Somalia's Dangerous Path
August 7, 2006 -- Assassinations, desertions from the United Nations-backed interim government, and a thrust by Islamic militiamen into central Somalia reflect a fast-moving political game being played out in the Horn of Africa. Somalia is heading into dangerous territory - again. There is a growing fear that Somalia is making a shift from one of Africa's most notorious failed nations into a radical Islamic state. Looming in the background is a worsening drought and concomitant widespread hunger. While global attention is focused on the Middle East, events are shaping up in the Horn of Africa for an escalation in tensions and greater human misery. This has implications for the stability of Eastern Africa, the surrounding sea lands, and the long-term security of nearby Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
The Rise of the UIC
At the core of the drama is the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), an Islamic group that allegedly has links to, or at the very least sympathies with, al-Qaeda. The UIC, which is also known as the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia or SICS, has gained control over the capital of Mogadishu after five months of fighting warlords, some of them allegedly backed by the United States. Islamic militiamen have since gained control of Mogadishu's port facilities and much of the south. The UIC has also opened the capital's international airport for commercial traffic for the first time in 11 years, with flights by Jubba Airways to Saudi Arabia and UAE. In addition, the UIC government has sent forces to the central part of the country to clean up nests of pirates and help the local population establish Islamic courts. The message is simple - the UIC is here to provide law and order, based on the imposition of Sharia - Islamic law. Giving this a harder edge, the UIC replaced its moderate leader with Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is alleged by the United States to have ties to al-Qaeda.
What gives the UIC a relatively high degree of appeal, especially in the southern part of Somalia, is that it represents the first break with chaos since 1991. That is when the brutal dictatorship of socialist strongman Siad Barre fell, leaving nothing in its place but a tangle of squabbling warlords with followings based on either individual, geographical or clan loyalty. Like the Taliban's early days in Afghanistan, the UIC offers something that has been in precious short supply - law and order. In turn, that law and order holds out the promise for many people to get on with their lives as well as opening the door for the economy to function. It should come as no surprise that some of the biggest supporters of the Islamic movement come from the business community.
Although Somalia does not have a tradition of radical Islamic fundamentalism, the travesty of the past two decades has been a profound transforming experience for the population. As the London School of Economics Professor I.M. Lewis noted in his book, A Modern History of Somalia (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2002): "Where secular institutions had so spectacularly collapsed, this naturally promoted fundamentalist trends (such as al-Islah) in local Islam, which had previously been largely Sufi in character, and these were encouraged by financial support from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern centres. This intensification of Islamic sentiments was occurring in an otherwise extremely fragmented society, where the only other general bases for social cohesion were clan and clan segment identity, and allegiance to a powerful protector with force at his disposal." Considering the alternatives to the UIC, the Islamic grouping (which does have a more moderate wing), clearly has some degree of appeal.
It should also be noted that the rise of UIC has longer-term societal implications. While the UIC has gained some degree of popular support, its opposition was not hard to beat, considering most of them were thug-like warlords. The benefits of law and order, the removal of roadblocks at each major intersection of the capital city, and the re-opening of the international airport have done much to win the battle of hearts and minds. An additional bonus for the UIC has been the Transitional Federal Government (TFG)'s dependence on Ethiopia for military support - not only has the interim government relied upon Somalia's traditional rivals, the Ethiopians are Christians.
However, once the threat of warlordism recedes, one must question the long-term popularity of living under a tough interpretation of Sharia, especially in a country where the Islamic tradition has been more moderate. Certainly the radically fundamentalist approach taken by the Taliban once in power in Afghanistan was brutally repressive and resented by the population. There have already been reports of public discontent with some the UIC's public policies, though the trade-off of public safety appears to be the UIC's trump card for the moment - at least for now.
The Interim Government - A Straw Man
The major alternative to the UIC is the interim TFG government based in the provincial town of Baidoa, 155 miles west of Mogadishu. It is headed by President Abdullahi Yusuf (a former member of Said Barre's regime) and Prime Minister Mohammed Ali Gedi, backed by an agreement between most of the country's factions in 2004, and supported by the United Nations and the African Union. Despite the all-star chorus of international support, the interim government is a straw man. Gedi is seeking to form a new government, as the last one dissolved over the issue of whether to negotiate with the UIC.
Unfortunately for the TFG, it presides over no meaningful military force and has among its members some of Somalia's despised warlords, who have been linked to past violence. In addition, the main military backer of the interim government is Ethiopia, the Christian neighbor with which Somalia fought a bitter war during the 1970s. Certainly the TFG's level of powerless was marked in late July when UIC militiamen came within 40 miles of Baidoa, prompting a call for a foreign troops (as peacekeepers) and the dispatch of Ethiopian forces into the town and surrounding area.
