May 27, 2007


My Life as a Diplomat (NURUDDIN FARAH, 5/2/07, NY Times)

My career as an emissary began last July. A man in the executive directorate of the Islamic Courts Union, then in control of Mogadishu, telephoned me in Cape Town, where I now live. (I was born and raised in Somalia.) The man, who shall remain nameless, asked if I would “carry fire between the two sides,” as the Somali idiom has it.

The timing was understandable. Talks between the Islamists and the government had broken down; the Islamists were laying siege to Baidoa, the seat of the government, and Ethiopia was sending troops to defend the garrisoned town.

The choice of a mediator, however, wasn’t so readily apparent. “Why me?” I asked.

“Because the I.C.U. admires your opposition to Ethiopia, Somalia’s archenemy, and because of your avowed interest in peace,” he replied.

And, truth be told, I admired some of what the Islamists had accomplished. Indeed, they had done the impossible: in a series of fierce battles from March to June last year, they had routed the warlords and pacified Mogadishu. For the first time in many years, the city enjoyed peace.

Like many Somalis, though, I also had my reservations about them. Even though almost all Somalis are Muslim, very few embrace the union’s fervent brand of faith: the group supports Shariah law and it treats the federal charter, which is secular, with disdain. Then there was the matter of clan rivalry, which hinted that devotion might be masking politics: the top Islamists belonged to the clans known to be antagonistic to the president’s clan.

Of course, my feelings about the transitional government were also ambivalent. The government came into being in 2004 after a two-year-long national reconciliation conference held in exile. I supported the president’s desire for an African peacekeeping force to stabilize Somalia; at the same time, I was fearful that he was susceptible to pressure from Ethiopia.

Still, the Islamic Courts Union, as my interlocutor told me, was holding out a proposal that just might lead to peace. According to him, the union was offering to let the government move to Mogadishu from Baidoa and to let the president bring with him a force of 1,000 from his home province, Puntland.

I felt this was promising. A peace deal would not just bring stability — it would reduce the opportunities for foreign intervention by Ethiopia, which had thwarted every national and international effort to bring Somalia’s strife to a peaceful end, and by the United States, which seemed inclined to support Christian-run Ethiopia as a bulwark against the Islamists. (It didn’t help, of course, that the union’s defense spokesman had used the red-flag word “jihad” in his firebrand declamations.) [...]

My first meeting in town was with Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, then the spiritual head of the Islamic Courts Union; he struck me as being more reasonable than many others in the group. In all, I spent three and a half hours in our first meeting, much of it alone with him. [...]

After my meeting with the Islamists, I headed for Baidoa to meet the president. When we met in his office, across the courtyard from his residence — he emerged dressed in gray, his bearing immaculate, hair groomed with care and face glowing, after a good night’s sleep. (How, I asked myself, was this possible in a town with no modern amenities?)

The president and I sat facing each other, and his intent stare reminded me that he and Sheik Aweys come from the same part of the country; I couldn’t help being mindful that the two of them had engaged in armed skirmishes in the early ’90s, soon after the structural collapse of the state. The sheik had led an Islamist takeover of Puntland; the president, opposing him, had won that round.

The president accepted my offer to open channels between the two sides. But it was another message from him that would ring in my ears: “I know what war is,” he said. “I have fought in three of them. I won’t attack Mogadishu, but if the I.C.U. invades Baidoa, someone will regret it. Tell the sheik this. From me.”

Back to Mogadishu. I met Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, the executive director of the union; also present was the interlocutor who had called me in the first place. Regrettably, my interlocutor would allude neither to our initial conversation, nor to his suggestion that the transitional government move to Mogadishu, with guarantees. As we spoke, officials came and went, some bowing low, others kneeling in deference to the sheik. It was clear that I was in the presence of a power — a power who was unwilling to confirm that he had knowledge of my interlocutor’s offer.

I had to wonder. Was the Islamic union negotiating in bad faith? Had I embarked on a peace mission that was doomed to fail? Or did the powers that be in the Islamic union reject the idea of a rapprochement with the government and forget to tell me? I chose to play dumb, and so I provided the sheik’s secretary with contact information for the president’s men — as if everything else was on track.

The following day, I went to meet Sheik Aweys at his home. I got lost on the way. He lived in a part of town unfamiliar to me. With no paved roads, and with the rains having created ravines with crumbly sides, and with no street names, the entire area was virtually impassable. My driver and I got stuck in the sandy chasms.

After I arrived, the sheik and I talked amicably, with his 2-year-old son sitting on his lap. I dared not share with him the president’s threatening remarks.

Before we parted, he commended me for my “audacious” attempt to bring the Islamic union and the transitional government closer. He suggested not giving up hope, however, adding that there was bound to be further need for my involvement once “the Somali people” routed their enemies, “and you know who these are,” he grinned. I offered to return in a few months.

I didn’t make it back. Over Christmas, Ethiopia, perhaps intending to provide a gift for the festive season to its American ally, invaded Mogadishu and expelled the Islamists.

We'll eventually help Sheik Aweys return to power.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 27, 2007 12:00 AM
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