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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Africa > Horn of Africa > Somalia > Somalia: The Tough Part Is Ahead

Somalia: The Tough Part Is Ahead

Africa Briefing N°45 26 Jan 2007


Somalia’s Islamic Courts fell even more dramatically than they rose. In little more than a week in December 2006, Ethiopian and Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces killed hundreds of Islamist fighters and scattered the rest in a lightning offensive. On 27 December, the Council of Somali Islamic Courts in effect dissolved itself, surrendering political leadership to clan leaders. This was a major success for Ethiopia and the U.S. who feared emergence of a Taliban-style haven for al-Qaeda and other Islamist extremists, but it is too early to declare an end to Somalia’s woes. There is now a political vacuum across much of southern Somalia, which the ineffectual TFG is unable to fill. Elements of the Courts, including Shabaab militants and their al-Qaeda associates, are largely intact and threaten guerrilla war. Peace requires the TFG to be reconstituted as a genuine government of national unity but the signs of its willingness are discouraging. Sustained international pressure is needed.

The Courts’ defeat signals the return of clan-based politics to southern Somalia. Whereas the Courts drew their support predominantly from the Hawiye clan, the TFG is widely perceived as dominated by Darod clan interests. TFG leaders reinforced this perception by pursuing policies that further alienated the Hawiye, notably an appeal for foreign troops and the government’s relocation to Jowhar and then Baidoa, instead of Mogadishu. Hawiye alienation and TFG inadequacies left a vacuum into which the Courts expanded between June and December 2006, bringing a degree of peace and security unknown to the south for more than fifteen years. Mogadishu was reunited, weapons removed from the streets and the port and airport reopened. By December, the Courts had expanded from their Mogadishu base to control most of the territory between the Kenyan border and the autonomous region of Puntland in the north east, while the TFG was confined to Baidoa, protected by its Ethiopian backers. Communities seemed prepared to tolerate a strict interpretation of Sharia law in return for peace and security.

Politically, Somalia has now been returned roughly to where it was when the TFG was formed in October 2004. The government is weak, unpopular and faction ridden, and the power vacuum in southern Somalia is rapidly being filled by the same faction leaders and warlords the Courts overthrew less than a year ago. Many Mogadishu residents resent the Courts’ defeat, feel threatened by the TFG and are dismayed by the presence of Ethiopian troops in the capital. Mogadishu is awash with weapons, and there have already been hit-and-run attacks on TFG and Ethiopian troops. The potential for serious violence is just below the surface.

Ethiopia’s military victory has dismantled only the most visible part of the Courts: the regional administrative authority in south central Somalia (including Mogadishu), which served essentially as a political platform for Hawiye clan interests. Other elements, including the militant Shabaab leadership, remain largely intact and have dispersed throughout the country, threatening to wage a long war. A U.S. air strike on 8 January 2007 apparently wounded Aden Hashi ‘Ayro, a prominent Shabaab commander, and killed some of his guards but failed to destroy any top targets. A second U.S. airstrike was launched on 23 January, but information on the targets and impact was not immediately available. The grassroots network of mosques, schools and private enterprises that has underpinned the spread of Salafist teachings and their extremist variants remains in place and continues to expand thanks to generous contributions from Islamic charities and the private sector.

Whether the Islamists, including their more extreme jihadi elements, can stage a comeback in some fashion depends largely on whether the TFG restores stability and wins public support across southern Somalia. Early steps such as declaring a state of emergency and deposing the speaker of the parliament, who had been prominent in efforts to engage the Courts in dialogue and compromise, have not been promising. It should:

  • rescind the state of emergency and reinstate the speaker of parliament;
  • reconstitute the cabinet as a genuine government of national unity, including credible leaders from the communities that backed the Courts;
  • establish at the same time representative authorities for key municipalities, including Mogadishu and Kismaayo, in order to provide political stability and manage local security over the short term;
  • give up the notion of forcible disarmament, especially in Mogadishu, and instead negotiate a plan for voluntary disarmament; and
  • take up the tasks for which it was originally formed: to advance the process of national reconciliation, complete the transition to a permanent government and work its way out of a job by 2009 when elections are supposed to be held.

The rapid replacement of Ethiopian troops with a broader, multilateral peacekeeping mission is also essential to defuse public resentment towards what is considered a foreign occupation. This process is likely – at best – to take months, not weeks, however, making early moves by the TFG on the above agenda all the more essential if there is still to be a peace to keep. Ethiopia, whose conception of its security interests may leave it indifferent to the task, and the U.S., which must show a more sophisticated understanding of fighting the country’s terrorism potential than the narrow one it has mostly followed there for many years, now bear a significant responsibility to consolidate peace in Somalia. They must push the TFG to take the above steps to transform itself into a more inclusive national body. This message should also be carried by the broader international community, most immediately at the end-of-January African Union Summit, as well as through the International Contact Group on Somalia, the informal governmental coordination body scheduled to meet on 9 February.

Nairobi/Brussels, 26 January 2007

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