Somalia, state of anarchy

President Abdullahi Yusuf's admission that Somalia's transitional government is close to collapse puts the international community, and principally permanent UN security council members like Britain, on the spot. Decades of diplomatic neglect, ill-advised interventions, and half-hearted peace plans are now resulting in not so much a failed state as a state of anarchy.

The latest act of piracy involving an oil tanker off Somalia's coast, reported yesterday, reflects the desperate straits facing many in the country. It's a shame that leading countries and their navies seem more exercised about safeguarding sea lanes than saving the 3.25 million Somalis – 43% of the total population – who are dependent on food aid.

At this point in time, Somalia arguably constitutes the world's biggest single humanitarian disaster, and that's including Sudan, Zimbabwe and Congo. Recent Islamist advances, endangering government control of its last strongholds in Mogadishu and Baidoa have only served to highlight an ongoing, deeper tragedy.

Ten thousand people have been killed in Somalia since 2007; more than 1 million are internally displaced. Thousands more have fled at risk to their lives across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. Many did not make it.

According to the UN, acute malnutrition rates are "generally high", with the under-five mortality rate at 145 per 1,000. 45% of the population exists on less than $1 a day. And people in many areas are at constant risk from endemic lawlessness and religious-inspired fanaticism, exemplified by the stoning to death last month of a 13-year-old girl by Islamist zealots.

Aid agencies face growing risks. Amnesty International says more than 40 humanitarian or human rights workers have been killed this year in targeted violence. In most cases the culprits were the hardline Islamist al-Shabaab movement, other militias linked to the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS), and government forces or criminal gangs.

Politically speaking, the latest peace plan, known as the Djibouti Agreement, which brought together the western and Ethiopian-backed transitional government and the ARS (successor organisation to the Islamic Courts Union), was always more a fond wish for the future than a firm path out of the morass.

The government is split between rival factions around the president and the prime minister, Nur Hassan Hussein. Despite the urgings of the regional grouping, the Inter-Government Authority on Development or IGAD, warlord rivals have failed to agree on a new cabinet and other key measures. But the ARS is split, too, between moderate elements led by Sheikh Sharif Ahmed and Eritrean-backed rejectionists led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys.

Interviewed in Asmara in May, Aweys vowed to create an Islamic republic in Somalia and expel Ethiopian troops that entered the country in 2006. "We're going to liberate Somalis from Ethiopia … We are all Muslims in Somalia. We have no idea of secularism. The people will pace their trust in religion," Aweys said.

What the UN security council will do if the peace process and Yusuf's government collapse is wholly unclear. Washington's main interest is preventing Somalia becoming a terrorist haven. That narrow focus is partly blamed for the wider disintegration. Others are more concerned about illegal immigration.

Flagging up the gathering crisis, Britain has drafted a UN resolution that would impose sanctions on any person or country obstructing humanitarian assistance or contributing to instability – for example by supplying arms to the Islamists as the UN accuses Eritrea of doing.

Ethiopia may hold the key to what happens next. It is thought to have a reduced force of about 3,000 troops in Somalia, working with a similar number of African Union peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi. Without their support there is little doubt that Yusuf's government would be quickly overthrown. But Ethiopian officials say they cannot afford, politically or financially, to hold the ring indefinitely.

"It's too early to talk of a troop withdrawal. Our partners tell us it would be catastrophic," a senior Ethiopian diplomat said. "But if the Somalis are not ready to work together for peace, if it all gets too difficult, Ethiopia will withdraw."

The transitional government was "a victim of its own leadership" and was under intense pressure from IGAD to sort its ideas out, the diplomat said. Ethiopia shared concerns that anarchy in Somalia could spark conflict across the Horn of Africa. Thus it supported calls for the UN to take over the AU's peacekeeping mission. "What's happening in Somalia is a danger to all its neighbours. The UN should assume its responsibilities in a big way," the diplomat said.

Given past performance and the current focus on Congo and Darfur, that looks like a forlorn hope. Sadder still is the thought that for many outsiders, media and politicians, chasing cut-throat pirates is sexier than helping starving Somalis.

Simon Tisdall