Is Somalia on the verge of war?

African Union calls for peacekeepers as fragile interim government stuggles for security.

By Matthew Clark |

Somalia has not had a functioning government since President Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. Several previous attempts to reestablish a government have failed.

A transitional government, which had been based in neighboring Kenya since it was formed last October, began relocating to Somalia last month. But a dire security situation in the capital of Mogadishu has prevented President Abdullahi Yusuf from establishing his government there.

Now Mr. Yusuf has told BBC he will head south through the country from his northern stronghold "collecting troops and militia as he goes."

He plans to go to the town of Jowhar, which is 90km north of the capital, Mogadishu, and is his preferred temporary base for the new government.

The warlords in control of Mogadishu have threatened to attack Jowhar if the president establishes himself there.

Observers say the president's announcement could trigger fighting.

Highlighting the dangers of an anarchic Somalia, International Crisis Group analysts Matt Bryden and John Prendergast wrote an opinion piece first published in the Chicago Tribune last January, which asserts that the way things have changed in Somalia over the last 10 years "matters to US national security."

During the last decade, international Islamist groups, including Al Qaeda, have invested with Somali partners, building a commercial empire in the country that rivals that of any other faction and which is increasingly asserting itself as a political and military force. ...

Porous borders, dozens of unmonitored airstrips and one of the longest coastlines in Africa create exploitable intelligence black holes and permit the illicit movement of personnel and weapons. ...

If it doesn't get a minimally functioning state today, Somalia will end up tomorrow as a patchwork of mini-states, some of which increasingly resemble areas of Taleban-controlled Afghanistan or insurgent-patrolled Iraq.

To achieve this, Somalia needs serious engagement by and focused support from the US and Europe. Unfortunately, the country is getting neither.

The International Crisis Group (ICG), one of the leading non-governmental organizations for conflict prevention, warned last February that "the decision by African regional organisations to send troops to Somalia risks destabilizing Somalia's fragile transitional institutions and jeopardizing the peace process."

Mr. Bryden is director of the ICG's Horn of Africa Project. He said then that members of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development's (IGAD), a group of six East African countries, "risk crossing the 'Mogadishu Line' where peacekeepers become party to a conflict -- as they did during the US-led intervention of the early 1990s."

The ICG report gave reasons why neighboring countries should not send troops and what should be done instead.

Somalia's neighbors -- Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya -- should be excluded from a Somali peacekeeping force. All seek to project their own strategic interests in Somalia and have backed rival factions during the conflict. ...

Instead, the [African Union] and Arab League should jointly take responsibility for mustering international backing for a broad-based peace support operation in Somalia. Donor governments should encourage such an initiative, and offer to cover the costs of the Somali government's relocation to Mogadishu, while making it clear that they will not meet the costs of an IGAD deployment. And no foreign troops should set foot in Somalia unless the transitional Parliament first endorses the plan.

IGAD's council of ministers last month, however, called upon the UN Security Council to lift an arms embargo the Council had imposed on Somalia so that it could deploy peacekeeping troops.

Somalia's transitional government began relocating to the country last month. The new government had announced plans to relocate several times, but did not do so sooner because of security considerations.

The relocation has not been smooth. The government has been forced to settle in the town of Johwar due to security concerns in Mogadishu. The prospect of moving the government to the capital has been complicated by what the above-mentioned Chicago Tribune piece calls "persistent factional rivalries and Mafia-style business interests."

"Without foreign peacekeepers, the government of President Abdullahi Yusuf fears militia rule in Somalia will prevent ministers and their teams from carrying out their work in safety, free from violence, corruption and extortion," reports Reuters.

African Union (AU) ministers pressed the UN on Monday to lift the arms embargo to allow neighboring countries to deploy peacekeepers. "The decision is that the ministers want the arms embargo removed immediately. The Somali government itself feels let down by Africa, which it says asked it to relocate from Kenya and go to a lawless country without any basic help to set up security apparatus," said an AU official cited in the Reuters report.

On Monday Somali Foreign Minister Abdullahi Sheekh Ismail told Reuters: "The AU's call is in solidarity with us. We have sometimes felt let down by Africa, but this is a step forward."

IGAD says AU troops from Sudan and Uganda were ready to deploy but had been stopped by lack of funds and the UN arms embargo.

The United Nations monitoring team in Somalia urged Somalis Monday to abide by the arms embargo. "The international community has been concerned over certain developments inside Somalia including the reported inflow of weapons and an increase in the general level of tension both in terms of media rhetoric and reported movements of militia," it said in a statement.

The UN's World Food Program suspended all humanitarian aid shipments to Somalia Monday. "UN officials say Somali pirates who commandeered a World Food Program aid vessel last week are demanding $500,000 ransom for release of the ship and its crew," reports Voice of America. The hijacked vessel was carrying food aid for about 28,000 tsunami survivors in Somalia.

"The 10 crew members are reported to be in good health and we remain hopeful that the humanitarian cargo on the MV Semlow will be allowed to continue its journey to Bossaso in the northeast of the country unconditionally," WFP Somalia Country Director, Robert Hauser, said. "But for now, the waters off the Somali coast present too great a threat to send further shipments."