From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Thu Jun 11 2009 - 06:01:25 EDT
Somalia: The Thorn of Africa
Charles Onunaiju With Agency Report
11 June 2009
THERE has been a serious escalation in the fighting in Mogadishu, the Somali
capital, in recent weeks after the comparative lull earlier in the year.
Government forces have been trying since mid-May to dislodge rebel Islamist
fighters who have taken control of most of the capital and the countryside.
More than 45 people were killed in a single day of fighting in late May,
making it one of the bloodiest days the capital has seen this year.
Mogadishu, already reduced to a shell of a city after a decade and a half of
relentless warfare, is being further depopulated after government troops
started their counteroffensive. More than 50,000 people have fled the
capital and are trying to find shelter in the already overcrowded refugee
camps inside the country and in Kenya.
Since the start of the new cycle of war in Somalia in 2007 following the
Ethiopian occupation, around 18,000 civilians have been killed and more than
a million reduced to the status of refugees. Three million Somalis subsist
on emergency food handouts from international agencies.
Islamist resistance fighters had taken up arms after the Ethiopian invasion.
Their successful fight had forced the United States-backed Ethiopian troops
to retreat in many places.
The international community backed by the African Union (A.U.) had, in a
last-ditch attempt to bring stability to the war-torn country, propped up a
government headed by Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a former leader of the Islamic
Courts Union (ICU), which had spearheaded the struggle against the Ethiopian
forces and their local warlord allies. Sheikh Sharif now heads a government
that includes warlords and politicians supported by the U.S. and its closest
ally in the region, Ethiopia.
The arrangement put in place after the withdrawal of the Ethiopian troops in
early 2009 was never accepted by the more militant Islamist groups. The main
Islamist fighting force today is Al Shabaab, which the West accuses of
having links with Al Qaeda. Another umbrella group, the Hizbul Islam, has
also been actively involved in the recent fighting in Mogadishu.
In the past couple of months, the Islamists have been targeting prominent
individuals and senior officials connected with the new government. By early
May, it had become clear that government troops along with allied militias
and the 4,000-strong A.U. peacekeeping force in the capital had decided to
take on the Islamist militias, which are in control of large parts of
southern and central Somalia.
The A.U. peacekeepers do not have a mandate to engage in counter-insurgency
measures but this could soon change as there is a consensus in the continent
that the Islamists will have to be stopped in their tracks.
The current job profile of the A.U. forces in Somalia is to protect
important government installations and provide security to top civilian
administrators. After the steady advances made by the Shabaab militia in
recent months, the A.U. has pushed the panic button.
The pan-African organisation has blamed neighbouring Eritrea for providing
weapons to the Islamist forces. Eritrea and Ethiopia have been at
loggerheads for more than a decade now. They even fought a bloody war over a
minor border dispute. During the Bill Clinton presidency, Eritrea was one of
the closest allies of Washington.
But in the past decade, Ethiopia, which is much larger than its foe and has
a bigger army, has been embraced as the ally of choice by the U.S. in the
so-called "war against terror" in the strategic Horn of Africa.
Tiny Eritrea, which felt short-changed by the international community, has
defiantly struck an anti-American posture. A United Nations commission
looking into the origins of Eritrea's war with Ethiopia had ruled in the
former's favour, holding Addis Ababa responsible for sparking off the border
war. But the Ethiopian government chose to ignore the U.N.
Now Eritrea is trying to make big brother Ethiopia bleed on the killing
fields of Somalia. The Eritrean leadership may also be giving tacit support
to the separatist fighters in the Ethiopian province of Ogaden. The people
of Ogaden are also Somalis. Ethiopia and Somalia had gone to war over Ogaden
in the 1970s.
In the third week of May, the A.U. called on the U.N. Security Council to
apply sanctions on Eritrea. The A.U. also wants the U.N. to impose a no-fly
zone and sea blockade on Somalia.
This is the first time that the A.U. has called for sanctions on a
member-state. Before that, the East African regional grouping, the Inter
Governmental Authority on Development (Igad), accused the Eritrean
government of "instigating and financing" the fighting in Somalia. Eritrea
had walked out of the group in 2007, accusing it of failing to bring peace
to the region.
