Update on Situation in Muqdisho, Matt Bryden

Update on Situation in Muqdisho,

by Matt Bryden

Update on Situation in Muqdisho
29 March 1995

by Matt Bryden
Consultant to UN-EUE


Contrary to most expectations, the UNOSOM withdrawal from Somalia has not been followed by violence, but by tentative first steps towards a local peace agreement in Muqdisho. Since shortly before the final departure of international troops, a "Peace Committee" comprising figures from the north and south Muqdisho has been meeting to discuss joint management of the city's port and airport, and the eventual formation of a Banaadir Regional Authority (Banaadir is a historical label for Muqdisho and its environs). For the moment, tension within the city is low, and people are cautiously optimistic about the possibility of a political settlement.

Recent events are not simply, as some observers suggest, a reaction to the shock of UNOSOM's departure, but a process with roots going back more than one year. It would appear instead that the collapse of the UN's artificial, externally-driven reconciliation efforts has allowed room for the expression of more natural, indigenous initiatives. The question remains as to whether this new configuration of Somali's perpetually shifting political kaleidoscope actually represents a step towards peace, or merely the drawing of new battle lines.


'Aydiid's predominance within the Habar Gidir has, historically speaking, been a relatively short-lived affair. Summoned from his comfortable exile as Somalia's ambassador to India, he has served the USC as a military commander only since 1989. Having won prominence through his campaign against Siyaad Barre's forces first in 1991, then in 1992, his ascension was assisted by the patronage of the Sa'ad sub-clan including his "godfather" Osman Hassan 'Ali "'Aato." Historical revisionists among the Habar Gidir even suggest that 'Aato effectively "hired" 'Aydiid to run the USC military campaign, and thus deserves most of the credit for the USC victory as the warlord's puppet-master. This may be an exaggerated version of events, but it reflects a perceptible sea-change in Habar Gidir loyalties: 'Aydiid's undisputed authority among his clansmen is no longer what it was.

In early 1991, while 'Aydiid waged war between Marka and Kisimaayo, he was still relatively unknown. The "interim government" in Muqdisho at the time claimed neither to know nor to care where he was. Only upon his return to the city in mid-year did he clearly become a force to be reckoned with, engineering his own election as chairman of the USC while Ali Mahdi was away seeking legitimacy for his presidential aspirations in Djibouti. 'Aydiid's power reached a peak in April 1992 when he countered a lightning offensive of Siyaad Barre's Somali National Front (SNF) which reached almost to the gates of the capital, and drove the former dictator back across the Kenya border into exile. "Interim President" Ali Mahdi, apparently unable to digest the prospect of a temporary alliance with his rival 'Aydiid, abstained from the battle. Aydiid thus took credit for the ultimate defeat of Somalia's biggest bogeyman, and gained in stature accordingly. He rode the wave of popularity until his battle against American and UN forces in 1993.

Despite widespread popular support among the Habar Gidir and their SNA allies for his confrontation with the UN, by July 1993 cracks were beginning to show within the SNA political elite. While foreigners hailed 'Aydiid as a new "Lion of Africa," a "Somali George Washington," and the country's "natural" president, a group of prominent Habar Gidir leaders (mainly 'Ayr) openly declared their opposition to 'Aydiid and their readiness to negotiate with UNOSOM. Almost immediately, an American attack on a large SNA meeting (including several members of the dissident

group) killed over fifty of those in attendance, effectively quashing internal Habar Gidir dissent and amplifying 'Aydiids fury. Habar Gidir opposition was suppressed, but not indefinitely.

In October 1993, following a firefight in which US troops suffered heavy losses, UNOSOM adopted a "non-confrontational" posture and dropped its manhunt for 'Aydiid. Relations between the UN and the General "normalised," and internal differences within the 'Aydiid's Somali National Alliance (SNA) began to reassert themselves. Somewhat obscured by a renewed UNOSOM charm offensive of expensive and fast-paced "reconciliation" conferences, centrifugal forces within the 'Aydiid's coalition nevertheless remained hard at work.

Xawaadle Opposition

'Aydiids domestic problems became public knowledge with the defection of the Xawaadle clan, the last major Hawiye ally of the Habar Gidir, in April 1994. Since the Muqdisho battles of late 1991, the Habar Gidir and Xawaadle had joined forces against Ali Mahdi. After the March 1992 cease-fire, however, relations between the leaders of the two clans became strained. Disaffected by the SNA's growing concentration of power within a clique of Habar Gidir Sa'ad throughout 1992 and 1993, 'Aydiid's Xawaadle deputy, Abdi Osman "Pilot," determined to establish a Xawaadle faction independent of the SNA, and to participate separately in UNOSOM's peace-talks. In April 1994, political tensions exploded when a simple dispute over a garage in south Muqdisho escalated into a full-scale brawl between Xawaadle and Habar Gidir militias. The Xawaadle were routed, losing their stronghold around the international airport, while a number of Xawaadle civilians and community leaders were assassinated. The rupture between the two clans in Muqdisho was absolute, and most Xawaadle fled to parts of the city controlled by Ali Mahdi's forces or returned to their ancestral area towards Beled Weyne. The fighting was welcomed - and perhaps encouraged - by members of the Ali Mahdi faction, but it also suited 'Aydiid's Habar Gidir rivals who were eager to see the warlord's power base weakened. A subsequent Habar Gidir offensive on Beled Weyne (allegedly organised somewhat independently by Osman 'Aato) drove the Xawaadle from their home town and further poisoned relations: the damage to

the relationship between former allies became irreparable and the Habar Gidir were left virtually friendless.

