As the African Union grapples with the challenge of assembling an 8 000-strong peacekeeping force for Somalia, that country’s eight million people yearn for an effective government that is able to end the sectarian and warlord-induced violence that has torn the country apart since the fall of Mohamed Siad Barre’s military dictatorship in 1991.
Somalia’s present interim government, led by President Abdullahi Yusuf, cannot be the answer: it is the product of an externally sponsored process and hardly enjoys the full support of the Somali people and clan elders. Yusuf’s fragile government finds itself in Mogadishu only because Ethiopian troops recently expelled the Union of Islamic Courts, which held sway in the capital.
Thus far, African governments have been lukewarm to the AU’s call for troops. Other than Uganda, which has offered 1 500 soldiers, the capacity of many African countries -- especially South Africa and Nigeria -- is already spread thin.
Then the alarm is sounded of an AU force confronting the “Black Hawk Down” syndrome, in reference to 1993 when, as part of a United Nations peace operation in Somalia, two US army helicopters were shot down and 18 American soldiers were killed by a warlord’s militia, and their bodies dragged through the capital as part of a mob frenzy. The situation is compounded by terrorist elements (allegedly associated with al-Qaeda), which have found haven in Somalia.
Any peacekeeping effort is bound to face similar perils amid the chaos that defines the political landscape of this hapless country. But is this sufficient reason for Africans to throw up their hands in despair in the face of “peacekeeping fatigue” and studious indifference in the West?
The AU established its own Peace and Security Council (PSC) in May 2004 precisely to deal with problematic conflict theatres and Somalia provides a litmus test of the political resolve needed to intervene. South Africa is a long-term member of the PSC’s five-country nerve centre and is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Both offer a muscular diplomatic opportunity to alter the balance of power in Somalia in a manner that is broadly inclusive of all clan- and religious-based affinities, interests and actors -- but this must be backed up by peacekeeping action on the ground, regardless of the threats.
The interim government cannot, on its own, create a climate conducive to a lasting solution in one of Africa’s most intractable conflicts.
In his last internet newsletter, President Thabo Mbeki observed: “Somalia has turned into a source of regional instability, even as the African continent through the African Union has intensified its efforts to ensure that ours becomes a continent of peace, focused on responding to the challenge of eradicating poverty and underdevelopment.” There is, therefore, an ethical imperative for the AU and the UN to assume the responsibility to protect innocent civilians caught in the vortex of violence and to sue for peace.
This raises the question of why South Africa should respond positively to the PSC’s request for troop deployment in Somalia. The simple answer is that Pretoria has built up an impressive peace pedigree and has the necessary diplomatic credentials to help alleviate the crisis.
It should be remembered that, in 1999, South Africa’s parliament adopted a white paper on participation in peace missions, under the auspices of the UN and the then OAU; surveys also showed a broadly supportive public.
Since then, South Africa has negotiated a steep learning curve in Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia/Eritrea, the Comoros and Sudan, where it has deployed members of the South African National Defence Force. Except for some imprudent troop behaviour blotting its copy book, it can safely be said that the DRC and Burundi would not have been able to hold free and fair elections without South Africa’s persistent and dogged peace diplomacy. This diplomacy was backed up by its participation in UN and AU peace missions.
In addition, South Africa has strongly supported conflict resolution efforts, such as assisting the transitional government of Liberia with R26million; providing pre-election support to the DRC worth R25million; training valued at R7million for Southern Sudanese in civil administration; and humanitarian assistance to Western Sahara worth R10million.
As Mbeki himself put it in his newsletter: “… Africa has no choice but to come to the aid of this sister African country.” Leadership is desperately needed in Somalia. Who better to provide it than South Africa? Garth le Pere is executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue