John Paul Lederach directs the International Conciliation Service of the Mennonite Central Committee, and has been working closely in the past five years with Somalis in North America, Europe and Somalia, in particular with a Somali forum, Ergada. He also teaches at Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Joe Stork spoke with him in early February 1993.

People working in the Horn have expressed the view that the situation had deteriorated to the point where an internally generated reconciliation had become impossible. Some sort of external intervention was necessary.

That view also prevailed among many Somalis, particularly with regard to the south-central part of the country. The sense was that the country was being held hostage.

Do you have problems with the US decision to send troops?

I remain unconvinced that this was the best approach. Among other things, this intervention, both militarily and in terms of humanitarian aid, has had a centralizing dynamic. Centralization in governance has been a root cause of Somalia’s breakdown. The government under Siad Barre manipulated regions and clans against one another. The rebellion that developed in Somali society was a revolt against this centralization. But the lack of unity in the rebellions has fallen back on them in the most destructive ways imaginable.

The way the food aid has been implemented complicates the problem. By focusing most everything on the Mogadishu-Baidao/Bardera-Kismayu central-southern region, you aggravate the internal displacement and simultaneously create many environments of vulnerability by drawing people to certain central locales. In addition, concentrating on the Mogadishu-Bardera-Kismayu triangle goes along with seeing the situation as amenable to short-term solutions. The focus and capacities of international agencies are geared to emergency relief. There is much less acknowledgment of and ability to look for long-term solutions.

Some NGOs clearly favored the troop intervention.

The NGO community met in mid-November 1992, and wrote a joint letter to the Bush administration requesting increased military intervention — though they had no idea the result would be 30,000 US troops. At the time, only the Mennonite Central Committee, the American Friends Service Committee and a few others dissented. But the views of the people from many of those same agencies who were in Somalia were a lot more ambivalent. From what I heard during my trip to the region in January, there was a great deal of anxiety between when the decision was announced and when the troops arrived. When the troops arrived, there was a more optimistic sense that this would work out for the best. Now it seems that the pendulum has swung back. I think that’s because the intervention has had the paradoxical effect of making the ports, airports and corridors to the feeding centers more secure. But outside of those corridors, security has decreased.

What sort of external intervention would have been appropriate?

I think [UN special representative] Muhammad Sahnoun’s approach, of developing an external presence in certain areas on the basis of thorough negotiations with all the parties, was the way to go. What is needed is a much more decentralized approach to aid delivery, along with some innovative incentive programs. Where we can’t negotiate clear delivery it is not wise for us to try to deliver. What’s important is to work with all regions, and insist that food delivery depends on a clear, negotiated mechanism. In reality, large parts of the country have been left out.

If you don’t get a negotiated agreement, you don’t deliver? Doesn’t that give a veto to the gunmen?

On the contrary. It says we will not be hostage to their manipulations. The way it worked out, no deliveries could happen without working out security in Mogadishu. Everything was hostage to those negotiations. We were saying go to places that are able to negotiate the needed arrangements. Work for alternative access points. When we originally suggested those options, people said they were too costly. Compared to the cost of the military intervention now, do those suggestions seem so impractical or costly?

Was Sahnoun’s approach consistent with what you wanted to see?

Yes, although with the push from the international community he was operating on a much shorter time frame than I thought was needed. But his basic notion was: Get in there and understand the country. He got around, dealt with a broad spectrum of Somalis directly, working to win the respect of the military leaders but not concentrating on them exclusively. He met with elders, with women’s associations, with tradesmen and professionals and intellectuals. The gist of his plan was more of a bottom-up approach, regional conferencing leading to a major national conference. Even with his relatively short time frame, he was not given even that much space to see if it could happen.

You mention women’s associations, professionals. Our image of Somali society is warlords and starving women and children, period.

Somali society is made up of numerous actors very important to the process of achieving peace. These include elders and traditional leaders — they vary from region to region. Women’s associations and women in general do not have the primary political voice. Nevertheless they are crucially placed. A lot of Somali marriages are across clan lines. Many women have brothers and fathers in conflict with husbands and sons. Women have been instrumental in pushing reconciliations. They are deeply involved. They need to be, for survival. Women also have an instrumental role in the economy. They are at the core of many village and town markets.

Traders and businessmen are extremely adept at making good deals — whether it’s for drugs, food or weapons. They find ways in and out of the country. There are probably more flights bringing qat into the country than there are bringing food. How do we use that knowledge to move things that are needed? I don’t think there’s been a serious effort to get such people to take responsibility for delivering food, for instance — but at the price of giving up moving qat.