The TFG is increasingly fragile. It is one in a long line of government experiments since 1991 to attempt reunification. In July the interim government was challenged not only by the UIC, but also suffered the assassination of one of its ministers while they were leaving a mosque in Baidoa, survived a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Gedi, and saw some of its few troops desert to the UIC. The same Prime Minister went to the airwaves claiming that Egypt, Iran, Libya and Eritrea are seeking to destabilize his government, i.e. via by violent acts, such as assassination of ministers. In early August the government was dissolved by the President, leaving Gedi in the position of seeking to form a new cabinet.
The TFG exists largely on the goodwill of outside forces (including other African states worried about the spread of Islamic terrorism), seeking to impose a solution on the headache that has been Somalia. It has no momentum, especially as the UIC appears no longer interested in holding talks (held in Sudan). As David Shinn, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, noted in early August 2006: "The TFG gets weaker and as it gets weaker its bargaining position gets weaker, too." 1
Considering the involvement of Ethiopia in Somali affairs, it is likely that Eritrea is also seeking to strengthen the UIC. Eritrea fought a long war of independence against Ethiopia that ended in 1993, followed by a bloody border war in 1998-2000. Since that time relations between the two countries have been barely cordial. From Eritrea's standpoint, an anti-Ethiopian government in Mogadishu would give it a little more leverage against its larger neighbor, something to be welcomed in the realpolitik game that is taking place in the Horn of Africa.
Eritrea's role came into question in late July when two airplanes (marked with the Kazakh flag) landed at Mogadishu International Airport and were quickly unloaded by Islamic militiamen. 2 Although local journalists were unable to verify the contents, it was widely believed to have been weapons from Eritrea (though some have argued Iran). Whatever the point of origin, any additional weapons helps to make the UIC a stronger military force on the ground and raises the possibility that if its efforts to bring central Somalia under control are achieved, it will push on to the north or against Baidoa.
Any further expansion by the UIC raises a number of interesting questions pertaining to the regional balance of power and al-Qaeda's role. Osama bin Laden released two audio statements since late April 2006, indicating al-Qaeda's increasing interest in East Africa, in particular Sudan and Somalia. As for the latter, he praised the UIC's victories and vowed "We will fight (foreign) soldiers in the land of Somalia...and we reserve the right to punish them on their land and anywhere possible." 3
Since the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001, al-Qaeda has lacked a safe base of operations (the mountainous border area of Pakistan not being the same as having full run of a country). It has also found that Shiite Iran is increasingly overshadowing its role as the main force within the Islamic world in standing up to the West and other non-believers. Somalia could represent a new front against the United States, especially considering that most Somalis are Sunni. On the other side of that equation, UIC's leadership is keenly aware that greater and blatant involvement with al-Qaeda will result in greater hostility to them, both inside the country and out. Indeed, the UIC denied any links to terrorism or that it wants to impose Taliban-like rule in Somalia.
Somalia's ongoing drama does little to make the country's neighbors feel more secure. While the lengthy breakdown in law and order was contained within Somalia's borders, the seemingly relentless advance of the UIC raises the stakes for other African countries outside of Ethiopia and Eritrea, namely Kenya and Tanzania. 4 Both countries have suffered from terrorist acts conducted by Islamic radicals, with links to al-Qaeda. The establishment of an al-Qaeda-leaning regime (despite the UIC's claims to the contrary) in Somalia would certainly not be in the national interests of Kenya and Tanzania and would raise the stakes of involving other countries more directly into what is already a growing crisis.
The March to Northern Separation
Relations between the UIC and the north also are complicated. Puntland and Somaliland are largely self-ruled at this stage, have indicated some inclination to go their own ways, and do not appear to lean in the direction of Sharia. In fact, both regions have achieved some degree of law and order without resort to Islamic courts. They also reflect a more moderate Islamic tradition, which could potentially be a threat to what the UIC is seeking to achieve.
Somaliland represents a major challenge to any group seeking to return Somalia back to its pre-1991 order. While Puntland's political institutions are not as developed and its population has ties to the south, Somaliland's population has increasingly developed a separate identity. Indeed, Somaliland was a former British colony; the rest of the country was under Italian administration. In 1991 Somaliland declared its independence from Somali, in doing so revoking its 1960 union with ex-Italian Somalia. Turned off by a protracted history of neglect and repression during the Siad Barre years and Mogadishu's successive bloodbaths, Somaliland has a functioning and elected government, including a central bank and postal system as well as police and military. The economy is relatively stable.
Although the United Nations is strongly opposed to Somaliland's nation-building exercise (favoring the idea of a unified pre-1991 Somalia), the would-be nation-state has little incentive to fulsomely embrace the chaotic south. Indeed, Somaliland, which craves diplomatic recognition, offers excellent port facilities at Berbera and could be an ally if the UIC veers into a Taliban-like regime.
