IRIN Interview with Abdirashid Bashir Warsame, Chairman of Somali Peace Rally

Abdirashid Bashir Warsame is chairman of the Somali Peace Rally, a campaigning group based in northeastern Somalia. In an e-mail interview with IRIN, he said he supported the Djibouti peace initiative but warned against the election of officials from the former regime of Mohamed Siad Barre who, he said, had “lost legitimacy in the eyes of most Somalis”. The Somali Peace Rally is based in the autonomous region of Puntland, where the administration has issued warnings against participation in the Somali peace conference being held in Djibouti. Puntland leader Abdullahi Yusuf has said the conference’s attempt to elect a new government would create conflict.

QUESTION: Did you want to attend the peace conference? Were you prevented from attending?

ANSWER: No, I have a time constraint. I think every Somali is obliged to make some contribution to the peace process. So, without attending the conference, I will make my contribution from a distance. Apart from that, I do believe that the Somali peace participants at the Arta Peace Conference in Djibouti have the capacity to address Somali problems and come up with action-oriented policies aiming at mitigating obstacles to a sustainable peace in our country - at least if the participants really want to achieve peace and have a commitment... I sincerely support their efforts for trying to get solutions to our complicated problems.

Q: Is the conference one of civil society, and how would you define genuine civil society in Somalia?

A: Well, if the collaborators of warlords, and warlords themselves, had been isolated from the peace process, and their inputs had been constrained, then I would have quickly said, ‘Yes, the conference is one of civil society’. But I wonder if some influential leaders - who have an impact on the agenda and the outcome of the peace process - are really independent from the characters that have moved the nation into the ground. For example, one of the members of the technical committee was a former adviser to warlord Mohamed Aideed and is now assigned to draft the National Transitional Constitution.

So, to me, it seems that warlords have a strong influence. How can it happen that a former adviser to a warlord can be a member of the technical committee and draft the national transitional constitution? I would not mind if such advisers were included as clan representatives, but not in the technical committee. And I also wonder why the brightest members of the Somalia scholars, like Ahmed and Abdi Samatar, were not included in the current technical committee.

It is obvious, in comparing it to previous peace conferences, that this conference has attracted a large number of participants from different walks of life, such as traditional clan elders, traders, politicians, women’s groups, scholars, students, religious leaders and politicians.

From that perspective, yes, one can say the conference seems to be one of civil society. But I would say the Djibouti peace conference is a civil society conference which accommodates those who belong to warlords, their militias and sympathisers, and those who do not belong to warlords.

Regarding the definition of genuine civil society in Somalia, the answer is not an easy one. I think the term civil society is imported to us from the developed world. It is a term that properly refers to cooperation between various interest groups - such as trade organisations, labour organisations, religious groups - to collectively act as a counterbalance to their State. The question that comes into my mind is: ‘Can there be a civil society in Somalia without a state?’ In my opinion, a genuine civil society in Somalia is the one that represents all clans through their traditional clan elders, displays tolerance, protects the human rights of Somalis, finds equitable peace and stability, fosters brotherhood and unifies people, and strengthens the Islamic values that are inherent in the Somali social fabric.

I would also like to say that the restoration of peace in Somalia would depend upon the establishment of effective federal institutions with vibrant disciplined civil servants, and upon the change of military calculations of warlords. To me, it would be ideal if religious organisations, women’s groups and traditional leaders were chosen to be members of the parliament, but that the technical committees of the post-conflict state are chosen on the basis of people’s merit, integrity and professionalism. In addition, without the full inclusion of minority groups in the peace process, there will not be a sustainable peace in our country.

Q: Do you think the elected Transitional National Assembly (TNA) will be able to operate in Somalia?

A: Well, that depends on many factors. It depends on who the leading members of the TNA are and what their political agenda for our country is. If the leading members of the TNA are the same leaders who nationally lost legitimacy in the eyes of most of Somalis under their authority, then such leaders will not be successful in carrying out their assigned activities for Somali people. Leaders who were corrupt, negligent and incompetent, who moved the nation into the ground, will never be able to bring a sustainable Africa. People have already lost their confidence in such leaders.

But if the leading members of the elected TNA are ones with fresh faces, a deep understanding of the current situation and a clear vision of the future, and are leaders who believe in a need for a federal system rather than the excessive powers of central government, then they may at least succeed in carrying out some operations in the short term. They may succeed in establishing a national framework aimed at maintaining law and order, providing some social services and managing some economic transactions. Of course there are a lot of challenges on the horizon, such as re-establishing security, economic recovery, social and political reconciliation, and the need to build national institutional capacity. It is difficult to forecast the future; let us cross our fingers and see the outcome of the current peace process.

Q: Would you accept Puntland representatives elected by the conference?

A: First of all, I have a deep respect for the Puntland leaders in Djibouti. Some of them were deeply involved in negotiations that led to the establishment of Puntland. Without their efforts, their strength and their leadership, Puntland would not have been made a better place for Somali people to live. I believe that our Puntlanders in Djibouti are wise enough to know the expectations of their people. I don’t think Puntland people will accept a situation which leads again to atrocities and inhuman treatment by warlords.

Having said that, I am very interested in how peace participants deal with questions such as: ‘What will the national institutional arrangements of a future transitional government be?’ ‘Will the leaders of sensitive institutions of a transitional state - like monetary and judiciary institutions - be chosen on the basis of clan representatives?’

I am personally in favour of a clear division of powers. I can hardly imagine that a form of tribal institution could replace a government in printing money, building schools and providing independence to the judiciary. However, I can imagine that parliamentarian seats could be divided among clans and women’s groups, who should be obliged to be accountable. One of the huge challenges for the peace participants in Djibouti is how they can make better use of our traditional and tribal structures in a modern Somali nation-state, in the hope that our future generation will not be driven into the ground again.

Q: What do you think should be done to identify war criminals?

A: I don’t think it is difficult to identify big war criminals: they are warlords who have mobilised their people to kill their neighbours belonging to other tribes. But it is difficult to identify some collaborators who were indirectly involved in carrying out atrocities against the civilian population. I think the UN has the capacity and know-how to collect a list of individuals who are charged with war crimes. Those who do not appear on the list... who are not charged with any crimes against humanity, should be accepted to serve their nation.

Q: What happened to the group from Puntland who tried to attend the Djibouti conference but were detained and deported by Somaliland? [the neighbouring self-declared state, where the administration also opposes the Djibouti-held conference]

A: I was informed that they were returned to Puntland. As far I know now, nothing has happened to them. But, we, the Somali Peace Rally, remain extremely concerned about the recent restriction of movement of people who travelled to participate [in the Djibouti-based conference] inside the regions of the northwest of Somalia, Somaliland, and northeast of Somalia, Puntland. We condemn any attempt by the security authorities of those regions to restrict the freedom of people’s movements. We also condemn restrictions on the freedom of the press and the free exchange of information among their people, because these [freedoms] are the cornerstones of democratic good governance.

So we urge the authority in the Somali northeast region, Puntland, and the northwest region, Somaliland, to desist from restricting people’s movements and to respect the fundamental rights of freedom of movement and expression. All Somalis in those regions should enjoy those rights as the democratic process develops. We call on these regional authorities to promptly investigate the circumstances of the people deported from Somaliland, and to bring to justice those responsible for the restriction of their movement.