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We consider Awdal State occupied land,’ says Rashid Hersi, the elected president of a region that is seeking separation from Somaliland. From his Barrhaven home, he gets daily updates on conditions on the ground in Awdal State, and stays in contact with his ministers.

OTTAWA — Meet Rashid Hersi — Barrhaven father of five, part-time mail room employee at the Citizen, president of a self-declared independent state in the Horn of Africa.

In between inserting flyers into your daily paper, taking his kids swimming and dropping them at homework club, 43-year-old Hersi has a cabinet to wrangle, a fledgling parliament to consult, a constitution to fine-tune.

Awdal State is new, small and recognized by no one. Its stated goal is to seek separation of the region of Awdal from Somaliland, itself a self-declared independent state that broke away from Somalia 20 years ago, and is recognized by no one. Hersi represents a cadre of people from Awdal who want to return to the broader Somali federation. Imagine Quebec separating from the rest of Canada, and pro-federalists in Florida setting up a shadow government to push for Canadian unity.

This is not a joke, it’s a political tactic, one to which Hersi and his friend — and chief of staff — Suleiman Douksieh are deeply committed.

“We consider Awdal State occupied land,” says Hersi, whose writings on the topic refer to the “deviant and destructive” intentions of the Somaliland militia and accuse them of “heinous organized murders, imprisonment, repression and economic strangulation.”

Human Rights Watch issued a report last January critical of the Somaliland government for its weak judicial system and “low-level harassment” of opposition activists and journalists.

“The government of Somaliland is getting millions in international aid and people have no idea what is going on there,” says Hersi. “Not a dime is spent in Awdal, and so many of our supporters are in jail.”

After the fall of Somali dictator Siad Barre in 1991, Somaliland — a former British protectorate in the north — declared independence from the rest of Somalia. It has a functioning, relatively stable government and over the years it has known far more peace, if not prosperity, than its neighbours to the south. But in recent years tensions within the state have increased and separation movements have grown. Awdal region is on its western flank, along the border with Djibouti and Ethiopia. To the east of central Somaliland is Khatuumo region, which is itself deeply unhappy with the government of Somaliland and whose leaders have taken up arms to make their point. Clan politics are pivotal throughout — the majority of Awdalites are from the Gadabursi clan, while the Isaaq dominate the central region. Many Somali-Canadians in Ottawa are of Gadabursi origin.

Last November, Awdalites from around the world gathered in London to elect a president and parliament. Hersi was one of four people contending for the top job; according to a statement issued by the Electoral Commission of Awdal State, two candidates dropped out and Hersi defeated his final opponent by a simple majority. Hersi, who says he studied law as an undergraduate in Somalia before coming to Canada in 1992, later drafted the constitution and picked his cabinet.

Hersi says he gets calls from people living in Awdal every day, updating him on political developments and conditions on the ground, including the jailing of anyone who speaks up about separation from Somaliland. Every weekend he shoos the kids out of the TV room in the basement of his townhouse and has a conference call with his cabinet ministers. The minister of planning lives in England, minister for information and telecommunications in Switzerland, minister of justice in New Zealand, and his minister of fisheries and ocean resources is based in Edmonton.

Also on the call is Hersi’s chief of staff, Suleiman Douksieh, 58, an Orléans network specialist with a background in marketing. Something of an elder statesman in the Awdalite disapora, Douksieh says everyone involved in the Awdal state government is constantly surfing Somaliland news and blogs and talking to supporters back in Awdal for developments. They maintain an Awdal State channel on YouTube, post to blogs and diaspora websites and issue press releases critical of Somliland policies.

“This is a shadow government,” says Douksieh. “The Somaliland president has a chief of staff, and I keep an eye on him. Whatever he says or does, I reply. The same goes for the other ministers.”

The tools may be new, but running a shadow government in exile is not. Charles de Gaulle organized the Free French from a suburb of London, and even now, Wikipedia has a whole page devoted to the different types of government in exile (Awdal seems to fit in the “alternative separatist governments of current subnational territories” section). Even Somaliland has its own apparatus abroad, including a newly appointed representative to Canada, Ottawa accountant Loula Isman. She says her job is to lobby Canadian officials to recognize the state of Somaliland — an uphill task.

