Wednesday April 4, 2007
Predictions that the US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia last Christmas would hasten rather than halt the country's political disintegration are proving grimly accurate. In the league of failed states, Somalia is runaway leader. With international attention focused on Zimbabwe and Darfur, it is the hidden shame of the world.
More than 1,000 civilians have been killed or wounded in fighting in recent days in the capital, Mogadishu, and tens of thousands have fled their homes. The UN says wounded civilians are lying untended in the streets after heavy artillery and mortars pounded residential areas. Since February, 96,000 refugees have swelled the ranks of Somalia's 400,000 internally displaced persons. And despite a temporary truce yesterday, it seems worse is to come.
Ethiopia's defeat of local Islamist forces, known as the Council of Islamic Courts, that seized control of Mogadishu last year was accomplished with the help of American air strikes, intelligence and logistical support. It allowed the widely disavowed, western-approved transitional federal government (TFG) to expand its area of nominal control. It may have also furthered Washington's aim of curbing supposed al-Qaida efforts to "Talibanise" the Horn of Africa - although the evidence for that claim is thin.
But the intervention, opposed by many Somalis and by Ethiopia's regional foe, Eritrea, was not nearly as decisive as its main architect, Ethiopia's prime minister Meles Zenawi, has claimed. In recent weeks the country has slipped back inexorably into a maelstrom of violent rivalries pitting hostile clans, resurgent warlords, militias, and foreign jihadis against each other in an ever more destructive struggle for dominance. And far from being vanquished, the Islamists, whose support is largely drawn from the powerful Hawiye clan, may be making a comeback.
"Politically Somalia has now been returned roughly to where it was when the TFG was formed in October 2004," says the latest report of the International Crisis Group. "The government is weak, unpopular and faction-ridden, and the power vacuum in southern Somalia is rapidly being filled by the same faction leaders and warlords that the Courts overthrew ... Many Mogadishu residents resent the Courts' defeat, feel threatened by the TFG and are dismayed by the presence of Ethiopian troops."
Despite an emergency meeting in Cairo yesterday of the international contact group, which includes the US and Britain, and plans for a national reconciliation conference on April 16, Somalia's prospects look bleak. The African Union has failed to insert an effective peacekeeping force. Only Uganda has sent troops so far - and they have become targets, rather than arbiters, as the weekend killing of a peacekeeper showed. Meanwhile previously peaceful Somaliland and Puntland in the north show signs of incipient instability.
Several attempts by Mr Zenawi to set a timetable for an Ethiopian withdrawal, as volubly urged by Eritrea (which is backing the Courts), have meanwhile been thwarted by continuing resistance. The Ethiopians now face an Iraq-style quagmire.
According to Michael Weinstein, an analyst at the Power and Interest News Report, the reluctance of the TFG president, Abdullahi Yusuf, to negotiate genuine power-sharing arrangements with moderate Islamists and other forces is likely to scupper the reconciliation conference. Having waited so long to gain power, and after so many years of strife, factions within the transitional government were now reluctant to relinquish any part of it to erstwhile enemies.
The western powers, neighbouring countries such as Kenya, and donor countries faced a dilemma, Dr Weinstein said. "If they press the TFG into open reconciliation talks, they risk its implosion; if they stand back and let Yusuf proceed with his approach to reconciliation, they risk increasing instability."
Even if it takes place, the April 16 peace conference was "highly unlikely to succeed," he concluded.
Instead its failure may signal the next stage of Somalia's unremarked descent into the inferno.
Simon Tisdall - Simon Tisdall is an assistant editor of the Guardian and a foreign affairs columnist.