THE COLONEL’S BLUFF
February 17, 2004 - 23:48
A hard-line approach without sound military hardware is a dangerous bluff. Thus, Colonel Abdillahi Youssef’s shrill cry of joy (mashxarad) over the occupation of Las Anod may soon turn into rivers of tears that could be irrigated in the drought stricken areas of Sool.
In December 2003, a group of armed militiamen acting under the command of Colonel Abdillahi Yousef- the absolute ruler of the autonomous provincial administration of Majertenia (now calls itself Puntland)- crossed the border into Somaliland Republic and occupied Las Anod- the regional capital of Sool region. Since Puntland was formed in 1998, the Colonel had always claimed Sool and eastern Sanaag regions that are largely but not exclusively populated by Dhulbahante and Warsangali clans, as his own territories. It is not clear how the Colonel would manage to redraw the century-old colonial boundaries or rewrite the history of these people but what is clear is that the basis of his claims are at best ludicrous and at worst infantile. The basis of the Colonel’s argument is that these people are, by blood or descent, related to the people of Puntland and are together known as Harti. Thus, in his figment of imagination, the Colonel believes that this gives him the automatic right to claim these territories as part and parcel of his own little fiefdom- Puntland. However, the unpalatable truth is that, geographically the people in these territories had, for nearly a century, belonged to Somaliland (the former British Protectorate), which broke away from Somalia in 1991.
In the past, it was not uncommon to see the Colonel’s militia sneaking across the border into Somaliland under the cover of darkness and returning back to their bases in Puntland after a short spell of stay without causing any mischief in the disputed territories. Successive Somaliland governments had a policy of turning a blind eye to these flagrant violations of its territorial integrity ostensibly to avoid an unnecessary military show down with its troublemaker neighbour- Puntland- even though Somaliland had always maintained the military capability to decapitate the Colonel’s ruling apparatus. The idea behind this was that, so long as the local people did not mind the surprise visits paid to their towns by their cousins from Putland and so long as these sneaky visitors were not upsetting the local sensibilities, the Somaliland government didn’t mind to forget about these border violations. However, this approach apparently sent a wrong signal to the Colonel, for he saw this as a weakness on the part of successive Somaliland administrations.
Unopposed and undeterred, the Colonel got emboldened to the extent that he hatched a plot to assassinate the president of Somaliland, Dahir Rayale, who paid a visit to Las Anod at the end of 2002. Escaped by a narrow margin, president Rayale was whisked to Aynabo where a division of combat ready troops waited by, in case something went wrong. But something went terribly wrong yet president Rayale chose, much to the anger and dismay of many Somalilanders, not to order the army to take swift retaliatory measures against his assailants for fear that a lot of innocent people might die in the cross fire between the government troops and its opponents. Friends and foes alike were astonished by the compassion and sense of responsibility displayed by Rayale in restraining his troops not to fire the big guns in anger.
On his return to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, the parliament gave the president the green light to deal a mortal blow to the shaky regime of the strongman of Majertenia. However, Rayale opted instead to impose a state of emergency on the entire region and continued to maintain a policy of non-engagement with the Sool people although critics on both sides of the broader political divide were somewhat divided over the wisdom of that policy. Apart from the state of emergency, both local and presidential elections were also barred from taking place in Sool, thus adding to the woes and isolation of these people.
This latest incursion into Somaliland by Puntland however completely changed the rule of the game. The Colonel’s militias came in from the wilderness with all guns blazing, killing at least three people and kicking all Somaliland government personnel out of their residences and offices. Such callous disregard of Somaliland’s eastern border, which is porous and often unguarded, coupled with the Colonel’s bravado, angered the Hargeisa administration.
This was further compounded by the Colonel’s spur-of-the-moment proclamation in the international media that his militia captured the city of Las Anod by force. Up until now, the Colonel who is famous for his beastliness and intransigence, dismissed calls from friends and lately his benefactor, Ethiopia, to show respect for Somaliland’s boundaries drawn up by British Colonial administration- boundaries considered by the AU as sacrosanct.
Whilst it is true that the people of Sool and eastern Sanaag and the people of Puntland are of the same lineage, it is also true that twice the same number of Issaq and Gadabursi people are living in Ethiopian territories. But, that is not to say, this will give Somaliland the right to claim these territories as its own.
