State of conflict

Published : Aug 27, 2010 00:00 IST

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni addresses the opening session of the African Union summit in Kampala on July 25.-STEPHEN WANDERA/AP

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni addresses the opening session of the African Union summit in Kampala on July 25.-STEPHEN WANDERA/AP

The African Union summit sets aside other issues and focusses on the challenges posed by the conflict in Somalia.

THE conflict in Somalia dominated the 15th African Union (A.U.) summit held in Kampala in late July, only weeks after suicide bomb attacks had shocked the Ugandan capital. The attacks were the handiwork of Al Shabab militants who are battling a peace-keeping force of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the bulk of which consists of soldiers from Uganda and Burundi. The attacks were among the most serious terror incidents in Africa since the bombing of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998. The Somali insurgents had been threatening revenge attacks against countries that are propping up the transitional national government (TNG), set up two years ago.

The A.U. summit was originally supposed to discuss mainly the pressing issues of maternal and infant mortality in Africa. Instead, most of the leaders in their speeches focussed on the terror threat emanating from Somalia. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni urged African states to sweep the terrorist leaders out of Africa. Let them go back to Asia and the Middle East [West Asia], he said.

Museveni wants to be America's point man in the region once again. The job was given to the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, by the George W. Bush administration. Ugandans say that they are paying with blood to protect American geostrategic interests in the region.

Museveni's stance was bolstered by the United States Attorney General, Eric Holder, who was in Kampala to attend the summit as an observer. Holder urged the A.U. leaders to remain united in their stand against terrorism in the Horn of Africa. The Barack Obama administration has pledged more aid and logistical support to A.U. peace-keeping forces in Somalia. All the leaders agreed that the challenges posed by Somalia to the continent were extremely serious and had to be tackled urgently. The consensus was that the peace-keeping mission should be converted into a peace-enforcing mission. The mandate of AMISOM is only to protect the interim government.

Currently, there are around 6,000 A.U. troops, most of them from Uganda. The U.S., after its military debacle in Somalia in the mid-1990s, is loath to commit its own troops. Instead, it prefers to fight its enemies through proxies in the Horn of Africa region. The desire of A.U. member-countries like Uganda to take the fight directly to the insurgents has, however, not got the green signal from the United Nations.

Jean Ping, the Chairman of the A.U. Commission, has accused the U.N. Security Council of not giving the crisis in Somalia the attention it deserves. The question of Somalia has been forgotten by the Security Council. We have been requesting the Security Council, but all they recommend is peace-keeping troops, which are attacked by the insurgents but are not allowed to hit back, he complained.

Since the beginning of the year, shelling on civilian targets by AMISOM peace-keepers has resulted in thousands of casualties. The shelling has been in retaliation for Al Shabab attacks on their positions. Al Shabab has said that the attack on civilian targets in Kampala was an act of revenge. The attacks at two different places killed 76 civilians watching World Cup football.

Anyway, only a few leaders at the A.U. summit volunteered to send troops to bolster AMISOM. Leading A.U. members such as South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt are reluctant to commit their troops. Only smaller countries such as Guinea, Djibouti and Senegal have pledged to send troops to Somalia. Their ability to commit large number of troops is limited. Uganda, which seems bent upon substituting the key role played earlier by Ethiopia, has pledged to deploy an additional 20,000 soldiers. But the offer does not have too many takers in the A.U. The A.U. does not have the resources to fund such a large peace-keeping force. Besides, Article 53 of the U.N. Charter prohibits regional organisations from acting unilaterally.

The A.U. summit for that matter has not come out with a new blueprint to solve Somalia's problems. The Djibouti peace process, which started in 2008 with the backing of Washington, resulted in the formation of a new transitional government led by Sheikh Sharif Ahmed. It was hoped that Ahmed, a former leader of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), would motivate the Islamist insurgent groups to opt for peace.

