January 06, 2007

Somalia: A Country in the Eye of the Storm

January 5, 2007

Somalia President, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed , and President Mwai Kibaki in Mombasa on Tuesday. File picture

It took only 10 days to expel the feared Islamic Courts Union fighters from most of Somalia.

Backed by the Ethiopian army, Somalia's interim Government attacked the Islamists who had declared a jihad (holy war) against Ethiopia three weeks ago. The Islamists abandoned their base in Mogadishu.

The easy defeat raises questions as to whether the militia are on a tactical retreat or a run for their dear life. The Islamists, whose ultimate weapon is faith, have no organised army. They depend on inexperienced young recruits thus they were no match for the highly trained and well-equipped Ethiopians.

US supports Ethiopia

The US, which has a naval base in neighbouring Djibouti, is thought to support the Ethiopian attack but the Councillor for Political Affairs in Nairobi, Mr Larry E. Andre Jr, said the embassy would not comment on the issue for now.

It is unlikely that the fleeing forces will be able to regroup, for several reasons.

First, they have been unable to get refuge in neighbouring countries, including Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya and the Gulf of Aden. There is no escape route for the Islamists.

Within the country's borders Somalis are divided along clan lines. The clans have, since 1991, been fighting for self-preservation more than to protect religious, social or political ideals. The conflict is not sectarian in nature. A majority of Somalis are Sunnis. Few Somalis embrace Shiaism. This rules out a repeat of the situation in Iraq or Afghanistan where the extremist Taliban are fighting the government.

It's a haven for terrorists

Most Somalis are moderate Muslims. The worst-case scenario would be the re-grouping of the warlords who are currently fighting amongst themselves for the control of various enclaves and for survival and political power.

The so-called terrorist training camps came into being in Somalia after the fall of dictator Mohammed Siad Barre. With no government the warlords created fiefdoms.

Interestingly, such a situation is conducive to the growth of terrorism.

Whether or not the chaos in Somalia will end depends on how strong the interim Somali Government will be and how it will incorporate the various clans and Islamists into the administration. The support that the Government will get from the African Union, Igad and donor countries in rebuilding the country's economy and infrastructure is also key. The citizens of Somalia must also back the interim Government.

What will happen in the next few weeks may determine the future of Somalia, which has not known peace for more than 15 years.

Ethiopia is a traditional enemy of Somalia

Danger lies in the fact that Ethiopia, a traditional enemy of Somalia, has been the main supporter of the unpopular Transitional Government of President Abdullahi Yusuf. Immediately after taking office in 2004, Yusuf visited Addis Ababa seeking military support from Ethiopia which has a 20,000-strong armed force.

Critics say Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's perceived anti-Islamic stance and his close ties with the US could jeopardise peace-seeking efforts in Somalia.

Zenawi is determined to see that no Islamic state borders Ethiopia.

The Islamists within Somalia could rise against the Ethiopian-backed Somali Government with the help of Islamic sympathisers from neighbouring and Middle Eastern countries. This would make Ethiopia a target of terrorism attacks.

Many countries involved in the conflict

The Islamic Courts Union allegedly receives financial support from rich individuals in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. It has also been claimed that Islamist radicals globally are holed up in the country. It is important to note that some of the youthful Islamic militias and supporters of the Islamic Courts have been integrated into the general populace of Somalia.

There are reports that Ethiopia's rival, Eritrea, has been supplying arms to the Islamists. Both the Islamists and Eritrea have denied these claims.

Since the bombing of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in August 7, 1998 the US has been working to prevent the spread of the so-called fundamentalist Islam in Africa. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the explosions.

Convinced that the Islamists were linked to Al-Qaeda, US supported the warlords who were fighting against the Islamists. But they failed in their bid when the Islamists captured Mogadishu in June 2006.

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