The Colonel’s burning ambition to become the leader of a future government in Somalia is totally incompatible with his ardent but parochial and myopic tribalist posture of promoting the doctrine of Darodism. Neither his ludicrously lineage-based territorial claims is acceptable to any African country where people of the same blood or tribe are divided by artificial boundaries.
Since the inception of Somaliland, the people of Sool were torn between their brethren in Puntland who have nothing to offer to them other than empty avowals of fraternity and a Somaliland government that cannot give them of what they describe as ‘ironclad guarantee of our rights and privileges’ before committing themselves fully to the Somaliland ship of state.
At the moment, Dhulbahante and Warsangali have more than their fair share of representatives in both houses (35 members in total) on top of the administrative and ministerial portfolios.
Many believe that Somaliland can still guarantee to provide Sool people for their fair share of the national cake in terms of financial resources and development projects if they are equally prepared to show their allegiance to Somaliland. It is an open secret that the Garads, religious men and their politicians had participated in all major Somaliland Conferences held in Balligubadleh, Berbera, Burao and Borama and put their signatures to all these agreements. But they dishonoured each and every covenant they have undertaken and callously disregarded all the agreements they have entered into with the rest of clans in Somaliland.
Disintegrated, divided and disorientated, Dhulbahante cannot decide for thirteen years where their interest truly lays. They do not seem to agree on anything other than one thing: that they shouldn’t subscribe to, no matter what, the Issaq dominated state of Somaliland. But that line of argument does not hold water any longer since it became evident that Harti and Gadabursi head all the three major powers of the government namely the Executive, the Supreme Court and the Parliament. The Issaq are no longer in the driving seat of the Somaliland state.
The Colonel’s occupation of Las Anod was facilitated by anti-Somaliland segment of Dhulbahante who are loyal to Puntland. This encouraged the bloodthirsty Colonel to adopt an increasingly belligerent and war-mongering attitude, which is viewed by many throughout Somaliland and the Diaspora as provocative designs calculated to further disrupt and create chaos and confusion in Somaliland at a time the country’s security situation remains precariously on a knife’s edge following the recent spate of gruesome murders committed against western humanitarian relief workers. Others see the Colonel’s outrageous and ludicrous claims to Sool and Sanaag as nothing more than a cynical ploy to effect disturbances in Somaliland, hoping to trigger a heavy handed government response thus spoiling Somaliland’s chances of recognition from the international community. The latter view was reinforced when a cross-party delegation from Britain paid a two-day visit to Somaliland and a subsequent Commons debate regarding Somaliland’s recognition was held in Westminster Hall on 4th February.
Colonel Abdillahi Yusuf had always been a ‘pain in the neck’ in this cross-border issue between Puntland and Somaliland. His militia visited Las Anod before under the pretext of mediating warring sub-clans amongst Dhulbahante. But on each occasion they returned to their bases on their own accord.
Strangely enough, the Colonel began a propaganda campaign by activating all the media resources at his disposal and has blown the issue out of proportions even though he is the aggressor in the eyes of all those who are familiar with the politics of that region. He began to engage in Intifada on the airwaves, emblazoned headlines on the local papers, gave regular interviews to international news agencies, issued press releases and plastered articles staring out of every page and screen on the Net.
If the Colonel’s tactics were to scare off Somaliland government not to come to the aid of Sool people, it certainly produced the opposite results of what he desired. Massive troops have already been deployed in the vicinity of Las Anod and others are being mobilised throughout much of Somaliland for a potential show down with the Colonel’s motley collection of rag tag militia holed up in Las Anod. The Colonel is beginning to see that his megaphone diplomacy is proving counterproductive and self-defeating. As a military man whose tactics was simply confined to shooting from the hip to anyone who stands in his way, he knows this time round that the odds are heavily stacked against him, for he is not militarily up to scratch vis-à-vis Somaliland. His ragtag militia hasn’t got the slightest chance to stand up to the overwhelming military superiority of Somaliland unless of course they are prepared to commit mass suicide.
