Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 April 2007
Issue No. 839
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

No end to crisis

Meeting in Cairo, the International Contact Group on Somalia failed to come up with strategies that might end the ongoing conflict in the Horn of Africa, reports Dina Ezzat

The humanitarian catastrophe in Somalia is hard to exaggerate. This week international aid organisations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, warned of huge suffering among civilians in the Somali capital Mogadishu as a result of the heavy fighting that erupted four months ago among warring Somali factions and Ethiopian forces stationed in Somalia to prop up the government. Hundreds have been killed or wounded. Thousands are reported to have fled on foot, donkey-cart or trucks.

On Tuesday, at the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League, there were promises that a truce would be put in place and humanitarian aid made available, but nothing more concrete emerged.

The International Contact Group (ICG) on Somalia convened for a full day of meetings that produced little beyond the restatement of contradictory positions espousing hard-to- reconcile international, regional and Somali agendas. Britain, Italy, Kenya, Norway, Sweden, Tanzania, the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union and Arab League are all members of the ICG.

Assessments of the Somali dilemma and strategies to contain the conflict can hardly be said to be streamlined. Some, led by the US and Britain, insisted on qualifying the problem of Somalia as essentially terrorist. Their main aim was to prevent any possibility of a return by the popular Council of Islamic Courts (CIC). CIC more or less ran Mogadishu for the best part of last year and brought a degree of stability to a city that has been suffering the traumas of internal fighting for 15 years. Other participants -- despite their interest in tackling Islamist militancy, including unconfirmed reports of a wide-ranging Al-Qaeda presence -- preferred to focus on the tribal and clan aspects of the conflict.

The result was a communiqué that seemed even more bitty than usual as it attempted to reflect the different views of the participants. Tuesday's meeting ended with a firm call for a truce which might allow for a short break in hostilities -- a few days or maybe even a few weeks to allow the Somalis, and Ethiopian, forces to collect the corpses of the dead and help the wounded. Not much more, though, can be expected in terms of political reconciliation despite the communiqué appealing for an "inclusive and genuine political and reconciliation process, reaching out to all parts of Somalia". The CIC could participate in that process, according to statements made by Jendayi Frazier, head of the US delegation in a press conference that followed the meeting, though only in their capacity as members of various clans.

The greatest shortcoming of the ICG meeting is that it failed to address the continued presence of the Ethiopian troops. That is widely resented by Somalis, and underpins much of the current conflict. During the press conference following the meeting questions on the expected date of the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces remained unanswered. In theory Ethiopian troops are supposed to withdraw to be replaced by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). AMISOM, though, is far from being ready and it remains unclear which African countries would want to contribute troops to the peace-keeping force given the reluctance of Somalis to have foreign troops in the country.

During the press conference Salem Al-Khossibi, representative of the Arab League in Somalia, acknowledged the difficulties that would face any peace-keeping force in Somalia.

Given these hurdles Ethiopian troops, which have the full support of the US, are likely to continue to be deployed, under which circumstances it is hard to envisage an end to military attacks.

"The presence of foreign [troops] in Somalia only aggravates an already volatile situation," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit said in a written press statement yesterday. Egypt had earlier shown itself willing to tolerate a short-term Ethiopian presence to support Somalia's transitional government. Addis Ababa, though, failed to act on its promise to Cairo to withdraw its troops within two months of their initial deployment.

Nor did the meeting address the underlying weakness -- structural and economic -- of the transitional government. The Americans and Norwegians both promised to furnish sustained financial and administrative aid to the government but presented no concrete plans for wider and more equitable power and wealth sharing. The transitional government draws its support from smaller and less influential clans than does the CIC. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa's proposals to establish an effective follow-up mechanism for the process of political reconciliation have yet to be agreed.

An immediate cease-fire is what the ICG is hoping to secure to allow time for political dialogue. But the durability of any cease-fire depends on a change of attitude on the part of the US, with Washington apparently mired in its perception of Somalia as a possible haven for Al-Qaeda and other Islamist militant operatives, as well as on the part of Arab and African states that have turned a blind eye to the presence of Ethiopian forces in the belief that their deployment helps promote stability or else that objecting to their presence will lead to political confrontation with the US.

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