Unfortunately, the situation in the country has only deteriorated since his appointment. Ahmed and his Ministers are today holed up in a small enclave in Mogadishu, which houses the Presidential Palace and a few government Ministries. Only the AMISOM troops are preventing the takeover of the capital by the insurgent Islamist groups led by Al Shabab.

For the last year and a half, the Obama administration had funded the training and arming of 10,000 Somalis to support the transitional government that it had propped up. But the majority of them have deserted with their arms and joined groups such as Al Shabab. Some estimates say that most of the arms worth $40 million provided to Somalia by the U.S. have ended up in the hands of these groups.

Furthermore, the inability of the Ethiopian army to quell the insurgency despite occupying the country for more than two years is a reminder to the African leaders that outside intervention could only further complicate the precarious security situation in the volatile Horn of Africa. Ethiopia, according to reports in the African media, has given an assurance to the A.U. that it will not invade neighbouring Somalia again.

The entry into Somalia by Ethiopian forces in December 2006 had the backing of the Bush administration. That intervention shattered the tenuous peace, which the country had enjoyed for a brief six months under the ICU. For the first time since the civil war in the early 1990s, the warlords were forced to retreat. Law and order, albeit of the Sharia variety, had briefly prevailed over most of Somalia. But the Bush administration, obsessed by the war on terror, was in no mood to tolerate even a mildly Islamist state in the strategic Horn.

The overthrow of the ICU government by the Ethiopians resulted in a political and military vacuum. This was soon filled by Al Shabab, which until a few years ago was only one of the many insurgent groups fighting the warlords and the Ethiopian occupation forces.

Al Shabab (the Youth in Arabic) had refused to participate in the U.S.-brokered peace process started early last year. Instead, it intensified its fight against the new government, headed by Sharif Ahmed, a former leader of the ICU. Adan Hashi Ayro, the group's original leader, was assassinated in a U.S. missile attack in April 2008. The current head of the group is Muktar Ali Robow, who once served under Ahmed as Deputy Defence Secretary. Al Shabab started out as a vigilante group acting against extortionists and criminal gangs in Mogadishu. This brought it into conflict with the warlords, who patronised many of the criminal groups.

The U.S. government alleges that many of the Shabab fighters have trained in Afghanistan when the Taliban was in power there. The group is high up on the official U.S. terror list. The U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has alleged that Al Shabab wants Somalia to be a future haven for global terrorism and that it wants to use Somalia as a base to influence and also infiltrate surrounding countries. Al Shabab has indeed emulated the Taliban in religious matters. Like the Taliban, it is for a strict interpretation of the Koran and the implementation of the Sharia.

According to Afyari Abdi Elmi, an academic who specialises on Somalia, Al Shabab is basically an international jehadi movement. This group believes that historically Muslims have been humiliated by their enemies whenever they have abandoned jehad and, therefore, that if Muslims have to be respected, jehad must be ongoing, Elmi wrote in a recent article.

With the group gaining in strength and confidence, senior functionaries of Al Shabab such as Muktar Ali Robow, have said that they have the same objectives as Al Qaeda. Both sides have acknowledged helping each other. Elmi, however, states that Al Shabab is not a monolithic movement.

The majority, he opines, only has a domestic agenda, but a small minority in the upper echelons of the group, and a significant number of foreign fighters, advocate global jehad as a guiding principle.

With the U.S. and most of its immediate neighbours like Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda dead set against an Islamist-dominated government in Somalia, the country seems condemned to be in a state of perpetual chaos and anarchy. As many as 20,000 Somalis lost their lives battling the Ethiopian occupation. Thousands more have been killed after AMISOM entered the scene.

Before that inter-clan fighting and the civil war had resulted in the displacement of more than two million Somalis.

The number of civilians killed as a result of internecine strife and foreign intervention since the early 1990s could be more than a million.

In the past, Somalis used to blame their local warlords for the spilling of innocent blood. Now most Somalis blame outside powers, especially the U.S., for the continuing bloodshed.

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