NAIROBIFrom The Economist print edition
Will Somalia ever get the peacekeepers it needs?
AFTER months of delicate negotiations, Somalia’s internationally recognised but feeble transitional government and its Islamist opposition agreed to work together to rebuild their ruined country. Under an agreement signed in neighbouring Djibouti in June, Ethiopia, which invaded Somalia in late 2006 to prop up the ailing secular-minded Somali government, was to withdraw its troops. Somalia’s Islamists, who have been fighting an insurgency ever since, would stand their fighters down. It would have been a breakthrough for a country that has lacked a central government since the fall of its long-time dictator, Siad Barre, in 1991. But the deal was stillborn. Since then, Somalia has rotted away, a victim of international indifference and its own internecine history.
Somalia’s more extreme Islamists have shown their contempt for the moderates by stepping up their attacks. The extremists are led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a wily former army officer who flirted with peace before rejecting it. He is aided by fighters loosely linked to the Shabab (“the Youth”), the armed wing of the Islamic Courts Union, which briefly ran most of the country in 2006, plus nationalist Somalis from disaffected bits of the powerful Hawiye clan and criminals flying a jihadist flag of convenience. And now al-Qaeda is sensing an opportunity in a country where it has previously got nowhere. Abu al-Libi, one of its top men, who escaped from the American Bagram prison camp in Afghanistan in 2005, has circulated a video on the internet calling on foreigners to fight alongside the Somali jihadists, with the aim of establishing a caliphate.
The extremists are helped by the continuing presence of Ethiopian troops. Most Somalis in Mogadishu, the capital, still resent them. After a recent retaliatory Ethiopian mortar attack, a Somali living in the capital described how he helped his neighbours: “We collected the flesh of their bodies that was stuck to the walls.” Some 6,500 Somalis, many of them civilians, may have been killed since Ethiopia invaded early last year, though no one really knows the number.
The UN reckons that 2.6m out of 8m Somalis need help to keep fed and sheltered; some 1m have fled from their homes. That figure could rise with the recent failure of crops and the death of animals from drought. Spiralling food costs and the diving value of the Somali shilling have made things worse. Families are dying of hunger in camps for the internally displaced on the main road south of Mogadishu.
Somalia may be one of the most dangerous places in the world for one citizen to help another. Those who do often pay with their lives. Last week insurgents killed Muhammad Hassan Kulmiye, a brave local peace campaigner, and kidnapped a local head of the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. Workers from several agencies, including Oxfam and the UN’s World Food Programme, have been shot dead in recent weeks. Foreign aid workers from Kenya, Britain and Italy have been kidnapped and are still unaccounted for.
The United States had hoped that Ethiopia’s intervention would secure regional stability by eliminating the more extreme Islamists. But it has succeeded mainly in pushing the more moderate ones together with the most belligerent. America’s decision earlier this year to list the Shabab as a terrorist group has given American force commanders a green light to launch air strikes and send covert missions into Somalia. Some missiles fired from American submarines off the Somali coast have indeed killed Islamist insurgent leaders. But others have missed them—and killed Somali civilians instead.
Most moderate Somalis deplore the air strikes. So do most of the British, Swedish, Italian and Kenyan diplomats involved in Somalia (and based in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi), as do many in America’s own State Department. They say that the raids have weakened Somalia’s moderates and strengthened the extremists.
The insurgency may be getting fiercer again. Government officials, including the president, Abdullahi Yusuf, an implacable foe of the hardliners, face frequent assassination attempts. Islamist insurgents have attacked towns and villages across the country, including some close to the border with Kenya. Its army has been deployed at the border and sometimes across it, but has been unable to stem the influx of Somali refugees. A complicated situation has been made worse by Eritrea, which supports Somalia’s hardliners because they are killing Ethiopians, whom the Eritreans deem to be their enemy.
The only hope at present is for a robust international peacekeeping force to come in and allow the Ethiopians to withdraw. The UN Security Council has passed resolutions paving the way for its own blue-helmet mission. But this is unlikely to happen. UN-backed peacekeepers have an unhappy history in Somalia and furthermore the UN lacks resources. It took a lot of political pressure to get the Security Council to agree to send peacekeepers to Darfur, the blighted western region of Sudan; they have yet to arrive in the promised numbers months after they were due. Nor is it likely that the African Union will add to its few thousand peacekeepers, mainly Ugandans, in Mogadishu. Western diplomats working on Somalia say their reports make little impact on their governments back home. Despite the misery, the international will is lacking. So Somalia remains abandoned, lawless and too dangerous for most outsiders to operate in.