Saturday, December 09, 2006

Somalia about to explode

Somalia stands at the brink of all-out war after pro-government and Islamist forces shelled each other yesterday near the government headquarters in Baidoa. The war is made more complicated by the involvement of Ethiopian forces on the side of the government. A local resident told Reuters government forces and Ethiopian troops were pushed back by Islamist fighters on Friday but returned to the area early on Saturday with 20 pickup trucks mounted with heavy weapons.

The incident comes a week after Ethiopia and Islamic forces exchanged mortar shells in Galkayo where the two forces came within five kilometres of each other. Then two days later, Islamic fighters ambushed an Ethiopian military convoy 35km south of Baidoa. The forces exchanged fire and the Somalis destroyed one truck killing 20 Ethiopian soldiers. The incident led Ethiopia's parliament to vote approval for the government to take "all necessary" steps to rebuff any invasion.

With the situation threatening to escalate into an international war, the UN Security Council stepped in on 6 December. They unanimously authorised a new force with a mandate of six months to be set up by the African Union (AU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). The mission has been charged with protecting the interim government and re-establishing a national security force as well as reinforcing Baidoa and seeking further dialogue between the parties.

Islamic militants have condemned the UN intervention. They suspect American interference in the decision to authorise an African force to protect Somalia’s weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG) government from the superior armed SICC. The SICC has warned war will erupt as a result. Within two days, thousands of Somali protesters poured into Mogadishu’s Konis stadium following Friday prayers to stage a large rally of opposition.

The official government control very little of the country. The seat of government is Baidoa in south-central Somalia approximately 250km northwest of the capital Mogadishu. They control only a small strip of land around Baidoa. Approximately 8,000 Ethiopian troops are now deployed in Somalia to lend support to the government's shallow authority. The largely Christian Ethiopia fears an Islamic state on its borders and has vowed to "crush" the Islamists if they attack Baidoa. However their action has been viewed as an invasion by the radical Islamic militia known as the Somali Islamic Courts Council (SICC) that control the capital Mogadishu under sharia law. “We see the approval of the resolution as nothing but an evil intention," said Abdirahin Ali Mudey, speaking for the Islamic Courts. For its part, Ethiopia says Courts have hosted Ethiopian rebel groups - the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) since at least March 2005.

The U.S. resolution was co-sponsored by the council's African members who were afraid of the Somalia’s instability spreading throughout the region. The resolution partially lifts an arms embargo on weapons and military equipment and allows for training of security forces. The resolution bans Somalia's neighbours from sending soldiers, which prohibits participation by troops from Ethiopia as well as Eritrea, Djibouti and Kenya. The Islamic courts are backed by Ethiopia’s neighbours Eritrea which has prompted fears that Ethiopia and Eritrea would continue their animosity against either other by engaging in a proxy war in Somalia.

Both sides in the looming conflict paint their confrontation in clich├ęd ideological terms. The TFG and their Ethiopian allies are calling Somalia the next front in the Global War on Terror in order to gain support from Washington. Members of the Courts have been linked to the murders of Western aid workers, journalists and Somali civil society leaders in Somaliland and Mogadishu. Meanwhile the Courts are seeking sympathy from the Muslim world by portraying themselves as victims of Ethiopian aggression and Western Islamophobia.

The arms embargo was imposed in 1992; a year after warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and turned on each another. The interim government was formed two years ago with UN help but has struggled to assert authority. The Islamic Courts consolidated power in Mogadishu this year. The Ethiopians made the decision to support warlords exiled by the rise of the Islamists in order to oppose an Islamist threat posed to their administration of the Ogaden region.

War is not the only worry for the region. Somalia’s problems are complicated by prolonged flooding which has plagued the Horn of Africa since October. The World Health Organisation’s Dr David Okello said “The floods are expected to continue until at least the end of December if not into early next year." Almost 1.8 million people are at risk of infectious diseases such as cholera, measles, malaria as well as nutritional deficiencies. Dozens have died in flooding in Somalia itself, most drowned, some were eaten by crocodiles. Meanwhile infections are spreading due to a combination of crowding living conditions, lack of clean water, the destruction of sanitation systems, and refugees fleeing the war. The

No comments: