The Guardian — I have known Abass Siraji since childhood. We grew up together in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, in north-east Kenya. We went to the same school. He was more than just a friend, he was a brother with whom I shared dreams and goals in life.
After finishing university, Abass became an active member of the community, joining voluntary youth groups that helped advocate for the rights of refugees in Dadaab. He was a humble young man who always smiled.
Life in the camp was like a prison. We could not go anywhere – the Kenyan government does not allow refugees to move out of the camps – and we had no access to employment rights. In 2011, Abass decided to return to Somalia, where he could work, move freely and earn a decent living despite the insecurity.
At the time, Somalia was a no-go zone. Al-Shabaab militants controlled most parts of the country, including the capital, Mogadishu. But Abass defied everyone and accepted a job offer from the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation. He never looked back, working with the World Food Programme and other international humanitarian organisations and travelling throughout Somalia.
Already a hero to the refugees of Dadaab, Abass became a national symbol when he was elected as a member of the federal parliament last November. Somali leaders are predominantly elected through traditional clan elders, leaving young people little chance of entering politics. But Abass won the parliamentary seat, defeating a long-serving MP, and became the youngest minister in Somalia’s history in March, when he was appointed head of the public works and reconstruction department.
I called him when he was elected to congratulate him, but also to warn him of the potential risks. “Bro, you cannot change anything when you are not in the system, we have to be part of the government to achieve our goals but, inshallah, I will try my best and hopefully we will make it,” he told me.
On Wednesday night his life and dreams were cut short. Bodyguards of Somalia’s auditor general opened fire on his car near the presidential palace, killing him and wounding some of his security guards. He was only 31. His death was received with shock and horror across Somalia and across the diaspora.
I could not believe my ears when I first heard the news. I am still shaking now, as I write about the tragic death of my friend. He was a beacon of hope for us. The whole country is mourning today, but especially the young people who make up 75% of Somalia’s population. The killing of Abass was an attack on their hopes and visions.
We talked regularly on Facebook and he would encourage me to come to Somalia. When on leave, Abass used to come to the camps and tell us about opportunities in Somalia, how we could join him to be part of the recovery and reconstruction of our country.
In 2013, following his advice and encouragement, I decided to return to Somalia for the first time in almost 15 years. It was impossible to convince my family, but Abass was the best example I could give. Everyone knew him and could relate to his story. When I first arrived in Mogadishu, I was too scared to move out of my hotel room until Abass came and took me around the city.
“Really, you can easily drive within the city?” I asked him as he navigated through the narrow roads of the capital. “Yes, I told you, this is the reality on the ground, Mogadishu looks horrible from outside but life is normal when you come.”
He mastered the tactics of the city by driving slowly, giving way to the speeding military vehicles that often escort politicians. They would shoot civilians who didn’t clear the way. The same trigger-happy thugs in government uniforms shot him dead. Whether it is a reckless killing by the indisciplined security forces, or a targeted assassination portrayed as an accident, the death of Abass has broken our hearts. It will take time to raise the hopes of the millions of young people who looked up to him as a role model.
The president, who is in Ethiopia on an official visit, said he will cut short his trip and promised to hold those responsible to account. A state funeral is being organised, but this is not the first time a politician or an admired leader has been killed in Somalia. Often, the perpetrators are not brought to justice; I am afraid my friend, like many before him, may not get justice.
This time, though, it is different. The hopes and aspirations of millions of young Somalis have been damaged. We need reassurance, healing and tangible action that can reignite our hopes.
Two weeks ago, Abass agreed to speak at TEDxMogadishu and share his story with the world.
In his last speech, Abass emphasised the importance of young people in rebuilding Somalia: “It was only 13 young men who came together and initiated the liberation of our country during the independence. Today we have more power as youth. We have better knowledge, better technology and more opportunities than they did, so we have to use them to change this country.”
Before he finished the talk, Abass posed a very emotional question: “Everyone should ask themselves, what can you do for your country?”
My heart is broken and my hope for Somalia has dropped to the lowest point. But in trying to answer this question, I feel the obligation to rise up and fulfil the dreams of my dear friend, a childhood dream that we shared. Allaha kuu Naxariisto saaxibkay qaali: rest in peace, my dear friend.
