Mogadischu between Plague and Cholera

For nearly 16 years Somalis have had no choice who governs their country. The invasion by Ethiopian troops has done nothing to change this. The responsibility lies above all with the failure of European diplomacy, says Marc Engelhardt

Soldiers in Mogadishu (photo: AP)
Many of those riding into Mogadishu on the back of the Ethiopian tanks were responsible as warlords for the chaos which ensured the Islamists' success

​​People have allegedly been throwing flowers again; flanked by Ethiopian troops, the transitional Somali government has been marching into Islamist-controlled villages since Christmas Eve 2006. Half a year earlier, when the Union of Islamic Courts drove the warlords who had ruled Somalia for years out of Mogadishu and proceeded to conquer large areas of the country, there were similar scenes.

Is this propaganda on the part of the victors, or reality? Probably the latter, as after 16 years of anarchic conditions in the Horn of Africa, ordinary Somalis have long been hoping for one thing: a government which will bring normality; any kind of normality will do.

Islamist law and order

On this ticket the Islamists managed to win the hearts of Mogadishu's citizens in June; the Islamic Courts promised immediate calm and order, for the first time since the dictator Siad Barré was thrown from power in 1991 – a city without roadblocks and free of the drugged-up, khat-smoking militias who became increasingly trigger-happy throughout the day.

The leaders of the clans and sub-clans, the structure governing Somali society, gave the Islamists the mandate to bring the disorder in Somalia's capital to an end at last.

When the extremists within the courts increasingly began to get the upper hand, the heart-felt decision turned into something more practical; many Somalis were prepared to grit their teeth and pay a price for the newly-won freedom of movement in their country, whether a ban on television, on khat, or the threat of public execution for anyone who didn't turn to Mecca and pray five times a day; delighted they were not.

On the streets of Mogadishu anger began to grow, and even Somali newspapers reported critically on the hard line taken by the Courts' new tough man, the wanted terrorist Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys. It seemed that for the first time since the days of Barré a popular uprising was possible, in favour of the moderate elements within the Islamists and the powerless transitional government in self-imposed exile in Baidoa.

No choice for Somalis

What happened instead was a solution typical for Somalia. A US-backed military attack by Ethiopia, banishing of the Islamists and ushering in a new government, which was internationally recognized but did not have to be put to the vote. Many of those riding into Mogadishu on the back of the Ethiopian tanks were responsible as warlords for the chaos which ensured the Islamists' success.

Whether they will return to power is still uncertain, as other autocrats within the clans are already competing to become the new warlords of Mogadishu. The Somalis have been landed with another new government. They didn't have any choice in the matter, and if they had, it would probably have been between plague and cholera.

The responsibility lies above all with the failure of European diplomacy. Since the Islamists came to power, hesitantly, and mainly under pressure from the former colonial power Italy, the EU has formed the "Contact group for Somalia" together with the US and others, aiming to find a diplomatic solution – the ideal forum for the strengthening of moderate elements.

Further escalation likely

However the only peace talks to have taken place, in Khartoum the capital of Sudan, were held under the umbrella of the Arab League, and were unsuccessful. Currently the US is pressing ever more openly, and unimpeded, for a military solution.

While US troops in the east of Ethiopia have been preparing for war, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer has provoked confrontation, finally condemning the entire Union of Islamic Courts as a terrorist cell controlled by al-Qaeda.

The US has pushed through a resolution at the UN Security Council, against the wishes of other members, but without significant resistance, which will simply lead to further escalation of the situation.

Europe excluded from Somalian affairs

From Europe there has been no word on the subject. While the EU Development Commissioner, Louis Michel, who had already squandered an opportunity at the beginning of the year in the Congo, flew to Baidoa and Mogadishu on the Wednesday before Christmas "to mediate", the war machine was already in top gear, unbeknown to the Europeans.

Michel's visit to Somalia became an embarrassing sign of how excluded from Somalian affairs the EU really was, right to the end.

However the Ethiopian blitzkrieg in Somalia also has a good side. It has demonstrated that a professional, well-equipped army can incapacitate militia troops armed with Kalashnikovs and clapped-out armoured cars in days. The fact that the attack breaks international law is neither here nor there. The same operation could free millions in West-Sudan's Darfur, who have had to endure four years of misery, including brutal attacks, mass-rapes, pillaging and the like, even in allegedly secure refuge camps.

These are all crimes on a scale on which even the worst Somali Islamist could never be guilty. But Darfur must continue to suffer; here too Europe remains silent.

Marc Engelhardt

© 2006

Translated from the German by Steph Morris

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