By Osman Hassan
The ruling clans of Puntland and Somaliland are having what appears to be an orchestrated final showdown at Tukaraq, in Sool region. This was until recently a place in Sool where Puntland put up illegally a customs outpost but now captured by Somaliland’s SSC (Sool, Sanaag and Cayn) occupying forces. Neither party has any business to be in these regions which, like their enclaves, belong to its people. One might therefore ask what is the basis for this confrontation which to all appearances has all the hallmarks to blow into full scale war, and suck in others? That scenario is possible unless one of them blinks and turns tail which, if the past is anything to go by, can only be Puntland.
For the record, Somaliland and Puntland’s quarrel is rooted in their respective claims on the SSC regions, both based on fallacious grounds. In the case of the one-clan secessionist enclave, what they are saying is that they are the sole inheritors of the former British colony which ceased to exist after union with Italian Somaliland but which they claim to have revived when they declared their secession. On this basis, the SSC regions, they claim, are theirs and its people as their subjects have nothing to say on the matter.
Puntland on the other hand was established in August 1998 by the kindred clans on both sides of the former colonial border as a bulwark against external threats until the fallen Somali State was restored. At the time, many prescient skeptics among the SSC were distrustful of their partner’s reliability and commitment to the alliance, seeing them as perfidious Machiavellians only beholden to the association for what they could get out of it without giving anything back in return. That deep-rooted distrust of their partners (since vindicated by Puntland’s repeated betrayals) has however been brushed aside at the time in the face of the larger looming danger from the secessionists who, after capturing the Awdal region, were poised to do the same with the remaining unionist SSC regions. So, it was a Hobson’s choice of either sink or swim with Puntland and the choice was made – now many rue as a blunder whose damage they are paying to the present day.
The establishment of Puntland, far from containing Somaliland, had the opposite effect. The enclave could not accept its nemesis, Garawe, savouring what they consider part of their colonial heritage. Much as it fumed at Puntland’s presence in the SSC regions, it remained for some time wary and hesitant to militarily challenge Puntland which, in the eyes of the rest of Somalia and the international community, was administering what was at the time parts of its constituent regions. No longer tolerant of the status quo, it was left to Dahir Riyaale, Siilaanyo’s predecessor, to take the plunge. That gamble paid off beyond the wildest dreams of the enclave. Thus, Lascanod, the capital of the SSC regions, fell to his forces in October 2007 without any resistance from Puntland’s defending forces: they simply retreated to their Garawe sanctuary.
Already infused with the glory of their self-serving claim to have defeated single-handedly the mighty Somali national army, their easy unexpected capture of Lascanod, almost given on a plate, has added to the enclave’s make-believe in their vainglorious military prowess. Henceforth, Dahir Riyaale daring exploits have made him a household hero and a role model for his successors. Siilaanyo not to be outdone extended the tentacles of the occupation far and wide in the SSC regions and almost cleansed the area of Puntland’s control. As if that was not enough, he recklessly set his sights on Buuhoodle; a hard nut to crack and the crown jewel of free SSC. His defeat in the town and at Kalshaale has served as a sobering lesson forcing him to change tack. Henceforth brute force gave way to the more honed colonial practice of divide and rule which to a large extent worked. With the collaboration of Ali Khalif Galaydh, first as Khatumo president and later a defector, he succeeded to create disarray and disunity in the SSC regions and make them ripe for the picking. Even Buuhoodle is on shaky grounds after letting Galaydh and his cohorts plot its downfall. As Galaydh is fond of reminding us, these are the heritages (for what they are worth) that Siilaanyo has left for posterity.
The new leader of the enclave, Muse Bihi, a former colonel in their SNM rebel movement, is an uncompromising diehard for whom defeating his adversaries rather than having dialogue with them is his motto. Like his predecessors, he too wants to have his own place in the history of the enclave, and what better than be the one who finished the job of finally chasing Puntland from its last foothold in the SSC regions. That set the attack on Tukaraq which he won hands down, though admittedly facing not his equals on the other side. His objective was not only the capture the outpost but also to inflict the maximum humiliations on his presumed adversaries and accordingly synchronized his attack to a time when president Farmaajo, on a visit to Puntland, was touring the area not far from Tukaraq.