Civil strife in Ethiopia has the potential to destabilise the whole region
Ethiopia is experiencing ethnic and political tensions that could have far-reaching implications for its neighbors in the Horn of Africa, and beyond.
The Horn of Africa is among the most congested, eventful, and most volatile geopolitical intersections on earth. It is where the West meets the East in a highly competitive game of strategic positioning for economic or hegemonic advantage.
China and Turkey who, more or less, employ similar soft-power strategies have tangible investments in various countries in the region, including Ethiopia. However, the widespread discontent with Ethiopia’s repressive impulses and its ethnic favoritism that led to a particular ethnic minority (Tigray) to exclusively operate the state apparatus has inspired Arab Spring-like mass protests. These protests have caused serious rancor within the ruling party. It is only a matter of time before this haemorrhaging government might collapse.
So, who is likely to gain or lose from this imminent shockwave in the region’s balance of power?
The Nile Tsunami
Ethiopia — a country previously considered as a stable regional hegemon, a robust emerging market, and a reliable counter-terrorism partner — is on the verge of meltdown, if not long-term civil strife.
Today, the Ethiopian government is caught between two serious challenges of domestic and foreign nature: the Oromo/Amhara mass protests tacitly supported by the West, and the water rights conflict with Egypt, Sudan and Somalia.
Ethiopia is claiming the lion’s share on the Nile that runs through it and other rivers that flow from its highlands for the Grand Renaissance Dam – thus presenting existential threats to the connected nations.
For the third time in three years, the Shabelle River has dried up, putting millions of Somalis at risk of starvation.
But the current government is not ready for a substantive change of guard. The longer the mass protests continue and the minority-led government continues to offer artificial or symbolic gestures of prisoner releases — while declaring a second ‘state of emergency’ in two years— the faster Ethiopia will become destabilised and the faster foreign investments will fizzle away.
Worse — though seemingly unthinkable — the ‘favorite nation’ status granted to Ethiopia after becoming the US’ main partner in the global ‘War on Terroris’ is slowly corroding.
Despite this week’s visit from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the US State Department is gradually turning its back on Ethiopia for a number of reasons; chief among them, is its double-dealings on the South Sudan issue.
Despite the facade of US/China collaboration to end the South Sudan civil war, the geopolitical rivalry between these two giants has been pressuring Ethiopia to pledge exclusive allegiance to one over the other.
With China’s huge investments on Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan’s oil fields – making a choice won’t be too difficult.
The Kenya Factor
Several years ago I wrote an article arguing that the two most stable nations in the Horn (Kenya and Ethiopia) will become more unstable as Somalia becomes more stable.
Today, the Ethiopian government is facing the most serious threat since it took power by the barrel of the gun, and Kenya has a highly polarised population and two presidents ‘elected’ along clan lines.
Kenya — the nerve center of the international humanitarian industry — could just be one major incident away from inter-clan combustion.
The Somalia Factor
The Ethiopian government has launched a clandestine campaign of strategic disinformation intended to fracture or breakup opposition coalitions and recruit or lure potential comrades.
Ethiopian intelligence officers and members of the diplomatic corps together with some ethnic-Somali Ethiopians have been recruiting naive Somali government officials, intellectuals and activists with a Machiavellian disinformation campaign.
Meanwhile, IGAD — Ethiopia’s regional camouflage — calls for an open-borders agreement between member states. Despite broad-based public perception that for a fragile state like Somalia, such an agreement would be tantamount to annexation, some Somali politicians are eagerly carrying its banner.
These kinds of desperate campaigns and the abrupt resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn only underscore the fact that the government’s days are numbered.
The Sudan Factor
Sudan is caught in a loyalty triangle (Ethiopia, Egypt and Turkey) with competing powers. Sudan needs Egypt to address threats faced by the two nations regarding the diminishing access to the Nile by reasserting rights granted through the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty.
It needs Ethiopia to protect China’s economic partnership and to shield President Omar al Bashir from Western harassment through IGAD.
It also needs Turkey for development and for a long-term strategic partnership. Sudan has become the second country in Africa to grant Turkey a military base, with Somalia being the first.
The Eritrea Factor
When neocons dominated US foreign policy and the global ‘War on Terror’ was the order of all orders, Eritrea was slapped with sanctions. It was accused of being the primary funder and weapons supplier to al Shabab.
