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Somalia: Getting It Wrong, Again

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Nov 30, 2006 (061130)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"Unfortunately for Somalis, the United States and other members of the UN Security Council are taking actions that make war more likely, not less. The State Department wants to loosen a UN arms embargo and allow deployment of a regional peacekeeping force, a move that will be viewed as an act of war by the Council of Somali Islamic Courts. ... [the resolution] would bring the UN into the coming conflict on the side of Ethiopia and give a green light to Ethiopia's deployment in Somalia."

This comment comes from John Prendergast and Colin Thomas-Jensen of the International Crisis Group, writing in the Boston Globe and on UN, European, and many African commentators share similar concerns, but the United States, joined by China and Russia, are reportedly still pushing the resolution.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains the opinion piece by Prendergast and Thomas-Jensen, an alert from the International Crisis Group, and excerpts from a recent report from the UN's Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN).

Other recent reports of related interest

Can the Somali Crisis be Contained?
International Crisis Group 10 August 2006

UN Monitors Warn of Escalation in Somalia

U.S. State Department Report says Up to 12 Countries Could Be Sucked into Somalia Conflict

For additional background on Somalis and references to other sites, see

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Getting It Wrong In Somalia, Again

Guest Column

November 29, 2006

By John Prendergast and Colin Thomas-Jensen
Washington, D.C.

[John Prendergast is a senior adviser and Colin Thomas-Jensen is the Africa advocacy and research manager at International Crisis Group. The article was originally published in the Boston Globe on November 29, 2006.]

Already notorious as the world's only state without a functioning government, Somalia may be about to deteriorate even further. The country is rapidly sliding back toward war. As an Islamist militia, the Council of Somali Islamic Courts, consolidates control over large swathes of southern Somalia, neighboring Ethiopia has sent thousands of troops over the border, and both sides are preparing for a showdown. A return to war could bring about the same horrific famine conditions that precipitated a US military intervention 14 years ago, and damage rather than advance US counter-terrorism objectives in a vulnerable region.

Unfortunately for Somalis, the United States and other members of the UN Security Council are taking actions that make war more likely, not less. The State Department wants to loosen a UN arms embargo and allow deployment of a regional peacekeeping force, a move that will be viewed as an act of war by the Council of Somali Islamic Courts, or CSIC. The Bush administration must resist the urge to tackle political problems with military solutions, roll up its diplomatic sleeves, and engage in a multilateral effort to negotiate an agreement between the Ethiopian-backed Somali transitional government and the Council of Somali Islamic Courts, the de facto authority in much of southern Somalia.

Terrorists, including those associated with Al Qaeda, have preyed on the lack of a functioning central government to smuggle weapons through Somalia's porous borders, unguarded ports, and uncontrolled airstrips. Somalia has consequently been a terrorist staging ground and a haven for the perpetrators of Al Qaeda bombings against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the bombing of a beachfront hotel in Kenya, and a failed attempt to bring down an Israeli passenger aircraft off the Kenya coast. Al Qaeda's activities in Somalia were aided, abetted, and protected by elements of the Council of Somali Islamic Courts, and the Courts' rise to power poses a security threat to the region.

The US policy response, understandable at first glance, has been to focus overwhelmingly on capturing terrorists, neglecting in the process Somalian appeals for assistance in building a functioning state. But state building and counter-terrorism are not mutually exclusive, and the US approach of supporting warlords that served its interests has been shortsighted.

This past spring, pitched battles between the CIA's warlord proxies and militias loyal to the militia killed hundreds of Somali civilians in the capital, Mogadishu, and injured or displaced thousands more. Ill-advised financial support to some of the predator warlords who have caused Somalia's anarchy -- committing crimes from extortion to rape -- only increased the popularity of the council as it became synonymous with law and order.

The rise of the militia corresponds with the political implosion of an internationally backed transitional government located in the town of Baidoa. Government officials have defected en masse, leaving behind a vulnerable institution that lacks the military muscle to face the CSIC alone. Ethiopia, the Bush administration's chief counter-terrorism ally in the region, has responded by deploying forces to protect what is left of the transitional government. Ethiopia does not like the kind of Islam the Council is promoting, and fears a strong Council could destabilize parts of Ethiopia.

As battle looms, the hyenas are closing in. A UN investigation presented to the Security Council this month suggested that no fewer than nine outside actors -- including Ethiopia and its enemy Eritrea -- are funneling weapons to either the transitional government or the militia. By doing so, they are breaking the 14-year UN arms embargo and priming the country for war.