Abgaal and Murosade Differences

At roughly the same time, another process was also acting as a spur to dissent within both 'Aydiid's and Mahdi's coalitions. The so-called "Hiraab" talks, chaired by Imam Mahamud of the "Hiraab" (a notional clan comprising the Habar Gidir, Abgaal, and a cluster of smaller Hawiye clans, which nobody had previously heard of) and heavily patronised by UNOSOM's political section, brought together members of both camps despite the reluctance of the two "warlords." Non-"Hiraab" Hawiye clans were suspicious of the initiative which they perceived as a vehicle for exclusively Habar Gidir - Abgaal concerns, leaving other Hawiye clans marginalised. This worry undoubtedly contributed to Xawaadle calculations in abandoning 'Aydiid and striking out their own; Mahdi's allies in the Murosade clan also resented their exclusion from the process and let their objections to the "hiraab" talks be known. The process eventually collapsed, leaving both factions more fractured than ever before.

Tensions between a breakaway group of the Murosade (led by Mohamed Qanyare Afrah) and Mahdi's Abgaal finally led to clashes between the clans' respective militia in late 1994. Also at issue was the imposition of Shari'a law in areas under Mahdi's control. The Murosade lost decisively. Expelled from the southern Abgaal enclave of Madina, they were able to retain a foothold in the central quarter of Bermuuda while maintaining an uneasy truce with the Abgaal of Muqdisho north. Just as 'Aydiid had suffered the loss of his Xawaadle allies, Mahdi's coalition was shaken by his rift with the Murosade. Fighting in Bermuuda continues even today. Unlike the Xawaadle, however, the Murosade remain a vital "third force" in Muqdisho, whose mass has the potential to shift the political and military balance one way or the other.

Current Events

The potent dissidence within their respective camps meant that neither 'Aydiid nor 'Ali Mahdi has been able to cobble together a coherent coalition from the fragments of their former alliances, depite the apparent eagerness of both leaders to declare "governments" in the wake of UNOSOM's withdrawal in March 1995 - a course of action that would almost certainly have led to disastrous military confrontation between the two groups. Furthermore, many Hawiye are beginning to question their leaders' fixation with a national government at the expense of a more modest intra-Hawiye reconciliation. Members of the political "elite" on both sides of the divide are profoundly dissatisfied with the leadership of both men and are probably unwilling to give either chief a clear mandate to rule.

Instead, senior figures from both groups have hitched their fortunes to the newly established "Peace Committee" and its plans for a Banaadir Regional Authority. A number of important figures are reportedly backing the initiative: Osman 'Ato (Habar Gidir - 'Aydiid's former financier), 'Ali Ugaas (Abgaal - proposed head of the Banaadir authority), 'Abdi Qaybdiid (Habar Gidir), Mohamed Dheere (Abgaal - 'Ali Mahdi's financier), 'Issa Mohamed Siyaad (Duduuble), General Mohamed Nur Galal (Habar Gidir), Imam Mahamud (Abgaal), and the newly ascendant commander in Madina, Muse Suudi (Abgaal), among others. All are figures of considerable influence within their factions. That they have now turned themselves towards the problem of peace-making and the practical challenges of establishing a "Banaadir Regional Administration," however cynical or commercial their motives may be, is grounds for some optimism. No previous peace process has enjoyed such widespread support, nor made so much headway.

On the other hand, the committee may be taking a bit too much for granted: it excludes certain key sections of Hawiye including large sections of the Murosade and all of the Xawaadle, not to mention most other minor clans, arguing that they are not central to the process. Observers describe this round of talks as a Habar Gidir - Mudulood (Abgaal plus Mobilen and Wa'dhaan) affair and therefore inherently exclusive. Although a broader-based negotiation involving clans unconnected to the issue at hand would be of little purpose and probably counter-productive, a process which excludes key parties is unlikely to get very far either: the Murosade are central to the Muqdisho problem and there is no solution possible without them; the Xaawadle, now virtually absent from the Muqdisho stage, retain a toehold with Muse Suudi in Madina, and still have a critical role to play in an all-Hawiye reconciliation. Both are in a position to obstruct the "Peace Committee's" efforts if they so choose.

