Some background on the likely forthcoming conflict in Somalia

Just in case you’ve missed recent events in Somalia, let’s catch up, as events there just might start making the front pages of newspapers should Ethiopia and Islamists in Somalia start shooting at each other. (Well, okay, we know they won’t make the front pages. We can hope for A-4 though, can’t we?)

Somalia’s been without a central government since 1991, when Siad Barre – who’d taken power in 1969 in a military coup and established “cult of personality” rule – was ousted in a power struggle between clans. Somaliland – the part of Somalia which had been a British protectorate before Somalia’s unification in 1960 – declared independence and has operated more or less as an independent, unrecognized state ever since. (Historical timeline from the BBC here.)

Southern Somalia descended into clan-driven violence, exacerbated by the presence of US and UN forces who attempted first to provide relief supplies to Somali citizens and later to enforce disarmament to help build a stable nation. Disarmament efforts led to multiple violent conflicts, including the “Battle of Mogadishu” depicted in the film “Blackhawk Down”. By 1995, UN peacekeepers left Somalia having failed in their mission – some US commentators argue that the US/UN failure in Somalia have led the US to foreswear “nation-building” as an international political strategy. Former President Clinton has admitted publicly that the US failure in Somalia was one of the factors that prevented the US from forcefully intervening to prevent the genocide of Tutsi in Rwanda.

Numerous attempts to form a Somali government – at least of Southern Somalia, as Puntland joined Somaliland in declaring independence in 1998 – have led to a situation where several groups claim authority over the territory. Groups of warlords – sometimes supported by Ethiopia, which has strategic interest in Somalia – have declared themselves a government, and a group of Somali exiles in Kenya built a government headed by Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Ghedi.

This government – largely recognized by the international community – hasn’t been able to take control of Mogadishu, the largest city in southern Somalia. They’ve been based in Baidoa, a smaller city close to the border with Ethiopia. A few months back, news emerged that warlords in Mogadishu were uniting under the banner of the Union of Islamic Courts, which promised stability and the resolution of conflicts under an interpretation of sharia law. Concerned about the possibility that Mogadishu could become a safe haven for terrorism, the US (allagedly) backed secular warlords with clandestine funds against the UIC. This strategy backfired (in part because the warlords the US backed were widely hated) and helped cement support for the UIC, who are reported to have made Mogadishu more safe and stable, though perhaps less fun, as UIC (may or may not have) banned the watching of World Cup matches.

(A sidenote – asserting anything about events in Somalia tends to require caveats and cautions. Because Mogadishu is so dangerous, there are very few journalists on the ground. News tends to be spotty, inaccurate, contradictory and quickly changing.)

In recent weeks, the transitional government in Baidoa has been crumbling, due in part to their difficulties negotiating with the Union of Islamic Courts, which is perceived as more powerful than the Baidoa government. Twenty MPs have resigned, and a no confidence motion in Prime Minister Ghedi is scheduled for Saturday. In the meantime, the Constitution and Federalism Minister Abdallah Deerow Isaq was assasinated as he left the mosque after Friday prayers, in what may prove to be the trigger for war.

That war would likely be broader than between the two rival groups in Somalia and their aligned warlords. Ethiopia has deployed troops in support of the Baidoa government, an action bound to be viewed as provocative – some reports indicate up to 5,000 troops within Somalia and another 20,000 on the border, ready to move in. Somalia and Ethiopia have warred in the past, with a war in 1977 over the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. Landlocked Ethiopia has looked towards Somalia for access to a port – the Ethiopian government has sought agreements with the government of Somaliland, which would give it port access. And Christian Ethiopia is viewed as being suspicious of a conversative Muslim government in Somalia.

But that’s not all – Eritrea, who Ethiopia fought a civil war with from 1998 – 2000, which resulted in 100,000 deaths – is suspected of supporting the UIC as their proxy in Somalia. (For those who believe that this all comes down to port access: the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia denied Ethiopia access to the Assab Red Sea port.) “Mystery aircraft” have been landing in Mogadishu under heavy security in the past 48 hours – the planes are evidently Ilyushin-76, which can carry massive loads of cargo. According to the BBC, “credible sources said that flight originated in Eritrea carrying anti-aircraft guns, uniforms, AK47s and several senior Eritrean officers.”

A proxy war between traditional enemies? Near the Red Sea? You don’t say?

The US and the UN have made the right noises about warning Ethiopia and Eritrea not to meddle in Somali affairs, but it’s hard to believe that either would be interested in interfering, given the difficulties of fielding a peacekeeping force in Lebanon. There’s some speculation that Ethiopia may be trying to win brownie points with the US by checking the power of the Islamists, who are led in part by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, considered an Al-Quaeda connected terrorist by the US. (Ethiopia, sullied by an increasingly repressive approach to government and crackdowns on freedom of expression, could use some positive PR in Washington.) In the meantime, the assasination of Minister Abdallah Deerow Isaq appears to have led to rioting, and it would not be surprising to see the riots bring Ethiopian – and possibly Eritrean – troops into Baidoa.

And if that happens, things could get much, much uglier very, very quickly.

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3 Responses to Some background on the likely forthcoming conflict in Somalia

  1. Mary says:

    I’m surprised there aren’t more comments for this richly-detailed and fascinating post. Maybe the complexity of the situation is a little daunting for the reader. I really respect that you do not only criticize the failure of Western media to cover Africa, you put a lot of work into trying to personally fill in some of those gaping journalistic spaces.

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  3. Dave Lucas says:

    The saddest thing about any conflict is the death of so many good, innocent people. Why Oh Why can’t we all just get along?

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