November 27, 2007
ABOUT SHEIK SHARIF SHEIK AHMED
Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed [pictured], 43, is the chairman of the Council of Islamic Courts and is considered a moderate. A former teacher, he decided to take a stance against Mogadishu's warlords after one of his students was abducted in 2003, and he helped to found the Islamic courts. He fled Somalia after Ethiopian troops marched into the country in December 2006. He surrendered in Kenya, where he was briefly detained. He now divides his time between Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.
War-torn Somalia is experiencing ongoing fighting between Islamic
insurgents and the Ethiopian-backed government. Sheik Sharif Sheik
Ahmed, chairman of the Council of Islamic Courts, talked to SPIEGEL
ONLINE about how the Ethiopian forces are violating human rights and
why he opposes al-Qaida.
Sixteen years after descending into anarchy, there still seems to be
little hope of a lasting peace in Somalia.
The capital Mogadishu is plagued by continuing violence. Thousands
have been killed in the city this year as Islamist insurgents battle
the country's transitional government, which was set up in October
2004, and over half the city's inhabitants are reported to have fled
Until this year, the strongest of the many groups which had been
battling for power in Somalia was the Council of Islamic Courts
(CIC). The loose-knit union of Islamic courts took control of
Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia in 2006 and also threatened
to take countrol of Ethiopia's Somali-speaking eastern region, the
The Islamists imposed Sharia law during the second half of 2006.
They managed to reunite Mogadishu, which had been divided up among
rival warlords, and brought some semblance of law and order to the
The Ethiopian army marched into Somalia in December 2006 to help
Somali's interim government oust the CIC. The Islamic group, who are
strongly opposed to the presence of Ethiopian troops in the country,
fought back, prompting the current wave of violence.
However the CIC is not a homogeneous group but is divided between
moderates and hardliners, all of whom claim they want to restore
stability and the rule of law in the country. However the hardliners
also want to stamp out "immoral" foreign influences: While in power,
they closed down cinemas showing foreign films and banned some radio
stations from playing foreign music.
Meanwhile the Somali transitional government has been criticized for
cracking down on the media. The government accuses the media of
undermining national security and has arrested journalists and media
managers. Seven reporters have been killed in the country since
Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed is the chairman of the Council of Islamic
Courts and is considered a moderate. He talked to SPIEGEL ONLINE
about the "popular uprising" against the Ethiopian troops, his
opposition to al-Qaida and the future of Somalia.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Sheik Sharif, why don't you give your rebels the
order for an immediate ceasefire?
Sheik Sharif: I'm powerless to do that. The popular uprising against
the hated Ethiopian occupation troops -- which every Somali patriot
must see as his enemies -- can't be stopped.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But this isn't just about the Ethiopians. You're
also fighting against the army of the legitimate Somali government.
Sheik Sharif: The so-called legal government is a farce. There were
no free elections worth speaking off. They're keeping us out of a
true national dialogue -- which we've always called for -- with the
slimmest of arguments. Critics of the government find themselves in
jail without trial or simply disappear without a trace, just because
they condemn military collaboration with that very part of Ethiopia
which has been oppressing millions of Somalis for decades ...
SPIEGEL ONLINE: ... You're referring to the eastern Ethiopian
province of Ogaden, which is populated by Somalis and which the last
Somali president, Mohamed Siad Barre, wanted to "liberate" ...
Sheik Sharif: ... but how can we question the internationally
recognized borders of Ethiopia when our own country of Somalia is
breaking up into several regions, where local interest groups have
grabbed power for themselves and can operate without any kind of
control? You don't need an intelligence service to figure out that
Ethiopia and Kenya, along with other countries in the region,
interfere pretty openly in Somalia's affairs. But the Somali people,
which right now is held together only by a common language and by
Islam, is no longer going along with them. The resistance against
the Ethiopians and their stooges in Somalia keeps spreading and will
sooner or later topple the regime.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Ethiopians marched in to keep Somalia from
turning into an Islamist state.
Sheik Sharif: That was a weak pretense which only complicated the
situation even further. We never intended to declare an Islamic
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But it was clear which way things were heading in
Somalia. Alcohol and music were outlawed and women had to wear
veils. Some of your coalition partners declared open sympathy with
the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. And didn't the terror network al-
Qaida gain a foothold in Somalia?
Sheik Sharif: That was an evil slander. Even if a few of our
comrades favored a strict interpretation of Islamic law, it was up
to the citizens to orient themselves toward Islamic custom according
to their own discretion. I was, and still am today, strictly against
giving asylum in Somalia to al-Qaida criminals and their kind.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But that couldn't happen right now anyway, because
government troops still hold the reins of power.
Sheik Sharif: The government troops are fighting with their backs to
the wall. They control only 5 percent of the country's territory.
The Ethiopians, whose army composes the real backbone of the current
Somali government, are not very motivated. They are moving through
an occupied country, haphazardly murdering and pillaging, fully
aware that sooner or later they will have to leave. When the last
Ethiopian armored car leaves Somalia, the regime will collapse like
a house of cards. We are gaining territory every day -- it's only a
matter of time.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: That means the bloodshed will not end any time soon.
Is it true that Eritrea is providing you with weapons and money?
Sheik Sharif: Although Eritrea has experienced the expansionist and
racist regime in Addis Ababa at first hand, it is neither providing
us with weapons nor any other logistical support. We are surviving
because the Somali people are on our side. At first it was students
and shopkeepers who supported us, but now we are backed by every
social class. Our influence is growing inexorably.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: That sounds like wishful thinking. If you truly
wanted peace and democracy, wouldn't you ask the United Nations to
Sheik Sharif: If the international community simply opened its eyes
to the continuing violation of human rights in Somalia, and if it
were ready to make a fresh start here, we would of course welcome a
UN intervention. But that doesn't seem likely, unfortunately.
Nevertheless, I stick to my position that if, instead of trigger-
happy Ethiopian occupiers, we had neutral blue helmets here in our
oppressed country, who could make free elections possible and secure
a transition to a future of peace and reconstruction, we would
welcome them. The European Parliament in Strasbourg has already
taken the first step. It has imposed an arms embargo against the
current Somali government in protest against the violation of human
Interview conducted by Volkhard Windfuhr