Neither 'Aydiid nor 'Ali Mahdi seem enthusiastic about the Banaadir initiative, which threatens to dilute the personal authority of each. 'Ali Mahdi has never enjoyed 'Aydiid's lone exercise of power, governing more through consensus and sometimes as little more than a front for diverse Abgaal interests. Since several of his key supporters now subscribe to the Banaadir peace committee, he has little choice but to tag along. His attempts over recent days to engage in an angry polemic with 'Aydiid over calling a national conference have allegedly brought him into sharp conflict with the architects of the peace-process: a show-down he seems destined to lose.

'Aydiid, who clearly covets the Presidency despite his protests to the contrary, is in no better position than Mahdi, though he has had further to fall from his pinnacle of heady hero-worship in 1992-3. His daily visits to Muqdisho airport, where most of the soldiers answer either to 'Aato or to Galal, seem designed to give the impression that he is still in charge, while this is patently no longer the case. 'Aato and Galal have made it clear that 'Aydiid is peripheral - and even an obstacle - to the Banaadir talks, though neither denies his status as USC-SNA leader: that would be to risk fratricidal power-struggles within the clan and dangerously weaken Habar Gidir solidarity. Like Mahdi, 'Aydiid seems to have little choice but to play along for the time being. His major backers, with a few exceptions, have defected to the Banaadir cause and are unwilling to be dragged into a new confrontation with 'Ali Mahdi over the tired issue of national government.

If a Banaadir authority, with 'Ali Ugaas as its chairman, is indeed created, there will be little room left for the two "warlords," whose authority has rarely extended beyond Banaadir in the first place, and whose leverage in the national arena has hinged upon their weight in the capital. Once their authority has been surrendered to the local administration and their militia largely integrated into a civil "security force," neither 'Aydiid nor 'Ali Mahdi will enjoy the disproportionate political influence they have known for the past couple of years. That alone may explain why the two men have tried to escalate their confrontation over the past few days to the level of national governance: the national platform is the only forum left for the warlords' ambitions. A major dispute could even neutralize the committee's plans for a joint regional authority - something both 'Aydiid and Mahdi would be grateful for. This tactic is likely to be strongly resisted by those who have already committed themselves to the Banaadir process.


The Banaadir talks probably signal a major redistribution of power both between and within the various parties to the Muqdisho conflict. Control over the political process has clearly devolved upon a burgeoning group of second-rank leaders, whose commercial and political interests now require peace and stability rather than war. It is probably no coincidence that the men who have bankrolled 'Aydiid and 'Ali Mahdi (Osman 'Aato and Mohamed Dheere respectively), together with a number of other prominent businessmen, both support the reconciliation effort.

Suggestions that 'Aydiid is losing his grip on power are generally greeted with healthy scepticism (this is not the first time such rumours have circulated), but deserve more serious consideration than ever. 'Aydiid's political success derives chiefly from his remarkable ability to personify Habar Gidir interests: his own fortunes and those of his clan have been practically indivisible since mid-1991. His collision with UNOSOM and the US clearly shook the confidence of a number his clansmen that this was still the case. Today, it is evident that fewer and fewer Habar Gidir can reconcile their own newfound desires for stability and economic prosperity with 'Aydiid's bellicose pursuit of national hegemony. Unless he can persuade them otherwise, the General may soon find himself expendable.

In UNOSOM's absence, national issues - 'Aydiid and Mahdi's principle domain - have lost most of their importance. Links between Muqdisho and Somalia's various regions, strengthened through the UN's centralised political process, have dissipated with remarkable speed over the past few weeks. In Bay region (Baydhowa), this has led to a de facto assumption of regional autonomy by a rejuvenated Somali Democratic Movement (SDM); in Banaadir, local reconciliation holds more promise than ever. If the north-east and north-west (Somaliland) can survive their UNOSOM-induced trauma (muscular splinter groups led by Colonel Abdillahi Yusuf and Abdirahman Tuur respectively), they have a chance to rediscover the relative stability they maintained from 1991-1993.

Perhaps the most enduring trace of the international community's disruptive passage through the Somali political arena is the popular backlash that it appears to have produced: foreign involvement is no longer welcome. Participants and observers alike of the Banaadir peace process express a unanimous preference for being left alone to reach a settlement. Delegations from various governments, including Ethiopia and Malaysia, have been cordially received, but offers of mediation have reportedly been rejected. A UNOSOM invitation that members of the Peace Committee travel to Nairobi for consultations was also declined: a number of Somalis involved in the Banaadir negotiations asserted that contact with UNOSOM would be disastrous to the process and should be avoided at all costs. Even UN and NGO expatriate staff have been advised to stay clear of Muqdisho until the situation clarifies itself. The extraordinary consensus of Somalis on this point alone would suggest that it is advice worth heeding.

Subject: UN EUE reports - for Hornet
Date: Tue, 11 Apr 95 14:05: 3 GMT