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Interview

“The people are tired of war”

by Heinrich Heinrich
Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed is the new President of Somalia, having been elected in exile in Djibouti at the end of January. He already governed Somalia once two years ago, as the head of the Union of Islamic Courts, but was then driven out by the invasion of Ethiopian forces. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi wants to support Sheikh Sharif. Wolfgang Heinrich of Germany’s Protestant Church Development Service sees that as evidence of both sides being able to learn. [ Interview with Wolfgang Heinrich, Church Development Service ]

The Ethiopian military action in Somalia cost the lives of around 10,000 people and drove approximately one million from their homeland. On top of that, a full-blown pirate industry became active on the coast. Now it is up to Sheikh Sharif to put things right. Did the war achieve anything?
No, now the situation is even more difficult than before. Sheikh Sharif is a pragmatic, moderate Muslim leader. While he continues to enjoy a high degree of respect among local communities, he no longer holds the authority he had in 2006. The fight against the occupying forces made the radicals in the Union of Islamic Courts stronger.

Can Sheikh Sharif regain his former power?
It is obvious that the people are extremely tired of war. Judging from reports I’ve heard from my contacts, the people have really had enough. It now remains to be seen whether or not the radical al-Shabab militias will take up military action against Sheikh Sharif, as they have announced. Many people supported these troops in the struggle against the Ethiopian military, but they are hardly likely to do so in the fight against Sheikh Sharif. The al-Shabab fighters are unlikely to succeed in the long run but they can certainly still cause a lot of trouble.

After having ousted him two years ago, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has now formed an alliance with Sheikh Sharif. What does that mean?
It shows that both parties have the ability to learn. Sheikh Sharif is interested in relaxed relations with his largest neighbour so his country can become settled. Meles, in turn, has pointed out to the media that he intervened in Somalia on the insistence of the White House to restrict the advance of Islamism, even though the border was quite safe from the Ethiopian point of view. He also said he was disappointed by President George Bush, who had promised an African Union peacekeeping force for Somalia, but that never came to pass. Meles feels he was taken for a ride and has also spoken of a “mistake”. However, his basic goal remains the same: he wants a Somali government that has the ability to act but depends on Ethiopia. He is driven by a number of motives: He sees his country as a regional power, he needs access to the coast, he wants to keep Eritrea in check, and the Somali minority in Ethiopia is causing tensions.

Did the inauguration of President Barack Obama in the USA play a role? After all, he congratulated Sheikh Sharif on his election.
We cannot predict in detail what the Obama administration will do. It seems clear to me, however, that the new leadership in Washington wants to continue to play a dominant role in the Horn of Africa, but also that this will not be achieved only or primarily by military means. Meles is probably also expecting the new US administration to be open towards him but not as uncritical as the old one. It is noteworthy that he concluded his retreat from Somalia while Bush was still in office. He prepared himself for change in Washington in another sense, too, by tightening legislation concerning non-governmental organisations in Ethiopia. Since then, NGOs that receive more than ten percent of their funds from abroad are regarded as “foreign” and may no longer express their opinion on issues of governance. This is now a fait accompli, and he is not under pressure to discuss it with the new administration in Washington.

So what should the USA do to limit Islamist radicalism in the region?
It would certainly be helpful if the USA and Europe had more differentiated policies. The former US president, in the eyes of the Muslims on the Horn of Africa, simply equated Islam with terrorism, and the radical forces took advantage of this perception wherever possible. If the USA stopped seeing the world in such simple black and white terms, the radicals would be weakened. In that case, the fact that Obama has African relatives and a Muslim name would probably prove useful.

Human Rights Watch accuses Ethiopian troops and other conflict parties in Somalia of serious crimes. Would this be a case for the International Criminal Court in The Hague?
Human Rights Watch was very critical of the Ethiopian invasion in Somalia from the outset – for good reasons, I’d say. It clearly set itself apart from some other international think tanks. Representatives of the organisation say they have enough evidence for an ICC trial against the Ethiopian government or its military leadership. However, Sheikh Sharif is acting with extreme caution on this matter. As mentioned earlier, he wants relaxed relations with Ethiopia.

Surely any legal review of the war before the ICC would also have to bring Somali perpetrators to account. If Sheikh Sharif wants peace, it is perhaps smarter to first let all these traumas rest, even if that does not satisfy our ideas of judicial justice.
We must be patient. We really should leave the investigation of the terrible military history to the Somalis rather than creating new pressure from the outside with western notions of justice.

Interviewed by Hans Dembowski