January 04, 2007

Invading Somalia is no recipe for stability

January 4 2007
There were essentially two reasonable choices to be made about Somalia prior to Ethiopia’s devastating invasion last month and what looks like the temporary rout of the Islamist alliance that had taken charge of the south and centre of the country.
One was to do nothing and let the Islamists, grouped in the Union of Islamic Courts, get on with it. In the six months they were in control, after all, they provided the first, rough semblance of order since the 1991 collapse of the dictatorship of Mohammed Siad Barre plunged the country into a long night of anarchy and warlordism.
The second, complementary option was to see whether it was possible to do business with the Islamists, whose legitimacy among Somalis was certainly no less than that of the largely theoretical but internationally recognised transitional government Ethiopia claims to have intervened to support.
What we have instead is an invasion, backed by the US, behind a government with no apparent social base. If the Ethiopians stay they risk uniting much of Somalia against them. If they go, as they say they soon will, they will leave a political vacuum, with Somalia’s well-armed clans scrabbling over the carcass of the country. Eventually, it will almost certainly be the more disciplined but now radicalised Islamists that end up holding the ring.
We are, in short, looking at yet another geopolitical disaster, which could spread fighting across the Horn of Africa, a region at the crossroads of the Middle East and Africa that is already blighted by floods and drought, famine and desertification, with a long history of conflict. To the north, Ethiopia’s arch-rival, Eritrea, is already sending arms to the Islamists, while, to the south, the fighting has reached the borders of north-east Kenya.
Admittedly, Somalia has presented peculiar difficulties since it imploded as a state 15 years ago. Its people emerged shattered from colonialism. Although among the most homogeneous in Africa, with the same language and Muslim religion and largely from the same ethnic group, they have built their identities around six rival clans and tributaries of feuding sub-clans.
One can see moreover, why Somalia presses so many American buttons. As a failed state in transition from warlords’ rule to an Islamist emirate, it resembles Afghanistan. The humiliation of the failed US intervention in Mogadishu in 1993 – the Black Hawk Down episode – ranks with the headlong retreat of US marines from Beirut a decade earlier. A quick, ostensible victory must also have looked very tempting for a Bush administration responsible for the debacle in Iraq.
Washington claims the Union of Islamic Courts is allied to al-Qaeda. That looks as doubtful as the recent record of US intelligence. Certainly, the Islamist alliance has its extremists. Their influence and audience is now set to grow exponentially. And Somalia could indeed become a new magnet for and incubator of jihadi terrorism – just as Iraq did after the US invasion.
This invasion is not the answer to Somalia’s problems. Whatever the intentions of Addis Ababa and the increasingly assertive government of Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian leader, his country is too poor and, with very long borders, too porous to stay in Somalia.
The transitional government, by itself, lacks all credibility. It was created in Nairobi and confined, until last month’s invasion, to Baidoa, close to Ethiopia’s border. It never asserted its authority; its prime minister, Ali Mohammed Gedi, does not even command the support of his sub-clan.
The Islamist alliance was able to restore order in Mogadishu and even open the ports. Its methods are brutal but Sharia law is widely accepted and, in current conditions, welcomed in Somalia. The Islamists, moreover, are not going away. Their retreat looks like the tactical prelude to guerrilla war.
The future looks bleak unless an understanding is reached between the Islamists and the transitional government, with Ethiopian troops replaced by some stabilising force. That probably has to come from the United Nations, in conjunction with the African Union. Neither organisation has covered itself in glory recently, in Sudan or Somalia, and both are overstretched. But the price of failure in the Horn of Africa will be high indeed.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

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