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My Life as a Diplomat

By Nuruddin Farah, Cape Town

WATCHING from afar, people find it difficult to understand the intractability of the conflict in Somalia. The cycle of violence, almost mysteriously, remains uninterrupted. Peace breaks out. Victory is declared, as it was a couple of weeks ago when President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed’s Transitional Federal Government declared its triumph over the rival Islamic Courts Union and the clan-based militia fighting alongside it. And then the violence quickly erupts again.

In Somalia, it has been clan versus clan, Muslim Somalis versus Christian Ethiopians, for as long as anyone can remember. A recent United Nations report asserted that a dozen or so countries — Egypt, Eritrea and Iran among them are engaged in trying to destabilize Somalia.

Why can’t Somalia arrest its downward spiral?

Well, let me tell you about my brief time as an emissary between Somalia’s two main warring factions; perhaps it might help explain in concrete — and human — terms why the conflict has become so difficult to solve and why the transitional government, backed by the United States and with the support of Ethiopia, is probably doomed to fail.

My career as an emissary began last July. A man in the executive directorate of the Islamic Courts Union, then in control of Mogadishu, telephoned me in Cape Town, where I now live. (I was born and raised in Somalia.) The man, who shall remain nameless, asked if I would “carry fire between the two sides,” as the Somali idiom has it.

The timing was understandable. Talks between the Islamists and the government had broken down; the Islamists were laying siege to Baidoa, the seat of the government, and Ethiopia was sending troops to defend the garrisoned town.

The choice of a mediator, however, wasn’t so readily apparent. “Why me?” I asked.

“Because the I.C.U. admires your opposition to Ethiopia, Somalia’s archenemy, and because of your avowed interest in peace,” he replied.

And, truth be told, I admired some of what the Islamists had accomplished. Indeed, they had done the impossible: in a series of fierce battles from March to June last year, they had routed the warlords and pacified Mogadishu. For the first time in many years, the city enjoyed peace.

Like many Somalis, though, I also had my reservations about them. Even though almost all Somalis are Muslim, very few embrace the union’s fervent brand of faith: the group supports Shariah law and it treats the federal charter, which is secular, with disdain. Then there was the matter of clan rivalry, which hinted that devotion might be masking politics: the top Islamists belonged to the clans known to be antagonistic to the president’s clan.

Of course, my feelings about the transitional government were also ambivalent. The government came into being in 2004 after a two-year-long national reconciliation conference held in exile. I supported the president’s desire for an African peacekeeping force to stabilize Somalia; at the same time, I was fearful that he was susceptible to pressure from Ethiopia.

Still, the Islamic Courts Union, as my interlocutor told me, was holding out a proposal that just might lead to peace. According to him, the union was offering to let the government move to Mogadishu from Baidoa and to let the president bring with him a force of 1,000 from his home province, Puntland.

I felt this was promising. A peace deal would not just bring stability — it would reduce the opportunities for foreign intervention by Ethiopia, which had thwarted every national and international effort to bring Somalia’s strife to a peaceful end, and by the United States, which seemed inclined to support Christian-run Ethiopia as a bulwark against the Islamists. (It didn’t help, of course, that the union’s defense spokesman had used the red-flag word “jihad” in his firebrand declamations.)

And so I called the office of President Yusuf to request a meeting. When I received a favorable response, I called my Islamist interlocutor to let him know that I would accept the mission. Excited at the thought of doing more than writing about Somalia to keep it alive, I bought my ticket and left for Mogadishu.

When I arrived in Mogadishu in the last week of August, the city appeared calm. That’s not to say that there wasn’t a hint of unease. Residents felt that they were under surveillance. And they were. Drones hovered above the city all night. War, it seemed, was in the offing.

My first meeting in town was with Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, then the spiritual head of the Islamic Courts Union; he struck me as being more reasonable than many others in the group. In all, I spent three and a half hours in our first meeting, much of it alone with him. We were in an office with a huge escritoire, and we were cramped, sitting very close to each other, a low table on which he placed his notebook and I mine and also our teacups between us, the door left ajar. He leaned forward to enunciate his words with the slowness of someone used to speaking to blockheads. (Perhaps he thought me a halfwit, come from Cape Town, on a dubious peace mission; a fool proposing that he and President Yusuf, his adversary, make up for the sake of Somalia.)

When I told him what prompted my visit, he confessed he had no recollection of agreeing that President Yusuf relocate to Mogadishu with a force from Puntland. The group’s position, he reiterated with emphasis, was that Ethiopia must withdraw its forces from Somalia before anything else could happen. He continued: “We control much of the country and the people are behind us. What does he control, this president, confined to Baidoa?”

THIS was not an encouraging beginning.

My subsequent meetings with the Islamists and their sympathizers were equally frustrating. There was no discussion of the peace plan that had brought me back to Somalia. Instead, the discussions centered on matters they deemed important: whether theaters should be open; whether girls could be permitted to wear jeans or go about unveiled; whether tea houses should play music, or young men watch soccer on television. There was no serious talk of governance.

What struck me in these conversations was the presence of Arabic. These men, I surmised, had received their education in Sudan, Libya or Kuwait. For the first time since the Middle Ages, Arabic was the lingua franca in Mogadishu; Somali was practically a second language.