Somalia war returns to the limelight

Long forgotten by the world, the crisis in Somalia is back in the limelight as Somali pirates hijack dozens of ships, thereby threatening shipping routes in the Indian Ocean.

Meanwhile, Islamic insurgents have intensified attacks against a US backed government and now control Somalia’s port city of Kismayu. It is feared that renewed fighting will disrupt food supplies to millions of Somalis currently living in camps and ravaged by drought and flooding disasters.

Incidentally, most of the pirate gangs are based in the region of Puntland, controlled by militiamen loyal to Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf. Recently, though, pirate activities have spread to the south of the country as violence rages.

Problems in Somalia worsened in December 2006, when the United States decided to overthrow the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). By mid 2006, the UIC had succeeded in creating a functional government in Somalia for the first time since clan warfare wrecked the country in 1991.

During the short-lived reign of the UIC, piracy in the Indian Ocean almost ceased but with its overthrow, piracy has grown faster than before.

The United States fears that the UIC will create an Islamic caliphate in East Africa. Ethiopia, which is battling a Somali insurgency in its Ogden province, supported the US and sent troops into Somalia. Kenya, which also has a Somali minority, closed its border and arrested dozens of UIC fighters. US and Ethiopian airstrikes destroyed the Islamic Courts militia, forcing the movement underground and its leaders into exile.

This year, the Islamic Al-Shabaab youth group has intensified attacks against President Yusuf and the Ethiopian Army resulting in heavy losses on all sides. A few Ugandan soldiers in the African Union peacekeeping force have died in the fighting. In August, Al-Shabaab recaptured the southern city of Kismayu. Last Tuesday, Al-Shabaab threatened to shoot down any aircraft landing or taking off from Mogadishu Airport. Private airline operators kept off, further undermining the US backed government.

Between 1960 and the 1980s, Somalia was a theatre for proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union. Indeed, the Somali president at the time, General Mohamed Siad Barre, shifted loyalties between the two powers several times. Somalia is attractive to world powers because of its strategic location at the mouth of the Red Sea.

General Barre exploited rivalries between Somali clans to stay in power. By 1990, the countryside was plunged into lawlessness by clan fighting and defections from the Somali Army. General Barre was scorned as, ” the Mayor of Mogadishu.” In 1991, Mogadishu was no longer safe and Barre fled into exile. He died in Nigeria a few years later.

A United Nations intervention ended in 1993 after the UN and the United States got entangled in the complexities of Somali clan politics. Several UN and US soldiers were killed during the intervention. Meanwhile, warlords fought for control of highways, towns, plantations, airports and sea ports.

In 2004, the Somali Transitional government was formed in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. The transitional government was doomed to fail as it was composed of warlords. President Yusuf himself was a warlord in the self-declared Republic of Puntland, where Somali piracy is centred. Infighting among the warlords prevented the Transitional government from settling in Mogadishu.

Somali warlords are believed be sponsored by multinational companies, regional and international powers eager to influence events in Somalia. The biggest culprits are the Arab world, Libya, Ethiopia, Eritrea and the United States.

Amidst the vacuum, Somali Muslim clerics united under the Union of Islamic Courts. They begin setting up administrative, judicial and security structures in Mogadishu. By 2006, the UIC controlled most of Somalia, except President Yusuf’s Puntland and the northern breakaway region of Somaliland.

For the first time in 15 years, the Somali people had a real chance of peace under a stable government with popular legitimacy. Unfortunately, the US war on terror crushed those hopes. The US accused the Islamic Courts government of sheltering terror suspects, and of having an expansionist agenda. Since the overthrow of the Islamic Courts, fighting in Somalia assumed a fresh intensity never seen since 1991.

As long as the Somali crisis was confined to the people of Somalia, the world could continue with business as usual. With Somalis now attacking ships and capturing hundreds of sailors from across the world, this may be the time to talk with the Union of Islamic Courts.

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