Power vacuum in Somalia as factions fight

The worsening security situation in Somalia is being blamed on miscalculations by the Ethiopian government and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) on the resilience of the Union of Islamic Courts. Also contributing to the situation is the apparent lack of determination of the African Union to take the necessary steps to maintain peace.

Mogadishu underwent one its worst nights of violence last Wednesday, with the Somali capital coming under a barrage of mortar bombs that killed at least 20 people and left several wounded in what residents said was the heaviest bombardment in weeks.

More than 20 rounds crashed into the areas including the Bakara Market, the police transport headquarters and streets around the seaport, where Ugandan peacekeepers have set up defences.

But so far, the Ugandan troops are sitting ducks — until a ship carrying their military hardware docks early next month.

The daily attacks are being blamed on hardline remnants of the Islamist movement, who dramatically fled the capital and other towns in the face of a lightning offensive last December by Ethiopian and TFG forces.

The self-dissolution of the Council of Somali Islamic Courts on December 27, 2006, surrendering political leadership to clan leaders, was, according to the International Crisis Group, a major success for Ethiopia and the US, who feared the emergence of a Taliban-style haven for al-Qaeda and other Islamist extremists, but it is too early to declare an end to Somalia’s woes. 

The latest report on Somalia by the Crisis Group says there is now a political vacuum across much of southern Somalia, which the ineffectual TFG is unable to fill. Elements of the Courts, including Shabaab militants and their al-Qaeda associates, are largely intact and threatening guerrilla war. 

Peace requires the TFG to be reconstituted as a genuine government of national unity, but the signs of its willingness to do so are discouraging. Sustained international pressure is needed.

The Courts’ defeat signals the return of clan-based politics to southern Somalia. Whereas the Courts drew their support predominantly from the Hawiye clan, the TFG is widely perceived as dominated by Darod clan interests. TFG leaders reinforced this perception by pursuing policies that further alienated the Hawiye, notably an appeal for foreign troops and the government’s relocation to Jowhar and then Baidoa, instead of Mogadishu. 

Hawiye alienation and TFG inadequacies left a vacuum into which the Courts expanded between June and December 2006, bringing a degree of peace and security unknown to the south for more than 15 years. Mogadishu was reunited, weapons were removed from the streets and the port and airport reopened. 

By December, the Courts had expanded from their Mogadishu base to control most of the territory between the Kenyan border and the autonomous region of Puntland in the northeast, while the TFG was confined to Baidoa, protected by its Ethiopian backers. Communities seemed prepared to tolerate a strict interpretation of Sharia law in return for peace and security.

Politically, Somalia has now been returned roughly to where it was when the TFG was formed in October 2004. The government is weak, unpopular and faction-ridden, and the power vacuum in southern Somalia is rapidly being filled by the same faction leaders and warlords the Courts overthrew less than a year ago. 

Many Mogadishu residents resent the Courts’ defeat, feel threatened by the TFG and are dismayed by the presence of Ethiopian troops in the capital. Mogadishu is awash with weapons, and there have already been hit-and-run attacks on TFG and Ethiopian troops. The potential for serious violence is just below the surface.

Ethiopia’s military victory has dismantled only the most visible part of the Courts: the regional administrative authority in south-central Somalia (including Mogadishu), which served essentially as a political platform for Hawiye clan interests. Other elements, including the militant Shabaab leadership, remain largely intact and have dispersed throughout the country, threatening to wage a prolonged war. 

A US air strike on January 8 apparently wounded Aden Hashi ‘Ayro, a prominent Shabaab commander, and killed some of his guards but failed to destroy any major targets. A second US air strike was launched on January 23, but information on the targets and impact was not immediately available. 

The grassroots network of mosques, schools and private enterprises that has underpinned the spread of Salafist teachings and their extremist variants remains in place and continues to expand, thanks to generous contributions from Islamic charities and the private sector.

Whether the Islamists, including their more extreme jihadi elements, can stage a comeback depends largely on whether the TFG can restore stability and win public support across southern Somalia. 

Some of the steps taken by the government so far, such as declaring a state of emergency and deposing the Speaker of the parliament — who had been prominent in efforts to engage the Courts in dialogue and compromise — have not been promising. 

The International Crisis Group has recommended that the government rescind the state of emergency and reinstate the Speaker of parliament, reconstitute the Cabinet as a genuine government of national unity that incorporates credible leaders from the communities that backed the Courts, and establish representative authorities for key municipalities, including Mogadishu and Kismayo, in order to provide political stability and manage local security over the short-term. 

Other measures would include giving up the notion of forcible disarmament, especially in Mogadishu, and instead negotiating a plan for voluntary disarmament, and taking up the tasks for which it was originally formed — to advance the process of national reconciliation, complete the transition to a permanent government and work its way out of a job by 2009, when elections are supposed to be held. 

The rapid replacement of Ethiopian troops with a broader, multilateral peacekeeping mission is essential to defuse public resentment towards what is considered a foreign occupation. 

Ethiopia and the US now bear a significant responsibility to consolidate peace in Somalia. They must push the TFG to take the above steps to transform itself into a more inclusive national body.

Source: The East African (Kenya)

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