Thorn of Africa

Published : Jun 19, 2009 00:00 IST

Islamist fighters take their position at a street blockade in Mogadishu on May 16.-ABDURASHID ABIKAR/AFP

Islamist fighters take their position at a street blockade in Mogadishu on May 16.-ABDURASHID ABIKAR/AFP

THERE has been a serious escalation in the fighting in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, in recent weeks after the comparative lull earlier in the year. Government forces have been trying since mid-May to dislodge rebel Islamist fighters who have taken control of most of the capital and the countryside.

More than 45 people were killed in a single day of fighting in late May, making it one of the bloodiest days the capital has seen this year. Mogadishu, already reduced to a shell of a city after a decade and a half of relentless warfare, is being further depopulated after government troops started their counteroffensive. More than 50,000 people have fled the capital and are trying to find shelter in the already overcrowded refugee camps inside the country and in Kenya.

Since the start of the new cycle of war in Somalia in 2007 following the Ethiopian occupation, around 18,000 civilians have been killed and more than a million reduced to the status of refugees. Three million Somalis subsist on emergency food handouts from international agencies.

Islamist resistance fighters had taken up arms after the Ethiopian invasion. Their successful fight had forced the United States-backed Ethiopian troops to retreat in many places.

The international community backed by the African Union (A.U.) had, in a last-ditch attempt to bring stability to the war-torn country, propped up a government headed by Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a former leader of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which had spearheaded the struggle against the Ethiopian forces and their local warlord allies. Sheikh Sharif now heads a government that includes warlords and politicians supported by the U.S. and its closest ally in the region, Ethiopia.

The arrangement put in place after the withdrawal of the Ethiopian troops in early 2009 was never accepted by the more militant Islamist groups. The main Islamist fighting force today is Al Shabaab, which the West accuses of having links with Al Qaeda. Another umbrella group, the Hizbul Islam, has also been actively involved in the recent fighting in Mogadishu. In the past couple of months, the Islamists have been targeting prominent individuals and senior officials connected with the new government.

By early May, it had become clear that government troops along with allied militias and the 4,000-strong A.U. peacekeeping force in the capital had decided to take on the Islamist militias, which are in control of large parts of southern and central Somalia. The A.U. peacekeepers do not have a mandate to engage in counter-insurgency measures but this could soon change as there is a consensus in the continent that the Islamists will have to be stopped in their tracks. The current job profile of the A.U. forces in Somalia is to protect important government installations and provide security to top civilian administrators.

After the steady advances made by the Shabaab militia in recent months, the A.U. has pushed the panic button. The pan-African organisation has blamed neighbouring Eritrea for providing weapons to the Islamist forces. Eritrea and Ethiopia have been at loggerheads for more than a decade now. They even fought a bloody war over a minor border dispute. During the Bill Clinton presidency, Eritrea was one of the closest allies of Washington. But in the past decade, Ethiopia, which is much larger than its foe and has a bigger army, has been embraced as the ally of choice by the U.S. in the so-called war against terror in the strategic Horn of Africa. Tiny Eritrea, which felt shortchanged by the international community, has defiantly struck an anti-American posture. A United Nations commission looking into the origins of Eritreas war with Ethiopia had ruled in the formers favour, holding Addis Ababa responsible for sparking off the border war. But the Ethiopian government chose to ignore the U.N. Now Eritrea is trying to make big brother Ethiopia bleed on the killing fields of Somalia. The Eritrean leadership may also be giving tacit support to the separatist fighters in the Ethiopian province of Ogaden. The people of Ogaden are also Somalis. Ethiopia and Somalia had gone to war over Ogaden in the 1970s.

In the third week of May, the A.U. called on the U.N. Security Council to apply sanctions on Eritrea. The A.U. also wants the U.N. to impose a no-fly zone and sea blockade on Somalia. This is the first time that the A.U. has called for sanctions on a member-state. Before that, the East African regional grouping, the Inter Governmental Authority on Development (Igad), accused the Eritrean government of instigating and financing the fighting in Somalia. Eritrea had walked out of the group in 2007, accusing it of failing to bring peace to the region.

