Somalia at the Crossroads: Options for the World Community

JURIST Guest Columnist Zeray Yihdego of Oxford Brookes University School of Social Sciences and Law says that the UN and the world's powers must act to help stabilize Somalia, too long plagued by clan infighting, lawlessness, regional conflict involving Ethiopia and Eritrea, and now maritime piracy...



The Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFG) claimed victory on June 3, 2009 over Islamist insurgent groups al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam following the groups' recent attempts to bring down the TFG. During the first two days of June alone, fierce fighting in Mogadishu resulted in 25 deaths and 70 injuries. Most of those affected were civilians.

Somalia's various clans and warlords have been fighting against each other and against external actors since the collapse of the Siyad Bare government in 1991. The causes are plenty. Clan mistrust, power discrepancies, and religious differences within Islam are among the most common catalysts. The armed violence has regional and international dimensions, too. This is why the United Nations (between 1992 and 1994) and the African Union (since 2007) deployed peacekeepers and enforcers to help secure Somalia. According to UN reports, Ethiopia and Eritrea (consisting of Egypt, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Syria) have also taken part in the hostilities. Disturbingly, foreign fighters are also rumoured to have taken part in the conflict.

As a result of the conflict, tens of thousands of Somalis have been killed, maimed, or forced to flee their homes. According to Refugee International, 3.2 million Somalis (40 percent of the population) are dependent on external assistance. Approximately 1.3 million have been internally displaced and over 400,000 Somalis have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. UN official Mark Bowden said recently that "roughly 45 percent of the (Somali) population is suffering from moderate malnutrition."

The situation is also exacerbating the troubled relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Both have been accused of fighting a proxy war in Somalia. The endemic problem of piracy off the coast of Somalia has posed a grave threat to maritime security, the international movement of goods, and even to humanitarian assistance. All of these persistent and severe security concerns, caused largely by the incessant lawlessness in Somalia, raise the question whether or not the world community has adequately and responsibly responded to the crisis.

The UN unsuccessfully attempted to intervene in the early 1990s. Dozens of peacekeepers (most of whom were American) had been killed in an insurgency led by former army general Farah Aidid. Although diplomatic efforts have continued, these casualties coupled with other policy goals have caused the major Western powers largely to ignore forceful multilateral intervention efforts intended to secure Somalia, with the exception of the Combined Task Force 150's (CTF-150) recent anti-piracy operations.

At its founding, the TFG of Somalia was frail and was limited to Baidoa, a city in south-central Somalia where the Somali Parliament was based. In 2006, the government came under concerted attack by the Union of Islamic Courts (USC), led by current president Sheikh Ahmad whose main goal was to establish an Islamic state of Somalia. The USC successfully gained control of most of southern and central Somalia and maintained law and order in a number of cities and towns for a few months. There was indeed calm and order for some time there, the sustainability of which was questionable owing to the fragile situation on the ground. The USC decided to oust the TFG by military force instead of working with it to build a more stable Somalia. Some also blamed the Abdullahi Yusuf led TFG for failing to seize the opportunity for peace and reconciliation.

During that critical time in 2006, the TFG sought help from Ethiopia while the USC was (and still is) backed by Eritrea. The latter has been persistent in denying such allegations, but the UN, the AU, and the US have reiterated their concern over Eritrea's military and logistical support to the USC (now to Al-shabaab and Hizbul Islam).

Ethiopia justified its initial presence in Somalia with reference to notions of invitation by the internationally endorsed government, and justified its later full-scale military action by asserting self-defence against the jihad declared against it. Some, including the London based think-tank Chatham House, criticized the intervention as legally unjustifiable and unhelpful to efforts toward stability in Somalia. While some countries, including Qatar, called upon Ethiopia to immediately withdraw from Somalia, the UN, the AU, and many western and African governments appeared to support Ethiopia's actions. In fact, the international community, including the TFG, encouraged Ethiopian forces to stay in Somalia until they could be replaced by AU peacekeepers. African countries were not swift enough to deploy peacekeepers. To date, the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has only 4,300 peacekeepers despite the fact that it is authorized by United Nations Security Counsel (UNSC) Resolution 1744 of 2007 to have up to 8,000 personnel. Resolution 1744 is a Chapter VII measure which authorized AMISOM to operate in Somalia.

