Baghdad on the Sea – By Anna Husarska, Wall Street Journal

August 5th, 2007 Print Print Email Email

GAROWE, Somalia — “Even if a nuclear bomb were to explode in Mogadishu the conference will happen as scheduled.”With this peculiarly upbeat image the Somali president Abdullahi Yusuf shared his optimism about the national reconciliation meeting that was twice postponed and, when it began in mid-July in Mogadishu, was adjourned again. (more…)

GAROWE, Somalia — “Even if a nuclear bomb were to explode in Mogadishu the conference will happen as scheduled.”With this peculiarly upbeat image the Somali president Abdullahi Yusuf shared his optimism about the national reconciliation meeting that was twice postponed and, when it began in mid-July in Mogadishu, was adjourned again. Supposedly because the delegates arrived late. Of course, there was also the inconvenient fact that the venue of the conference was under mortar fire from the Islamic insurgents, who said of the delegates, “They are criminals who have sold our country to Ethiopia. We will only talk [about reconciliation] once our country is free.”

The Transitional Federal Government running Somalia, first formed in 2004 in Kenya, was installed in December, 2006 with the help of Ethiopian forces, which have struggled to control the violence since. The national conference was meant to bring together delegates from the country’s many political factions. It was put on hold twice as delegates struggled to reach the city, but is now ongoing.

We hear about a lot of violence in the Somali capital, but because few journalists remain in town (and press agencies have only local staff), the shelling, gun battles and attacks are probably under-reported. Aid workers in international humanitarian organizations are strictly forbidden to go to Mogadishu by their security officers. Sporadic day-trip visits may happen, but no foreign staff from the U.N. or nongovernmental organizations stay overnight.

So getting a flight to Mogadishu is not easy. Puntland, the semi-autonomous state in the very horn of Somalia was supposed to contribute 162 of some 1,300 delegates, but only a fourth of them were able to fly from Garowe, the regional capital, in time for the opening ceremony. Even the pilots hired to shuttle international diplomats to Somalia for a day to observe the country’s reconciliation refused to fly. In this regard, the Somali capital is even more dangerous than Baghdad.

The comparison of the two places can be extended to two provinces. Puntland is roughly Somalia’s Kurdistan. The state, which is uniformly inhabited by Somalis from just one clan (Darod), is stable and peaceful. There are no roadside explosive devices or suicide bombs of the type that gave Mogadishu the nickname “Baghdad-on-the-sea.” On a stretch of 50 kilometers between the southern cities of Kismayo and Jilib, there are 35 checkpoints manned by men who take $50 to $200 from passing travelers. But when I drove 400 kilometers through Puntland, I encountered no rogue checkpoints and only four regular ones.

Though expatriates who work for the U.N. or nongovernmental organizations are required, by local authorities and by our own rules, to have an armed escort as we move around, it is not insecurity that is the main problem in Puntland. “Technicals,” the euphemism for pickups with heavy machine guns mounted on the backs, are used to move the mild local narcotic called khat, rather than fighters. As Garowe demonstrations in late July showed, the problems in Puntland are fake currency and inflation, not clans or ideology. Compared to the mayhem of central and south Somalia, Puntland is an oasis of tranquility.

But it is not an oasis in every sense. Puntland suffers from a permanent lack of water, and this year nature has been particularly harsh. Abundant rains upstream in Ethiopia sparked massive flooding in the regions along the lower Juba and Shabelle rivers. Meanwhile the rainy season, called Gu, hasn’t been abundant enough, leaving great swaths of Northern Somalia — and Puntland especially — with dry wells. Throughout the region, people wander from one dry tap to another with empty yellow and blue jerry cans in hand, thirsty goats and camels trailing behind.

This would be “only” a natural disaster if Puntland weren’t the preferred destination of people fleeing violence in Mogadishu. Over the last two months, 21,000 have arrived, including 10,000 since the opening of the national reconciliation conference. Viewed from Garowe, the conference in Mogadishu is but a prelude, a necessary first step to bring clans to a negotiating table and piece the country together so that Somalis start working on the real issues affecting their lives. Like water.

There are reasons to be skeptical of the outcome of this conference because this is not the first time such an effort has been undertaken. Before the current government came to power, 13 similar reconciliation meetings were held over a decade, yet violence continues today. The Union of Islamic Courts may be partly right when it says: “[The conference] is a [Transitional Federal] government’s project only aimed at getting donor funds.”

That’s just it, however; donor funds are desperately needed for Somalia. When European Union special envoy for Somalia, George Marc-Andre visited Puntland late last month, he talked about the reconciliation conference in Mogadishu. But the Puntland authorities had another request: “Help us to be able to structure water wells for the poor people in the rural areas in the province,” they asked, according to the local Somali press agency. And soon there were some good news: the European Commission decided July 27 to allocate 10 million euros for victims of continuing insecurity and climatic hazards in Somalia. Meanwhile, the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, appealed for $48 million to help displaced Somalis. This emergency assistance — if and when it comes — will not solve the politics behind this “failed state” but at least Somalis may be told that for their other needs some help is on the way.

Ms. Husarska is senior policy adviser at the International Rescue Committee.

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