by M.A. Shaikh (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 11, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1427)
It seems likely that Somalia will not have peace for the foreseeable future, as war again breaks out between the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and the “interim government” (IG) with the Ethiopian forces entrenched in the region to protect it. Since it is laughable to call the handful of former warlords hiding in Baidoa an ‘interim government’, the current fighting is really only between Ethiopian troops and forces loyal to the Islamic Courts. The corrupt and wealthy warlords, who are backed and funded by the West and the UN, have hired a small number of poor Somalis to play the role of a loyal militia or national force. This explains their resolve to confront the far stronger ICU forces on two fronts near Baidoa when the current clashes broke out.
The latest round of fighting began on December 19, a few hours after the expiry of a deadline set by the Islamic Courts for the Ethiopian forces to leave the country. The peace agreement, brokered by a European envoy the day before, failed to hold; fighting broke out in two towns near Baidoa – Dynunay, 12 miles to the southeast, and Idanle, 44 miles to the southwest of Baidoa. The Islamic Courts claimed to have captured Idanle on December 21 and Ethiopian troops were rushed there. According to witnesses, more than 500 Ethiopian troops and eight tanks also headed for Bandiradley, a town in central Somalia controlled by the Islamic Courts, who also claimed that Ethiopian troops were on their way to the town of Galkaayo in the north.
There is little doubt that the Islamic Courts’ forces would have chased the warlords and their hired gunmen out of Baidoa had it not been for the presence of the large number of heavily armed Ethiopian troops. After all, it was only last June that the Islamic Courts drove the interim government out of Mogadishu, the capital, and quickly took possession of most of central and southern Somalia, forcing the retreating warlords to take refuge in Baidoa under Ethiopia’s military protection and the political and diplomatic backing of the UN and western governments, particularly the US.
As the fighting intensified and the casualties on both sides grew, the Ethiopian government continued to stick to its line that its troops were not present in Somalia and could not, therefore, be said to be involved in the current clashes. All the soldiers it had there were a small number of trainers supplied at the request of the ‘interim federal government’, it insisted, despite the detailed reports of western journalists covering the face-off between “the Ethiopian troops and forces loyal to the Islamic movement.” The reports, mainly by reporters belonging to the BBC World Service, left no doubt that there are thousands of Ethiopian troops in central and southern Somalia engaged in the fighting, using heavy artillery, tanks and even aircraft.
In fact, one World Service programme broadcast on December 23 (From Our Own Correspondent) gave full details of how the reporter and two Belgian journalists had been dragged out of their car in central Somalia and kicked around by Ethiopian soldiers. The convoy consisted of tanks and heavy artillery, and was guarded by a large number of heavily armed Ethiopian troops. Despite having been kicked by the troops, the reporter sounded happy enough when he said that “we have stumbled on the evidence” of the Ethiopian troops’ heavy involvement. Other accounts from Baidoa by BBC reporters quoted the town’s inhabitants as saying that they had heard and seen Ethiopian war-planes flying over the town on their way to attack the “Islamic militia”.
However, both Ethiopia and Washington chose to dismiss this clear evidence, with the latter insisting that al-Qa’ida jihadists are responsible for the violence. The US – an old and firm ally of Ethiopia – has military ‘anti-terrorism’ bases in both Ethiopia and neighbouring Djibouti, and values Addis Ababa’s contribution to the US government’s ‘war on terrorism’. Washingtonhas Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the header of the Islamic Courts Union, on its list of terrorists, and like Addis Ababa wants to see the Islamic Courts wiped out. The US is now particularly worried that the growing popularity of this movement, which enjoys the full support of the people of Somalia, will also inspire the Somali populations of Ethiopia’s Ogaden region and of Kenya’s Northern Frontier District to resume their demand and struggle for liberation and union with Somalia. But its warlike attitude towards the Islamic Courts Union and its support forEthiopia’s attacks are so questionable that even the European Union disapproves of its hostile manner to the Islamic movement.
