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A new chapter in Somalia’s prolonged conflict

By Mohamed Mukhtar


Somalis and analysts on Somali affairs have in the last few days witnessed a dramatic diplomatic U-turn. The UN Security Council met on 28 November to discuss a report presented by the UN group monitoring the arms embargo on Somalia. The Council decided to strengthen the arms embargo and adopted a resolution which says, “... bearing in mind that strict enforcement of the arms embargo will improve the overall security situation in Somalia.”  


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Within a week, precisely on 6 December, while the world was preoccupied with the Iraq Study Group’s report, the Security Council yet again met to only adopt a disparate resolution sponsored by the U.S., which eases the arms embargo and allows African Union and IGAD members to send peacekeepers to Somalia. The new resolution reads, “[the UN] decides to authorize IGAD and Member States of the African Union to establish a protection and training mission in Somalia.”


Whether the world thinks that strict enforcement of the arms embargo is the way forward or the US has coaxed the UN to change its mind, Somalia is entering a new chapter in its prolonged conflict.


Although the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was formed at the end of 2004, the Bush administration and other Western governments opted until recently not to recognise or consider the TFG as a legitimate government. In fact, early in 2006, the US government, as part of its War on Terror, chose to bypass the TFG and work with Mogadishu-based warlords, who were holding the interim government and the society in general as hostages, to form an Alliance for Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism. 


Before 2006, the Islamic Courts were at the fringe of the Somali politics. Residents of Mogadishu supported the Islamic Courts only when the US government allied itself with the callous warlords despised by everybody. The Guardian observed this, “Washington's bungled policy of funding the Mogadishu warlords against the courts - which it accuses of harbouring al-Qaida militants - is credited with speeding the rise of Islamic Courts, which gained control of the capital in June and has since expanded rapidly.”  


For the past 15 years, in the eyes of Somalis, these pitiless warlords have been local terrorists and have subjected untold distress and adversity on the people. And choosing those heartless warlords as an ally inadvertently put Islamic Courts in an advantage position and helped the Courts to gain popular support. However, this does not mean Somalis are extremists but they need peace and stability like anyone else and if they can get that under a religious authority that would certainly appeal to them.


Soon after the domination of Mogadishu-based warlords came to brutal end, as a knee jerk reaction, Western governments have expressed a newfound willingness to revisit the long delayed arms embargo against Somalia, imposed in 1992, suggesting that this move would enable the government to restore law and order throughout the country. The U.S.-sponsored resolution demands from IGAD and African Union “to protect members of the Transitional Federal Institutions and Government as well as their key infrastructure.” This is the same government that Western governments had been reluctant to work with or even recognise as a legitimate government before June 2006.


The latter resolution is exactly what experts and diplomats have been warning against. The International Crisis Group said, “A US-backed proposal to send African troops into Somalia to support the weak government raises the risk of triggering an all-out war with the Islamic Courts that could destabilise the entire region.” The Guardian noted, “The US's support for the resolution has caused consternation among western diplomats dealing with Somalia, most of who share the think tank’s prognosis.”


Will the recent resolution elevate Somali conflict to a new higher level? Will Somalia become the new Congo of East Africa? Robert Guest recounted in his book, The Shackled Continent, how several countries tore apart Congo like a dying hippopotamus. In it, he wrote, “Nine national armies were involved, in alliance with several local repel groups and militias. The Rwandans and Ugandans fought against Kabila. The Angolans supported Kabila. The Zimbabweans had no obvious reason to be involved, but they said they wanted to defend the legitimate government. Namibia, Chad and Burundi all sent troops at one time or another. Sudan sent some transport planes.”


Will the US- sponsored resolution encourage the TFG and Islamic Courts to embark on reconciliation and confidence building measures? On paper, it may look so, but in practical term, it will be a difficult task to embark.


The US perspective is very much focused on the containment and if possible the elimination of the Islamic Courts, a problem they created in the first place and feel a deep sense of responsibility on its resolution.


The resolution “urges the Transitional Federal Institutions and the Union of Islamic Courts to fulfil commitments they have made, resume without delay peace talks on the basis of the agreements reached in Khartoum.” In reality, the TFG has never been keen on the Khartoum talk and now armed with this resolution it has no reason to change its attitude.


Ethiopia is supporting the virtually powerless Somali government by deploying troops inside Somalia. Tadesse Tadele said in his article, Somalia, not our war!, “It is true that instability in Somalia does affect Ethiopia, however, the Ethiopia PM is creating a very unstable Somalia by trying to install and safeguard a failed warlord led government that has been rejected by it own parliament. Therefore it was the illegal presence of Ethiopian soldiers on Somali soil that led the Islamists to declare jihad, and as far as the Ethiopian people are concerned the jihad was declared on Melles and his group not our country.” If an all-out war between Ethiopia and Islamic Courts starts, the war could spread beyond Somalia’s borders and destabilise the entire region. Furthermore, the Ethiopian involvement will certain internationalize the war by attracting freelance jihadists into the conflict.


The latter resolution will have more destabilizing effects than strengthening the peace efforts. The real urgency is now that the international community commits itself in pressuring the two feuding sides to come to the negotiating table while forcing the Ethiopian troops out of Somalia and stopping other countries to meddle in Somalia’s affairs.   


Mohamed Mukhtar
London, UK
Email: [email protected]

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