Abukar Arman is the special envoy to the United States from the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia. In 1991, the ruling regime in Somalia was overthrown by a number of competing clans and political factions, and since then the country has been torn apart by violent civil war and political instability. In 2004, the TFG was established in an effort to restore peace in Somalia and lay the foundation for national unity. Despite their mandate, the TFG has experienced considerable trouble in re-establishing a cohesive Somali state. We sat down with Mr. Arman to discuss Somali current affairs, the TFG, and the politics of shariah law.
Columbia Political Review: Can you tell us a little bit how you see the TFG functioning in Somalia and what you see the U.S.’s relationship to the TFG and to Somalia as being?
Abukar Arman: There isn’t a U.S. embassy open in Mogadishu, nor is there a Somali embassy open in Washington. The relationship was one that was really based on what took place almost twenty years ago with the Black Hawk Down. And since then the U.S.… has been a bit disconnected from the Somali affairs – until recently, of course-and that was more pronounced after 2006. Since then the relationship’s been very good. The U.S. supports the Transitional Federal Government. It is the largest donor that is in Somalia at the moment from the humanitarian side.
If I were to stretch that a little… of course you’re familiar with the Dual Track policy that was recently announced by the State Department. This means that the relationship now will be expanded and not limited to the TFG, meaning that the U.S. would be engaging practically all other non-state actors that developed in the last twenty years, starting with Somaliland, which is the northwestern region of Somalia, which is a region that declared its intention to secede from the state, and also Puntland, another area, and a whole host of other regions and sub-regions that developed since in the process of development. And of course, on one hand, it’s good for peace.
But also it creates two problems. One is, in essence, it inadvertently undermines the TFG’s legitimacy as the governing body of a sovereign state. The other thing is… to a society that’s suffering as a result of clan animosity… it gives [clan elites] an opportunity to think in the warlord style and just go back to their tendency of acting as an independent entity. So the Dual Track kind of feeds onto that and creates a situation where, down the road, the situation might be more complex than it is now.
CPR: How is the TFG trying to approach this idea of forming a cohesive Somali state, and how does it intend to deal with the Dual Track policy?
AA: A better way to understand the situation is in reference to what happened in Haiti not too long ago after the earthquake. Complete failure of the system. And the question would be where to start and how to distribute food, how to rebuild the infrastructure, how to keep people safe… but you’ll have to do it one step at a time. You can’t hope to do all of it at once.
Somalia’s been in that situation for the last twenty years, so … I tell my counterparts in the U.S. if we’re really expecting huge successes in the immediate sense, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. Because, as you’ll recall with Haiti, the whole world would start sending food to the point that it created a bottleneck in airports-nothing’s functioning, nobody’s distributing, the situation’s become even more chaotic. So the best thing to do would be to bring in some forces, to secure the airport, and to ask the world to hold on deliveries for a while until things are taken care of. So they had to deal with a few things for the system to start functioning. And that’s what the TFG has been doing … in terms of resources and capacity.
To give you an example, reconciliation is at the top of the government’s list. But how do you reconcile people if you don’t have security or you still have humanitarian issues… 3.5 million people on the verge of starvation. So in priority of these things, where reconciliation fits… of course it’s a good thing… but if your resources are limited, you’re going to concentrate on the things that are more pressing at the moment.
I’m more confident with the new government that was approved by the parliament a few days ago. Capacitywise, this is the best we have seen in the past twenty years. [The prime minister] is very well aware-he and his government-that they have a mandate that is going to last for about eight months, and they’re set to produce something in the next 90 to 120 days to show the world that they’re really capable of running the country. Their focus would be capacity building and good governance. So all that together, I guess that’s what will be reconstituting the state. And all the time never losing sight of the fact that this government can only sustain itself and the country by reaching out to others and really paving the way for a genuine reconciliation to take place.
CPR: As you were speaking I was remembering a news story from, I think, several years ago in which a hotel in Mogadishu was attacked by terrorists and in the process were killed several TFG ministers for the ministries of education and sports and leisure… posts that did not have many concrete functions on the ground. So the creation of posts that did not serve actual function in the past-inefficient leadership… and twenty years of failed initiative… how does the TFG overcome that in the popular eye?
AA: You’re absolutely right- historically, if you look back at the record of the TFG, no one can claim that it was immaculate, and really, there was a great deal of corruption. To a certain degree it present now-no one’s really pretending that it’s not.
At the moment it’s really important for the new government to focus on expediting what President Sharif [Ahmed] has spoken of, which is the creation of an anti-corruption commission with teeth that can really hold people accountable by building in checks and balances and processes.
There’s not much that the TFG can do with regards to what’s happened in the past. Of course, when you are in a state of anarchy, people… see this as an opportunity to exploit Somalis. I guess that should not shock anybody. But the TFG-this TFG, the current one-is really focused on getting a lot of things done. And the next 90 to 120 days will be telling.
CPR: If we say [the TFG] manages to establish a state in Somalia, the Dual Track recognition process… means that the TFG is going to have to contend with other sources of power that have gained their own legitimacy. So how does the TFG navigate a field in which multiple sources of authority exist?
