Friday, July 21, 2006

Smoke in Somalia, fire will follow

July 21, 2006

IT IS as if the Arab World did not have enough crises that the situation in Somalia is moving towards a military confrontation between the country's Islamist forces and the Ethiopian armed forces. Ethiopia has moved an unknown number of soldiers across the border into the town of Baidoa ostensibly to protect the weak interim goverment based there against the Islamist forces, which have taken control over much of southern Somalia after trouncing warlords.
For the Islamists, the Ethiopian move represents a challenge to their drive to spread their influence throughout the country. For Ethiopia, it is imperative that the interim government, which is endorsed by the United Nations, survive the Islamist challenge. Indeed, one could see a hidden external hand in the Ethiopian move. The US has made no secret of its hostility towards the Islamists, who Washington fears will enforce a Taliban-style rule in Somalia and turn the country into a haven for anti-US militants from around the world.
One could cite many reasons why exteral forces should or should not intervene in Somalia depending on contrasting perceptions. But there are certain constants. There is not much love lost in the Arab World or outside for the warlords and gunmen of Somalia who obey no law and opt to live by their own rules that have no human consideration.
The rampaging pirates off the coast of Somalia, intercepting commercial vessels and holding their crew for ransom are only one of the many examples of the chaos that have resulted from the power vacuum in the Horn of Africa country. Anyone who happens to be unfortunate enough to come across Somali gunmen on land or sea is fair game. If one is lucky of evade capture and kidnap by one group in one area of Somalia, then a similar group is waiting in the next area. Gunmen even demand "tax" from international and regional agencies seeking to offer relief to the suffering people of Somalia and the "collection" used to end up in the warlords' pockets, according to reports reaching the outside world. The situation had reached such a low point that trucks carrying relief supplies to distribution centres were intercepted and ordered to pay a "fee" for being allowed to proceed when the Islamists made their move.
When signs emerged a few weeks ago that the Islamist forces were gaining on the US-backed warlords, many heaved a sigh of relief with the belief that the Islamists, who were put together as a militia by the Islamic courts of the country, would be able to enforce law and order in the country. The people of Somalia were willing to overlook — at this point in time at least — that the Islamists had their own agenda as long as they were able to stabilise the country. That is the point of desperation of the people of Somalia. Since they captured the capital and trounced the warlords, the Islamists have been showing their real colour by imposing their own version of strict Sharia on the law. Their decision to stone to death five people if convicted of rape is only one example of their sense of justice.
It could not be predicted at this point who would have the edge if it comes to a military conflict between the Islamists and Ethiopian forces.
Ethiopia appeared to have sent the forces to Somalia reportedly in response to a specific request from the interim government. They have taken up positions in Baidoa and have secured the town's air strip. However, Addis Ababa has denied that its forces are present in Somali territory.
The Islamist forces were said to be some 20 kilometres away from Baidoa and moving ahead with an apparent view to challenging the interim government, but they pulled back on Thursday. Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi accused them of plotting to attack Baidoa and the transitional government in violation of a truce and mutual recognition deal.
Ethiopia has said it will defend the transitional government from attack by the Islamists
The Islamists are playing to the masses by highlighting that Addis Ababa had refused to help the Somalis when the country was being ravaged by warlords, who divided the country into unruly fiefdoms based on tribes and clans. The head of the he executive committee of the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia (SICS), Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, has vowed that "Somali people are ready to defend themselves from the acts of aggression by Ethiopia."
Well, as the Arab World grapples with the crises in Palestine and Lebanon, there might not be much the Arabs could do to check the situation in Somalia, which remains a member of the Arab League, from sliping to another round of violence and bloodshed, and there is no guarantee that any such effort would succeed either, given the record of Somalis' behaviour. Perhaps that might indeed be an added incentive to those who want to challenge and trounce the Islamists.
Haven't the people of Somalia suffered enough? Isn't there any compassion among the various parties involved, up in the front and those pulling the strings from behind the scene, to recognise the "red lines" in human suffering caused by political agendas?