Friday June 8, 2007
Hopes of replacing violence with dialogue in Somalia are focusing on a much-delayed national reconciliation congress now expected in Mogadishu next week. But the nascent peace process could be stillborn if what Lord Triesman, Britain's minister for Africa, describes as "wreckers and spoilers" inside and outside the country prevail.
Speaking after a meeting in London this week of the international contact group for Somalia, Jendayi Frazer, assistant US secretary of state for African affairs, said Eritrea was leading the pack of outsider ne'er-do-wells, harbouring "extremist elements" linked to violent Islamist groups. Hardliners have threatened to wage an Iraq-style insurgency in Somalia and have started using suicide bombers.
Eritrea is an old foe of Ethiopia, whose troops invaded Somalia last winter with tacit US backing to oust the Council of Islamic Courts, which had taken control of much of the country. Ms Frazer added that the Islamists, who the US says have links to al-Qaida, were also getting help from sympathisers in the Somali diaspora, including in the US, and from Gulf states.
Ethiopia's continuing troop presence is resented by Somalia's Muslim majority, which views it as an occupation and questions Addis Ababa's intentions. Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's prime minister, had promised a quick in-and-out operation. But an upsurge in resistance in the spring and the failure of the African Union (AU) to deploy sufficient peacekeepers dispelled that notion.
Ethiopia maintains "the vast majority" of its troops have withdrawn. Those remaining in Mogadishu were engaged in tracking down "mujahideen and al-Shabaab extremists", disarming clan militias and police training, it said in a statement. "Generally, the rest of Somalia is enjoying the fruits of peace."
But that assessment was belied by this week's attempted assassination of Ali Mohammad Gedi, prime minister of the western-backed transitional federal government (TFG); and by the latest UN figures indicating that 300,000 people from Mogadishu have yet to return home and 850,000 nationwide remain dependent on international food aid.
The contact group said planning for a follow-on UN peacekeeping force was a matter of urgency. Ms Frazer said the US would provide more than $100m (£50m) in assistance to Somalia this year, including $57m for the AU force, and urged others to do more. But she suggested that "wreckers" aside, Somalia's mainstream political factions could be their own worst enemies.
She said the US was particularly "disheartened" by the TFG's arrest this week of Abdi Iman, a senior member of Mogadishu's influential Hawiye clan, and the closure of three local broadcasters for allegedly "supporting terrorism".
The contact group said next week's congress, originally scheduled for April, was "the primary vehicle [for the TFG] to demonstrate an inclusive approach to governance, help deliver security, and advance political reconciliation". But Lord Triesman stressed that only those who "renounce violence" should participate in the process - and outsiders should steer clear. "We can do without anybody fighting their proxy wars on Somalian territory."
Hussein Badyill, Somalia's foreign minister, had given a personal pledge that the congress would go ahead on time, his spokesman said yesterday. British sources were cautiously upbeat, saying the London talks had taken place in "a more positive atmosphere" than in the past and that a stronger consensus on the way forward was emerging.
But the big test is still to come: whether the various clans, sub-clans, warlords and religious factions can share power, instead of fighting over it. "The TFG people know that some of them are going to have to move aside," a diplomat said. "All of the people of Somalia must have a share in the process."
Simon Tisdall is an assistant editor of the Guardian and a foreign affairs columnist.