Thursday, August 23, 2007
The recent murder of two prominent Somali journalists, Ali Iman Sharmake, owner of HornAfrik, a leading media organisation in Mogadishu, and Mahad Ahmed Elmi who hosted a popular radio talk show for HornAfrik, brought to six the number of media practitioners mowed down this year alone for their coverage of the crisis in which an unpopular transitional federal government (TFG), worried about its own future but determined to impose its authority with Ethiopian arms, is pitched against a coalition of devout, nationalist and clan-inspired insurgents no less resolved to expel the Ethiopians from Somalia. Somali warlords have often treated journalists as embarrassing witnesses of their wiles and disinformation who must be punished and even pay the supreme price.
Somalia has had no central government since Siad Barre’s overthrow about fifteen years ago. Although it quickly degenerated into a case study of the repercussions of state collapse and a governance vacuum that terrorist groups could exploit for safe havens or logistical purposes, the rapid spread of the authority of the Council of Somali Islamic Courts (CSIC), which most Somalis welcomed, sparked fears in certain Ethiopian, Kenyan and American circles of a conspiracy to transform Somalia into an Islamic state.
Such a broad-based conspiracy seemed implausible however owing to the diversity of the business interests and charities that backed CSIC. Alas, Ethiopia’s swift victory only dismantled CSIC’s most visible element; namely, the regional administrative authority in southern and central Somalia which served as its political platform. Other CSIC elements are largely intact, including the militant Shabaab leadership. The grassroots network of mosques, schools and private enterprises which underpinned CSIC’s authority is also intact and continues to expand, thanks to generous contributions from Islamic charities and private interests. Meanwhile Mogadishu residents are increasingly resentful of CSIC’s defeat. They feel threatened by TFG and dismayed by the presence of Ethiopian troops in a Somali capital already awash with weapons; and there are daily reports of hit-and-run attacks on TFG and Ethiopian troops. Without public support however even the most sophisticated counter-terrorism measures are doomed to fail.
Unless the Somali crisis is contained, it could entangle an array of state actors and foreign jihadi fighters. Eritrea’s assistance to CSIC already makes Somalia an increasingly significant proxy battlefield in Eritrea’s war with Ethiopia. Ethiopia and its US ally must nevertheless assume greater responsibility for restoring peace in Somalia by transforming the weak, unpopular and faction-ridden TFG into a more inclusive national body that advances reconciliation, completes the country’s transition to a permanent government, and works its way out of a job by 2009 when elections are due as per the Transitional Federal Charter. This can be accomplished by making Ethiopian-US political, military and financial support dependent on TFG’s commitment to national consultation, reconciliation and power sharing; for the roots of the Somali crisis are profoundly parochial and have more to do with practical power, prestige, and clan interest than ideology or anything else. To most Somalis, TFG is little more than one of several feuding Somali factions.
Decisive containment of the Somali crisis is long overdue, but diplomatic initiatives still tiptoe around its core issues; namely, (a) that any negotiated settlement must reconstitute TFG as a genuine government of national unity including credible leaders from both CSIC and the broader Hawiye clan; (b) that TFG’s draft National Security and Stabilisation Plan must be revised to accommodate the creative dynamics of Somali politics; and (c) that agreement must be reached on the phased return of federal institutions to Mogadishu, Somalia’s national capital. Above all however Ethiopian forces must be rapidly replaced with an African peacekeeping mission to diffuse public resentment and facilitate a national dialogue over the structure and legal foundation of the new Somali state. We fear that failure to do this could plunge Somalia back into factional fighting between the selfsame warlords that CSIC overthrew less than a year ago, who are already filling the power vacuum in central and southern Somalia.