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Rehabilitation of a failed state


We are a refugee people, Flickr image by Grace BluePerhaps it was an omen. The first voter in the Ifo camp block leader elections strode to the polling station in an oversized Obama t-shirt, thrust his ration card forward, daubed his thumb in indelible ink, and deposited his token in a jerry can emblazoned with the candidate's photograph.

He was followed by a snaking line of similarly excited voters, all anxious to find their names on the polling manifest. For thousands of Somalis, most of them engaging with the democratic vote for the first time, it was an auspicious occasion. It was made poignant by the fact that they voted on the border of their troubled homeland.

Elections, and the act of voting, are a powerful affirmation of one's ability to stand and be counted. For refugees especially, it is all the more significant. In one morning the block leader elections held in Dadaab in the far east of Kenya, a sparse desert township harbouring the largest refugee settlement in the world, grasped what since 1991 has eluded transitional leaderships, clan warlords and foreign interlocutors in Somalia.

Across the porous border in Somalia, where more than 60,000 Somalis took flight to Kenya last year alone, legitimacy remains an elusive prize. Since the fall in 1991 of the military tyrant Siad 'Big Mouth' Barre, the country has tumbled in violent freefall, its history pockmarked by unrelenting violence and poverty. Many thousands have died in the conflict since and millions more are displaced and dependent on aid.

The leadership vacuum inside Somalia has led to many conflicts between rival clans and to the intermittent rise and fall of warlords who have both caused alarm and been courted at home and abroad.

Mohamed Farah Aidid, chief protagonist in the infamous 'black hawk down' episode is a case in point. Once demonised as the architect of the slaughter of American troops, he was later courted as a key agent in peace talks which have continued, failingly, into the new century.

In 2000 a transitional government was appointed. After laborious deliberations a new President was installed in 2004. It marked the 14th attempt to set up a functioning government since the fall of 'Big Mouth'.

The Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), a hardline Islamist group, seized power from a deeply factionalised Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in 2006. The impact was immediate. Law and order in the capital were restored and the economy rejuvenated.

Despite the UIC's regressive social ideology, the country enjoyed peace, temporarily. In a bid to reinstate the TFG and quell potential insurgency on its border, Ethiopia, backed by the USA, invaded and occupied Mogadishu. This triggered a further exodus of civilians and another round of political maneuvering by the opposing parties.

In January this year, after the rapid loss of territory to the militant Al Shabaab insurgent group and simmering anti-Ethiopian sentiment, the Ethiopian forces withdrew fully from the country. Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a well respected and moderate Islamist leader, was then given power.

Although many, including policy makers in the West, welcomed this move, it was rejected by hardliners, including Al Shabaab. They continue to attack this newest incarnation of the TFG. With only a meagre African peacekeeping force in place to support the interim government, security remains fragile.

The total lack of political and ideological cohesion inside Somalia has prevented its leaders from building the institutions and freedoms Somalis need.

The imposition of a moderate form of Sharia law in April has not bridged these rifts. Having extended its control over most of southern Somalia, Al Shabaab has sought to impose the extreme 'Wahhabist' line of Islamic rule. As the Taliban demonstrated, whatever peace is achieved through this repressive doctrine is tainted by subjugation and fear.

Sheikh Sharif, a former rebel himself, must bring harmony to a government divided by contending platforms and agendas. He must also restore the public's belief in the rule of law and constitutional rights that have been routinely deferred through an age of military rule.

Above all else, he must help create the conditions for his people to return from their havens of 'safety'. This will be difficult. People must be convinced they will be secure and supported and that the government is legitimate.  

For five days in Dadaab's three burgeoning camps, thousands of Somalis marched to voting stations, just as Australians converge at primary schools and municipal halls on election morning. They did so without fear under the watchful eye of observers and for the most part complied with the poll rules. Men and women, young and old, the refugees voted with pink voting tokens and purple tinged fingers.

Winning candidates, the majority female, were roundly cheered. They returned to their blocks brimming with pride. They were officially installed as block leaders, so linking their 'block' community in the camp to the functioning humanitarian framework of the United Nations and non-government agencies.

They stand proudly between the camp authorities and the general population, a civic space yet to evolve in Somalia's fledgling new leadership.

The camp elections were a success because the Somali voters were determined to be recognised as advocates for their people and their country. Though their desire remains unfulfilled in their homeland, even this small brick in building Somalia's future democracy is welcome.

Ben FraserBen Fraser is an aid worker who has worked and written from Pakistan, Indonesia Afghanistan and Sudan. He writes from eastern Kenya where he has daily dealings with the Somali refugee population.

Topic tags: somalia, kenya, Dadaab, refugee settlement, Ifo camp, Siad 'Big Mouth' Barre, Siad 'Big Mouth' Barre



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Existing comments

Thanks, Ben Fraser. What a lot of information we never get through our usual channels! Indirectly throws a lot of light (or a lot more confusion?) on the piracy that can seem so simple an issue.

Joe Castley | 21 May 2009  

These poor people deserve to have a decent and peaceful life something which we take for granted in the West. Good luck to the people of Somalia in their quest to establish a viable democratic state.

Terry Stavridis | 22 May 2009  

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