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: Pablo via Creative Commons
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Is Lithuania still homophobic? My girlfriend and I held hands to find out

The Lonely Planet guide warned that for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

It’s midnight somewhere on the greyish outskirts of Vilnius, and my girlfriend has just burst out laughing. Our Uber driver starts laughing too. Nonplussed, I scan the oppressively functional Soviet-era architecture we’re driving past for literally anything funny.

Then I see them. A series of panels above the stairway to a basement bar; photos of topless blonde men with glistening six packs. This is – as is usually the case – either a tribute to the most homoerotic scenes in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, or something deliberately gay. And 99 out of 100 it’s the latter, this being no exception.

Soho Club is the most out-of-context gay venue I’ve ever seen. It sits on a poorly lit street on the edge of Lithuania’s capital, almost as if it’s been plucked out of the city centre and dumped there.

Given the staunchly Catholic and formerly communist Baltic state’s uneasy relationship with its LGBTQ community, this wouldn’t be particularly surprising.

According to the Lonely Planet guide to the Baltic States for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

Homosexuality was only decriminalised here in 1993. And, any legislative victories aside, a 2009 poll found that attitudes amongst the population were much the same as the pre-1993 days. Eight in ten respondents considered homosexuality to be anywhere between a perversion and a disease. 

Such a gay-hostile place probably seems like an odd choice for a romantic getaway with my girlfriend, on my birthday weekend. Then again an itinerary like ours, which includes a visit to the both the Museum of the Victims of Genocide, and the Holocaust exhibition at the Jewish museum, is hardly "gondola ride in Venice" or "Eiffel Tower at sunset". This is a stark, ex-Soviet, mostly-raining introduction to being gay outside of the liberal London bubble. Which is to say: dreamy.

Having said that, Vilnius’s cobbled old town is beautiful and, compared to other more mainstream Eastern European capitals, decidedly less stag night-y. Same-sex couples, it turns out, can be drawn to a city for features other than its queer nightlife. 

On the short walk from Vilnius’s central train station to our Airbnb, we passed a mural of Donald Trump smoking a spliff and giving Vladimir Putin blowback. A definite tribute to the gay kiss between the USSR's Brezhnev and East Germany's Honecker depicted on the Berlin Wall.

It was hard to tell what this said about the area’s attitude towards queers, but it was on the side of a bar that’s blasting out Black Lips and full of Lithuanian hipsters in their twenties. Say what you like about hipsters, they are not known for gay-hate. It was difficult to imagine anyone in there giving much of a shit about our sexuality.

At the Airbnb, we were greeted by one such Lithuanian hipster. She was about 20 and seemed a little nervous speaking to us, even though her English was near fluent.

The flat – an immaculate new build – was decked out in Ikea classics. Like the bar with the homoerotic Trump/Putin mural, anywhere with a Malm just seems to radiate gay-friendliness. It’s both sterile and PC. Like the Lib Dems, or a free sachet of lube.

Our host gave us a brief lesson in how to work the flat, before saying a polite goodbye. We’d just started unpacking when there was a knock on the door. It turned out the host had done a 180.

"One last thing," she said, "Do you need an extra duvet, or are you… sharing the bed?"

OH GOD, I thought. This is it. This is the kind of shit you read about. You never do read about anything good.

"Yeah, we’re sharing," I said, feeling both – I hate to say – embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship, and embarrassed about being embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship.

"OK, cool. No questions!" said the host, before disappearing into the afternoon at the speed of sound.

"No questions," I repeated, "Hmm."

Just to be clear, no, this wasn’t exactly a hate crime. I’m also reluctant to judge a 20-year-old from a very religious country for – well – judging us. And anyway, maybe "no questions" meant "no judgment". Who am I to… judge?

We’d been in Lithuania for about an hour before my girlfriend and I decided to really test the water and hold hands in the street. Mostly, we were starting to wonder if we were being xenophobic by assuming Lithuanians were probably homophobic.

This, I suppose, is the point at which bigotry really starts to eat itself. Unfortunately though, almost the moment we held hands, a group of...shaven headed individuals, who wouldn’t look out of place in a modern day pogrom, walked past, staring us down as if we’d stopped there for a spot of mid-street fisting.

I made brief eye contact with one of them as I let go of my girlfriend’s hand as fast as a bottle of water at airport security.

"Oh," I said to her, when – as far as we knew – Vilnius’s only out homophobes were at a safe distance. "Yeah…" she said.

There are parts of the world – Uganda, Russia and, most recently, Chechnya –  where both socially and legislatively speaking, things are actually getting worse for queer people. But, the overarching narrative is "it gets better". Visiting anywhere with less good attitudes towards The Gays than I’m used to feels like a step back in time.

I wonder, in terms of acceptance of, say, two women holding hands, which decade in London is reflected in 2017 Vilnius. The 80s? The 70s? I’ve only been gay in London since 1989. And back then – as far as I know – I wasn’t a particularly dykey baby. 

So began a weekend-long game of political PDA. We walked through the cobbled streets of the old town, admiring baroque churches and wondering if we were allowed to be a couple near them.

Without a strict set of rules, every stranger’s glance is open to interpretation. My interpretation being, "Let’s just not make a scene, OK?", my girlfriend’s interpretation being, "Stop being paranoid and xenophobic. No one cares."

In the evening, as we sat in a busy restaurant eating zeppelins (remarkably dense Lithuanian potato dumplings, not airships) we spotted – lo and behold – what we (homophobically?) thought might be another gay couple.

Two men in their twenties stood waiting for a table. They had professionally shaped eyebrows. One of them had earrings. In Nineties terms, they were gay as fuck. At a dumpling joint in Vilnius, at ten at night, who the hell knows? And, more to the point, why the hell should they care? Well, when your relationship has been reduced – via queer invisibility – to a handholding battle, you’re kind of desperate to find another same-sex couple.

"Are they…" I said.

"They must be," she said.

"Should we…?"

"NO."

I’m not even too sure what I was asking we "should" do (speak to them? Buy them drinks? Demand a gay tour of Vilnius?), or why I was shut down without finishing my sentence. Whatever we should or shouldn’t have done, we didn’t.

But back to Soho Club. The car stops and we leave behind our bewildered and slightly too amused Uber driver. Tentatively, as if approaching an ancient Egyptian tomb by lamplight, we walk down the stairs past the muscle man panels.

The complete silence – not even interrupted by passing traffic – doesn’t exactly say "buzzing" or… "Soho". Inevitably, almost, the bar is closed. In fact, it’s arguably the most closed bar I’ve ever seen. We’ve turned up, ready to party with Lithuania’s finest gays, at a giant lead box. What’s more, we look around us and realise we’ve strayed into Murder Town.

On our way to the nearest bus stop, we pass a life-size fiberglass cow devoid of any explanation, and a lit-up poster that looks startlingly like an ad for dead babies. The streets get wider and desolate-er until we’re at a petrol station, holding hands out of pure fear. On my part at least. If this is Vilnius’s gay scene, I’d like to give it some kudos at least for quite strongly resembling a David Lynch film.

Having somehow not been sawn into pieces and turned into outsider art, we find ourselves back at Vilnius airport the next day. While idly internetting on her phone, my girlfriend notices our Airbnb host has reviewed us as guests.

"Leonore and her friend are very friendly people!" she wrote.

In all fairness, I have shared beds in Airbnbs with friends. And whether or not someone is tiptoeing around my sexuality like a puddle of something that may or may not be wee, it’s always nice to be considered friendly. And to have "friends".

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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