The Security Council has already voiced concern over the reports that
Eritrea is supplying arms to the Islamist militias in Somalia "in breach of
the U.N. arms embargo". The Eritrean government has denied the charges and
has instead blamed the U.S. for misleading the international community.
Eritrea's Ambassador to the U.N. said that the reports of arms being
supplied to those opposing the government in Mogadishu "is totally false and
misleading". Isaias Afwerki, the Eritrean President, has accused the Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the U.S. of smuggling in weapons into Somalia.
"We don't interfere in Somalia and we don't want to see any terrorism
prevail there," he told an international news agency.
But the most prominent leader of the Islamists, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys,
recently told the Reuters news agency that the Islamists had the support of
Eritrea. "Eritrea supports us and Ethiopia is our enemy. We once helped both
countries but Ethiopia did not reward us," he told the news agency.
Sheikh Aweys, whom Somalis call the "kingmaker", had recently returned to
Somalia after spending more than two years in exile in Eritrea. Aweys had
parted ways politically with Sheikh Sharif, the current President of
Somalia, after the latter started negotiating with the Ethiopian government,
soon after the fall of Mogadishu in 2007. During the brief rule of the ICU
in 2007, Sharif, a schoolteacher, was chosen by Aweys to be its
Aweys has refused to compromise with the moderate Islamists who are today
holding important positions in the government installed by the international
community in Mogadishu. President Sharif initially tried to placate the
radical Islamists by agreeing to implement the Sharia law. But Aweys had
started viewing his former protege as a sell-out to the West and Ethiopia.
Upon his return to the Somali capital, Aweys told his supporters that the
government led by Sheikh Sharif had been appointed "by the enemies of
He said that the international community cannot prevent Somalis from
choosing their own form of government. During the short period the ICU ruled
Mogadishu and much of Somalia, peace prevailed and the warlords were forced
to make a retreat.
Aweys described the A.U. peacekeepers in Mogadishu as "bacteria" that has to
be removed. Meanwhile, the rump Somali Parliament has passed a law that
rules that anybody fighting against the government of Sheikh Sharif is
guilty of fighting against Islam. Aweys, on the other hand, has vowed to
create an "Islamic Republic of Somalia". The U.S. government had accused
Sheikh Aweys of sheltering suspects responsible for the bombings of the
American embassies in Nairobi (Kenya) and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania).
The insurgent group Shabaab has been labelled as a "terrorist group" by the
U.S. State Department. There are worrying signs that Ethiopian troops are
preparing to re-invade Somalia when the situation deteriorates.
The regional press has reported the presence of Ethiopian troops in the
border towns of Somalia. But the Ethiopian government has denied this. The
fact remains that Addis Ababa continues to view Al Shabaab as a serious
threat to its long-term security interests.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had claimed that the Ethiopian
invasion had successfully curbed the power of radical Islamists. Zenawi said
earlier in the year that the objective of the Ethiopian military offensive
was to prove to the Islamists "that they cannot ride the Shabaab horse to
He claimed at the time that the Ethiopian military had been "successful
against the Shabaab". But the facts on the ground tell a different story.
The Shabaab continues to be the main fighting force in Somalia. By the
second half of May, the insurgent groups had moved half a kilometre away
from the presidential palace.
The top U.N. official in Mogadishu, Ahmadou Ould-Abdullah, said in mid-May
that an estimated 280-300 foreign fighters were helping the insurgents. He
said that Chechens and Afghans were among those training local fighters in
explosives and tactics.
Roadside bombings and suicide attacks have been occurring with increasing
frequency in Mogadishu. Ethiopia may again be prompted by the U.S. to
despatch its troops to Somalia to deal with the Shabaab.
The A.U. has promised to bolster its peacekeeping force in Somalia with more
firepower and personnel. The international community has pledged around $200
million to the Somali government to fight the insurgents and also the
scourge of piracy that has emanated from the battle-scarred land, which has
known no peace in the past two decades. Piracy is only a symptom of the
malaise that has gripped Somalia, a collapsed state.
The Central government only controls a few blocks in Mogadishu. The Somali
coast, in the absence of a central authority, has been ravaged by outsiders.
Toxic waste has been dumped along the long coastline. Foreign trawlers have
depleted the territorial waters of fish. Piracy was one of the few options
left for many poverty-stricken Somalis.