Somalia: Back to Perpetual War

10 March 2007

Somalia: Back to Perpetual War

By Gwynne Dyer

Through sixteen years of violent anarchy, most of Mogadishu’s population stayed put, but in the past few weeks tens of thousands have fled. Since Ethiopian troops installed the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in the city in late December, the Somali capital’s brief interval of peace and security has given way to renewed fighting, with the Ethiopian invaders replying to mortar attacks on their bases with indiscriminate artillery fire in the middle of the city.

Almost all Somalis see Ethiopia as their country’s main enemy, and behind the Ethiopians they see the United States. So when the Union of Islamic Courts that restored peace to the ruined city last June was forced to flee in late December, and US aircraft attacked retreating UIC fighters (targeting suspected al-Qaeda members, they claimed), resistance was inevitable.

The attacks on the Ethiopians by various Somali factions, some linked to the Islamic Courts and some to local warlords who returned to the city after the UIC was chased out, have grown so frequent that most of the TFG’s members have withdrawn from Mogadishu back to Baidoa, their former “provisional capital.” The plan was to replace Ethiopian troops with a multi-national African Union force as soon as possible, but the first Ugandan soldiers to arrive in Mogadishu on 6 March immediately came under fire as well.

Like his father before him, President George W. Bush has authorised a military intervention in Somalia, and once again it will end in tears. But there are two differences this time: the younger Bush is committing no American troops, and there are none of the genuinely humanitarian intentions that motivated the 1992 intervention. It’s just a question of making sure that “our guy” runs Somalia.

“Our guy,” in this case, is Abdullahi Yusuf, one of the many warlords to rise out of the chaos that has been Somalia for the past sixteen years. He has long been close to the Ethiopians, the only US ally in the Horn of Africa, and in 2004 he was chosen as president of the TFG by a Somali “parliament” meeting in Kenya and composed mainly of other warlords or their representatives.

While Washington approved of the choice, at that point it did not put much effort into helping Abdullahi Yusuf take control of Somalia. That all changed after June, 2006, when a US-backed operation by two warlords in Mogadishu, intended to capture three men suspected of planning the attacks on US embassies in East Africa in 1998, went badly wrong. The men were not captured — and the incident triggered a non-violent popular uprising that chased all the warlords and their troops from the city.

The organising force behind the popular uprising was the Union of Islamic Courts. Funded by local merchants in the hope that they could reduce the constant robberies and kidnaps that made it almost impossible to do business, the Islamic Courts quickly grew into a mass movement that embodied the longing of ordinary Somalis for an end to the violence. The peace they brought to Mogadishu soon spread over most of southern Somalia.

It was Somalis settling their own problems — just what all the foreigners had been urging them to do for so long — but unfortunately they had come up with the wrong answer: the courts were “Islamic”, and they wanted to enforce Sharia law. How else you might persuade Somalis to rise above their divisive clan loyalties, apart for appealing to their shared religious values, was not explained, but this solution was clearly unacceptable to the United States.

As an amorphous popular movement, the UIC had no control over its more loud-mouthed supporters, some of whom prattled freely about unifying all Somali-inhabited areas (which would mean invading Djibouti, northern Kenya, and much of eastern Ethiopia). Some very stupid UIC members even insisted on sheltering the three (non-Somali) men whom the United States wanted in connection with the 1998 embassy attacks. But the UIC was not a “terrorist organisation,” and it gave southern Somalia six months of peace.

That’s over now. Since the Ethiopians took Mogadishu, the violence has returned worse than ever, with warlords fighting each other to re-establish their turf and everybody having a crack at the hated Ethiopians — who respond with artillery fire. The peace is a memory, and the notion that a few thousand African Union peacekeepers are going to recreate it is a fantasy. (Besides, half of the promised 8,000 AU troops have yet to be volunteered.)

If Abdullahi Yusuf could bring peace to Somalia, with or without the collaboration of his fellow warlords, it would be a lot better than the chaos that prevailed a year ago. But it is very unlikely that he can do that whether the Ethiopian troops go home or not — and it is quite likely that they will go home soon, precisely because that would maximise the chaos. Ethiopia doesn’t want to occupy Somalia permanently; it just wants to cripple it.

The Islamic Courts will go on fighting the Ethiopians, Abdullahi Yusuf, and the other warlords, but they risk becoming just one more contender in the unending, multi-sided battle for control of Somalia. They were the country’s best chance for an end to the killing, but their moment has probably passed.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“As an…volunteered”)