“Canada recognizes the state of Somalia and as such, does not accord formal recognition to Somaliland,” according to a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

Isman denies the accusations of mistreatment of Awdal, and says everything was fine until an Awdalite president of Somaliland was succeeded by someone from the Isaaq clan. Now, Isman says, the situation is “very delicate.”

“Creating Awdal state is not reasonable,” says Isman, who has lived in Ottawa for 20 years. “Awdal is a part of Somaliland. If they have problems they can sit down and address the issues in a positive way.”

In January Hersi and his foreign affairs minister — who lives in Edmonton — visited Kenya, Somalia and elsewhere, where they say they received warm support for Awdal’s efforts to reunify Somalia. Hersi recently booked time off from the mail room to fly to Istanbul, Turkey to join international talks on the future government of the Somali federation. As a result, he missed the big Awdal State celebration that was held on June 6 at the Villa Marconi on Baseline Rd.

The effort is a labour of love for all involved, says the president’s chief of staff.

“Many of us are spending half our salaries for this cause — with our wives’ support,” Douksieh says.

Hersi nods.

“We are here physically, but mentally we are there.”

By Louisa Taylor, The Ottawa Citizen, June 9th, 2012

FIGHTING in Somaliland


Stewart Bell, National

Saturday, Sept. 25, 2010

Armed with assault rifles and machine guns mounted on pickup trucks, the Horn of Africa's latest liberation group began fighting this summer in the semidesert formerly known as British Somaliland.

They call themselves the SSC and their deputy leader is a sturdy, gray-haired former army officer named Colonel Ali Hassan Sabarey, who speaks English and studied business administration at college.

He is also a Canadian.

"I really miss the hockey," the former Toronto resident told the National Post in a phone interview. "I really miss that and I miss a lot of things. I miss the Eaton's Centre, I miss the downtown, I miss the community and I hope I will be back."

In the four months since Col. Sabarey, a former Seneca College student, and the SSC leader Suleiman Essa of Columbus, Ohio, arrived in the region, their militias have clashed repeatedly with Somaliland government forces.

"A number of people have lost their lives," said Mohammed Omar, below, the Foreign Minister of Somaliland. He said the SSC was trying to undermine security in Somaliland and neighbouring Puntland and Ethiopia.

"It is very unfortunate to know that some of the people who are causing harm to our security, or attempting to endanger our security, are actually coming from the United States or from Canada," the Foreign Minister said.

"I would describe those leaders who are waging war against Somaliland, we call them people who have committed war crimes. They simply attacked and killed citizens, therefore we would like to take them into justice in Somaliland."

The SSC, which derives its name from the Sool, Sanaag and Cayn regions it represents, is a product of the almost total collapse of Somalia, one of the most lawless, chaotic and heavily armed places on the planet.

Somalia is also one of Canada's top sources of refugees. About 150,000 ethnic Somalis live in Canada, according to government figures. But some have returned to take up leadership positions in their troubled homeland.

Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke of Ottawa served as prime minister of Somalia's fragile UN-backed Transitional Federal Government until he resigned on Tuesday. A handful of young Toronto men has also joined Somalia's version of the Taliban, Al-Shabab.

And there is Col. Sabarey.

"He's a very easy-going, humble kind of guy," said Abdi Saleban of Ottawa, who attended a conference in Nairobi last year that founded the SSC and made Col. Sabarey its deputy leader. "He has a military background."

The colonel comes from Las Anod, in northern Somalia, his associates said. He served in the Somali National Army during the reign of military dictator Siad Barre. He left the country in 1990 to study in the United States and came to Canada in 1991, he said.

That same year, northern Somalia broke away from the south. The Somali National Movement, formed by exiles in London, declared independence from southern Somalia. It called the new northern republic Somaliland.

Roughly the size of England, Somaliland borders Somalia's Puntland region, Ethiopia, Djibouti and the strategic Gulf of Aden. With its capital in Hargeisa, it has a population of 3.5 million and an economy largely based on livestock exports to Saudi Arabia. Relative to the turmoil in southern Somalia, it is peaceful.