All the same, the bulk of the international community remains wed to the idea of resuscitating the old Somalia, something that ultimately may not be on the cards. As Professor Lewis noted: "The ironic paradox in the summer of 2002 was that, while a government did not actually exist in Mogadishu, it was recognized and disingenuously promoted by the U.N.; in contrast, the functioning, and democratically elected Somaliland government, that owed virtually everything to its own efforts, remained unrecognized." The situation has not much changed since 2002, except in that the UIC is on the verge bringing all the south under its rule.
The U.S. Response
The rise of the UIC, al-Qaeda's proclaimed interest in Somalia, and the weakness of the U.N.-backed interim government raises critical issues for the United States and European policymakers, both of which have supported the United Nations. U.S. policy, seen through the prism of the war against terror, is not enamored with the UIC. Somalia's notoriety in the world of international terrorism derives from the belief that it was part of the network used by al-Qaeda agents involved in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. It is also claimed that the terrorists who bombed a Kenyan resort and tried to shoot down an Israeli passenger jet in 2002 operated from the strategically-located country in the Horn of Africa.
On June 13th, Vice Admiral John Scott Redd, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, briefed the U.S. Congress on Somalia. He stated: "Somalia is clearly one of the key areas...which we worry about and is an ungoverned state. The bottom-line objective is to deny [Somalia] as an effective safe haven for al-Qaeda or for terrorism in general." 5 It should also be noted that the United States provided more than $80 million in humanitarian assistance to Somalia, mainly in the form of food and health-related assistance.
These considerations set the stage for the covert backing of anti-UIC warlords in the south and outright support for the TFG. As U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey stated on July 31, 2006: "The United States reiterates its support for the establishment of a functioning government that incorporates all elements of Somali society." This objective can only be achieved "through broad-based dialogue that includes all key stakeholders in Somalia, such as civil society, women's groups, business leaders, and clan leaders, in addition to the Islamic Courts and Transitional Federal Institutions."
While it "diplomatic" to talk about the TFG, the reality on the ground is making this irrelevant. The U.S.-backed warlords have been defeated and support for the TFG is evaporating. As a Washington Times (July 30, 2006) editorial stated: "if the only opposition to the ICU is a weak transitional government (which now seems to have all but collapsed) Somalia may as well be written off as an Islamist-controlled state."
There is one other major factor that needs to be considered and that pertains to drought. For all the fighting, there remains a desperate need to pull some form of central authority together to deal with what is a severe drought and related shortages of food. The United Nations refugee agency has noted that some 148,000 refugees are now in three camps in Kenya's Northwestern Province and the fighting is bringing more. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 2.1 million people in Somalia are still experiencing food shortages. 6 The FAO recently warned: "As the bulk of food crops are cultivated in southern Somalia, any disruption of harvest activities would worsen the ongoing humanitarian crisis." Southern Somalia remains a major zone of potential fighting.
Somalia's Stealth March Back Into the Headlines
Somalia has long been out of the mainstream of international attention. It has been the land of gunmen, a perilous place for aid workers and journalists, both local and foreign, making the flow of information difficult. We are often left with rumors, allegations, and intentional misdirection.
What is discernable is that Somali politics are reaching a new stage. The UIC has momentum, motivation, and external support. Its authority will soon extend up to Puntland, giving it control of most of the south with the exception of the interim government's enclave. The UIC leadership must then make some difficult decisions - continue the march north and seek to reunify the break-away regions, turn on the interim government in Badiou and risk a fight with Ethiopia, which could draw further Eritrean support and perhaps jihadists from other countries, or sit down and negotiate with the interim government with a view to reconfiguring the transitional government to reflect current political realities.
Events on the ground in Somalia are overtaking the ability of the international community to form new committees and support groups to discuss what to do. Consequently, Somalia is likely to loom much larger as an issue for the international community, both in regard to another round of fighting, drought and famine, and international terrorism - all the worst for a land and people long plagued by problems.
1 Quoted from Bob Crilly, "Somalia's Transitional Government On the Verge of Collapse", The Christian Science Monitor, August 4, 2006.
2 Mohamed Old Hassan, "Somali Riots Erupt After Minister Shot", The Washington Post, July 28, 2006.
3 Jane's Information Group (London), "East Africa: Bin Laden's New Front", August 4, 2006.
4 Rob Crilly, "Somalia On the Edge of Full-Scale War", The Christian Science Monitor, July 25, 2006.
5 Briefing on Somalia Contact Group Meeting, Jendayi Frazer, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Washington, D.C., June 16, 2006. U.S. Department of State.
6 "Somalia-Kenya: Drought, Conflict Force More Somalis Into Kenya", Reuters, July 31, 2006.