THE election of Islamist leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed as the new President of Somalia is being viewed as a welcome development on the African continent. His election comes two years after Ethiopian forces occupied the capital Mogadishu and ousted the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) from power.
Sheikh Sharif was an important leader of the ICU, which during its six months in power brought peace and stability to most of war-ravaged Somalia. He is now the leader of the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS), a coalition of moderate Islamists and nationalists. After his election, Sheikh Sharif said that he proposed to form a broad-based government that would accommodate all political groups in the country.
The two-year-long United States-backed Ethiopian occupation of Somalia had brought on more misery to the war-ravaged country. Mogadishu was virtually depopulated as fighters owing allegiance to the Islamic Courts and nationalists fought the Ethiopian army. The United Nations has estimated that half of Mogadishus population fled during that period.
The Ethiopian forces unable to defeat the urban guerilla fighters resorted on many occasions to the destruction of entire neighbourhoods. At least16,000 civilians were killed as a result. In 2008, the civilian toll in Somalia was higher than that in Iraq. Mogadishu with its bombed buildings is being described as a ghost city.
Before the Ethiopian invasion, key economic indicators showed that Somalia, despite the lack of a central government, was doing okay in comparison to some of its neighbours. According to a study, between the years 2000 to 2005, the infant mortality rates and access to sanitation in Somalia were better than in neighbouring Kenya.
Somalia had one of the cheapest mobile telephone services on the continent. Its ports and airports were functioning to capacity. The number of primary schools had doubled in comparison to what had existed before the outbreak of civil war. According to Professor Abdi Samantar of the University of Minnesota, the Ethiopian invasion destroyed virtually all the life sustaining economic systems which the population had built without the government for the last fifteen, sixteen years.
No wonder then, that there were widespread scenes of jubilation as the Ethiopian army withdrew from Mogadishu in the third week of January. As the troops were leaving, the Somali Prime Minster Nur Hassan Hussein urged the Islamists to join a unity government. The rebels had long called for the exit of the Ethiopians. Now that the Ethiopians are withdrawing their forces, we Somalis must become a peace loving nation, he said. Somalia has not had a functioning central government since 1991. The northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland declared their independence and are self governing.
In south and central Somalia, it was the Islamic militia, al-Shabab (Youth), which was engaged in fighting the Ethiopian army. Before the hasty departure of the Ethiopian forces, the President of the U.S.-backed Transitional Federal Government, Abdullah Youssef, was ousted from his post. Barring the al-Shabab, most of the other political groups and clans, buried their differences and agreed to set up a unity government, which would include Islamists and nationalists.
The al-Shabab claims to have recaptured most of Somalia after the Ethiopian troops withdrew. They are said to be operating quite freely even in Mogadishu, dispensing vigilante justice. They have refused to recognise the new government led by Sheikh Sharif. The al-Shabab has in recent months gained notoriety for its harsh interpretation of Sharia.
Recently, a 13-year-old girl was stoned to death for adultery in the port town of Kismayo, which has been under the control of the radical Islamists since last August. In the last week of January, there was a suicide attack against the African Union outpost in Mogadishu by al-Shabab fighters. Suicide bombings are a new phenomenon in Somalia and are a pointer to the growing radicalisation of the al-Shabab fighters.
The turn of events in Somalia is another strategic set back for the U.S. The Ethiopian withdrawal was timed with the departure of the George W. Bush administration. Washington had used the war against terror pretext to bring more misery to the country. Without providing any proof, U.S. policy-makers branded the ICU as a proxy for al-Qaeda. Even as peace was being restored to Somalia after a decade and a half of lawlessness by the ICU in early 2006, the Bush administration secretly ordered the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to supply a large amount of arms and ammunition to a coalition of Somali warlords, who had banded themselves under the banner of the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT).
The former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazier, had declared that the ICU was controlled by Al Qaeda cell individuals. The Bush administration had only three al-Qaeda individuals on its wanted list who were supposed to be hiding in Somalia. They were wanted in connection with the bombing of American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998. American authorities have themselves admitted that there are more al-Qaeda suspects on the loose in neighbouring Kenya, a staunch ally of the U.S., than in Somalia.
Yet the Bush administration persuaded the pliant Ethiopian Prime Minster, Meles Zenawi, to send his troops into Somalia. CIA operatives and American-supplied predator drones accompanied the invading army as it swept into Mogadishu at the end of 2006. American AC-130 gun ships and cruise missiles were used to target alleged militant hideouts. In one such incident, 130 Somali goat herders were killed. The only significant militant casualty was that of Aden Hashi Ayro, the leader of al-Shabab. He was killed in an American missile strike in May 2008. Many innocent Somalis lost their lives in that incident too.
Somalia is described as the third front in the U.S. war against terror, besides Iraq and Afghanistan. An article in the Chicago Tribune said that the U.S. is engaged in a covert war in which the CIA has recruited gangs of unsavoury warlords to hunt down and kidnap Islamic militants and secretly imprison them offshore, aboard U.S. warships. The article quotes a leading American scholar on Somalia, Ken Menkhaus, saying that Somalia is one of the great unrecognised U.S. policy failures since 9/11.
The latest developments in Somalia can be interpreted as a defeat for the U.S., on the important third front of its war on terror. Most of the groups that constituted the ICU, which the Bush administration described as terrorist outfits, are now part of the Somali government. The Ethiopian government, despite its army being humbled, continues to interfere in Somali affairs by arming notorious warlords along their long-disputed border.
The U.S. will continue to dabble in Somalia because of its strategic locationon the Bab al-Mandeb, a key oil transit waterway between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The U.S. will be keen to maintain a strong military presence to control critical shipping lanes.
Currently, the coast line of Somalia is the hub of piracy that has sent the maritime shipping industry into a crisis. When the ICU was briefly in power, they had eradicated piracy from Somalia.