Ottawa man takes role in regional Somali government

An Ottawa man is returning to his native Somalia to take a position in a regional government attempting to establish a foothold in an area under the control of militants and hard-hit by famine.

An Ottawa man is returning to his native Somalia to take a position in a regional government attempting to establish a foothold in an area under the control of militants and hard-hit by famine.

Raage Haji Mohamed came to Canada as a refugee 20 years ago and has been heavily involved in the Ottawa Somali community, serving as director of the Somali centre for three years and working with aid groups, including Oxfam and Save the Children.

Last year, a group of Somalis led by former defence minister Mohamed Abdi Gandhi established the semiautonomous state of Azania — also called Jubaland — which stretches from Ethiopia to the Indian Ocean in the country's southwest and encompasses Somalia's entire border with Kenya.

Mohamed was one of 40 deputies nominated by their clans to the regional assembly and he is planning to travel to Kenya in a few months to prepare to return to Somalia.

Azania, however, is a state in name only, as much of the region, including the proposed capital, is currently under the control of al-Shabaab, a militant group linked to al-Qaeda.

"Yes, there is risk," said Mohamed.

"There will be targeted assassinations and suicide bombs. But I think it shouldn't stop. Whoever is left will continue. There's this proverb in the Somali tradition that says when people get together they can fix a crack in the sky."

The region itself is facing tremendous upheaval.

More than 130,000 people have already fled Somalia for Ethiopia and Kenya in the first six months of 2011, according to the United Nations. Ongoing drought, combined with war and spiralling food prices has led to the worst famine in the war-torn country since 1992, when hundreds of thousands starved to death.

In particular, the refugee camp near Dadaab, Kenya has swollen in size as people cross over from the Azania region.

Regional government backed by troops

Mohamed said the region has been one of the hardest hit in Somalia, which has not had a functioning government since 1991. The port city of Kismaayo, for example, has changed hands more than 15 times in the last 20 years, he said.

The relative stability of a number of regional states in the country's northern region gives him hope that they can be successful too.

Mohamed said he is preparing to fly to Kenya, where the new regional government will assemble. With the aid of some 4,000 troops trained in Kenya, the regional government hopes to advance into Somalia and take back the area.

Mohamed said the mission is an urgent one, saying that al-Shabaab has turned a drought into a catastrophic famine by banning aid groups.

"Was it that bad in terms of the rain and all that? Yes, probably," said Mohamed. "But this famine has been created by al-Shabaab and its leadership. And they're liable for it, cutting people's hands off and doing all those things in the name of religion and Sharia, and hanging them in the streets to terrorize everybody to death."

Mohamed said family and friends have questioned his decision to return, saying they needed some convincing.

"I have been doing [community services] most of my life ... whether it's back home or in Africa or here. This is very much an extension of that. Yes, yes, it's more dangerous and there's some risk that's involved. But I think it's worth taking."

With files from the CBC's Evan Dyer