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Make-or-break peace talks in Somalia

Monday, April 16, 2007

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Jendayi Frazer, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, must have been the highest ranking US government official to visit Somalia in 13 years when she landed at the Baidoa airstrip on April 7.

The timing of the visit was telling, as the capital city of Mogadishu was going through one of the deadliest street battles in its recent days. 

Baidoa residents woke up to an unprecedented security operation mounted by pro-government forces, US marines and plainclothes security men. Ms Frazer addressed legislators at the Transitional Federal Parliament. According to local radio reports, she also held a closed door meeting with President Abdullahi Yusuf, Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Ghedi and Sheikh Adan Madobe, the TFP’s Speaker.

Later, at a press conference, they explained the measures to be taken by the Transitional Federal Government and its supporters to stabilise the country. 

The US, like other governments, is in favour of a reconciliation conference — one is scheduled for April 16 — as the only way to bring peace in Somalia, but the question is how, considering that the TFG is facing armed opposition from a coalition of forces.

Ms Frazer’s visit to Baidoa is said to have laid the foundations for a strategy to realise the two most important tasks awaiting the TFG, namely stabilisation of the country and flushing out of radical groups. But the million dollar question is — which one is to be dealt with first?

According to a government insider who sought anonymity, the TFG’s main assignment is to separate moderate opposition forces from the radical groups and also negotiate with disgruntled clan loyalists to reduce opposition to the TFG. 

An TFG official said, “The strategy of seeking support from the clan loyalists will leave the remnants of the Islamic Courts running around with rifles and rocket launchers and no support on the ground.”

The April conference is much needed as the recent battles in Mogadishu showed, the deadliest of which took place on April 5, 6, and 7 between Ethiopian troops and Somali militias opposed known as muqawama. The fighting occurred in some of the most densely populated areas of Mogadishu.

The epicentre was the Ali Kamin Crossroads which links Hamarjadid and Hamarbila sub-districts and around the Mogadishu Stadium. The fighting spread from the Towfiq business centre to Hararyale area and beyond Florence Crossroads in the Wardhigley district. The battle split the city into east and west.

It all started on the morning of April 5 when Ethiopian tanks rolled down the strategic Industrial Road, north of the city. All of a sudden, turbaned men carrying all sorts of weapons emerged from unpaved side roads and alleys to confront the combination of Ethiopian artillery and infantry units supported by helicopter gunship. 

The battle raged on for three days, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians, destruction of property and a massive exodus of residents from the capital. 

All this took place just days to the April 16 national reconciliation conference that President Abdullahi Yusuf announced to the world while attending the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa in January. Some 3,000 Somali delegates are expected to attend the conference, one of the biggest gatherings ever held in Somalia. 

In an apparent move to boost public confidence, Mohamed Abdi Mareeye, TFG’s Minister in charge of Reconciliation said, “We are trying to identify a reasonable venue in Mogadishu to hold the conference.” 

President Yusuf promised that Somalis from all walks of life will be represented. According to preliminary statements, the conference is to review the transitional federal charter, the TFG’s main document and to frame a more acceptable constitution that will lead to a multiparty election by the end of the TFG’s term in 2009.

However, Ms Frazer expressed her doubts for the process, which she said has many enemies. She pointed fingers at Al-shabab, the elite force of the defunct Union of the Islamic Courts (UIC), which she believes is an extremist group with links to Al-qaeda.

The TFG has been assured of US support to crash extremists groups. 

Originaly pubished in East Afric, April 16, 2007

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