African tragedy

Published : Dec 21, 2007 00:00 IST

In Mogadishu, the Somalian capital, hundreds of people march to protest against the presence of Ethiopian forces in their country, on October 28. -

In Mogadishu, the Somalian capital, hundreds of people march to protest against the presence of Ethiopian forces in their country, on October 28. -

The Ethiopian occupation and the consequent increase in violence create in Somalia Africas largest humanitarian crisis.

THE international community, prodded by the West, has focussed most of its attention on the crisis in the Sudanese province of Darfur. But after the United States-sponsored invasion of Somalia in December 2006, the hapless nation has plunged into even greater turmoil. United Nations officials now consider the situation in Somalia to be the worst humanitarian crisis in the African continent, surpassing by far the crisis in Darfur.

The U.N. has confirmed that the mortality rate in Somalia is now higher than that in Darfur. The number of those displaced from their homes has increased dramatically in the past couple of months after fighting between the occupation forces and the resistance escalated.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more than a million displaced people in the country. The capital Mogadishu is the worst affected place. Sixty per cent of its population have fled after Ethiopian troops seized the capital. The head of the U.N. operations in Somalia, Eric Laroche, told the media that if such things happened in Darfur, there would be a big fuss. Somalia, he said, had been a forgotten emergency for years. According to U.N. estimates, the rate of malnutrition in Somalia is 19 per cent compared with 13 per cent in Darfur. To add to the woes of the Somalis, their country in the past one year has been afflicted by drought, floods and a locust infestation. The Shabelle region, Somalias breadbasket, had its worst harvest of the past 13 years. According to U.N. officials, this has put more than a million Somalis on the edge of starvation. As much as 71 per cent of the countrys population is classified as undernourished. The U.N. has said that Somalia is into its worst humanitarian crisis in nearly 15 or 16 years.

The primary reason for this dramatic spread of hunger and anarchy is the occupation of the country by Ethiopian troops at the U.S. behest. Ethiopian troops entered Mogadishu on December 25, 2006. U.S. forces helped the Ethiopian army with satellite pictures of the locations of the Islamic Courts fighters.

The U.S. also used its air force and navy to target areas under the control of the Islamists. Without an international mandate, the Ethiopian forces entered Mogadishu and installed a puppet Transitional Federal Government (Frontline, June 1). Somalia once again plunged into a vortex of bloodshed and violence.

The interregnum of peace was a fleeting one for Somalia. After almost a decade and a half, the Islamic Courts government managed to subdue the rapacious warlords. However, it was accused by the U.S. of providing sanctuary to radical Islamists including Al Qaeda operatives.

According to U.S. officials, those responsible for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam were given sanctuary by the Islamists. The Islamic Courts leadership vehemently denied the accusations and said that its only aim was to end warlordism and once again convert Somalia into a functioning state. Its attempts at opening channels of communication with the West were frustrated by Washingtons inflexible attitude.

It is evident from recent events that the Islamic Courts continues to be popular among average Somalis. Somalis cannot easily forget that it was only the Islamic Courts that proved capable of providing stability to their country since the civil war started in the early 1990s.

Ahmadou Ould-Abdallah, the U.N.s top official in Somalia, has said that the short period during which the Islamic Courts ruled Somalia was the countrys golden era. U.N. officials also stated that the Islamists never created any problems for them. Much-needed emergency aid could easily be disbursed to all parts of the country.

After the Ethiopian invasion, the warlords and the militias are back. They are making the distribution of humanitarian aid an extremely difficult task. John Holmes, the U.N.s humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, has said that the situation in Somalia is so dire that it warranted immediate attention from the international community.

Al-Shabab, the military wing of the Islamic Courts, is fighting back. Ethiopian troops, like the occupation forces in Iraq, are getting bogged down in a quagmire and the Somali resistance is adopting tactics similar to those adopted by Iraqis.

The leader of the Islamist resistance forces, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, has issued a call for nation-wide resistance to Ethiopian forces and the Somali militias supporting them. In the second week of November there was intense fighting in Mogadishu. Bodies of Ethiopian soldiers were dragged through the roads of the capital. The Ethiopian army reacted by targeting civilian neighbourhoods.

Earlier, the Ethiopian-backed President of Somalia, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, had demanded that civilians stop shielding fighters. Otherwise, he warned, the residents of the city would face the consequences. The indiscriminate use of firepower by the Ethiopian army, one of the largest and best-equipped armies in the continent, on unarmed civilians precipitated a new round of refugee exodus from the capital. According to reports, an Ethiopian mortar exploded in Mogadishus Bakara market on November 9, killing eight civilians. Mogadishu, already devastated by the long-running civil war, has been further brutalised under Ethiopian occupation.

Ethiopia, which seems to be preparing for another round of warfare with Eritrea, has indicated that it wants to get the bulk of its troops out of Somalia at the earliest. Ethiopia is also facing a serious insurgency in its Ogaden region, bordering Somalia. Ogaden was handed over to Ethiopia by the British in 1954.

Ethiopia and Somalia went to war over the disputed region on three occasions. The most serious confrontation was in the 1970s at the height of the Cold War. At that time, Somalia was the U.S. proxy in the Horn of Africa, while Ethiopia, under Mengistu Haile Merriam, was supported by the socialist bloc.

Hundreds of families

The people of Ogaden have strong kinship ties with Somalis. The best solution is for Ethiopia to withdraw from Somalia. But the George W. Bush administration would view such a development as a setback for the self-proclaimed global war on terror.

The Pentagon, in a statement issued in the beginning of this year after Ethiopian forces had driven the Islamic Courts away from power, said that the U.S. had opened a fourth front in the war on terrorism. For the first time, the Bush administration had succeeded in subcontracting the army of a third country for occupation duties. Washington had failed to persuade India and Pakistan to send their troops to Iraq for a similar purpose.

The Bush administration also set up the United States African Command (USAFRICOM or AFRICOM) in 2006. It envisages lily pad bases all over the continent to further U.S. strategic interests. The strategic location of Somalia in the Horn of Africa is an important factor responsible for its destabilisation and the interference of outside powers. As of now, the overwhelming majority of African nations have voiced their concerns about the real motives of AFRICOM.

Kenya is already being described by Washington as a frontline state against terrorism. The U.S. has a military base in Djibouti. There are ongoing efforts to get big African countries such as Algeria and Nigeria into the U.S. strategic embrace. U.S. surveillance equipment is already based in Algeria and U.S. arms sales to Ethiopia has doubled. The Ethiopian government used U.S.-supplied HMMWV (Humvee, or, High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles) armoured vehicles to fire on civilians protesting against the rigging of elections in the capital Addis Ababa in 2002. The problem for the U.S. is that barring Uganda, no other country is willing to contribute troops to Somalia. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in the second week of November that there was no chance of assembling a U.N. peace keeping force for the country.

In the third week of November, the Ethiopian government once again appealed to the international community for quick deployment of peacekeepers in Somalia. Ban Ki-moon called for a coalition of the willing to be sent for peacekeeping duties to Somalia but no country is willing to respond favourably.

The U.N. Security Council, despite the Secretary-Generals views, is insisting that there are plans to raise an international peace-keeping force under the U.N. banner for Somalia. The Ethiopian and Ugandan troops in Somalia are operating on behalf of the African Union. South African Ambassador to the U.N. Dumisani Kumalo described the situation in Somalia as heartbreaking. He told the Security Council that the U.N. Charter calls for the maintenance of international peace and security all over the world. Somalia, he said, should not be made an exception.

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