Crunch time for Somalia
As fighting intensifies in Somalia, the UN moves to defuse tensions, inflaming passions in the process, writes Gamal Nkrumah
The members of the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) have spent the past few months praying for a miracle. These prayers seem to have been partially answered. Much to the consternation of the militias of the Council of Islamic Courts (CICs), United Nations Security Council Resolution 1676 was unanimously adopted. The resolution momentarily caused some turmoil in the CIC camp.
Somali President Abdullah Youssef was ecstatic. He welcomed Resolution 1676, as his forces have lost virtually the entire southern and central areas of Somalia. The UN resolution has approved the deployment of African peace-keeping troops in the country, giving Youssef some breathing space in which to lick his wounds and plot his next move.
The world, at last, seems to have woken up to the Somali political powder keg.
The resolution calls for "investigating, in coordination with relevant international agencies, of all financial, maritime and other revenue- generating activities used to commit arms embargo violations". The TFG, which has the backing of the international community and the Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD) -- a loose regional grouping that includes seven eastern African nations -- will now be able to act as equals of the CICs.
The military successes of the CIC militias have conferred on it a special status in Somalia, granting it legitimate political influence. The CICs are therefore vehemently opposed to any form of foreign intervention, including that of the UN and the AU.
The CIC leader, Sheikh Hassan Daher Aweis, a long-time foe of both the Somali President Youssef and his Ethiopian backers, was himself a leader of militant group Al-Itihad Al-Islami before it was routed by the Ethiopians and disbanded in the late 1990s. As far as Aweis is concerned, any foreign intervention is tantamount to "imperialist designs" on the country.
Mohamed Ali Gedi, the Somali prime minister, accused the Islamists of attacking government positions. Fighting erupted in Dinsoor, 110 kilometres southwest of Baidoa. "Heavy fighting has begun in the Dinsoor area," Sheikh Sherif Ahmed, head of the executive wing of the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia, told the congregation after last Friday noon prayers. "Stand up and overcome the enemies who have invaded our land," Sherif thundered. He warned that the Ethiopians would be given a severe thrashing if they did not stop meddling in Somali domestic politics.
"Our forces have been raided by Ethiopian troops. So people: get up and fight against the Ethiopians," Sherif urged. "People: get up and fight against the Ethiopians," he declaimed, as he egged his followers on.
The Somali Islamists also claim Ethiopia shelled the strategic town of Bandiradley, 630 kilometres northeast of Mogadishu and near the Ethiopian border -- the northernmost town under the control of the CICs. The Islamists cannot accept the presence of UN troops, especially ones that will be used to bolster the TFG's authority. Ethiopia and Somalia share a long border of more than 1,000 kilometres. With its large ethnic Somali population, Ethiopia is most concerned about the repercussions of the political crisis in Somalia and is especially worried about the possible spill-over effect.
"Ethiopia supports the resolution. It was late, but better late than never. It is important and long overdue and we want to see it implemented as quickly as possible," Ethiopia's Ambassador to Egypt Ibrahim Idris told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The Islamists argue that Ethiopia is fighting a war by proxy in Somalia. The Ethiopians in turn deny the charge. "We have been coordinating activities with Washington as far as the war against terrorism in the Horn of Africa is concerned. However, our main partners are the African Union and the IGAD. We also are careful to coordinate closely with the UN," Ambassador Idris explained. "That is why Resolution 1676 is vitally important for us."
He denied that there are Ethiopian troops fighting alongside the TFG forces in Somalia. However, he did concede that there are "a few hundred" Ethiopian troops training the TFG forces, but he stressed that they do not take part in the actual combat.
The CICs represent "clear and present danger" to Ethiopian interests, warned Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zennawi. He called on Arab states to try to mediate in the region. "We are working with Arab League to enter into meaningful dialogue and power-sharing," remarked François Fall, the UN chief envoy to Somalia.
The United States is reluctant to get directly involved in Somali affairs, especially after the 1993 debacle in which the late Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid masterminded America's most disastrous fire-fight loss since the Vietnam War.
Instead, Washington is making overtures to win hearts and minds in Somalia. This week, a US Air Force Hercules transport plane delivered relief supplies to 100,000 Somali refugees in three camps in northeast Kenya.
Outgoing UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan hopes to convince the Islamists that an African peace-keeping force is in the best interests of Somalia. "They are going to stabilise the situation and to help their people; they are not coming in as an invasion force of any kind," Annan explained. "It is important that we get the Somalis to understand that the force is coming to help," Annan told reporters in New York.
A recently-released UN report accused Djibouti, Egypt, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria of supplying the Somali Islamists with arms, advisers and fighters. Ethiopia, Uganda and Yemen, on the other hand, are allegedly aligned with the TFG. All states that provide financial or military backing for Somali protagonists are technically in violation of the 1992 UN arms embargo on Somalia.
Iran, in particular, is reported to have a special interest in Somalia as the latter is a possible supplier of uranium for Tehran's nuclear programme. Iranians were reportedly sighted in Dusa Mareb, hometown of Sheikh Hassan Daher Aweis, leader of the Council of Islamic Courts, where rich uranium deposits are located.