While many Somalis don't want their personal freedoms restricted and reject the Islamist extremism preached by the militia, they are even more opposed to foreign intervention. The militia has painted its jihad in nationalist colors, and this has led to an outpouring of popular support.

UN investigators recommended strengthening the arms embargo and freezing the assets of all Somali-owned and operated businesses linked to arms trade. It also warned that the entire region could explode into conflict unless the international community makes diplomatic efforts to contain the spillover.

Rather than heed this advice, the United States is pushing for just the opposite by tabling a resolution in the UN Security Council to partially lift the arms embargo to allow a regional peacekeeping mission to protect the government in Baidoa. In effect, this would bring the UN into the coming conflict on the side of Ethiopia and give a green light to Ethiopia's deployment in Somalia.

The United States should focus on averting a war, not triggering one. Before endorsing a military solution, the United States should work multilaterally to apply targeted sanctions to parties that violate the arms embargo and economic pressure to the council's business partners.

It should also invest in a peace process, which means getting involved in promoting a power-sharing deal between the weak transitional government and the council. Rebuilding a government in Somalia is the only viable way to combat the terrorist threat and prevent violent Islamist extremism from expanding. Delicate diplomacy is required to reconstitute this transitional authority as a government of national unity. Only then will the United States help create an effective counterbalance to the Islamists and an eventual partner in the international struggle against terrorism.

Somalia conflict risk alert

International Crisis Group


Contacts:Andrew Stroehlein - Brussels 32 (0) 2 541 1635 Kimberly Abbott - Washington 1 202 785 1601

The draft resolution the U.S. intends to present to the UN Security Council on 29 November could trigger all-out war in Somalia and destabilise the entire Horn of Africa region by escalating the proxy conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea to dangerous new levels.

Instead of siding with one party in the civil conflict - the weak and fragmented Ethiopia-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) - the Council should apply maximum pressure on both it and the Eritrea-backed Council of Somali Islamic Courts (CSIC) to resume negotiations without preconditions. The proposed resolution, which has the backing of African members of the Security Council, would authorise deployment of a regional military force (IGASOM) in support of the TFG and exempt that entity and troop contributing countries - Ethiopia, Uganda and possibly Kenya, amongst others - from the existing UN arms embargo. While its objectives are to strengthen the TFG, deter the CSIC from further expansion and avert the threat of full-scale war, it is likely to backfire on all three counts.

Crisis Group has consistently opposed deployment of a regional intervention force - especially one involving front-line states such as Ethiopia - unless it has the consent of all warring parties, and called for more robust enforcement of the UN arms embargo. The UN Monitoring Group, which reported on 16 October, similarly cited the dangers of such a deployment and urged instead strengthening the arms embargo through surveillance of all Somali borders.

Despite international recognition, the TFG has never enjoyed broad support or legitimacy within Somalia, and the TFG parliament split badly when it debated the issue of foreign troops in March 2005. Actual deployment would likely fracture the parliament beyond repair and reinforce the impression that the TFG is simply a proxy for Ethiopia. The loss of legitimacy in the eyes of the Somali public would be irreversible.

The CSIC, which controls most of south central Somalia, has repeatedly declared that it will wage a "jihad" against any foreign troops on Somali territory, including the Ethiopians already deployed there. It would likely perceive Security Council passage of the resolution as tantamount to a declaration of war. Rather than wait for the TFG to arm itself, it might well launch a pre-emptive attack on its seat in Baidoa. The CSIC is viewed as a danger to its neighbours because of its irredentist views, and support for international terrorist elements and cross-border Ethiopian rebel groups. In addition, it threatens to unseat the internationally recognised TFG. Instead of prioritising military protection of the TFG against the CSIC - which is itself receiving military support from as many as eight external countries - the international community should challenge the CSIC to reform its stance on each of these points and work towards a negotiated solution with the TFG.

The TFG and CSIC are scheduled to meet in Khartoum in mid-December for a third round of Arab League facilitated peace talks. Although previous talks made little headway, more effective international pressure on the parties, including a more active involvement from the UN Secretary General via his Special Representative, would increase the likelihood of success. Without this, the resolution would give the CSIC an excuse to withdraw altogether and would kill any hope of a negotiated ceasefire. Military confrontation would be the only remaining option.