In a country where its people are more often divided than united, the arrival of the Colonel’s militia in Las Anod was a godsend that miraculously united the Somaliland people- friends and foes alike – firmly behind the President in defending the motherland from the external enemy.
Rayale whose recent controversial visit to Djibouti created furore in Somaliland took advantage of the situation and swiftly tabled a motion before the two Houses in a bid to evict the Colonel’s rag-tag militia out of Sool and teach him as UCID opposition leader, Faisal Ali Warabe put it ‘an unforgettable lesson’ that would serve as an example for those who try in future to infringe the country’s territorial integrity.
The fact that the motion was overwhelmingly passed by both the Parliament and House of Elders sent an unmistakable signal to Puntland and gave President Rayale a free hand to aim for the Colonel’s jugular, if need be, and decapitate his ruling apparatus in Garowe, if deemed necessary.
Apart from the troops that have already been deployed on the eastern front, most of Somaliland’s heavy weaponry including an array of artillery pieces, tanks and multiple rocket launchers have been kept out of sight but are ready to be deployed if the Colonel refuses to budge. Major government buildings in surrounding towns and villages have been evacuated and are being readied for casualties in case of break up of hostilities. Huge consignments of food and medicine are being poured into the eastern front. Columns of commercial tankers carrying fuel are heading for Sool.
These war preparations robbed the Colonel of many nights’ good sleep. It is believed that he sent emissaries to Wardheer and Goday and propagated the message that Majertenia is about to face a devastating attack from her powerful neighbour- Somaliland. According to Somaliland Times, the Ogaden sent some ONLF fighters to Las Anod to reinforce Puntland’s poorly armed ragtag militia holed up in Las Anod as they brace for a hugely devastating attack that might seal the fate of their little fiefdom.
For so long, Somalilander’s intimate knowledge of war and its painful consequences have always been to avert the break up of any hostilities between Puntland and Somaliland but the die seem to be cast now, for the Colonel had crossed a Rubicon.
With the assassination attempt on his life weighing heavily on his mind and enjoying the unstinting support of the whole nation, Rayale is unlikely to flinch from his hard-line approach. His muscle flexing tactics seems to be having an effect on the Colonel as the local people whom the Colonel considered to be their saviour scramble for the Puntland militia to pull out of their territories. Las Anod is in the grip of fear as the Somaliland army dug in its heels within a striking distance, getting ready to flush out the Colonel’s militia.
In a recent BBC interview, the Colonel spoke undiplomatically and hurled toxic rhetorical salvos at Rayale by describing him as a “tool”. The Colonel claimed himself to be a battle hardened man while accusing Rayaale of being a man with NSS background who did not understand much about politics. But the Colonel seems to forget that he is a megalomaniac who ruled his clan-based fiefdom of Majertenia by the barrel of the gun since 1977- a rule punctuated by cold-blooded murders and mysterious disappearances of his own kin and kith. Unlike Rayale, who is a democratically elected president, the Colonel is no more than a chieftain of Harti.
The Colonel who initially appeared to have taken leave of his senses when he undertook this dangerous adventure is slowly but steadily beginning to tone down the frequency of his rhetoric and sabre-rattling that characterised his occupation of Las Anod in the early days. Panic and fear permeated in the file and rank of his militia. Some of them have already fled for fear of their lives and others are pondering their next move as the black cloud of war began looming menacingly on the horizon. Whatever, the situation of those who remain in the town, they are left with no option but to cut and run. At least a senior Puntland militiaman defected to Somaliland recently with several along with ‘technicals’.
The Colonel is beginning to get a sense that a hard-line approach without military sound military hardware is a dangerous bluff that could be called. His shrill cry of joy (mashxarad) might soon turn into rivers of tears that could be irrigated in the drought stricken areas of Sool.
Somaliland will win back what was rightfully its territory, without in the meantime, depriving others from their rights. The Colonel’s reluctance to withdraw all his militia is merely an attempt to avoid ordering his militia back to Garowe- the capital of Puntland- with their heads down in shame as well as saving himself from becoming at the butt of a joke in his fiefdom. But Rayale must take the moral high ground and give the Colonel a face saving exit even though the tyrant of Majertenia had just got ‘too big for his boot’ as Sudi Yalaxow put it and had to be taught an unforgettable lesson.