Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 March - 4 April 2007
Issue No. 838
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

US detonates another timebomb

Stark choice for Somalia and the Horn of Africa, but Washington must keep out, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Click to view caption
A Somali woman watches from a window the deployment of the African Union troops in Mogadishu

With its fiercely independent nomadic tradition, Somalia is a land of proud and free people. The Somalis do not take kindly to foreign intervention in their complex domestic affairs, and like the neighbouring and culturally akin Afar, the Somalis have a reputation for seeking harsh retribution against those who dare intrude into their harsh wastelands. However, unlike the Afar people, the Somalis never had a centralised government, a supreme sultan who oversaw their welfare.

In Somalia you can usually count on people to stand up for their freedom; they do not acknowledge bosses other than clan leaders who have little sway over the Somalis as a whole. Rather than working to improve their condition, the tribal and clan leaders foment trouble among the people. The Council of Islamic Courts (CICs) emerged as the only Somali leaders since the notorious military strongman Siad Barre was toppled in 1990 who refused to take advantage of the divisive dynamics of Somali society that their weaker predecessors have so eagerly exploited. The CICs worked hard to overcome tribal and clan conflicts. Outsiders could not understand the power and popular appeal of CICs and were horrified.

So the prevailing assumption that Somali political chaos is the result of misgovernance is wrong.

Somalia, with its infrastructure in ruins and its war-battered economy, was a walkover as far as the Ethiopians were concerned. Nevertheless, after their swift routing of the CICs forces, the Ethiopians knew all too well that, lacking the resources and political will, they couldn't continue as a permanent occupation force. They also understood that the CICs would soon regroup and undertake a guerrilla war that the Ethiopians couldn't contain.

The greenlight for the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia unquestionably came from Washington but were the Somali public consulted? No. There was no back-up plan, and the distinct possibility of yet another protracted civil war instigated by Washington can only further reduce Washington's credibility in the Horn of Africa and the continent in general.

With all the sacrifices being asked of the long-suffering Somali people, they at least ought to have the right to choose their own leaders. It was obvious as of last year that the vast majority of Somalis opted for the Islamist form of government espoused by the CICs. Now, the political polarisation of the country is becoming ever more apparent, with the vast majority of Somali people opting for CIC rule.

The Ethiopian government has been keeping a low profile over the disturbances in the Somali capital Mogadishu. However, hundreds of Somalis have already been killed in fighting between CICs sympathisers and the Ethiopian-backed troops of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). And Ethiopia, far from trying to build bridges with the Islamist movement in Somalia now resorts to old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy.

One dilemma is that the TFG, propped up by Addis Ababa, is hugely unpopular, especially in Mogadishu and its immediate environs. Ethiopian intervention has not resolved anything. For many Somalis, the warlords (many of whom have joined the abhorred TFG) are evil incarnate. Their misrule was intolerable. Internecine fighting among the warlords in recent years has left the economy in shambles. This has resulted in yet another country having its Islamic roots cut by Western interference, and consequently being propelled towards the West.

The CICs invented an imaginative scheme designed to politically Islamise Somalia. At first, the Islamists' efforts were clumsy though they were learning fast before the Ethiopian invasion. The lure of political Islam is powerful among Somalis who want to forget the tribal and clan divisions of the past. Their leader and arch-enemy of the Ethiopians, Sheikh Dhaher Aweis, clearly identified tribal and clan politics as the bane of Somalia.

Aweis is right in many respects, and from the point of view of Somali society, wouldn't dislodging the warlords and establishing a stable, honest, united government be a good thing? Why is he necessarily wrong in thinking that an Islamic republic is the best solution for Somalia's political and socio-economic woes? Aweis is not the ogre Washington makes him out to be.

Though he has lost authority with the Ethiopian invasion, Aweis is plotting a political comeback. He has always been treated seriously -- whether with respect or dislike -- by all Somali society. In sharp contrast, Somali President Abdullah Youssef has pinned his hopes on the Americans and Ethiopians. He is also counting on the United Nations and the African Union.

In Africa, Somalia shares with Swaziland and Lesotho the distinction of being composed of a single ethnic group. Swaziland and Lesotho are tiny states either entirely or partially surrounded by South Africa and are economically bound to that powerhouse. Somalia, on the other hand, is a sprawling nation that has not had a central government since 1990 and has no obvious patron.

The violence in Somalia will now test the robustness of the TFG. And not only Somalia is at stake. Political instability is spreading throughout the Horn of Africa. In the estimation of many Somalia observers, there will most likely be a shift even further towards militant Islam among the Somali populace. That is something Washington is not at all capable of contemplating. Once again the Americans must now re-examine their prejudices before it is too late. As the Libyan leader was quoted as saying on Al-Jazeera, "1.5 million were slaughtered in Algeria; 750,000 in Libya under colonialism. The Sudanese people are not children. The real reason for America's interest in Darfur is the oil and not human rights. Washington is only interested in the exploitation of Darfur's resources. Do you think they really care about Darfur? What ridiculous notion."

These arguments until recently resonated with the Sudanese government's sympathisers and no doubt with Somalis.

Consensus -- not confrontation -- is the only way out. Tempers will have to cool to permit substantive talks, but the flaring up of fighting in both Mogadishu and Darfur do not bode well. The atmosphere is acrimonious in both Somalia and Sudan. Ultimately, each country needs to take responsibility to ensure political stability. But both Sudan and Somalia have yet to catch the peace fever.

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