Instead of authorising deployment of a regional force, the Council should push both parties to resume peace talks immediately. First on the agenda should be a comprehensive ceasefire covering:

  • disengagement of opposing forces;
  • withdrawal from Somalia of all foreign troops and military trainers; and
  • deployment of an International Verification Mission to monitor compliance with the agreement.

Any UN-sponsored military deployment should be designed to support an agreed ceasefire, not undermine efforts to achieve such a ceasefire, and should be made up of forces acceptable to both parties. If either party fails to demonstrate genuine commitment to this process, the Council should impose travel bans on its leaders, freeze assets and authorise economic sanctions against business interests.

As so often in Somalia, the consequence of an ill-considered intervention is likely to be more conflict, not less. Military measures must remain a weapon of last resort.

Somalia: A question of balance

20 November 2006

Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN)

[Excerpts only: for full text see the IRIN website]

Mogadishu, 20 Nov 2006 (IRIN) - After more than a decade of brutal factional fighting, the road-blocks and gunmen have been cleared off the streets of the Somali capital, business is thriving and Mogadishu is being rebuilt. But strict standards of religious and behavioral discipline are being introduced, and questions are being asked about the vision of the new authority, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC).

For now, gratitude for security and freedom of movement takes precedence for most Mogadishu residents. Others have fled to refugee camps, complaining of persecution and loss of business.

"There are two sorts of freedoms," pointed out a Mogadishu businessman. "Going about our daily lives is the most important freedom we can have now." But he said one freedom may come at the price of another. "People do not want to lose their personal freedoms."

Humanitarian prospects

The extraordinary turnaround in security means people can go about their daily life: traders can safely take home their earnings; children can go to school regularly and without fear; clinics and hospitals can concentrate on primary healthcare instead of constantly dealing with the trauma of conflict.

A recent visitor from the diaspora, who has not been to Mogadishu in six years, was astounded by the changes. "I drove through areas no one has driven in 15 years - like Bermuda [named after the Bermuda Triangle, previously one of the most dangerous areas] - without any security escort or even a gun. Five months ago this would have been unthinkable, even with a heavy security escort," he said.

Stability under the UIC has opened up new prospects for humanitarian assistance. For the first time in more than a decade, food aid has successfully been brought into the newly opened port for distribution outside the city. According to Leo van der Velden, Deputy Country Director of World Food Programme, Somalia, the new authority had "done the right things and said the right things" to encourage humanitarian access, and that good security allowed transporters to safely carry and deliver.

CARE International confirmed that a consignment of sorghum from the United States had arrived in the port in October, and was successfully handled, transported and delivered to areas outside the city - a logistical achievement impossible for more than a decade, when the port and its resources became a flashpoint for factional fighting.

Freedom of movement has also allowed access to the displaced camps in Mogadishu. For years, thousands of internally displaced people have suffered 'a forgotten tragedy' in the city. Now the displaced are also benefiting from safety and small-scale community assistance. In October, the Al Bayan court militia escorted small consignments of food to the camps, donated by the local community. "We are doing what we can," said the chairman of Al Bayan, Mohamed Ibrahim Bilal.

But despite the change, security fears resulted in the humanitarian community withdrawing from Somalia in September. The move followed the murder of a foreign cameraman and an Italian nun in Mogadishu, and the assassination attempt in Baidoa on the President of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Since the withdrawal, talks between the UIC and the TFG have stalled. The two sides met in Khartoum twice since the UIC victory in a reconciliation meeting sponsored by the Arab League and supported by the international community. The third meeting scheduled for late October did not take place after the two sides failed to agree on fundamental issues. Fears of regional conflict increased after the UIC declared Jihad on Ethiopia for deploying troops inside Somali territory - which Ethiopia has consistently denied.

In November, the US embassies in the region issued a warning against "reports of terrorist threats emanating from extremist elements within Somalia, which target Kenya, Ethiopia and other surrounding countries". It warned of suicide attacks, particularly in Kenya and Ethiopia - seen as regional US allies and supporters of the TFG. The US accused the UIC of harbouring alleged terrorists and extremists, while the US in turn has been accused of supporting the defeated warlords.

Establishing standards

On the streets of Mogadishu, there is much debate about 'moderates' and 'extremists'. A local journalist said his personal freedoms had changed in many ways since the takeover, "good and bad". "In some areas there is no music or cinemas, radio stations have closed down, we have no freedom to write, and they are doing public executions." He says there is a 'wait and see' atmosphere.

