At last, a glimmer of hope for Somalia

By Rosemary Righter (THE TIMES, 04/01/07):

The peremptory ousting of the Islamic courts by Ethiopian forces is Somalia’s first piece of potentially good news in two devastating decades. Ethiopia acted out of national interest, to deny Islamic extremists a base in the troubled Horn of Africa from which they could disrupt the balance in Ethiopia itself, where almost equal-sized Christian and Muslim communities currently coexist in reasonable harmony.

Somalis, who fought two wars with Ethiopia over the Ogaden desert, will not readily see their old enemy as a saviour. Yet by acting when the UN and the African Union could come up with nothing but paper plans, the Ethiopians have given this wretched failed state a chance. When the Tanzanians invaded Uganda in 1979 to get rid of the murderous Idi Amin, they were piously denounced by the international community. They deserved praise and so do the Ethiopians. Uganda’s troubles did not end then, but it was the start of the road out of Hell. Somalia is an even tougher case, but it has at least been rescued from another plunge into the inferno.

What next? The country has a federal Government only in name, without ministries or offices, let alone an effective military — a Government whose writ ran nowhere a mere fortnight ago, not even, securely, in the little town of Baidoa where it had been holed up since in 2004. Transitional in name and impotent in fact, it has had, until now, no relevance to Somalis. Not least because its ranks include warlords, its brave insistence that “the warlord era is over” will not readily be believed. It has only weeks to introduce some semblance of civil order. The process will be chaotic; the attempt may fail.

Yet this is still the first government since 1987, when tribal armies combined to overthrow the dictator Siad Barre, that, for now at least, does not face an organised military threat. That is important. So is the fact that President Abdullahi Yusuf hails from one of Somalia’s two biggest clans, the more northerly Darod, and Ali Mohamed Ghedi, its convincingly moderate and well-educated Prime Minister, from the other, the Mogadishu-based Hawiye clan. The warlords are at least nominally within the government camp.

Above all, the Government seems serious about persuading the traditional elders of the six principal Somali clans, most of which are represented in the embryo parliament, to halt the feuds that erupted after Barre fell in 1991. The clan leaders have a strong interest in doing so. The vacuum that this fighting created enabled warlords to usurp their traditional authority, the basis in Somalia of civic order. Their followers, who trade, intermarry and work with each other daily, would respond because they are desperate for peace.

The dominant hardline faction among the Islamists offered no such prospect. They sought the military overthrow of Somalia’s internationally recognised government; their call for jihad against Ethiopia was a pretext. Before the Ethiopians moved, the Islamic courts had geared up for renewed civil war. They expected it to be protracted and bloody, as it would have been without the decisive Ethiopian intervention.

The intolerant but effective order the courts imposed on Mogadishu after ejecting the warlords in June gave an impression that was ultimately misleading. It impressed both Somalis and outsiders, yet they never unveiled an agenda for the country as a whole, or showed interest in reconciling Somalis.

Nearly all the courts’ officials were Hawiye, most from the subclan of Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a militant who denies links to al-Qaeda, yet compares Osama bin Laden to Nelson Mandela.

Tellingly, the Islamist leaders showed no interest in establishing government structures, instead ruling by suppressing, with draconian punishments, what remained of personal freedoms and imposing a fundamentalist regime alien to the relaxed, gentle Islam of most Somalis. Theirs was a spurious prospectus; beyond ousting the warlords and then the government, the Islamic courts had nothing to offer but the certainty of more fighting.

Last month factions prepared to negotiate with the transitional Government lost out to the hardliners bent on attacking Baidoa. By now persuaded that they were invincible, they issued the Ethiopians, who until then had insisted that they were in Somalia only as military trainers, with a ten-day ultimatum to leave the country and appealed to Islamists from around the world to join the battle. The Ethiopians called their bluff, politically as well as militarily.

Supposedly loyal units defected almost immediately and open support for the Islamists evaporated the moment they left Mogadishu. But the guns, and some warlords, are also back, and a three-day deadline for the surrender of all weapons, which expires today, has been ignored.

Quite logically, people will not voluntarily give up guns that they fear they may need. The Government cannot enforce the ban. The Ethiopians cannot use their troops for that purpose without arousing intense hostility.

The promised African peacekeepers may not arrive for months. Working with moderates from the Islamic Courts, as Mr Ghedi proposes, may be the only way to hold the line while power-sharing is negotiated with the Hawiye.

Massive and above all immediate humanitarian aid is essential, along with engineers to repair shattered infrastructure, and administrative advice. So is the presence, for now, of Ethiopian troops. But in honesty Somali leaders should be told that there is small enthusiasm for another large peacekeeping mission to save them from themselves. Reconciliation is a job for Somalis alone. Somalis want that job done.