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Somali Contact Group and its first anniversary

Mohamed Mukhtar
Tuesday, June 05, 2007


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Somali Contact Group (SCG) is celebrating its first anniversary. The SCG is claiming that its investment in Somalia is edging towards fruition – the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) relocated from Baidoa to Mogadishu, the risk of terrorism has been reduced substantially, a national reconciliation conference is scheduled, Uganda has deployed about 1500 troops to Somalia. In short, Somalia is on the mend. 


However, when one takes a closer look at Somalia’s circumstance, one is bound to realise that SCG’s merrymaking is a diplomatic smile colouring a painful reality. Transitional Federal Institutions are hardly functioning, Somalia now poses greater risk than ever before, Mogadishu residents experience daily explosions and gun fire. 8000 African peacekeepers should have been deployed instead of 1500. If the proposed national conference takes place, it is unlikely to produce any significant peace dividends. Ethiopia finds itself trapped in Somalia. The Economist delivered a damning verdict on the performance of SCG: “Peace-making is still fraught. A national reconciliation conference of clan elders planned for June 14th will not take place, partly because Mogadishu remains too dangerous for any public gathering. Little is expected of a forthcoming meeting of Somalis and foreign countries' representatives in London.”


SCG is an outcome of an abrupt shift in policy rather than a strategy carefully planned. Soon after the domination of Mogadishu-based warlords came to brutal end, as a knee jerk reaction, the US has called for an international meeting on Somalia. The Washington Post has captured the mood of the US: “A rethinking of U.S. policy was provoked by fast-moving events over the last several weeks in the chaotic country on the Horn of Africa.”


US interest in Somalia seems limited to finding three Al-Qaeda operatives, who are accused of the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. For this purpose, the US needs only local allies that can set up antiterrorist task forces. Historical evidence supports this view. Early in 2006, the Pentagon and the CIA, as part of War on Terror, chose to work with Mogadishu-based warlords and not with the Transitional Federal Government knowing that these warlords were holding Somalis and the country in general as hostages. J. peter Pham, an author who tries to have a material impact of the formulation of American foreign policy, argues: “it would be far less a threat to outsiders and far more legitimate to its inhabitants if its component parts [Somali regions] were allowed to each go their own separate ways rather than have the international community impose an utterly artificial "national authority" on it.”


In January 2007, the US started to conduct overtly military operations in Somalia to liquidate or capture the three Al-Qaeda suspects. On 8 January 2007, the US Air Force used AC-130 to launch an air strike against the three suspects in southern Somalia. Even those who are familiar with the US operations were surprised why the US had chosen an AC-130 gunship. Startfor, a private intelligence agency, said: “Using an AC-130 gunship to eliminate specific militant suspects marks a departure from typical U.S. practice.”  Unfortunately, civilians became victims of America's War on Terror. On 13 January 2007, the Independent reported: “Oxfam yesterday confirmed at least 70 nomads in the Afmadow district near the border with Kenya had been killed.”


Six months have passed, the hunt is still on. On 01 June 2007, the NBC reported: “The destroyer USS Chafee fired her deck guns at two or three suspected "high-value terrorist targets" in the Puntland area along the northern coast of Somalia on Saturday, U.S. officials told NBC News.” Somalia is not now a safer place. In fact, Somalia now poses greater risk as it attracts freelance jihadists. Suicide bombers are a new phenomenon on the Somali scene.


In the Somali context, the word terrorist is now becoming a cliché. Local actors and regional governments have managed to misinterpret the War on Terror in order to further their own agenda. They have also learnt how to present a local dispute as an international threat in order to suppress their rivals.


One of the SCG aims is to address the humanitarian needs of the Somalis. One cannot address humanitarian needs if one takes no notice of what causes these needs in the first place. At the end of last year, Ethiopia invaded Somalia with the financial, military and diplomatic support of the US and other members of the SCG. Since Ethiopian troops have entered Mogadishu, thousands of civilians have been killed and about half a million residents have been forced to leave their homes. A senior European Union security official noted: “Ethiopian and Somali military forces there may have committed war crimes...donor countries could be considered complicit if they do nothing to stop them.” Instead of addressing Ethiopia’s conduct with human rights violations, SCG chose to look the other way. In fact, the Bush administration requested $2 million of new FMF funding for Ethiopia and made Ethiopia a country suitable to receive used weapons and equipment for free or at discounted prices under the Excess Defense Articles program.


Somalia is the longest running instance of state collapse in the history of Africa and many actors have accustomed to that state of affairs. SCG was formed only when Union of Islamic Courts attempted to dominate Somali politics. And if Islamic groups are neutralised, the SCG is unlikely to undertake a state-building project. Ken Menkhaus, a professor of Political Science, underlined this point: “Given how difficult, time-consuming and expensive reviving a failed state is, many external actors – especially those with notoriously short-attention spans for nation-building – will fail to follow up on oral commitments to shore up the TFG once Somalia fades from media attention.”


SCG’s celebration would not have been considered hoopla had SCG appreciated Ethiopian troops’ presence in Somalia would foment Somalia’s problems. The fight against terrorism would have been more successful had SCG separated local interests (or clan feuds) from genuine international threats. Transitional Federal Institutions would have enjoyed popular support had SCG realised the more warlords would form central planks of the Transitional Federal Institutions the harder it would be to establish a viable government. 


Mohamed Mukhtar

London, UK

Email: [email protected]

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