"When it comes to security, we feel freedom. When it comes to personal freedoms, we feel worried."

Since coming to power in June, the UIC has implemented Shari'a law, but avoided issuing official directives on details of social and religious conduct. Instead, it has used punishment and propaganda to set new standards. Public floggings were meted out for men and women accused of selling drugs, chewing khat and 'immoral behaviour'. There are public lectures and radio appeals addressing religious commitment, behaviour and morality, and the interpretation of the Koran.

But the new climate of punishment and restraint may not sit comfortably in a culture known for its personal freedoms and egalitarianism - and the UIC is wary of launching an assault against certain aspects of Somali culture.

Banning khat

The UIC's new ban on khat will prove a critical test of acceptance of the new restrictions.


The daily importation of khat from Kenya and Ethiopia is costly, and its narcotic effects have contributed to conflict and lawlessness. It is seen as a social evil by many. But it provides countless small traders, mostly women who are heads of households, with a livelihood, and its daily use is socially and geographically widespread. No Somali government has been successful in abolishing the trade.

Dress code

There is also consternation over new standards of dress code. In UIC offices, men who dress 'western-style' are frowned upon. Visiting businessmen and women say they sometimes struggle to conform and do not understand the disapproval around details of behaviour and dress. ...

Sheikh Sharif emphasises that the increase in 'modesty' is not the result of any official declaration by the UIC. "The Islamic Courts has made no decision about [this] because Somali women dress the way it is intended in their religion. I do not wish to impose anything like that." Some of the UIC leadership says the debate over dress is provoked by pro-western critics.

Badge of loyalty

But there is much debate - in private - by Mogadishu residents as to whether people are changing their habits through religious choice, or just to protect themselves. "Women are already taking up the veil not out of choice but as a precaution, so that no-one singles them out," said one businessman. ...

Humour on the streets reflects the fact that the new path to power is through religion. "Everyone is becoming a sheikh these days," observed one hotelier. Red and white checked headscarves are used fairly ubiquitously by the UIC - from the leadership and the militia to their supporters. The scarves are seen as a badge of loyalty. For those who want to demonstrate strict religious commitment, musical ring tones on mobile phones have been replaced by recordings from the mosque.

Centralising policy

Some of the social confusion comes from the absence of policy. Soon after the takeover, cases were being reported of women being ordered to wear the hijab. But the UIC leadership explains these incidents as the challenge of centralisation. There are 27 branches of the courts in Mogadishu, and 11 outside the city, all used to operating autonomously. Different local courts were imposing different standards and implementing different punishments. Centralisation of the courts did not take place until late September....

Balancing act

The confusion over codes of behaviour illustrates the struggle between the moderates and hardliners within the UIC. Since the takeover, there has been increased emphasis on 'jihad' and visible militarisation of society - including seminars on jihad for men and women, and training camps to unify the militia into a centralised force. Some UIC leaders see security and 'defence of the country and the religion' as the priority, and have made it the rallying call.

The hardliners - known as the Shabaab group - invest in militarisation, advocate strict religious codes and punishments, and shun contact with the non-Muslim world. They include key figures in the UIC - including Chief of Security for Mogadishu, Sheikh Abdullahi Mo'alim Ali 'Abu Utayba', who stated publicly, according to local journalists, that people who failed to pray five times a day should be shot. ...

Key members of the UIC leadership are working to secure international support and assistance in rebuilding Somalia. There is consternation in the movement that, having successfully delivered peace and unity in Mogadishu after nearly two decades of chaos and conflict, the humanitarian community has pulled out. The moderates are concerned that isolation from the international community serves to strengthen extremism and undermines opportunities for humanitarian assistance.

Sheikh Sharif said the UIC could provide security for international organisations to work in Mogadishu, and had encouraged humanitarian groups to take advantage of peace in the city.

"We had started negotiations and the process was going well, but then the humanitarian community declared it was leaving the areas where the UIC was in control. We regret that because we see it as a violation of people's rights." ...

To date, humanitarian organisations are unsure about the implications of the takeover. According to Philippe Lazzarini, head of OCHA-Somalia, many of the Somalis most in need are in south-central Somalia, most of which is controlled by the UIC. He told IRIN there was need for dialogue and engagement.

"In order to get access to those in need it is imperative to engage with the authorities in control, including the UIC," he said.


AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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