Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Somalia - long road to recovery

January 2, 2007

Long road to recovery

SOMALIA has taken yet another topsy-turvy turn in its turbulent history in the last 16 years, with the interim government, supported by powerful Ethiopian military forces, having taken control of the capital Mogadishu and most other towns after trouncing the Union of Islamic Courts.
It is the first time that the UN-recognised interim government has been able to expand its control beyond the small town of Baidoa, thanks to the Ethiopian intervention on its behalf backed by the US and European countries.
Most the Islamist fighters, according to reports, have fled across the border to Kenya or are hiding in the border area. The Somali government has asked Kenya to seat off its border and prevent the Islamists from entering Kenyan territory.
US warships patrolling off the Somali coast are also offering logistic and military support to the interim government and keeping an eye out for Islamist leaders — including those whom Washington describes as Al Qaeda suspects — from fleeing the country by sea.
In Mogadishu, Interim Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi has offered an amnesty to remnants of the Islamist group if they surrender their weapons at specially set up collections points by Thursday.
Both Gedi and Ethiopian Prime Minister have said that the Ethiopian military presence in Somalia would be limited, but none of them gave any timeframe.
However, while the Ethiopian prime minister told his country's parliament that it would only be a matter of weeks before Ethiopian forces leave Somalia, Gedi suggested it could be a few months.
That uncertainty exposes the most vulnerable phase of efforts to restore law and order to Somalia for the first time since 1991 when Mohammed Siad Barre was ousted as president and warlords created their own fiefdoms across the country.
Indeed, a majority of the 10 million people of Somalia want peace and stability. Many of them welcomed the Union of Islamic Courts when its fighters chased out tribal warlords from their fiefdoms in Mogadishu and other major areas in the country in mid-2007 and promised to rebuild the country.
Somalis, who have suffered enough from the civil strife in the country coupled with natural calamities like drought and floods, were willing even to ignore that the Islamists went around enforcing tough rules based on a strict interpretation of Islamic laws in their areas they controlled.
However, the Islamists have been defeated now, with the interim government taking their place with Ethiopian support. However, the conflict seems to be far from being over.
The task of pacifying Somalia would not be easy, given that the Islamists have vowed to fight a guerrilla war — including suicide bombings and hit-and-run operations, that could deny the government the stability and security that it needs to offer the people. Further complicating the effort is the return of autocratic warlords who have never learnt to respect a central authority in the country and who used to "govern" their areas of influence the way they liked since the ouster of Siad Barre.
In Mogadishu itself, the order for residents to disarm themselves is aimed equally at Islamist fighters as well as followers of the warlords who reigned supreme in the capital and surrounding areas until they were driven out by the Islamists six months ago.
It is said that no Somali male is considered a man if he does not possess a gun. Being armed is an integral part of the Somali life if only for self-defence — in view of the on-again, off-again tribal warfare — as well as a symbol of manhood.
Today, Mogadishu is one of the most weapon-infested cities of the world, according to experts.
Giving up weapons would be unthinkable for many Somalis, whether Islamists or otherwise. As such, the government is likely to face a cool response to its offer of amnesty in return for weapons and would have to come up with a foolproof formula designed to convince the Somalis that the state is strong enough to offer them protection no matter what.
For the moment, many Somalis who are not aligned with any group seem to be sitting on the fence, watching closely whether the government victory over the Islamists is irreversible and how Gedi would cope with the potential threat of guerrilla war against the interim authority.
Seeking to exacerbate the crisis is Al Qaeda, which has called on all Muslims to join the Islamists to fight off Christian-dominated Ethiopia supported by Christian West in Somalia. That call might find resonance as long as the Ethiopian forces remain in Somalia. Therefore the first item on Gedi's agenda should be to have the Ethiopian military replaced by a neutral African force deployed in the country to assure the people of safety, security and stability. Parallel to that the UN should step up its relief operations and allow the Somalis to resume normal life after the suffering of many years. That would be the best first step Gedi could take in carrying out his mandate as interim prime minister tasked with leading the country on the long path towards recovery.