Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 November 2006
Issue No. 818
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Deal or no deal

As Somali peace talks held under the auspices of the Arab League get underway in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, the future of Somalia gets murkier, writes Gamal Nkrumah

These are miserable times for the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia. Somali peace talks are underway, but the devil, as usual, lies in the details. Headed by the once powerful leader of Puntland, the TFG is virtually under siege in the central city of Baidoa, northeast of the Somali capital Mogadishu. Somali President Abdallah Yusuf, long considered a protégé of the Ethiopians, derives much of his power from his backers in Addis Ababa. He is a man in a hurry because time appears to be running out for him and his beleaguered government. Matters came to a head last week when the forces of the TFG and the Islamist militias battled over the strategic hilltop town of Burhakaba between Baidoa and Mogadishu.

It is hard to quantify the overall effect of the latest round of hostilities between the militias of the Council of Islamic Courts (CICs) and the TFG forces, backed, if one believes the Islamists' claims, by Ethiopian troops. This is a charge the Ethiopians vehemently deny claiming that they have no troops inside Somali territory. The Islamist militias were forced to retreat temporarily from Burhakaba. And so the response of the Islamist leadership in Mogadishu was stern and swift. They vowed to wage a jihad against the TFG and the Ethiopians.

On the political front, too, the Islamists have been outmaneuvering the TFG. Somali peace talks have been postponed indefinitely largely because the CICs refuse to have the Ethiopians and Kenyans as interlopers. An increasing number of Somali members of parliament, officially aligned to the TFG, have left Baidoa for Mogadishu to work with the CICs. It is not clear precisely how many Islamist sympathisers are in Baidoa, but it is obvious that many Somali lawmakers are banking on an Islamist takeover.

This poses different challenges for Somalia's neighbours. Ethiopia and Kenya have large and restive ethnic Somali minorities and both countries are suspicious of the Islamists.

The ringleaders of the Islamic courts are mostly former members of Al-Itihad Al-Islami -- a group that has sustained colossal losses at the hands of the Ethiopian army in the past decade. They regrouped and now operate under a different guise. The CIC leader, Sheikh Hassan Daher Aweis, a long-time foe of both the Ethiopians and Somali President Yusuf, was himself a leader of Al-Itihad Al-Islami before it was routed by the Ethiopians and disbanded.

Aweis never forgave the Ethiopians, and there is no love lost between him and the Somali president. He has denied any direct links with Al-Qaeda, but the Ethiopians insist that he does have close connections with leading figures in the movement. Indeed, many of the leaders are reputed to have close links with Al-Qaeda. Furthermore, according to intelligence sources of the United States Anti-Terror Task Force based in neighbouring Djibouti, one of the leading and most militant CIC leaders Aden Hashi Farah Ayro is believed to have trained in Afghanistan during the days of the Taliban. The CIC leadership is also suspected of harbouring militant Islamists who participated in the bombing of the US embassies in the Kenyan and Tanzanian capitals of Nairobi and Dar Al-Salam respectively in 2002.

Ethiopia and Kenya, the two countries most concerned about developments in Somalia, are, together with Somalia, members of the Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD) -- a loose regional grouping that includes seven eastern African nations. The TFG has appealed to IGAD to dispatch peacekeeping troops to Somalia, but the CICs are vehemently opposed to the stationing of foreign troops in the country. IGAD is also a forum where Somali peace prospects are discussed on a regular basis. However, this feeble regional talking shop has yielded few results.

It is hoped that the Arab League sponsored Somali peace talks would eventually prove to be more successful. The leaders of CIC have expressed more faith in the mediatory efforts of the Arab League. Somalia -- a country unique in Africa in that it is composed in the main of a single ethnic group - the Somali people, and a single religion -- Islam, is a member of the Arab League. CIC leaders are keen on greater Arab involvement in Somali affairs -- both political and economic.

The CIC leaders, however, have grave reservations against the intervention of Western and African parties in domestic Somali politics.

The West, too, is reluctant to get directly involved in Somali affairs especially after the US debacle in which the late Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid in 1993 masterminded America's most disastrous firefight loss since the Vietnam War.

The time appears ripe for both the TFG and the CICs to go back to the drawing board and devise a means of governing Somalia together. A compromise has to be reached or else the country is destined to be partitioned. The CICs, in spite of their impressive conquests in the south and central parts of the country, have failed to make any inroads in northern Somalia. The self-declared independent state of Somaliland in northwestern Somalia is not recognised by the international community, but its leaders have close ties to Ethiopia. Puntland, an autonomous political entity in northeastern Somalia, also has a flourishing trade with Ethiopia and a number of Gulf Arab states. Both Somaliland and Puntland are strongly opposed to the CICs.

If the TFG is to have a lasting political impact on Somalia, it must start soon. It must also redefine the nature of its relationship with Somaliland, Puntland and the CICs. Observers also believe that the TFG must appear to distance itself from Ethiopia if it is to appeal to a wider segment of Somali society. The Ethiopians, however, counter that they do not have any designs on Somalia. "We want peace in Somalia. We do not intend to interfere in Somali domestic affairs," Ethiopia's Ambassador to Egypt Ibrahim Idris told Al-Ahram Weekly.

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