Business Day (Johannesburg)

10 November 2003

Africa: Sound AU Alarm On Destabilisation of Somaliland

Johannesburg — SUDANESE Foreign Minister Mustafa Othman Ismael has warned that the nation's peace process will fail "unless it is viewed within the context of a comprehensive regional framework".

He was speaking at the 10th Ordinary Intergovernmental Authority on Development summit in Kampala, Uganda, apparently referring to stalemated thorny issues such as the Somali peace process and Ethiopia-Eritrea border tensions.

As if to highlight the broader geopolitical stakes bearing down on northeast Africa, there are the ominous implications of the recent murders of two British nationals outside Hargeisa, the capital of normally peaceful Somali- land, the diplomatically unrecognised northern Somali republic.

It has been spared the violence and chaos of the failed Somali state in the south.

Noteworthy about these murders is the existence of a coalition of regional forces Egypt, Djibouti and, especially, Saudi Arabia opposed to Somaliland's existence, with a possible interest in its destabilisation.

As it is, Somaliland's "foreign minister", Edna Adan Ismail, claims that the murders were carried out by al-Qaeda-linked terrorists. Apart from the threat to Somaliland posed by its possible targeting by al-Qaeda, the stakes extend wider.

There exists a finely tuned religiocultural balance between Islam, Christianity and indigenous faiths throughout northeast Africa, reflecting an environment of religious pluralism. This could all be threatened if Somali- land's pastoral-Sufi Islamic society succumbs to the influence of extremist Saudi Wahhabism.

The export of Wahhabism throughout central, southwest and southeast Asia is widely seen as being at the root of Islamist extremism; a trend US President George Bush is fanning through his misguided policy of Middle East transformation centred on Iraq as the frontline in the "war on terror" but with Israeli Likud hegemony as its subtext.

The Saudis are under growing pressure to clean up their act as exporters of Wahhabist extremism. But the Somaliland killings suggest northeast Africa could become its next target.

According to Bashir Goth, in his Against the Saudisation of Somaliland, anyone who "followed recent press reports from Somali- land would have read that a group of Saudi-oriented clerics, calling themselves the Authority for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, an offshoot of its Saudi counterpart, has been demanding the enforcement of draconian rules on what Somali- landers wear, say and do in their private lives", compared with the historically relaxed harmony between Islam and Somali culture. The possible surfacing of al-Qaeda may reflect this trend; one converging with Saudi, Egyptian and Djiboutian resistance to the apparent federalist direction of the Somali talks in Kenya.

They want those talks to cover northern Somalia, which Somali- land resists. Hence, Somaliland's stability is now at stake. The possibility of it sliding into the same chaos engulfing southern Somalia amid an Islamist ascendancy, a trend not evident in northeast Africa to date, ought to signal an African Union (AU) "red alert".

It should also give added impetus to achieving peace accords in Sudan, southern Somalia and between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

This should also focus African and international minds on taking Somaliland out of its nonrecognition limbo as part of a wider counterterrorist strategy. An Afro-Arab security dialogue including increased intelligence co-operation aimed at containing Islamic extremism along Africa's Indian Ocean littoral might be priority elements in this strategy.

This is where the "comprehensive regional framework" called for by Sudan's foreign minister takes on added urgency, not just regionally but in Sudan itself.

Sudan's conflict, as in Somalia, is multiregional; not simply north-south. Sudan's interim settlement will be inherently unstable. Thus, the fact peacekeeping in the Sudan was omitted from Washington's $87bn budgetary picture of rebuilding aid for Iraq and Afghanistan is hard.

Kornegay is programme co-ordinator, Centre for Africa's International Relations, University of the Witwatersrand.

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