Under the circumstances, Abdiweli Gaas, the current president of Puntland, rose to the occasion with uncharacteristic jingoism, putting on Churchillian war leadership. His forces, joined by clan militia from far and wide, were on the front within days. From the president to military leaders, the word went out that Puntland was serious this time and determined to finally liberate the whole SSC regions. The ailing bedridden Garaad Suleiman Garaad Mohamoud, in exile in Garawe because he could not bear the shame of remaining in his occupied capital, took them for their words and went to the front brandishing a gun and exhorting his people that it was D-Day and they should join in the battle. Not many responded for lack of confidence in Puntland’s feigned war games. They were proved right. Predictably, Puntland’s hyped response to the capture of Tukaraq turned out to be nothing more than a sham showdown. So, who are the winners and losers?
The one-clan secessionist enclave is the obvious big winner. It took lots of daring risks – with Puntland, Somalia and the international community – and in the end got what it wanted: not only Tukaraq but also Puntland’s submission, Farmaajo’s humiliation and the silence of his government. More importantly, it achieved all this without incurring any discernible cost from the international community which could have brought the troublesome clan to heel if it chose to use its leverage. But there is also another possible bigger gain. These possible gains could also usher dangers to itself and others. It would be pushing its luck too far if it wrongly concludes that the international community and the federal government have given it a free hand and embark on further reckless adventures such as attacking Buuhoodle. That would be playing with fire that could undo their gains.
It might sound incredulous but Puntland is also a winner. Contrary to its bravados, its fake counter-offensive was not prompted by any desire to liberate Tukaraq and the wider occupied SSC territories. From the time it ceded Lascanod to Somaliland more than ten years ago to the present crisis over Tukaraq, it has been its consistent stand not shed an iota of blood for the SSC regions while maintaining ad nauseam its pledge to liberate them for the ears of the SSC people.
Rather, Puntland’s aim was to draw in the international community to help achieve two objectives: first, to keep its city out of danger from what it perceives as unpredictable secessionists who threatened to attack Garawe; secondly, it wants to be able to continue to draw its customs revenue from another post in the vicinity of Tukaraq. Indeed, they achieved both objectives. It wasted no time to set up a new customs post which is already operating and its proceeds going directly to its coffers. That speaks for Abdiwel’s priorities. What is more, he is bound to get a pat on the back from the international community for his statesmanship not to respond to the rascals.
The SSC people have never had faith in Puntland to liberate them. In that respect, they have lost nothing by the turn of events at Tukaraq. What hurts them instead is the betrayal of the federal government headed by Farmaajo which continues to turn its back on them and their struggle for the union. Instead, the true losers are the SSC Isimo who went to Garawe to lobby Abdiweli to liberate the SSC regions and to withdraw his opposition to the SSC regions becoming a federal State f Somalia.
Abdiweli is risk averse and guided by hard-nosed cost benefit analysis. In pursuit of Puntland’s interest, he has no qualms about inflicting humiliations and loss of face on the SSC Isimo despite the promises he purportedly gave them. Rightly or wrongly, he sees most of them (and those from the SSC in parliament or in his administration) as parasites, fortune hunters or quasi refugees, but needs them as useful assets to bolster Puntland’s claim to their regions. The first action incumbent upon the SSC community is to repatriate their visiting or resident Isimo in Garawe back home (say Buuhoodle or to other free towns) and assure them financial independence from Abdiwel’s degrading handouts. Until they are back on their soil, nothing else matters.
The war games at Tukaraq are distractions and what is missing is the role of the main actor- the central government. Unfortunately, the current Farmaajo government, like those before it, has simply been uninvolved sitting on the fence. Rather than seriously deal with the problems in the north, they engage as a way out in fruitless talks with the secessionists that merely enhance the credentials of the enclave as separate country the longer these talks continue.
If it is serious about the union, and that is a moot question, it has to heed the advice of the former President of Puntland, Mohamed Abdi Hashi, who recently called for two actions, respectively by Abdiweli Gaas and Farmaajo: the first calls on Puntland to renounce its baseless claim on the SSC regions and desist from all actions impeding the liberation of these occupied regions as it has done and still doing; the second calls on the federal government to recognize these regions as a State Member of federal Somalia since they meet the required conditions. If these conditions are fulfilled, which are rights and not favours, the SSC people are quite capable to liberate their occupied regions on their own. The ball is in their court.
Email : Osman.firstname.lastname@example.org
Osman Hassan is a seasoned journalist and a former UN staff member. Mr Hassan is also a regular contributor to WardheerNews.
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