AA: As you know, Somalia is not [laughs] … currently it is under the leadership of various institutions and alliances. These alliances and institutions don’t necessarily have a shared vision of priorities… in the process of taking orders from all of these entities and institutions, there has been a great deal of confusion and that really played into what I initially described as a clan-based mentality, which is a zerosum nature.
The Dual Track policy would create a situation, as you’ve already said, where there are so many recognized entities.
And to answer your question as to what the TFG would do about that, I guess it’s a question that should be more concerning, really, to the rest of the world-in this case the U.N. or anyone else who cares about the existence of nation-states. Because this can be a Pandora’s box… and I’m not sure if the world is really ready for it. For tactical reasons they might see this thing as an opportunity. Some might even argue this is the way to give incentives for peace, but there aren’t the facts to support that.
Somalia is, in some parts… clanexclusive, and these clan-exclusives can exist in peace. But regions where (for example, like the Benadir region where Mogadishu is located) you have multiple clans that are existing and there isn’t one dominant clan … this would create a lot of problems for those kind of regions to even become peaceful or stable.
What the TFG can do in order to reclaim its authority is, first of all, find a way to stabilize the country. I do believe that security cannot be established independent of the other regions. Because for the last twenty years… the argument that prevailed was, “Go and stabilize… part of Somalia, and then we’ll discuss the rest of Somalia,” whereas the problems are intertwined… It should be addressed holistically rather than compartmentalizing these security issues where there’s no way to sustain it in that fashion.
So in order for Somalia and the TFG to succeed, it would have to stabilize Mogadishu, and in order to stabilize Mogadishu, it has to reach out to the other parts, the other regions as partners to this whole enterprise. And what Dual Track does, in essence, is it really complicates that process of reaching out to the others, which was, in and of itself, not going expeditiously, and this kind of adds another layer of complexity.
CPR: Why is it that the TFG should be the force of authority that leads Somalia towards statehood, towards nation building? Why not any of the other groups out there?
AA: It doesn’t have to be the TFG. Somalis can opt to have any of the other recognized entities as a base towards a stable country. … One thing that might give the TFG priority over the others is that it’s the only place where all the Somalis, all of them, from all walks of life, of all clans, are part of it. You can’t say that about Somaliland; you can’t say the same about Puntland, because their parliament does not include all clans, all tribes of Somalia. In the TFG … you get a parliament in this case which is made out of 550 members-a huge number, and it should be reduced, but, nevertheless, it represents every clan in Somalia. So that alone should give legitimacy-the representation of the country.
But, again, these things can be discussed in due course. I’m sure that discussion will come, but there are other things that take the priority now.
CPR: With the rise of Al-Shabaab and various terrorist ties within the nation, do you fear that this could trigger more interventions from the outside world that could put a damper on the TFG’s own plans?
AA: Yes, and if Al-Shabaab… expand in Somalia and become really an imminent threat, and that compels the rest of the world that it’s time for intervention, that will definitely undermine the TFG in its goals. Because intervention, as you know, is a doubleedged sword… it depends on how it’s perceived, and if it’s purely through hard power… The reliance on power alone is not going to help anyone, and there’s ample evidence of that in Iraq and Afghanistan. But if intervention means the securing of the distribution of food that the average person finds to be beneficial-that gives the average person employment and development, and the average person sees something good in that intervention-that will get popular support. There has to be some measure of soft power and goodwill that can help the TFG to reach out to the other entities [for intervention not to derail our progress].
CPR: Is there any plan or current attempt by the TFG or other Somalis to deal with Al-Shabaab?
AA: The TFG tries to engage individuals that are more moderate… [and tries] to convince them out of their alliances or their commitments to the other side. Because, let’s face it, Al Shabaab includes a variety of people- it’s not monolithic, although they’re sometimes projected as such by the Western media. There are individuals, definitely, that ascribe to the violent style of thinking-who are trans-national terrorists. And others are possibly from the Islamic Courts Union, who were opposing the Ethiopian occupation, who had some issues with the part of the ICU that finally decided to join the government led by Sharif. And there are also people who were previously the warlords or militiamen of the warlords who lost their positions and are now wearing headscarves and carrying guns and covering their faces and just, all of a sudden, they found a niche-someone who gives them monthly salaries and a cell phone. And there are some who are basically nationalists, who are saying, “We are occupied by foreign forces-we have to determine on our own,” but are local-oriented or domestic-oriented to a certain extent. So the government- what it does is it kind of selects out of that number of different groups, and it engages the ones who are more moderate, who are not fixated to this violent extremism, and kind of pulls them towards the TFG.
CPR: You have some notable views on the role of shariah in the future of Somalia. Would you like to talk about those views for a moment?
AA: Yes… Shariah law is really open for interpretation. There isn’t just a state of shariah that you find in a book and you apply it and it’s the same for everyone. The sources are not entirely the same.
Al-Shabaab claims, on one hand, that they are driven by shariah, but they perform or exploit one of the most sadistic and arbitrary views of the law that flies in the face of Islam. If they claim they are applying shariah… in Islamic knowledge, there are a lot of ulama, or scholars, in the world who have an issue with their understanding of shariah.