What are the ties between the traders and the militia leaders?

People responsible for getting weapons, petrol and food for the militias depend on the traders. By saying we should deal with constituencies outside of the military elements, we’re not talking about a society of saints. The question is how do you engage these people in a broader process of systemic transformation.

Does “elder” refer to anyone above a certain age?

It varies from group to group and across the region. Culturally there is enormous respect for “men of gray hair.” They are recognized for their capacity to speak clearly, to listen and to seek consensus. In some areas individuals may be prominent not because of age but because of their family. In others it’s by selection of the assembly of extended families in a given locale.

Some newcomers to Somalia make the mistake of going into an area and thinking anybody’s uncle is an elder. Then they complain when these “elders” “don’t deliver.” The key is that they fail to ask for the assembly of elders, the guurti.

Some people argue that the bottom-up approach you advocate may be working in a few localities but that it cannot be generalized to the whole country.

I would argue that this is already happening in the north, in Somaliland. There the elders have been more active, and have been able to demonstrate a stronger influence than in other parts of the country. Some top people in the Somaliland assembly of elders told us about concrete examples where they would go in with white flags and actually stop the fighting. This would be unheard of in parts of the south.

The people who were in the early October meeting Sahnoun convened in the Seychelles — a combination of professionals, indigenous NGOs and intellectuals — outlined a bottom-up approach that would have run four to six months, leading finally to a major meeting like that which occurred in Addis Ababa in January.

You have been skeptical of the way the January meeting in Addis was rushed into place. Did it serve any purpose in the end?

The Addis meeting did bring people from parts of the country that are seldom represented in this process. The fundamental challenge is how to create a broad-based approach to peace in a situation that is severely divided, has no state infrastructure and has no process of seeking due representation. Somalia does not need a trickle-down approach to peace, where only a few people claiming military status are able to control the outcome.

What’s happened with the Seychelles plan?

I’m hopeful that parts of it may be recycled. It will take commitment at a high level and with international support. There would have to be several principles in operation: First, the principle of comprehensiveness — it will happen throughout the country. Second, simultaneity. Third, flexibility and adaptability — things would start in each area at the same time, but they may go at a different pace given the particularities of a given area. Fourth, there should be a coordinating committee established to keep all of the regions informed. It would be possible to start with district level, then region-level conferences, finally moving up to something more like a national process. This probably would be “north-south.” What’s happening now in Borama represents a northern region elders conference of the nature I’ve been talking about.

In the south and probably central regions, a similar kind of process would have to take place. At some very future date, one may be able to tackle the question of the relationship between the north and the rest of the country, but not too early.

How could food relief operations contribute to such a process?

First, it’s important to avoid the trap of having food and relief logistics primarily in the hands of Somali leaders who control guns. You can’t ignore them, but you have to find ways to empower and re-empower the broader Somali constituencies — elders, women, community leaders, traders. To some degree that is happening.

The second priority is disarmament. At one extreme there are those who argue that the US should simply clean up the guns. It’s not clear the US could actually do that, and as an approach it holds a number of pitfalls. You disarm one group, unwittingly make them totally vulnerable to another, and while you’re looking around for your next target they get wiped out. Not understanding sub-sub-clan relations can create some real debacles if the process of disarmament is not in some sense simultaneous. Another problem is that you risk increased direct fighting with Somalis. A third complication is that as soon as the Somalis see something like this coming, the guns disappear. You only create a small bubble of tranquility that pops as soon as the superpower leaves. People can head very quickly for the Ethiopian border, for Kenya.

Another idea was to use food or cash to buy weapons. But the food or money will as often as not get turned around to purchase a better weapon. The question is linked to arms availability and arms control in the region. It goes beyond the kids in the street. It goes beyond Somalia. How did so many weapons become available? Who’s benefiting from keeping them available? The cash-for-weapons approach would be remotely feasible only if it were part of a systemic approach to arms control. Nobody really wants to touch that. There are too many important people making too much money.

I’m not going to say that this third approach, my idea, is any better. It has many problems. But people in Somalia are carrying weapons for a variety of reasons. One group is doing it for political purposes. These include the early militias that emerged to fight Siad Barre. They see weapons as a legitimate means of defending their broader interests as a political movement, and would see these weapons eventually being used for legitimate police and army duties.

A second set of arms bearers, a huge number, are people who’ve simply picked up guns for their own protection. People who have to travel from one place to another hire protection. This category of arms is strictly related to the present situation.

