Photo: Thomas Paine's
The threat of a full-scale war erupting in Somalia is now a real possibility.
Ethiopian troops are congregating along the Somali border, amid allegations
that the so-called Union of Islamic Courts, which now controls the capital city
of Mogadishu and a growing part of the country, is being armed by Eritrea. Ethiopia
and Eritrea, headed by nationalist regimes that were originally allies, fought
a bloody war in 1998-2000 in which tens of thousands died.
Although Washington led the United Nations diplomacy that brought the war between
Ethiopia and Eritrea to an end, the Bush administration has since boosted Ethiopia
as a regional power, conveniently ignoring violations of human rights committed
by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s regime.
The Bush administration has made clear that it regards the Union of Islamic
Courts’ control of Mogadishu as a major threat in its “global war
on terror.” The US is backing the Transitional Federal Government (TFG),
a squabbling group of politicians and warlords based in the inland town of Baidoa
as the “legitimate governing body in Somalia,” even though this
body is little more than a front for Ethiopian interests in Somalia.
According to press reports, Ethiopian forces have been observed in several
Somali towns, including Baidoa. A BBC report indicates the Ethiopians have up
to 5,000 troops, including tanks, stationed on the border, whilst the Economist
gives a figure of 25,000. A warning from the Brussels-based International Crisis
group states that “Military and diplomatic observers in Nairobi believe
Ethiopia is preparing to carry out a short, sharp strike deep into southern
Somalia if it deems the Courts a sufficient threat.”
In June, militias associated with the Islamic Courts gained control of Mogadishu
after defeating a coalition of warlords known as the Alliance for the Restoration
of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, or Anti-Terrorism Alliance, supported by Ethiopia.
The Washington Post reported in May that the Alliance was also being secretly
backed by the US, violating the UN arms embargo against Somalia.
Africa Confidential reported that CIA operatives flew into Mogadishu in early
2006 with thousands of dollars for the Anti-Terrorist Alliance. The US claims
that Al Qaeda members are being sheltered by the Islamic Courts, one of whose
main leaders, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, is on an American list of wanted terrorists.
Since the setback in June for the Bush administration’s covert operations
in Somalia, an ostensibly more diplomatic approach has been developed. The US
State Department in June cobbled together the Somalia Contact Group, made up
of the US, the European Union and Italy, Britain, Sweden and Norway, with Tanzania
as the token African participant. The African Union, Arab League and the Inter-Governmental
Authority on Development (the group of neighbouring African countries with interests
in Somalia) were given only observer status.
The Contact Group’s first act was to call for an immediate end to the
fighting in Somalia and for talks between the Transitional Federal Government
and the Union of Islamic Courts. There have been no further talks after the
first meeting between the Courts and the TFG took place in Khartoum. The Courts
refuse to take part until Ethiopian troops are withdrawn from Baidoa.
Following the defeat of the of the Anti-Terrorist Alliance warlords, the US
has felt obliged to warn Ethiopia and Eritrea publicly of the danger of triggering
a regional war. US State Department official Jendayi Frazer told Ethiopia “not
to get drawn into this provocation,” obviously sympathising with the view
from Addis Ababa that “Islamic terrorism” is the source of the problem.
However, the US has insisted that the TFG is the only body that can be internationally
recognised and has continued to turn a blind eye to the presence of Ethiopian
troops on Somali territory.
Over the past year, the Union of Islamic Courts has emerged as Somalia’s
strongest fighting force, and has received some popular support in a country
ruled by warlords without an effective government for the last 15 years. The
Islamic Courts are a coalition of Muslim groups and associated militias based
mainly on the Hawiye clan, which is dominant in Mogadishu and southern Somalia.
They are funded by businessmen desperate for some kind of law and order and
have reportedly also received funding from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.
In June, the Courts gained control of the main seaport and the airport, which
has now reopened, as well as the former presidential palace and other government
buildings in Mogadishu.