Today, though neither the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia or Eritrea nor any expert free from Ethiopian influence holds such a view, yet the sanctions have not been lifted.
The Ethiopian lobby and certain influential elements within US foreign policy-making circles continue to label Eritrea as a Marxist rogue state that undermines regional institutions such as IGAD and international ones like the UN Security Council; a closed society that espouses a deep rooted hatred towards the West.
Against that backdrop, the UAE has been investing heavily in Eritrea since 2015 or the beginning of the Yemen war that has created one of the the worst humanitarian disasters. The Emirati military (and its Academi/Blackwater shadow) now operates from a military base in Assab. Whether that’s a Trojan Horse or not, is a different discussion altogether.
Ins And Outs
The current wave of discontent against the Ethiopian government is likely to continue. But, considering how the Tigray has a total control on all levers of power, a transition of power will not be an easy process.
Ethiopia is also rumoured to have created an ethnically Somali counterinsurgency force in the Liyu Police. This ruthless force has already been used against the Oromos as they were used against Somalis of various regions that share a border with Ethiopia.
The extrajudicial killings and human rights violations are well documented. Despite all this, the Oromo and Amhara are set to reach their objectives albeit with bruised and bloody faces.
Will their coalition remain or, due to their historical distrust, will each eventually invoke its constitutional right to secede?
Whatever the outcome, any scenario of civil war or chaos in Ethiopia could put the entire Horn in danger and create a potential humanitarian catastrophe, especially in Somalia.
Meanwhile South Sudan is a lightyear away from sustainable political reconciliation especially since the foreign elements fueling the fire are not likely to stop any time soon. Djibouti remains the host of the most intriguing geopolitical circus. So, that leaves Eritrea as an island of stability in the region.
In the foreseeable future, Turkey could divest her investment out of Ethiopia into Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea. China will diversify her portfolio to include Eritrea. And the US — with no new policy — will continue droning her way through geopolitical schizophrenia.
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Turkey’s foray into Somalia is a huge success, but there are risks
THE CONVERSATION –Turkey’s presence in Somalia certainly embodies one of the most interesting regional geopolitical developments in the past decade. It also represents one of the most misunderstood and confusing. Why did Turkey choose Somalia? And, after its initial humanitarian intervention in 2011, what internal and external forces have shaped and expanded that involvement? Furthermore, what explains Turkey’s reported triumphs?
Some have pointed to a shared history and a common Sunni Muslim heritage. This is questionable, at best, and alone cannot explain Turkey’s engagement with Somalia – let alone the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Others have noted Turkey’s economic clout and its status as a mid-sized country interested in trade rather than extracting resources.
Genuine humanitarian concerns have also, at least initially, driven Turkey’s engagement as well as the prospect of economic gain. Scholar Federico Donelli notes its approach to Somalia
“has made Turkey a regional actor different from the traditional western powers, as well as from the emerging non-western ones.”
Turkey’s approach in Somalia has been largely welcomed inside and outside the African nation. However, a cautionary note is required. Allegations of corruption and bribery have surfaced. Turkey’s recent opening of a military training base in Mogadishu to train the Somali National Army has also raised eyebrows across the wider Horn of Africa region.
Keys to success
Ankara has an understandable and deep seated desire for international recognition as an emerging power and G20 member state. Its status in Somalia is part humanitarian and part financial, but is at its heart about influence and prestige.
Turkish money and aid – delivered directly to key stakeholders in the Somali Federal Government – ingratiated Turkey with local power brokers and provided Ankara with access and power in Mogadishu. What soon followed is Turkish control and management of Somalia’s most lucrative assets, the airport and seaport.
Parallel to these were unilateral rebuilding efforts, offers of scholarships, renovations of hospitals, and the hosting of international conferences about Somalia. These have largely contributed positively to Somalia’s development and yielded the international acclaim and diplomatic clout craved by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his coterie.
For some parties inside and outside Somalia, Turkey is now viewed as indispensable to Somalia. The keys to Turkey’s reported success in Somalia – where so many other established powers have failed before – may revolve around four critical factors.