The EU – taking into account the strong support the Islamic Courts Union enjoys from most Somalis – believes that attacking or ignoring the ICU will not bring peace to the region and will instead ignite a full-scale war. The EU is naturally no friend of Islamic movements and would rather see a secular regime take over power in Mogadishu. But they realise that hostility to the Islamic Courts and support for the warlords in Baidoa will lead to war rather than peace. The people of Somalia would rather fight Ethiopia and its Somali agents and will not accept an externally imposed settlement.
There is in fact strong evidence that most Somalis are against the ‘federal transitional government’, as the Western media have frequently reported and continue to do. To take only one example, the daily Times of London described the extent of this backing in an article on December 22. “The Islamists, who are made up of 11 factions, are strongly supported by ordinary Somalis and the business community for having ended more than 15 years of anarchic and bloody rule by warlords who took over after the fall of the dictator Mohamed Siyad Barre in 1991.”
The description of the warlords’ rule as anarchic and bloody is no exaggeration. Not only did they encourage clan divisions in order to rule but they were so corrupt and greedy that they even confiscated the houses of residents to sell them or use them to house their own supporters or relatives. They also monopolised trading opportunities, which partly explains why the business community is backing the ICU. Another reason for that backing is the previous state of violence, which brought most business activities to a halt. In fact, the violence adversely affected every walk of life, to the extent that most people became fed up with it and the warlords.
Despite this, in 2004 the UN appointed the warlords as leaders and members of what it called the ‘federal transitional government’, putting up general Abdullahi Yusuf as ‘president’. Far from being the president of a federal government, Yusuf had declared his region in northern Somalia – mostly populated by members of his own clan –as autonomous and named it Puntland. But by last June the ICU was able to come out of nowhere and build up enough strength, take over Mogadishu and extend its control in the following months to most of central and southern Somalia.
Unfortunately, the so-called international community has learnt nothing from the defeat of the warlords and the rise of the Islamic Courts to power. The UN, for instance, continues to refer to the warlords as the “federal transitional government” and to Abdullahi Yusuf as “president”. One of the first mistakes was to arrange peace talks between the warlords, masquerading as a federal government, and the victorious Islamic Courts, treated as a rebel group at best, in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. There is, of course, nothing wrong with arranging peace talks, but the warlords should not have been invited to take part. Many Somalis would argue that, instead, they should have been consigned to oblivion, or charged and tried for the crimes they committed while in control of Mogadishu.
But the ‘international community’ (which in effect means the UN and Western governments) persists in treating the warlord as being in command and therefore the legitimate ruler ofSomalia. That is why it is no surprise that the EU sent Louis Michel, the European commissioner for development and humanitarian aid, to both Baidoa and Mogadishu to hold talks with the leaders of the Islamic Courts and the warlords. Michel announced on December 21 that both sides had agreed to an immediate end to the fighting and to peace talks in Khartoum. To their credit the leaders of the Islamic Courts have never said no to any offer of peace talks, insisting that the current fighting is not with the warlords but with the Ethiopian troops. Shaikh Abdurahman Janaqar, the Islamic Courts’ first vice chairman, was reported by the Times on December 22 as saying: “We have given our commitment to attend the peace talks in Khartoumand we will honour that.”
However, a speech by Sheikh Aweys on the same day, which urged “all Somalis to take part in this struggle against Ethiopia”, was wrongly interpreted in the Western press as scuppering Michel’s initiative. Moreover, a call by the Islamic Courts’ leaders on the Muslim world to join the war against the Ethiopian invaders was interpreted as a call on ‘Islamic terrorists’ to come to Somalia, and as evidence that the ICU has links with Al-Qaida and other terrorist movements.
But the Islamic Courts won a resounding propaganda victory when Addis Ababa – through its foreign and information minister – said publicly on December 24 that they were invadingSomalia to crush the ‘Islamic terrorists’. This confirmed that the Islamic activists are fighting Ethiopian troops, not forces belonging to the warlords. But this is not expected to persuade the US and Ethiopia to abandon their conspiracy to destroy the Islamic movement and place their ill-disguised agents in charge of Somalia.
It seems certain that instability will continue to blight the lives of the people of Somalia, who are not likely to have peace in the near future.