Inclusion of Islamists, exclusion of Ethiopians essential steps to political solution

Andy Knight and Afyare Elmi
Saturday, March 03, 2007

When Ethiopia invaded Somalia in December 2006, not only was this act a contravention of international law, it also pushed the unstable Horn of Africa into a dangerous new phase.There is no question that the United States supported Ethiopia’s attack on this failed state. A former U.S. state department official, John Pendergast, said immediately after the invasion that Washington gave “a yellow-slash-green light to Ethiopia’s policy of containment by intervention.”

It is highly unlikely that this war will bring either peace or democracy to Somalia. On the contrary, it seems that this action has already begun to further radicalize the Somali people. It has the potential to further destabilize the entire region, beyond the Horn of Africa.

When the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) expelled the notorious warlords from their bases in May/June of last year, relative peace was restored to Mogadishu. For the first time in 12 years the international airport and seaport in the capital were reopened, and the majority of Somalis welcomed the move.

Yet, the U.S. and Ethiopia reacted with hostility toward the UIC. Instead of taking the advice of the Europeans to engage in a constructive dialogue with the UIC, the Bush administration, with little evidence, instead denounced this group as a front for terrorism. Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary of state for Africa, accused the UIC of being controlled by small group linked to the East African al-Qaida cell.

American policy with respect to Somalia has often been counterproductive. Washington supported the repressive military government of Siad Barre during the Cold War. During the 1970s and ’80s the U.S. poured more money into Somalia than in any other country in Africa, most of which went to the military. It was the militarization of the Somali society that eventually resulted in the anarchy and civil war that has been witnessed there ever since.

When Barre was overthrown in 1991, U.S. Marines were diverted from the Gulf to evacuate U.S. embassy staff in Mogadishu. In 1992, the first George Bush administration sent in a 30,000-strong military force to try to deliver humanitarian assistance to the needy Somalis. Although the Operation Restore Hope saved thousands from starvation, warlord Mahamed Farrah Aidid’s faction fought with the U.S. forces, killing 18 American soldiers and wounding 79 others. The U.S. was forced to withdraw.

In recent years, however, the importance of Somalia to the U.S. has increased. Somalia has significant unexploited resources, including oil. And the Bush administration is concerned with the growing Islamists in this collapsed and poor Muslim country.

It is for those reasons that Washington is now supporting the notorious Somali warlords and the Ethiopian government (Somalia’s historic enemy) at the expense of Somalians’ aspirations.

As articulated by various analysts, Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister, also wants the war with Somalia for several strategic reasons.

First, since Ethiopia is landlocked, Zenawi is interested in obtaining secure access to the sea. To get it, he is willing to balkanize the Somali people into small clan-based regions. Second, Ethiopia colonizes Somali territories and is determined to keep them under its control. Third, Zenawi faces strong opposition in his own country and wants to divert attention away from his regime’s corruption and incompetence.

On the other hand, the long history between the Somali people and the Ethiopian state shows that Somalis will resist this occupation. Islamists, nationalists and clans will rebel against Ethiopian troops. For most Somalis, it’s a survival issue.

What should Canada do? First, like the European Union, African Union and Italy, Canada ought to support the aspiration of the Somali people and put pressure on Washington and Addis Ababa to remove Ethiopian troops and to assist with a genuine peace process among the various Somali groups.

Second, the international community must understand that there is a need for a genuine peace process that produces a Somali-owned government. The current Ethiopian-controlled warlord government faces serious credibility problems. Canada should therefore support the various voices, including that of the United Nations, that are calling for a Somali-owned peace process in Somalia that will be inclusive of all groups in that country.

Third, among Somalis, Islam is a unifying identity that has its own inherent conflict resolution mechanism. Besides, Islamists have proven themselves more credible than the brutal warlords and the incompetent politicians of Somalia’s recent past. It would seem to make sense for the international community to engage with Islamist representatives and moderates, instead of sidelining them. After all, the ICU did succeed in restoring peace and some semblance of governance. Repressing these individuals will only generate the kind of grievances that result in further extremism.

Fourth, it is unlikely that the proposed African protection force will be capable of restoring peace in Somalia. As amply demonstrated in Darfur, the African Union does not have the resources, training or other capacities needed to meet this challenge. Instead, the Security Council should send, forthwith, a peacekeeping/peacebuilding force with a clear mandate and the requisite resources. But before sending UN forces, the international community must do all it can to end the Ethiopian occupation and secure a comprehensive peace agreement.

Only a genuine, inclusive, and indigenous Somali political solution can end the needless internecine violence in that country.


Dr. W. Andy Knight is professor of International Relations at the University of Alberta, and co-editor of Building Sustainable Peace. Afyare Elmi is a Somali writer and University of Alberta doctoral student, specializing in international relations.

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