Somalia: ends and beginnings

Published on openDemocracy, by Georg-Sebastian Holzer, Dec. 18, 2008.

Much of the flurry of international media reporting on Somalia remains fixated on piracy-related stories. A previous article in openDemocracy argued that the root of the piracy problem lay in the collapse of Somali institutions as a result of war and ill-judged foreign intervention, and thus belonged to the land rather than the ocean (see Somalia: piracy and politics, 24 November 2008) …

… Through the fire:

The major dependent variable in these three scenarios is the cohesion of the al-Shabab movement. The burden of governing will surely be different from the burden of fighting. It was internal power-struggles and conflicting ambitions that led to the downfall of the ICU in 2006, and today’s al-Shabab inherits much of these fissures (as recent internecine recent fighting in southern Mogadishu indicates). But two years of fighting against Ethiopians and the experience of continuous missile-strikes have forged a new schism between the movement’s military wing of hardened fighters and its political wing led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, sitting in the Eritrean capital of Asmara. It is not clear at present how this rift will play out if and when a formal Islamist takeover follows Ethiopia’s withdrawal.

In the short term, events will be driven largely by fighting at the local or regional level, with little chance of influencing the political landscape for the better. But international actors – African states, the European Union, and a novice Barack Obama administration – still have crucial choices to make over who to support and what to do. In this context, it is depressing and (even given its woeful track-record) astonishing that the outgoing George W Bush administration might yet change the dynamics of the conflict for the worse, in seeking (as the Enough project says) to “hijack the incoming Obama Administration’s policy prerogatives while leaving it with an even more intractable crisis in the troubled Horn of Africa.”

Any such deathbed attempt by the Bush administration will present the international community with a severe challenge. But even assuming it fails,  a more immediate problem will be a humanitarian one: how to prevent widespread famine, starting with the Afgoye corridor and the Shabelle region. More than half the Somali population is in need of emergency assistance. In the light of targeted assassinations of aid workers, this seems to require not merely a logistical but also a political solution

Almost two years after the Ethiopians entered Mogadishu, with American support at their backs, Somalis are back to square one: in search of peace, security, stability, workable governance. The international community has to work with them to get it right this time. (full text).

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