The shariah has a variety of objectives, which are similar to any good law that governs society: the protection of a person’s life, the protection of a person’s property, and a whole list of things. And the people are demanding [shariah] now throughout Somalia because … the fabric of society has been damaged, the last thread that’s really holding together the society happens to be the religion. And now some say that even that is at risk. So if the people are demanding that, [it is] because as Muslims they want to see their religion as playing a part in their government.
This would give an opportunity where shariah is introduced-not the one that carries whole negative connotations, but one that’s humane. One that really focuses on upholding the universal human rights, if not exceeding that. One that values living in peace with your neighbors and becoming part of the international community. All of these things (and we can go on and on and on) the shariah accommodates and does not reject. So shariah that I’m talking about is totally the opposite of what Al-Shabaab is talking about. And that’s what the president, Sharif, was talking about. That’s what the members of the parliament in general passed, or agreed to introduce: some form of shariah into the constitution of Somalia.
And the qualities that exist, especially in the West, in terms of understanding things like Somalis or what is an Islamist, where there is only one understanding… aside from the fact that Islamism carries a negative connotation … I believe that an Islamist, for example, is a person who considers that his faith is part and parcel of his identity. And as such, of course, it would play a role in his perception: socially, economically, or politically. So from that understanding, an Islamist is not something negative, or Islamism in this case, or even Islam generally [laughs slightly]. So that’s where, in essence, I was coming from as far as shariah and Islam and Islamist. But I consider myself an Islamist,. And I don’t see that as a negative thing in light of what I just described.
CPR: … In incorporating shariah law into the modern state, whenever I talk to muftis about this, they express great doubt that the plurality of open and classical shariah can be incorporated into the governance of something as rigid and singular as the modern state.
AA: Do they give you examples? Because I don’t subscribe to that and I’m trying to understand where they draw their conclusion.
CPR: In classical shariah there are so many options, both in the different schools and in the difficulty of fully proving a case, that you can pursue, and the options are so community-based, so driven towards the stability of the individual society as opposed to the stability of the overall state structure. So their question would be, do you see a way to bridge the small community-based aspects of shariah and the order and justice aspects of law serving the functions of the overarching modern state?
AA: First of all, I am not a shariah scholar by any stretch of the imagination, but, just to address what you just said, in the case where somebody gets killed for example… it’s very specific: If someone kills someone, the state is supposed to kill the person who killed him or have that man pay for the killing, and that would happen if the son or daughter of the man who was killed agrees to that. Option number three is to forgive. If these three options exist, I would think that would improve options available to the modern states in the case of one person killing another … Because there are members of society who don’t want to kill the person who killed their loved one, for example. And maybe in that process the [criminal] has a paradigm shift and somehow becomes a good person as a result. So the shariah in this case is options that I don’t see as limiting but as enhancing the options that exist.
CPR: What about the example of zina [adultery]? You have very few options when dealing with pure zina in shariah courts. But in order to prove [adultery], the burden of evidence is so high that you can rarely (and rarely did) ever get an outright conviction of adultery through the courts, which leads to a very fuzzy gray area as to how you prosecute an infraction that clearly took place and which society requires to be addressed for order and stability.
AA: Right, and I think you may have actually made my point for me and that’s exactly why shariah gets misinterpreted, by the way. For example, Al-Shabaab will just grab a person and impose that punishment without the required evidence. And that’s why I was saying, again, that their understanding of shariah is not knowledge-based. To secure that punishment, the requirements are so high and so hard to get that there is no way you can prove a person has done that and is deserving of such punishment.
CPR: In America, people will tend to hear [shariah] and sometimes shut down. So, having made those views public in the past, have those views and any of your other views given you problems in dealing with your American counterparts?
AA: If they are, they are not obvious. But I can tell you that the ones who engage me, I am grateful to because it really generates a lot of good conversations in many circles. It gives me an opportunity to broaden my horizons, because I find people who challenge my views, and I’m OK with that.
CPR: What is your immediate goal for Somalia?
AA: At this state with the new government, there are three priorities: Priority number one is establishing security. And it starts with Mogadishu, of course… Somalia can’t be stable unless the capital is stable and the center and location of the government is stable. The second thing would be the humanitarian. There are over one million internally displaced persons… and the flow of food is eclectic… So to secure and insure that they get the food and so forth is priority number two. And the third priority is to change the government [this meant from the transitional status] and meanwhile to reach out for reconciliation. The government is ready and focused and hopefully within the next five weeks there will be something to show.
CPR: On a scale of one to ten, compared to your hope for your nation in the past, what is your hope for Somalia right now?
AA: I’m more confident now than I was ever before. I would say, in terms of confidence at this stage, I’m at a seven. The current government is different from the previous ones. They’re a smaller number-from 89 [this supposed to read 39] down to 18. They’re more qualified than the previous ones. And they’re ready to pull forward and learn from the previous experiences of the other governments. So I’m more confident in this one than in the previous ones.