apportioning power. This article describes how civic actors are addressing local conflicts, and offers some insights into how international actors can engage with Somalis.
Life begins with security and stability, and Somalis value this just as much as anyone else. Figure 1 shows how Somalia has moved into a period of relative stability despite the absence of a centralised government. Indicators of this are the number of peace-building activities, the rate of voluntary return of displaced people and diaspora activity.
In Figure 1, the top line (stability) stands for forces of peace in the country and how they are trying overcome local conflicts, promote stability and reduce crime rates in the country. The bottom line (armed action) shows the rate of armed conflict in the country. Together, the figure shows the frequency of armed conflict over the 12 months of 2006, and the frequency of peace attempts over the same 12-month period.
Up to December 2006, Somalia was relatively stable and predictable not at all as anarchic as outsiders thought. In fact, the country was reaching equilibrium between the number of peace activities underway and a decline in the number of incidents of serious armed conflict. Somali civil society and other voices of peace have been calling for the international community to adopt a Do No Harm policy and to support local peace actors to transform the situation, rather than imposing outside solutions that result in even wider conflict.
Figure 2 illustrates how stability decreased and conflict escalated soon after the introduction of the foreign-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in December 2006, after TFG forces backed by Ethiopians and Americans drove out Islamic Court forces.
Opposition to this perceived imposition resulted in violent conflict with horrific humanitarian consequences, the destruction of businesses, disruption to trade and the displacement of up to two-thirds of Mogadishus people into the countryside. What stability there had been was lost. The international community bears some responsibility for this state of affairs, along with Somalis pursuing their own agendas above a truly national one.
The attempt to force through a political process that most Somalis in Mogadishu saw as alien has created untold suffering and undermined progress towards stability. Somali communities suspect the international community and its client institutions of having a hidden agenda, whether the Global War on Terror or something else. In addition, Somalis take note that the international community is not holding the perpetrators of war crimes and human rights abuses accountable. This failure to institute measures to protect civilians is troubling, and constitutes a clear failure by outsiders to support internal calls for such measures.
Local problems, local solutions
However, Somalis have not lost hope. The current conflict has not completely eliminated our ability to find local solutions to security problems. One example of this is the case of Bakhara Market in Mogadishu.
Bakhara Market occupies two square kilometres in the Hawlwadag district of Mogadishu. Formerly a residential neighbourhood, for the last two decades it has been a business hub, both nationally and in the larger region. It hosts financial institutions, telecommunications companies, import/export firms, media companies, manufacturers, public transport terminals, food markets and consumer goods outlets. Bakhara serves towns and cities within Somalia, but extends its reach internationally to Nairobi, Djibouti, Jeddah, Dubai, Cairo, Mumbai, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Islamabad, Beijing, Johannesburg, Addis Ababa, Minneapolis and Toronto, where substantial populations of Somalis live. This bustling market has also been an arms bazaar servicing all parties to the conflict. It was also seen as a hotbed of insurgent support by businessmen opposed to the TFG and Ethiopian forces.
Because it is rich, the market has attracted the unwanted attention of warlords, bandits, militias and soldiers. As a resource-rich district in the midst of conflict, it has been subject to attack, extortion and looting. Between December 2006 and January 2008, local security forces targeted businesses in the district and looted substantial amounts of money. Many traders, labourers and bystanders were killed. Attacks increased in February 2008, with multiple raiding and looting under the pretext of security sweeps. Adding insult to injury, these were the very security forces that were meant to be protecting the market. Unpaid and ill-disciplined soldiers robbed with impunity.
To address the deteriorating situation, representatives of the business community came together with other civil society actors, including rights activists and religious leaders, and formed a committee to establish a dialogue with the TFG leadership, the Ethiopian authorities and leaders of the insurgency. These discussions resulted in the market being declared a demilitarised zone. To realise this aim, the market was to have its own private security force governed by a code of conduct agreed by all parties. The committee achieved this remarkable tripartite agreement through direct dialogue, subtle negotiation and efforts to convince all sides that it was in their best interest to protect the market. Security would be provided by the business community, and would be under the control of a committee consisting of figures from the business and civic communities. This could only have worked with the support of the new Prime Ministers office, which acknowledged that a serious security problem was threatening the survival of the market.
In the end, it was agreed that 450 private security personnel would protect the market. This was funded through the Peace Fund Initiative, a funding portfolio created by the business community and supported by civil society, religious and traditional leaders. Today, the market area is one of the most peaceful parts of Mogadishu. Crime levels have plummeted and business activity has returned to normal.
This initiative has put the accountability of security forces at centre-stage, making them answerable directly to the governing committee and ultimately to the cross-clan business and civic communities from which they were drawn. This initiative is a good example of a realistic, simple and appropriate approach to conflict resolution. As a bottom-up intervention it should send a message to the international community that top-down approaches risk crushing these grassroots initiatives.
This community policing initiative is unique in that it was able to forge an agreement that cut across clan andpolitical lines. It was an initiative founded on pragmatism and based upon the realities on the ground, rather some externally designed security sector plan. When Somalis want something to work it is because it is in their interest, under their control and ultimately accountable to them.
Implications for the international community
The international community must rethink its approach to Somalia and consider how it can support, rather than displace, local initiatives. International actors have a role to play, but they rarely understand what that role is or, worse, they think they do and end up empowering the wrong individuals and factions. The principles of Do No Harm should require outside actors to develop a nuanced understanding of local actors: a comprehensive and analytical conflict-mapping of the context before diving in with their vast resources. Such a step would be a significant advance towards a principled and informed engagement with Somali society.
Mohamed Ahmed Jama is Director of the Somali Organisation for Community Development Activities (SOCDA) in Mogadishu. His e-mail address is: email@example.com.