Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines

SOMALIA: The New Frontier in the War on Terror

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, Jan 18 2007 (IPS) - Somalia has become the new frontier in the war on terror, joining the unpopular club of Afghanistan and Iraq, a situation that is worrying the rest of Africa.

The only difference is that President George W. Bush sent U.S. troops to get rid of the Taliban in Kabul and Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, after Sep. 11. Bush is using the same soldiers to hunt down what he calls “terrorists”.

In Somalia, Bush’s dirty work is being handled by Ethiopia. Ethiopian troops, backing Somalia’s weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG), drove out a radical Islamic militia group from the capital Mogadishu on Dec. 28, 2006.

The Islamists, who had become popular, had restored some semblance of stability after 15 years of lawlessness. Somalia has no effective central authority since the fall of the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. After getting rid of Barre, the rebels then turned on each other.

The Islamists had taken control of Mogadishu after defeating pro-U.S. warlords in June last year.

It has taken the Ethiopian troops 10 days to drive out the Islamists. They are now hunting down what the Ethiopian Premier Meles Zenawi calls “international jihadists” from their hideouts on the Somalia-Kenya border.

As part of Washington’s war on terror, the U.S. sent planes to drop bombs on suspected Islamists hiding in a village on the Somali-Kenya border.

As a result, Washington’s involvement has put Africa, which has proposed to deploy 8,000 peacekeepers in Somalia, in a difficult situation, analysts say.

“The recent intervention by the U.S. planes to bomb (fleeing) Somali (Islamists) locations has complicated Africa’s position. It has muddied the water. As a result, whoever intervenes by deploying troops in Somalia will be seen as a U.S. agent,” David Monyae, a lecturer of international relations at South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand, told IPS in an interview.

Reports of Somali gunmen attacking invading Ethiopian troops are becoming common, although sporadic, in Somalia. Ethiopian Premier Zenawi said his forces would stay in Somalia for only “a few weeks”, raising fears of a power vacuum if the Ethiopian troops pull out.

“The sooner the Ethiopians get out of Somalia the better. Their presence in Somalia will continue to cause resentment given the long history between them,” Korwa Adar, an analyst at the Pretoria-based Africa Institute of South Africa and author of the book “Kenyan Foreign Policy Behaviour Towards Somalia, 1963-1983”, told IPS by phone.

Somalia and its giant neighbour Ethiopia fought two bloody wars in 45 years. Somalia is predominantly Muslim, while Ethiopia has a large Christian population ruling in the capital Addis Ababa.

“The U.S. and the European Union should provide funds for peacekeepers to replace the Ethiopians as soon as possible,” Adar said. Washington has pledged 40 million dollars for Somalia.

Kenya’s foreign minister Raphael Tuju, sent by East African countries, met with South African President Thabo Mbeki on Jan. 15 to request troops for Somalia. Mbeki promised to look into the matter this week.

South Africa, the continent’s economic and diplomatic powerhouse, is overstretched. It has deployed a total of 3,000 peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Sudan, Cote d’Ivoire and along the Ethiopian-Eritrean border.

“I don’t think South Africa can discharge long-term military [commitments] in Somalia. This is my view and things could change. But, before things change, South Africa can lead diplomatic efforts in the African Union and the United Nations,” Monyae said.

Somalia’s Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi told his country’s transitional parliament on Jan. 16 that he was expecting troops from at least five African countries – Uganda, South Africa, Nigeria, Malawi and Senegal – by the end of January.

Apart from Uganda, which has pledged 1,500 troops, others are waiting for the Jan. 29-30 African Union (AU) summit in Ethiopia for decisions and clear guidelines to get troops into Somalia. “You don’t want to deploy troops that will be butchered,” Monyae said.

Somalia conjures the image of lawlessness, anarchy and bloodshed. In the 1990s warlords’ fighters clashed with U.N. peacekeepers. Somali fighters downed two U.S. military Black Hawk helicopters and killed 18 U.S. soldiers in 1993. The incident led to the U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Somalia in 1994 followed, a year later, by the departure of U.N. peacekeepers.

“The U.S. should not be involved in the peacekeeping or in Somali peace talks. IGAD and AU should lead the way,” Adar said. IGAD, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, is made up of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, Sudan and Eritrea.

“I think it will be a good idea to deploy a peacekeeping force which is neutral. This will bring legitimacy. Legitimacy is the key word here. They should leave out countries that are perceived to be U.S. allies such as Ethiopia and Djibouti (where the U.S.. maintains a military base),” Monyae said.

“And the forces of peace in Somalia should be brought together and those against peace should be isolated,” he said.

Adar went further. “The Transitional Federal Government should try as much as possible to bring all the players in government and in peace negotiations. We don’t want a window of opportunity to be lost,” he said.

It’s not clear whether the transitional federal government will talk to fugitive Islamist leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is on the U.S. list of terrorism suspects. He used to head al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, which was linked to al Qaeda. Aweys said al-Itihaad no longer exists but he continues to churn out anti-U.S. rhetoric in his public pronouncements.

Washington believes that several al Qaeda agents suspected in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi in which 214 persons, including 12 U.S. citizens, were killed, are hiding in lawless Somalia.

One of them, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a Comorian, has a five-million-dollar bounty on his head, placed by Washington, for information leading to his capture.

Mohammed is also linked to a terror cell that carried out the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and the 2002 missile attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in the Indian Ocean port of Mombassa in Kenya.

For its part, Ethiopia is worried about having two Islamic states on its borders – Sudan and Somalia. It’s also concerned about the revival by the Islamists of the idea of a Greater Somalia.

The Greater Somalia is reflected by the five points of the star on the light-blue flag of Somalia. The stars represent southern Somalia, the breakaway Republic of Somaliland – both of which merged at independence in the early 1960s – the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, part of Djibouti and north Kenya.

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