Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Somalia spirals out of control. Or it’s completely peaceful. Depends who you ask.

The situation in Somalia is spiraling out of control, and, as always, it requires some serious digging to understand what’s actually going on. Sheikh Qasim Ibrahim Nur, the national security director of the Ethiopian- and US-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) noted that “About 80 per cent of Somalia is not safe and is not under control of the government.”

His statement was almost immediately undercut by the Ethiopian government, whose troops have made it possible for the TFG to have any presence in Mogadishu. Bereket Simon, an advisor to Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi, dismissed talk of the resurgence of the Union of Islamic Courts, saying, “The facts on the ground tell you that [the UIC] are in bad shape and having serious difficulties.”

Maybe Simon and Sheik Nur should get together and coordinate their stories, as the Sheik told reporters, “Foreign Islamist elements from Afghanistan, Chechnya and some Arab nations have arrived (in October and November). There are around 4,500 foreign terrorists in the country.” One would assume those alleged terrorists are supporting the Union of Islamic Courts, which briefly managed to achieve some peace and calm in Mogadishu, before the Ethiopian army (with US support) chased them underground. But perhaps they’re just in town on holiday, since the UIC is “having serious difficulties.”

Nur’s statement fits with the narrative that Ethiopia and TFG have been feeding their supporters – Somalia is a hotbed for international terror, and international intervention is neccesary to stabilize the region. Other of his statements seem custom-designed for the Bush administration: “We have evidence that a large amount of weapons were shipped to Somalia from Iran… These sophisticated weapons were intended to annihilate the Somali people.” Reuters noted that this statement “could not immediately be independently verified.” It certainly would be fascinating if it were true – Shia Iran supporting Sunni insurgents (and, allegedly, Sunni al-Qaeda) in a Sunni nation against Christian troops?

The occasion for this linguistic battle between allies was a mortar strike on Bakara Market, a busy center in Mogadishu. Ethiopia denies shelling the market, with Simon arguing that Ethiopian forces have the UIC under control, and therefore have no need to shell civilians. Indeed, Ethiopian Information Minister Berhan Hailu (safely in Addis Ababa) told reporters, “As far as we know, Mogadishu remained peaceful during the week.” He might want to pass that on to the 19 dead and 40 injured in the blasts. Somali analysts say that Ethopian forces are the only ones in the region with the capability to fire the sorts of shells that caused the carnage in the market. (Wanna bet that someone blames Iranian weaponry for this attack in the next couple of days?)

It’s hard to follow this story for a lot of reasons, not just because virtually every source is unreliable. Increasingly, it’s difficult for any reporters to operate in Mogadishu, or Somalia as a whole. According to David Axe, who wrote an excellent series of posts from Mogadishu, “Pretty much every one of Mogadishu’s roughly 100 independent media workers has been arrested for reporting on the fighting – some for days, some for weeks.” In a longer piece for the Columbia Journalism Review, he reports that the TFG is systematically harrassing journalists, attempting to quash any reports of fighting in the city or refugees fleeing.

In the process, they’ve created a much more repressive media environment than existed under the UIC, and have cut off essential information services. Think of the importance of a morning traffic report in a city where gunfire and extortive roadblocks are routine. Shabelle Radio provided one, with a dozen journalists contributing stories from around the city on the “Today in Mogadishu” program. The show has been off the air since the TFG shot up Shabelle’s offices at the end of Ramadan.

Axe’s reporting is extremely helpful for people trying to follow the Somalia story closely. He offers a useful history of Bakara Market, including the rise of a private militia to protect businesses and shoppers. That militia was chased out by the TFG earlier this year, and they turned over 1700 weapons to the TFG. (When TFG soliders get sick of not getting paid by their dysfunctional government, they sell their AK47s to local toughs, who use them to man barricades and rob passers-by of their mobile phones.) I’m slightly put off by Axe’s narrative of self-sacrifice and machismo – his first few entries focus on the dire warnings he ignored in going to Somalia, and his decision to quit his employ with McGraw Hill to make the trip – but I can’t argue with his bravery or with his reporting on the ground. (After all, Yahoo’s resident war correspondent, Kevin Sites hasn’t been there since a five-day trip in 2005, before the Ethiopian invasion…)

And I appreciate his efforts to clarify US involvement in the situation. He argues, “The United States is playing both sides, supporting the army inciting much of the fighting AND the army with the best chance of bringing peace.” That latter army is the fledgling AU force, which currently includes 1,800 Ugandan troops. Uganda and Ethiopia have been competing to be the US’s best friend in the Horn, and Axe notes that the Ugandan troops and trained and supported with US money and US-backed mercenaries, including DynCorp.

Axe only got a partial picture in his two weeks in Somalia, but it’s a vital and important one. Only a few media sources are shining a light on the situation in Somalia. The LA Times has an excellent article today about aid convoys shipping grain to the country with an escort from the French navy to protect ships from piracy – I would love to have the backstory on how Edmund Sanders got this story from Marka, 45 miles south of Somalia. Most media sources are relying just on wire stories… and those wire stories are getting harder to get as the TFG cracks down on all independent journalists, not just those reporting locally.

Closing his Somalia series, Axe notes, “…it’s about how the U.S. aims to fight wars in Africa — by proxy — and how these proxy wars might have the same result as our misguided invasion of Iraq. Instead of destroying Islamic extremists, pre-emptive wars often breed them.” He’s absolutely right. That’s the insanity of US and Ethiopian involvement in Somalia: we took a stabilizing security situation in Somalia and turned it into a humanitarian disaster. And we did it with almost no one in the US noticing.

Don’t say the Bush administration doesn’t learn from its mistakes – the government reaction to the quagmire in Iraq was to keep our next foray in the “war on terror” as quiet as possible, hoping no one would notice. For the most part, no one has.

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