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Somalia at the Crossroads

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
January 23, 2007


Somalia’s government has had a rough ride in the two years since its inception. It governed in exile from Nairobi for several months before moving into a converted grain warehouse in the southern Somali city of Baidoa. But the tribulations of the government pale in comparison to the strife Somali citizens have endured since the end of dictatorial rule in 1991. When Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed arrived in the capital of Mogadishu for the first time since taking office, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hailed it as “an historic opportunity to begin to move beyond two decades of warlordism, extreme violence, and human suffering.”

Douglas Farah, an Africa expert and blogger, says the recent developments in Somalia have been characterized by “the amazing inability to seize the moment, either by the government or the international community.” Though government forces routed the Islamist militia that had taken over much of the country, it was with the backing of the Ethiopian army, which has already begun its withdrawal (BBC). As explained in this new Backgrounder, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government lacks the wherewithal to impose peace and security on its own. Somali government officials expect African Union (AU) soldiers on the ground (Shabelle) in a matter of days. But even if a multinational force does arrive quickly, the AU track record on peacekeeping is weak and Somalia is a troublesome case, as evidenced by the abrupt end to the last UN mission there following the deaths of eighteen American soldiers in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu.

As Alex de Waal, an expert on Africa, explains, “If you want peacekeeping, you have to have peace” (CSMonitor). Peace has remained elusive in Somalia, as any long-term solution must satisfy the factional warlords and myriad clan interests (NYT).

Reconciliation between the government and the ousted Islamist leaders offers the best chance for a stable Somalia, most experts say. In an encouraging move, Sheik Sharif Ahmed, the second-highest ranking leader of the Islamist movement, surrendered himself in Kenya on Monday. The New York Times reports that Ahmed’s decision comes as a result of American efforts to bring the Somali government and Islamist leaders together. Somali political leaders seem uninterested in reconciliation. Last week, Sharif Hassan Sheik Aden, the speaker of parliament who had tried to broker talks with Islamist leaders, was ousted in a convincing vote (Reuters). Rather than reaching out to its adversaries, the government has used its newfound might to crack down on clans most sympathetic to the Islamists. Somali leaders fear the removal of Ethiopia’s military will open the door for the Islamists to build an insurgency.

Other experts predict a return to the fractious infighting that has paralyzed the country (PINR) for more than a decade and a half. But that outcome is not inevitable. Writing in the Weekly Standard, counterterrorism expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross says with a lasting commitment from Washington, including more financial support, Somalia can cast off the failed-state mantle it has worn for too many years.

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