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Somalia Could Turn into Proxy War


Embassy, October 25th, 2006
By Brian Adeba

The window of opportunity for Canada to engage both the Somali government and the Union of Islamic Courts is closing, say two Liberal MPs

As Islamists in Somalia continue to grow in strength, two Liberal MPs and the president of a Somali organization in Canada are calling for the government to get involved in order to avert a potential disaster in the Horn of Africa country.

Four months ago, fighters from the Union of Islamic Courts forced warlords controlling the Somali capital of Mogadishu to flee. After gaining control of the city, the Islamic Courts rapidly expanded their hold on southern Somalia. They brought law and order to a country that has not seen a central government for 16 years. But they also imposed a strict adherence to Sharia law. They have closed down cinema halls, forced women to wear the hijab and executed criminals in public.

"We should be worried," says Liberal foreign affairs critic Keith Martin.

"Ignoring them could produce a situation that could be much worse for the West," he says, elaborating that he fears extremist elements within the Islamic Courts will one day take over. If that happens, Mr. Martin says nothing will prevent Somalia from becoming a training ground for terrorists.

Borys Wrzesnewskyj, a Liberal MP who visited Somalia last year, says Canada and the West should engage the Islamic Courts while there's still a window of opportunity, which he fears is rapidly closing. He notes that there are extremist elements within the Islamic Courts, but adds that the protagonists in Somalia see Canada as a neutral country, and this factor should be used to engage in dialogue.

Initial contact could be established through Canadian citizens in the transitional government of Somalia and the lslamic Courts. Mr. Wrzesnewskyj says there are two cabinet ministers in the transitional government who hold Canadian citizenship. Last week, the Toronto Star reported that Canadian citizen Abdullahi Afrah, a former Toronto resident, is one of the leaders of the Islamic Courts.

Creation of a Greater Somalia

Farah Aw-Osman, president and co-founder of the Canadian Friends of Somalia, says that without help from the international community, the quagmire in Somalia will continue. Mr. Aw-Osman says the creation of a fundamentalist government in Somalia has serious implications for stability in the Horn of Africa.

He says the Islamic Courts have expressed a desire of creating a greater Somalia. Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya all have ethnic Somali populations. Grant Dawson, a professor of political science at Carleton University, says that Somali politicians have entertained the idea of a greater Somalia since the country gained independence in 1960.

In a couple of weeks, the transitional government of Somalia, which was created in 2004, is set to meet the Union of Islamic Courts in Sudan for talks. Mr. Wrzesnewskyj says Canada should send an observer team to the talks and organize an international donors conference to help Somalia.

While it is important that talks be initiated between the Islamic Courts and the transitional government, it is crucial to involve Ethiopia and Eritrea as well to scale down the chances of a proxy war in Somalia, says Mr. Martin.

The Islamic Courts accuse Ethiopia of meddling in the internal affairs of Somalia after the government in Addis Ababa sent troops to prop up the transitional Somali government, currently holed up in Baidoa, the only city it controls in the whole country.

For its part, the transitional government accuses Eritrea of supporting the Islamic Courts. But while this scenario has all the makings of a proxy war, Robert Rotberg, director of the Program on Instrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution at Harvard University, says there's no full-scale proxy war in Somalia, "but it is one developing between Ethiopia and Eritrea."

Canada and the international community should also take steps to ensure that the next government in Somalia should be representative of all the clans in the country, says Mr. Aw-Osman. He says the Islamic Courts draw their support from the Hawiya clan.

"Other clans like the Darod, the Rahawein and Issaq are not accepting the Islamists," he says.

"The Islamists are not going to succeed because there will be another civil war."

Mr. Dawson says the reach of the Islamic Courts goes beyond clan loyalties because of religion.

"My impression is that they have connections with other clans but Islam is the unifying factor," he says.

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Source: Embassy Magazine, Oct. 25, 2006