Developments in Somalia suggest that the East African country’s slide into anarchy is accelerating. Islamist militias have reportedly abandoned the capital Mogadishu in the face of advancing government soldiers backed by Ethiopian forces. Ethiopia began a major offensive last weekend to help Somalia’s interim government capture areas previously held by the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) forces. Hundreds have been killed in the conflict, which could escalate into clan warfare of the kind that blighted Mogadishu in the Nineties. Coming close on the heels of devastating floods that ravaged the region early this month, this could snowball into an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
Although it’s tempting to view the violence as simply another chapter in Somalia’s seemingly interminable civil wars, the current dynamics could be far more complex than in the past. Somali society, with its range of clans and sub-clans that ally with — and fall out with — one another at the drop of an African head-dress is evidently a major cause of conflict, just as it provides Somalis with a traditional means of dispute resolution through elders. Somalia is a gateway between Africa and West Asia. So goings-on there pose serious concerns for external powers (like the US that’s now cheerleading Ethiopia’s military intervention). Washington believes that elements of the UIC shelter terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda responsible for major terrorist attacks in Kenya and Tanzania. UIC leaders, predictably, dismiss these allegations, and portray themselves as victims of Ethiopian aggression and western Islamophobia.
The situation requires urgent international attention and the UN must stop dragging its feet. A lasting peace can only be achieved at the negotiating table, and there is no point in waiting until the guns fall silent to begin preparing, as the UN seems to be hoping. The stability and security of the entire Horn of Africa is at stake, as the strife could spill over into neighbouring countries and allow extremist forces to exploit the situation.