"Somaliland is actually a flourishing democracy," Foreign Minister Omar said. "We have just had a presidential election which has been declared a free and fair election by the international community. We also have a thriving society, including the economy."

But almost 20 years after declaring independence, the breakaway region is not widely recognized internationally. Canada does not formally recognize the Republic of Somaliland.

Neither do clan leaders in the Sool, Sanaag and Cayn regions that are nominally part of Somaliland accept secession. They want to remain part of Somalia. Experts believe the issue is partly rooted in clan differences between the Isaaq-dominated Somaliland government and the SSC, which is made up of Daroods.

The issue came to a head in 2007, when Somaliland forces moved into Las Anod, the administrative capital of the Sool region. Clan leaders responded with a declaration calling for "all necessary sacrifices in terms of life and resources to be put at the disposal of the liberation struggle."

"Three years ago, they have forcefully occupied this territory, SSC territory and have violated the rights of the citizens," Col. Sabarey said. "Since then they killed many people, they forced so many people out of the country and within the country as refugees."

He said the Somaliland government had denied basic services such as health care, clean water and schools to the eastern regions. "Calling us war criminals, it's a false statement and they have attacked this territory and still they are here. They are attacking us."

In October 2009, hundreds of members of the Somali diaspora, many from North America and Europe, gathered in the Kenyan capital and selected Col. Sabarey and Mr. Essa to lead the SSC and recruit a militia force.

"You know, when you are a place where there is no government, to save your people and save yourself you have to at least bring some power to your people, and that is exactly what they are doing there," said Mr. Saleban.

Skirmishes between the SSC and Somaliland forces began shortly after the two leaders returned to the region in May. In June, the United Nations reported that thousands had been displaced by the fighting.

The Somaliland Times reported on July 24 the SSC had attacked Somaliland forces in Widh Widh. A Somaliland soldier was killed and 20 SSC fighters were injured, while another 10 were taken prisoner, it reported. Osman Hassan, an executive of the diaspora organization that helped elect Col. Sabarey to his position, said the fighting had been minimal. And he said some SSC supporters are not happy about that.

"There have been a number of encounters with the Somaliland militias and the SSC, but not to the extent that we would have liked," said Mr. Hassan, a Geneva-based executive committee member of the Northern Somali Unionist Movement.

"They were supposed to really fight, you know, guerrilla war, hit and run. The Somaliland militias are not that strong. I mean, most of them are unpaid and they have a lot of deserters. So it's not as though we are facing the USA army in Iraq," he said.

"To be honest with you, I have not been impressed, neither with him nor with his leader," he said of Col. Sabarey and Mr. Essa. "They have been getting a lot of money, almost a half a million dollars, from the diaspora and most of it has actually been wasted. So we have been very unhappy with them.... So Ali Sabarey and Suleiman are, I think, on their way out."

Al Jazeera featured Col. Sabarey in a report broadcast in July. It was titled: "Somalia's newest armed group SSC threatens violent campaign." Footage showed young armed men standing at attention before Col. Sabarey.

The SSC fighters were shown driving a "technical," a pickup truck with a heavy gun mounted in the bed. The letters S-S-C were scrawled on the driver's door in red paint.

"Our ultimate goal is to make this area peaceful and prosperous and also seek a united Somalia," Col Sabarey, dressed in a military uniform, said in the broadcast. It did not mention he was Canadian, but Somalis in Toronto who saw the segment recognized him.

Commentary on Somali news websites ranges from supportive of the SSC cause to calling its leaders "blood-soaked warmongers" who should be arrested and handed over to Canadian and U.S. authorities.

In interviews, Col. Sabarey told the National Post that while he misses Canada, he did not hesitate to return to Africa. "I have to sacrifice. Sometimes you have to help your original community and you have to do what you have to do," he said.

"The people that say, 'They shouldn't go back to where they are born' ... I don't believe that. I believe I'm an ambassador from Canada. And wherever I am, I represent Canada."

Despite the uniforms and weapons, he said he would prefer to use the power of persuasion to make the Somaliland troops leave. "To force them would be the last resort. I'm a Canadian, I'm not that much good for fighting."

Source: National Post