While Ethiopia initially said it would withdraw from Somalia within a few weeks of diffusing the threat posed against it, it stayed there and fought the al-Shabaab until January 2009, claiming that it would have been irresponsible to leave the country in a big mess, and that remaining in Somalia was necessary to prevent the revival of the Islamists. The move to prolong the intervention was largely seen as unjustified and unnecessary by Somali and external commentators. Ethiopia was dragged into fierce, unconventional and urban clashes in Mogadishu (and elsewhere) with the Islamists. Human Rights Watch, which seems to be in war of words with Ethiopian authorities, alleged that all the parties to the Somali conflict, including Ethiopian forces, committed war crimes. Ethiopia strongly denies these allegations. Ethiopia's presence was also widely viewed as the key barrier to peace and reconciliation between the radical and moderate Islamists of Somalia.

The aftermath of Ethiopia's 2009 withdrawal tells a different tale — that of the beginning of a renewed cycle of armed violence between Somali factions. Since the summer of 2008, a painstaking effort has been made to form an all-inclusive TFG, including the Asmara based Islamist Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS). The moderate wing of the ARS, led by the current president Sheikh Ahmad, joined the process. The Asmara wing of the ARS led by Sheik Aways (who's featured on UN and US terrorist lists), al-Shabaab, and the recently formed Hizbul Islam fighters refused to take part in the post-Ethiopian intervention unity government. The ARS and al-Shabaab intend to install Sharia law in Somalia. Yet Sheikh Ahmad's introduction of Sharila law in April 2009 in Somalia, as the BBC put it, "has not appeased the hardline guerrillas".

The presence of AU peacekeepers in Somalia is one of the key disagreements between the two camps. The TFG views AMISOM as a partner in instilling peace and security in Somalia. Conversely, the opposition, views the peacekeepers as occupiers (or, in the words of Aways, as "bacteria") that must leave the country. The opposition has thus declared war on the peacekeepers and has targeted and killed them in recent attacks.

But is it really feasible to stabilize Somalia without a regional/international force? Is the declaration of war against peacekeepers compatible with international laws and norms, particularly with regard to UNSC Resolution 1744 of 2007? The answers to both questions are, without a doubt, in the negative. It might be said, however, that the Somalis must deal with their own problems if they wish not to have external support.

Aways returned to Mogadishu in April 2009, soon after the Ethiopian withdrawal. He denounced Mr. Ahmad's government, saying it was "not elected by the Somali people, ant it is not representing the interests (of) the Somali people." But the TFG views itself as a legitimate government both nationally and internationally. While it may be difficult to assess the TFG's popularity among the Somali people, the UN, the AU, the EU, and others have unreservedly endorsed it as a lawful, albeit transitional, government. In support of the TFG, Western donors have recently pledged to raise billions of US dollars for the reconstruction of Somalia.

Regardless, Aways and al-Shabaab refused to enter into dialogue with their former colleague, the incumbent president of the TFG. In early May of this year, al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam, (with the open support of Aways) intensified their attacks against government forces and AU peacekeepers in Mogadishu and other key towns. They took control over such strategically vital cities as Jowhar and Biodea. Government forces and the peacekeepers have responded to the attacks. On May 22, government forces initiated a large-scale counter-offensive in Mogadishu. AMISOM is not involved in such operations, as its mandate in respect of using force is limited to self defence. The Islamists seemed to gain impetus, but their efforts to topple the TGF have not been without problems. Antagonism from within recently caused an opposition to defect to the TGF, for example.

Civilian suffering has continued to mount. In the last few weeks of fighting alone, more than 200 people (around 80 percent of whom were civilians) have been killed and more than 500 were wounded. At least 60,000 people have been displaced. For this and similar reasons, it is no exaggeration that Somalia is indeed at the crossroads between peace and reconciliation on one side, and total chaos and further bloodshed on the other. Swift action (or restraint, if appropriate), is therefore crucial for all concerned.

