Ethiopia and Kenya help dismember Somalia

A new deal has recognised Jubaland, a strip of land in southern Somalia and bordering on Kenya and Ethiopia, as yet another quasi-independent entity in the region.

After nine days of late night meetings and plenty of arm-twisting, the fragile government of Somalia was finally forced to accept that a further slice of its territory had slipped beyond its control. The deal, signed in Addis Ababa, recognised Jubaland as yet another quasi-independent entity. This strip of land in southern Somalia and bordering on Kenya and Ethiopia, it is the illegitimate heir of both of these countries.

Jubaland is of critical importance to the whole of southern Somalia. Trade through the port and airport of Kismaayo is a lifeline for the region. In theory Jubaland will be the ‘Interim Juba Administration’ and last for just two years, while Somalia re-forms itself into a Federation. In reality it is now outside Mogadishu’s control – just like those other fragments of Somalia, including Puntland, Galmadug and the self-declared independent state of Somaliland.

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was only sworn in as Somali president a year ago, was unable to resist the intense pressure of his neighbours and agreed to the deal. The entire sorry saga was witnessed by Nicholas Kay, the UN’s Special Representative in Somalia; welcomed by Catherine Ashton for the European Union and supported by the African Union. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the South African chair of African Union described the agreement as “historic”, declaring that it was “a further illustration of the capacity of the Somalis to triumph over their differences.” 

It is hard to see what there was to welcome. 

The deal officially recognises Ahmed Mohamed Islam (known, like all Somalis by a nickname - ‘Madobe’) as the ‘leader’ of Jubaland. Yet only a month earlier Sheikh Madobe was described in a major UN report as a “spoiler” and one of the chief threats to Somali stability.

The Sheikh was said to be “subverting the efforts of the Federal Government leadership and its partners to extend the reach of Government authority and stabilise the country, particularly in Kismaayo.”

What the Baroness Ashton and her colleagues have done is anoint a man who has been roundly denounced by the Monitoring Group, established by the UN Security Council. Its July report pointed out that the Sheikh had been a member of the short-lived Union of Islamic Courts, which was ousted by Ethiopia during its 2006 invasion of Somalia. What happened next is interesting. As the report puts it: “Madobe’s forces returned to Kismayo in August 2008, when Al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam recaptured the city following the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Somalia.” At this time the Sheikh Madobe was a key player in the al-Qaeda linked network.  But, as is ever the case in Somalia, clan and inter-clan rivalry came into play and the Sheikh fell out with his former allies. He threw in his lot with the African peacekeepers and the Federal Government.  But Sheikh Madobe did not cut his ties with al-Sabaab altogether and the UN report accuses him of continuing the export of charcoal from territory controlled by the Islamists – a trade long since outlawed by the UN because of its catastrophic impact on the Somali environment.

Under the new arrangement the Sheikh retains the port and the airport, although he is required to hand control to the Federal Government within six months. Since this would cut his income and hence his power, there seems little chance of the handover ever taking place.

The outcome has been a triumph for Somalia’s neighbours, even though Kenya and Ethiopia will continue to vie for influence in this critical part of the country.

The Kenyan foreign ministry has long seen the establishment of a buffer state along its northern border as vital to its security interests. Thanks to Wikileaks, we know that Kenya’s Foreign Minister, Moses Wetangula, practically begged the United States for its support when he saw Johnnie Carsons, President Obama’s most senior US Africa official, in January 2010.  The Kenyans were requesting backing for an invasion of Somalia to create Jubaland, but the Americans were far from keen.

As the confidential embassy telex puts it: “Carson tactfully, but categorically refused the Kenyan delegation’s attempts to enlist US Government support for their effort.” It was, said the telex, the third time Wetangula had made the appeal, but Carsons resisted, pointing out – rightly – that “the initiative could backfire.” Critically, Carsons warned that: “if successful, a Lower Juba entity could emerge as a rival to the TFG” (Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government). This is exactly what has now come about.

Brushing these concerns aside, Kenya sent its troops into Somalia in October 2011. As predicted, they found it very heavy going and it was to take almost a year before al-Shabaab were driven from Kismaayo.

For the Ethiopians, the establishment of Jubaland is a further fragmentation of Somalia, its sworn enemy since the Somalis invaded their country in 1977. It was an attack that is imprinted on Ethiopian memories, fuelling a determination to see the end of a powerful, centralised Somali state.

As if the situation was not complicated enough, newly created Jubaland could be sitting on reserves of oil. Several fields have been detected in the waters along the Kenya-Somali border, but, like many African frontiers, the location of the border is a matter of dispute.  The Somali government refuses to recognise oil licenses granted to multinational companies by Kenya, and has persuaded several oil-majors, including Total and the Norwegian state owned Statoil, to withdraw their claims. But, said the UN in July, the Italian firm, ENI, was still pressing ahead with its claims.

As Jonnie Carsons remarked in 2010, Jubaland “raises more questions than it answers.”

Ahmed Mohamed Islam during a meeting in Kismaayo earlier this year. Photo: Getty

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.