The Security Council has already voiced concern over the reports that Eritrea is supplying arms to the Islamist militias in Somalia in breach of the U.N. arms embargo. The Eritrean government has denied the charges and has instead blamed the U.S. for misleading the international community. Eritreas Ambassador to the U.N. said that the reports of arms being supplied to those opposing the government in Mogadishu is totally false and misleading. Isaias Afwerki, the Eritrean President, has accused the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the U.S. of smuggling in weapons into Somalia. We dont interfere in Somalia and we dont want to see any terrorism prevail there, he told an international news agency.

But the most prominent leader of the Islamists, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, recently told the Reuters news agency that the Islamists had the support of Eritrea. Eritrea supports us and Ethiopia is our enemy. We once helped both countries but Ethiopia did not reward us, Aweys told the news agency. Sheikh Aweys, whom Somalis call the kingmaker, had recently returned to Somalia after spending more than two years in exile in Eritrea. Aweys had parted ways politically with Sheikh Sharif, the current President of Somalia, after the latter started negotiating with the Ethiopian government, soon after the fall of Mogadishu in 2007. During the brief rule of the ICU in 2007, Sharif, a schoolteacher, was chosen by Aweys to be its international face.

Aweys has refused to compromise with the moderate Islamists who are today holding important positions in the government installed by the international community in Mogadishu. President Sharif initially tried to placate the radical Islamists by agreeing to implement the Sharia law. But Aweys had started viewing his former protege as a sell-out to the West and Ethiopia. Upon his return to the Somali capital, Aweys told his supporters that the government led by Sheikh Sharif had been appointed by the enemies of Somalia. He said that the international community cannot prevent Somalis from choosing their own form of government. During the short period the ICU ruled Mogadishu and much of Somalia, peace prevailed and the warlords were forced to make a retreat.

Aweys described the A.U. peacekeepers in Mogadishu as bacteria that has to be removed. Meanwhile, the rump Somali Parliament has passed a law that rules that anybody fighting against the government of Sheikh Sharif is guilty of fighting against Islam. Aweys, on the other hand, has vowed to create an Islamic Republic of Somalia. The U.S. government had accused Sheikh Aweys of sheltering suspects responsible for the bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi (Kenya) and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania). The insurgent group Shabaab has been labelled as a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department.

There are worrying signs that Ethiopian troops are preparing to re-invade Somalia when the situation deteriorates. The regional press has reported the presence of Ethiopian troops in the border towns of Somalia. But the Ethiopian government has denied this. The fact remains that Addis Ababa continues to view Al Shabaab as a serious threat to its long-term security interests.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had claimed that the Ethiopian invasion had successfully curbed the power of radical Islamists. Zenawi said earlier in the year that the objective of the Ethiopian military offensive was to prove to the Islamists that they cannot ride the Shabaab horse to power. He claimed at the time that the Ethiopian military had been successful against the Shabaab.

But the facts on the ground tell a different story. The Shabaab continues to be the main fighting force in Somalia. By the second half of May, the insurgent groups had moved half a kilometre away from the presidential palace. The top U.N. official in Mogadishu, Ahmadou Ould-Abdullah, said in mid-May that an estimated 280-300 foreign fighters were helping the insurgents. He said that Chechens and Afghans were among those training local fighters in explosives and tactics. Roadside bombings and suicide attacks have been occurring with increasing frequency in Mogadishu. Ethiopia may again be prompted by the U.S. to despatch its troops to Somalia to deal with the Shabaab.

The A.U. has promised to bolster its peacekeeping force in Somalia with more firepower and personnel. The international community has pledged around $200 million to the Somali government to fight the insurgents and also the scourge of piracy that has emanated from the battle-scarred land, which has known no peace in the past two decades.

Piracy is only a symptom of the malaise that has gripped Somalia, a collapsed state. The Central government only controls a few blocks in Mogadishu. The Somali coast, in the absence of a central authority, has been ravaged by outsiders. Toxic waste has been dumped along the long coastline. Foreign trawlers have depleted the territorial waters of fish. Piracy was one of the few options left for many poverty-stricken Somalis.

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