Saturday, 13 January 2007

Somalia: Winds of change in the horn

After independence in 1960, Somalia suffered some classic postcolonial problems. In 1969 came the military coup which installed Siad Barre, who became embroiled in the chess-game of the Cold War. He took Somalia into a war with Ethiopia to annex the Ogaden, a border region where many ethnic Somalis live. The state collapsed as the Cold War ended, and Somalia embarked on a period of civil war and chaos. For fifteen years Somalia has had no effective government and no guarantee of security. The north of the country has some limited government in Somaliland and Puntland, but the south, where the capital, Mogadishu, is, has been in a worse condition.

Recent events have been quite complex, though the United States' relatively minor 'war on terror' operations are overshadowing other, more important and more surprising developments. At least three types of group have been involved in vying for control of Mogadishu and the country. First of all, the Islamic Courts Union, commonly referred to in western press as "the Islamists", wrested control last summer from the warlords who had divided the city between themselves since the Somali state collapsed in 1991. The Islamist's rule was short, though reportedly characterised by relative calm and order, even if there were some reports of "Talibanization".

Then over the last couple of weeks, the Transitional Federal Government, heavily backed by the Ethiopian army (one of the largest in Africa), drove out the "Islamists" and took control of the capital and the third city, Kismayu. Since then the transitional government, internationally recognised and formed by negotiations in 2004, has been moving towards imposing order and asserting its authority. It has a transitional charter to implement and a lot of negotiation and compromise to achieve if it is to garner the cooperation of the warlords and the moderate elements of the Islamic Courts Union in — necessary if the transitional government is to build peace and security, which is the primary aim at the moment.

For the future, the transitional government is probably the best hope for peaceful development in southern Somalia, though a problem remains regarding the north. The transitional government's charter is committed to a unified Somalia: they hope that the northern regions, particularly Somaliland, will be amenable to joining with the south as they did after they gained independence from Britain in 1960. However, it is doubtful that Somalilanders will want to be governed from Mogadishu again, after the experience of being ruled by Barre. Indeed, 97% of the population voted in favour of independence in a recent referedum, and many would rather fight than rejoin the south.

Somaliland, "a home-grown democracy", is campaigning for international recognition of its reconstitution within its 1960 borders, prior to unification with Italian part of Somalia. With the second-largest city, Hergeisa, and an important port at Berbera, Somaliland is an economically important region, so the transitional government may not give up its hopes of unification easily. Unfortunately, the international community is not easily persuaded to accept border changes and new nations, so even if peace is established in the south, civil war may be a possibility.

Ethiopia and Kenya no doubt hope that a friendly government will abandon its historic claims to border-lands and so maintain peace in the Horn of Africa. The United States has been increasingly concerned about Somalia — a Muslim country — being a haven for terrorists and a money-launderer's paradise. Events are going in a direction which is good for most of the international players involved, but it remains to be seen whether it will be good for Somali people.

For the moment the transitional government's authority, and any possibility of security, is only guaranteed by foreign troops. Those who call for Ethiopian troops to leave as soon as possible, including the EU commissioner responsible for relations with the region, are right in arguing that a continued Ethiopian military presence could end up stirring up resentment among Somalis. The possibility of an "Iraq-style insurgency" against the foreign military presence has already been suggested by The Economist and others. We might also compare the Somalilanders in the north, with their aspirations for independence, to the Kurds in northern Iraq.

Many suspect Ethiopia's intentions, not least Somalians themselves, who have little reason to trust their neighbour. But just as maintaining military operations in Iraq is proving costly for the American and British governments, Ethiopia will not relish having direct control of the volatile and hostile region that southern Somalia is to them. Their best hope, and the best hope for Somalia, is that they can leave quickly and the transitional government can establish peace and security in Somalia with the aid of an international force drawn from other African nations, not least so that children can go to school and people can live their lives.

(Edited 16 January 2007; thanks to Peter Low for his comments.)