Power of the people over power of the gun

Asha Hagi MP from Somalia writes about efforts of ordinary Somalians to bring peace to their strife

Somalia has been at war since 1991, and with 14 failed peace agreements in the last 17 years, it’s not surprising that Somalia has been called a failed state. But I won’t believe that’s the last word for my country.

I first became interested in politics when I was elected president of my students union. Soon after that I helped to found Save Somali Women and Children, which empowers women to work to improve their situation and become actively involved in politics. Our first campaign was to get women into Parliament. The plan for the Transitional Federal Government was based on representation by different clans, and of course the clans put up male MPs. To get round this, we argued that women constituted the sixth clan, and on this basis, we got one sixth of the seats allocated to women. We then had to work hard to get a functioning parliament – at one point the President and Prime Minister were operating out of different cities. We mobilised large meetings of women, of religious leaders, business men and others, to shame the parliamentarians into behaving more responsibly.

Working for peace in Somalia is risky. I remember sitting in a meeting once, where one of the warlords said, in my presence ‘Asha is the most powerful person in this room – because I have the power of the gun, but she has the power of the people.’ Afterwards a friend drew me aside and said ‘That sounded really nice, didn’t it Asha? But it wasn’t a compliment, it was a warning.’ Since then I have seen two of my closest friends in the peace movement assassinated. My children are really scared that the same thing will happen to me. I know the risks I am taking. But I will never give up the fight for peace.

In Ramadan, November 2006, Mogadishu was actually one of the most peaceful places in the world. The Islamic Courts had established order, re-opening the ports and even the airport. But the outside world was not prepared to leave us in peace. In December 2006, the Security Council effectively sanctioned the invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia, our longstanding rival. The violence was unbelievable! Atrocities were carried out against civilians, apart from the indiscriminate bombing of women and children in Mogadishu. Businesses were looted, and most of the population of Mogadishu fled.

At that point, my most urgent request to Peace Direct was to have the opportunity to tell the world what was happening. It seemed as though no one cared about this humanitarian catastrophe, which the UN rated as even worse than Darfur. They were able to introduce me to David Loyn, at the BBC, who interviewed me on Newsnight. This was one of the things that triggered the UN to go back into Somalia.

In June this year, the 15th peace agreement was made between groups representing about 80% of the population. I felt very strongly that it needed to be promoted, as quickly as possible, to people in Somalia, and that we Somalis needed to do this. We need to bring in as many factions as possible, and prevent those who would like to see it fail from dominating the media. Peace Direct were also keen to see the process of dissemination led by local people, not by outside agencies. We’re very grateful that DfID came up with the funds to allow this to happen, within a matter of weeks. Two weeks ago we convened a low profile meeting of the most influential intellectuals and politicians, to reach a common understanding of how the peace agreement will actually be implemented on the ground. I feel hopeful that this is a first step towards making the 15th peace agreement, the last one.

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