The first is approach. Most interventions in Somalia have been multilateral affairs by international and regional actors, such as the UN. Turkey’s approach, in contrast, has been largely unilateral and highly coordinated by the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency. In this way, the efforts of business, government and humanitarian staff either do not overlap or do so effectively.
Second is novelty. Turkey’s Ottoman past and Muslim identity have been raised as major variables driving Turkey’s engagement with Somalia. But these assertions ignore or minimise one of its key strengths as a rising power: its distinct lack of a colonial past that devastated so much of the continent.
This approach is not only novel; it also represents Turkey’s first meaningful engagement with the continent. This contrasts sharply with that of the US, France, Russia and China, among others, which have a colonial or Cold War baggage.
The third factor is risk. Somalia has been the scene of thousands of capacity building and self-help experiments funded by a plethora of international organisations and states. Yet it is precisely where these efforts have failed that Turkey has found its niche.
This required a big appetite for risk. Naturally, as the risks rise the potential for significant rewards does too. The economic rationale for risk among Turkish businesses is particularly high, given experiences in difficult environments such as Iraq and Libya. This has contributed to sensible, if risky actions in Somalia.
Fourth is soft power. Turkey has deployed an array of soft power approaches. These include diplomatic support for Somalia and direct flights on the Turkish national airline from Mogadishu to Istanbul. These pragmatic approaches have also led Turkish businesses to reap major financial rewards and lucrative contracts.
Turkey’s interest has shifted from being primarily humanitarian to one that also takes into account the political and security aspects of the country. Doing so, as stated in the Becoming Global Actor: The Turkish Agenda for the Global South has made the country
“a hybrid non-traditional actor because it combines the traditional political-stability perspective of western powers with the economic-trade perspective of emerging ones.”
It also has broken with the traditional development model for Somalia that has characterised the past three decades.
Turkey’s hybrid approach may yet lead to mission creep and draw the country into Somalia’s infamous clan politics. Its increasing role could also put it on a collision course with other states, regionally and internationally.
However, its actions have arguably improved the situation in Somalia over the past six years. This is because Ankara has actually attempted to assuage rather than solve Somalia’s long-standing problems outright. Investment is largely driven by profits and assistance is targeted, coordinated and based on needs.
These interventions rarely come with the types of strings attached that characterise other efforts seeking to restructure Somalia. This has been welcomed by many Somalis for whom requirements for political reform or the creation of accountability mechanisms ring hollow.
Brendon J. Cannon, Assistant Professor of International Security, Department of Humanities and Social Science, Khalifa University
Islamic Hijab Is More Than Sexuality
In reference to the article published on the Evening Standard on 24 January 2016 and written by Nimco Ali who claimed that the Hijab sexualises little girls, I take the view this article is misleading and intended to cause further confusion on a subject, which the writer does not fully have knowledge of.
I respect and support the FGM campaign and the pursuit of equal rights for women and girls everywhere. However, it seems Nimco Ali is now moving the goal post to Hijab wearing young girls. This, I believe, is a distorted view that serves no purpose other than to confuse the public discourse. Hijab, Kippah and the Turban are personnel choice for parents intended to serve a religious purpose for modesty, social protection and religious entity. This is a religious freedom of choice for parents as they are the parental guardians for our children. It is my view the writer is right to start a discussion on the issue. However, the writer fails to understand the Hijab serves many other purposes other than modesty. It is a form of religious identity for our Muslim girls intended to encourage them about their values. It is my view the writer is attacking a value she has missed out on at young age and I would encourage her to seek further knowledge on the subject before throwing extreme form of liberalism on our faces.
I would like to encourage the mainstream media to seek people of knowledge on the subject matter other than channelling their own comforting views through people who clearly do not know what they are talking about. It is becoming a common trend in the media to have Muslims being represented by people who are themselves in need of rehabilitation, distorting the facts and confusing the wider public for personnel interests or beliefs. It is a comforting view for right-wing audience, but serves no purpose for community cohesion,mutual understanding and knowledge.
These writers or activists can express their own opinions. However, when their glass is half full, they can hardly contribute to progress on a subject matter they have no knowledge of. It is also ironic to have a freedom fighter for women/girls seeking to limit the religious freedoms of our parents and children. The writer’s views have no logic of reasoning, coherence and knowledge of this subject matter.
Chairman of London Somali Youth Forum, a London based, UK, Social Activist