On May 20, IGAD deemed the situation in Somalia a "very grave" security concern, condemned Eritrea for arming and backing "the criminal elements in and/or to Somalia.", and called upon the UNSC to take measures including the imposition of a no-fly zone and a blockade on seaports in order to "prevent the further in-flow of arms and foreign fighters" into the country. It also called upon the Council to impose sanctions against Asmara. On May 22, the AU endorsed the decision of IGAD and reiterated the call upon UNSC to impose sanctions against Eritrea. Eritrea denied the allegations and attributed the information to the work of CIA agents in the region.

Except with regard to the imposition of sanctions, the UN seems to agree with the regional bodies' assessment of the situation. UN Under Secretary General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe utterly condemned "the attempted coup on May 9 by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys and Al Shabaab fighters" and indicated the possibility of deploying peacekeepers by the USNC to support AMISOM and the TFG. However, the UNSC only "expresses its concern over reports that Eritrea has supplied arms to those opposing (the government of) Somalia in breach of the UN arms embargo" and "at the loss of life and the worsening humanitarian situation arising out of the renewed fighting." Western governments, including the White House, reiterated the UNSC's position and concerns. The UK Minister for Africa, Lord Malloch-Brown, condemned "the attempted coup d'etat by forces opposed to the Transitional Federal Government" and the "assault on the internationally recognized government that has worked hard for peace and reconciliation in Somalia."

These are, however, words and not deeds. The UN and AU do not seem ready to do anything concrete yet. Deploying UN peacekeepers has not yet been put on the negotiating table, probably due to the hostile attitudes of the parties to the conflict, as indicated in the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's report to the UNSC, released last April.

Reports that Ethiopia moved its troops into Somalia were openly denied by both the Somali and Ethiopian governments. Indeed, such convoluted problem needs multilateral, versatile and well-thought-out response.

Moving forward, the parties to this conflict must make a responsible move toward peace and harmony. They must cease destructively relying on foreign actors, including both states and non-state-actors. They have to bear in mind the immunity of civilians and AU personnel, and the legitimacy of the UN and the AU. They have to work toward bolstering security institutions in Somalia which will be capable of maintaining law and order in the country.

The world community has to choose the right and responsible options to help out Somalia and to ensure regional and international security there.

The first of these options would involve the swift deployment of a multilateral peace enforcement force in Somalia which could replace or strengthen AMISOM. Securing cities, ports, and airports, and protecting the civilian population, must be among the peace enforcement force's main tasks. Islamic, African and other interested countries may be of help in providing troops as a matter of urgency. Western countries must also be part of the action in both financial and personnel terms. A change in the attitude and policy of Washington and other leading world powers is now more necessary than ever.

The second option would be to strongly support the TFG and AMISOM, and to punish the spoilers of, and the interventionists in, the transitional process.

The last (and probably the least) option would involve doing nothing but watching as further atrocities and instability sweep the region, such as: the endemic problem of piracy, extremism, and the escalation of internal and perhaps interstate armed violence.

The first option appears to be the most appropriate response owing to the persistency, severity, and the possibly future consequences of the situation. It may not necessarily be the most realistic option, however, unless world powers and the UN make a drastic change in policy. The second option may work if tangible and immediate measures are taken to brace AMISOM. This option seems to be more attractive and less demanding for world powers, but other issues such as the controversy over North Korea's recent nuclear test and the situations in Pakistan and Sri Lanka may divert attention to the detriment of Somalia and the region as a whole. The first two options cannot be successful without engaging all the parties to the conflict as long as they behave responsibly and humanely. The last option is not morally or legally defensible. It may be thought that whoever wins will stabilise Somalia, but this is a risky strategy for maintaining international security. Even if AMISOM is out as per the demands of Aways and company, it is likely that the havoc will continue. Therefore, the world community must act now!


Dr. Zeray Yihdego is a lecturer in international law at Oxford Brookes University School of Social Sciences and Law
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