Somalia: Nation on the Cusp of Chaos or Resurrection

Opinion piece in The Australia.

Radical Islam has been dealt a blow in Somalia but the country could still take the Afghanistan or Iraq route to anarchy

Somalia is the world’s undisputed failed state, having been without a functioning government for the past 15 years. In that time, the country has been torn apart by warring clans and their militias; hundreds of thousands have died as a result of the conflict and the country has become a byword for anarchy.

But following Ethiopia’s offensive into Somalia and its stunningly quick overthrow of the fundamentalist Council of Somali Islamic Courts in the south, there is a real opportunity to restore a semblance of order and peace to the country for the first time in many years, if only the warring parties are willing or can be encouraged to take it.

The world has largely ignored Somalia since the death of 18 US troops in late 1993 led to the ignominious pullout of US and UN peacekeepers, events later dramatised in the book and film Black Hawk Down. But in the past few months the country has been back in the headlines, first as the al-Qa’ida-linked Islamic Courts took control of Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia, and then more dramatically in recent weeks as Ethiopia sent its troops, tanks and planes across the border and drove the Islamists from power and into hiding.

An uneasy calm now prevails in Mogadishu. Somalia’s weak but internationally recognised transitional federal Government has been installed in the capital by Ethiopia. This transitional Government has tacit US backing and has promised to restore peace to the war-weary country: a daunting task in a nation still dominated by well-armed clan militias.

To appreciate the scale of the challenge, it’s first necessary to understand the numerous agendas at play. At its most simplistic, the conflict is between the fundamentalist Islamic Courts and the factionalised transitional Government. But, as with most conflicts, this one also has significant regional dynamics. Neighbouring Ethiopia feared the courts’ stated intention to absorb Somali areas of Ethiopia, and their support of Ethiopian rebel groups. And sworn enemies Ethiopia and Eritrea backed opposing sides in Somalia as proxies for their deadlocked border war.

The courts used the unpopular Ethiopian involvement as a rallying cry and recruitment tool in Somalia and the wider Muslim world. Meanwhile, according to the UN, an assortment of countries, including Libya, Syria, Uganda and Yemen, supplied weapons to the opposing groups in breach of an arms embargo.

The US viewed the Islamists’ rise with alarm, fearing the emergence of a Taliban-style haven for al-Qa’ida and other Islamist extremists. Its fears were stoked by jihadist elements in the courts and credible reports that they were harbouring known al-Qa’ida operatives. It responded by cobbling together a coalition of Somali warlords, funded by the CIA. But the alliance was short-lived and its collapse at the hands of the courts only increased the latter’s legitimacy.

The Islamic Courts movement began a decade ago as a clan-based sharia court system in Mogadishu: a local mechanism for dealing with chronic lawlessness. It was valued by locals and business interests as one of the few sources of governance in the south, bringing a degree of peace and security unknown to southern Somalia for more than 15 years. During its rise to power last year, Mogadishu was reunited, militia checkpoints were torn down, weapons were removed from the streets and the international port and airport reopened for business. By December 2006, the courts had expanded from their Mogadishu base to control most of southern Somalia, while the transitional Government remained confined to the small town of Baidoa, reliant on Ethiopian protection. Communities seemed prepared to tolerate the courts’ strict interpretation of sharia law – which included a ban on the popular narcotic khat and Western music – in return for the peace and security they provided.

But this fragile balance has now been overturned. Following the passage of a UN resolution authorising the deployment of an African Union peacekeeping force, the courts threatened jihad if any international troops entered Somalia. With tensions rising, Ethiopian forces launched a lightning offensive across southern Somalia in mid-December, killing hundreds of Islamist fighters and scattering the rest. The offensive had US, but not UN, support.

But it is far too early for the transitional Government to declare victory. The abrupt collapse of the courts has left a political vacuum across much of southern Somalia, which the weak and ineffectual transitional Government is currently unable to fill. Despite their damaged credibility, elements of the courts’ militias, including their al-Qa’ida associates, have survived the conflict largely intact and have threatened to wage a guerilla war. Likewise, the grassroots network of mosques, schools and private enterprises that has underpinned the spread of Salafist teachings and their extremist variants is also firmly in place and continues to expand thanks to generous contributions from Islamic charities and the private sector.

The transitional Government remains feeble, unpopular and faction ridden. Many Somalis are deeply concerned by the presence of Ethiopian troops in the Somali capital and the likely return of deeply unpopular militia leaders who had been overthrown by the courts. Mogadishu is still awash with weapons and the potential for violence lies just below the surface.

Lasting peace and security can now be achieved only if the transitional Government is reconstituted as a genuine government of national unity. The international community, with the US and Ethiopia playing key roles, must push the transitional Government to transform itself and Somalia’s institutions into inclusive and functional entities. The Ethiopian troops should be replaced as soon as possible with a broader, multilateral, peacekeeping presence to defuse public resentment towards the Ethiopian occupation.

Radical Islam in Somalia has been struck a heavy blow and the country now has a historic opportunity to end the devastation that has plagued it for the past 15 years. The coming months will determine whether Somalia emerges as a functioning state or follows the Iraqi and Afghan route back into anarchy, condemning its citizens to many more years of conflict. The international community must remain engaged and fulfil its responsibility to end the suffering of the Somali people.

Nick Grono is vice-president of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

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