The popularity of the Courts derives primarily from the relative stability
they bring and their clampdown on the criminal gangs and lawlessness that have
beset the country since 1991, rather than from support for full-blown Sha’ariah
law, which their more fundamentalist leaders seek to impose. The Courts’
clampdown on people watching the recent football World Cup, for example, was
deeply resented. There are 11 autonomous courts in Mogadishu, which at first
concentrated on petty crime such as robbery, drugs and pornography, but by the
mid-1990s had progressed to dealing with major crimes—thieves have their
limbs amputated, and murderers are executed.
In August, the Islamic Courts took control of the port of Haradhere, 500 km
north of Mogadishu, which had become a centre for pirates attacking shipping
off the Somali coast. The Courts claim to have closed down the pirates’
operations. They also took over the town of Belet Huen, to the north of Baidoa
and near the Ethiopian border, so that they control most of the territory surrounding
the TFG’s base. However, they have so far been unable to get a base in
the northern autonomous enclave of Puntland, the original base of TFG President
Abdullahi Yusuf. The BBC suggests that Ethiopia would intervene if the Islamic
Courts invaded Puntland.
There is also the possibility that the Islamic Courts will attempt to move
into the Ogaden region, which was ceded to Ethiopia by the British in the colonial
period and has a largely Somali population. Ethiopia and Somalia have a long
history of border disputes. The Courts could also give support to the Ogaden
National Liberation Front, which has been waging a guerilla war against successive
Ethiopian governments since the 1980s.
The TFG was established with US and UN backing in 2004, and is the 14th “international”
attempt to establish a government of national unity since the collapse of the
brutal US-backed government of President Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. The so-called
transition government excluded representatives of the Hawiye clan and was regarded
as pro-Ethiopian from the beginning.
Forty members of the TFG’s cabinet resigned in July in protest at Prime
Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi’s decision to deploy Ethiopian troops in Somalia
in an attempt to prop up his increasingly impotent regime. The resignations
followed Gedi’s government narrowly surviving a motion of non-confidence
over his failure to exert control in the country. After a visit from the Ethiopian
foreign minister, Yusuf and Gedi are now attempting to put together another
cabinet, but they are clearly totally discredited.
Washington’s reckless policy towards Somalia is not determined by the
presence of alleged Al Qaeda terrorists in Mogadishu, but by geopolitical considerations
and the existence of considerable mineral resources in the poverty-stricken
country. This was the central issue too in 1993, when 20,000 US troops were
sent to Somalia in an undeclared war disguised as a “humanitarian”
mission against Somalia’s warlords. American forces shot down hundreds
of innocent civilians in Mogadishu with helicopter gunfire. The city’s
population as a whole fought back, temporarily uniting even the warring clan
factions, and the result was in ignominious humiliation and retreat for the
Somalia is strategically located in the Horn of Africa, which dominates the
sea lanes of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, the key corridors between the
Middle East and Africa. A great many of the world’s oil tankers pass by,
particularly European and Chinese. Somalia has the longest coastline in Africa,
stretching from Kenya in the south to Djibouti in the north (where a large US
task force is now based).
In addition to its geographically critical location, Somalia has uranium, iron
ore, tin, gypsum, bauxite, copper, salt, natural gas and potentially huge oil
reserves. An article in the Los Angeles Times in January 1993 reported that
tens of millions of acres, nearly two thirds of Somalia, were allocated to four
American oil giants in the final years before President Siad Barre was overthrown:
Conoco, Phillips, (now ConocoPhillips), Amoco (now BP), and Chevron. No doubt
these corporations would like to reclaim their interests.
More recently, in February 2001, TotalFinaElf signed an agreement with the
then-transitional government to explore for oil in the Indian Ocean off the
southern coast between Merca and Kismayo, 120-500 km south of Mogadishu. In
October 2005, Australia-based Range Resources acquired a 50.1 percent share
of exclusive exploration rights in Puntland’s natural resources. Prime
Minister Gedi responded by warning foreign firms against signing oil exploration
contracts with local officials, saying that such agreements were invalid, as
only the TFG had the power to negotiate the sale of mineral and oil rights.
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