The third set is people for whom weapons represent a job. You protect someone else for pay — the UN, the NGOs, the trader who has to travel to another town. This group includes those who use weapons to get things — stealing and dealing. This is the group creating the most chaos. For this group, cash or food will not work. You have to look at jobs, development projects, a broader process of social and economic transformation. Something that is equally or more attractive than what is available now.

You’ve referred to “peace constituencies” — elders, women, intellectuals. The warlords themselves are clan-based. Are any of the “constituencies” outside of the clan structure?

Very few. The way out is to recognize this reality, in order that something constructive can come out of it. As long as you operate on the basis that it doesn’t matter, it works against you. You don’t go to the elders with the notion of identifying a person, a “key elder.” If you approach the elder system under Western assumptions of representative democracy, you’re likely to fail. You have to operate on the Somali notion of participatory democracy. In terms of inter-clan reconciliation, the elder process operates as an assembly. Things are worked out in groups. People have time to voice their grievances and then come to consensus. Then you’re operating in a way that both takes account of the clan issue and also begins to commit it. The elders — for instance, the group meeting in the north — say that they are not the people who will comprise the political projects or the socioeconomic packages or the national agenda. We are simply the people responsible for the inter-clan reconciliation: That is our task. In the places where this has taken place, it’s gone in several different directions. One is where they’ve talked things out and then more responsibility has gone back to each clan and sub-clan to be responsible for things that happen in their own area. The reason for doing this is decidedly not to reinstitute the tribal assembly as a form of governance, but to recycle a component that was a resource for handling inter-clan disputes and conflicts, as an important aspect of reconciliation in the current situation, in order to create the space, or perhaps the needle and thread that bind things together and permit a political solution.

How do you assess the dimension of political Islam? Are they an ascendant force?

They are ascending in part because there’s a vacuum, and because they can make a compelling case that the West has failed Somalia. They have moral clout. But I don’t see shari‘a law and strict Islamic practice as something that Somalis are interested in.

There are some areas where they are clearly a force to reckon with. In the northeast, in Loscoray, they reportedly have close to 2,000 men under arms. They were driven back from Bosaso a few months ago, and some suspect they are gearing up for a new offensive there. There are training centers in the north and people talk of connections to Sudan in particular. In the south, in Merka, there are places opposed to the US intervention on Islamic grounds. But it seems to be a phenomenon of the northeast in particular. Where it does emerge, it appears to draw in successfully the younger generation. In early January, in Hargeisa, there was a traumatic event, unprecedented in Somaliland’s history, where five women were stoned to death for being prostitutes. We arrived there the next day. Probably the most awful thing was to hear that much of the stoning was done by kids between 9 and 18 years old.

How do you see the interests of other regional states — Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya — playing themselves out here? Was this an element in the conflict between Boutros Ghali and Sahnoun?

A number of long-time Somalia watchers seem to think this is a key element, that Egypt seeks to maintain a unified Somalia, and control the separatist forces in Somaliland, in order to have a weaker Ethiopia. Many Somalis believe that Egypt and Italy are two key outside states with a stake in how things develop politically in Somalia.

What are your best-case and worst-case scenarios at this point?

Best case would be a reformulation of the current approach, in consultation with the people who were in Addis, building on the kinds of conferences going on right now in Borama and other places, giving the process some time to develop. Out of that would come the ability to hold a conference within the year that actually can create and sustain a transition.

I see two worst-case possibilities. One is that the international community gets behind one or another person as a strongman, the assumption being that it’s better to have something in place than nothing. A second “worst” is that the US, and others, would tire of the food security role and pull out, leaving a vacuum that returns the central region to conditions of chaos. As a pacifist I’m acutely aware of the contradiction of having to oppose an precipitous US troop withdrawal!

One thing militating against your first “worst” case is the difficulty of identifying a “strongman.” By looking like a strongman seven or eight months ago, Aidid stimulated the coalitions against himself.

Somali militia relations are quite ephemeral. A weakness of these high-level, high-profile meetings in the Somali context is that there is not the infrastructure in place to allow the succession of meetings and discussions in which consensus can emerge the Somali way.

Do you see any signs that something like your best case might be happening?

I think what is happening now in the north will have a good impact. I’ve heard of other places where it’s happening as well, including the inter-riverine area, among the Rahanwein, who’ve been among the hardest hit by the strife.

I think it’s important to continue to pursue an alternative scenario that gives time for a peace process based on broader participation — recognizing it as legitimate and giving it some backing, finances that make pieces of it possible. And also supporting calls for an international negotiator of high stature. There are hints that even Sahnoun might be pulled back into such an effort.

How to cite this article:

Joe Stork "The Intervention in Somalia: What Should Have Happened," Middle East Report 181 (March/April 1993).

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