Time has never been better for Somalia’s leaders to take the opportunity given to them by recent turn of events to establish and hold onto a lasting peace that they have been searching for in the past 16 years.
Following the crushing defeat of forces loyal to the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) by the army of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) with the help of Ethiopian troops, has paved the way for the establishment of Somalia’s first functioning central government since the toppling of former dictator Siad Barre in 1991.
Somalia’s transition to democracy and nation-state building remains, however, uncertain as the possibility of a dangerous power vacuum slowly brews below the surface.
The entry of government and Ethiopian forces at the gates of Mogadishu on 28 December 2006 put an end to years of clan-based factional fighting and the fiefdoms established by warlords, as well as UIC’s strict applications of Sharia (Islamic) law.
However, it also brought with it a fear of lawlessness, dictatorial rule, renewed hostilities and possible retaliatory terrorist attacks by Islamists, against potential targets in Somalia’s neighbouring states and beyond.
Pressure is currently mounting on the TFG to get an African Union (AU) force to replace the outgoing Ethiopian forces, which are stationed across the country, to help keep the peace.
Ethiopia’s support for President Abdullahi Yusuf’s government are deeply rooted in Addis Ababa’s desire to counter Islamic expansion into the region and the threat posed by its long-term enemy, Eritrea, which had offered to supply the UIC with arms and military trainers while quashing attempts by Islamists to take back Ethiopia’s Somali-speaking Ogaden region.
Indeed, the vast majority of Somalis view the presence of Ethiopian troops on the streets of Mogadishu as an unacceptable situation. In the meantime, elements of the Shabbab, UIC’s radical youth wing, as well as thousands of Islamists who continue to hide in the capital city, have vowed to beef up guerrilla-style attacks against Ethiopian forces while also mounting terrorist activities against strategic targets in neighbouring countries, particularly Ethiopia and Kenya, which are traditional allies of the TFG.
It is no real surprise that the Kenyan, Ethiopian and Somali governments are all involved in intense negotiations to secure an 8,000-strong peacekeeping force to take over from the Ethiopians, who have begun withdrawing their troops from Somalia’s capital city on Tuesday.
Although the UN passed a resolution in December that called for a peacekeeping force for the country, until recently only Uganda had publicly committed to sending peacekeepers as part of a wider mission. Malawi has also now joined Uganda in officially acknowledging their intention of sending troops to Somalia.
South Africa, Tanzania and Nigeria, have also indicated that they are considering proposals for the deployment of their troops to the beleaguered country. Meanwhile, the European Union foreign ministers have now publicly stated their readiness to offer financial support for the proposed African Union peacekeeping force.
The return of the warlords following the defeat of the UIC presents another dilemma for the TFG. The UIC were credited with removing these warmongering chieftains who brought so much misery and bloodshed to much of the country following the collapse of Siad Barre’s regime.
There is a feeling of despair prevailing in Mogadishu about the inability and lack of commitment on the part of the TFG to restrain the influence of the warlords. Any shift of power to these warlords threatens to bring Somalia back to clan violence and civil war.
It is clear that the government’s effective rule is substantially weakened by its inability to muster enough support in Mogadishu, a city traditionally controlled by the Hawiye clan, who are underrepresented in cabinet. A possible solution would be to invite not only moderate Islamists, but also the nominal leader of the Islamists, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a Hawiye, to join the government.
The government’s unwillingness to negotiate with the Islamists and other opposition groups threatens to alienate many traditional supporters of the government across the country and among its neighbors. Such a situation could, among the local population, quite possibly lead to increased support for Islamic extremists, who have indicated their intentions of engaging the TFG in prolonged guerrilla warfare as well as terrorist attacks on Kenya and Ethiopia.
This will also fuel growing concerns that the TFG is increasingly adopting autocratic measures to curtail activities of any opposition groups and also stifle freedom of speech in the country.
The decision to initially close down the country’s main broadcasters, earlier in January 2007, and the recent sacking of the Speaker of Parliament, Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan following his unauthorized talks with the UIC, have all led to speculation that there increasingly is an undermining of democratic principles by the government.
The United States, among others, have urged the TFG to restrain its undemocratic tendencies by adopting reconciliatory measures as a way to help ensure the prevalence of peace and nation building in Somalia.
Its ability to reconcile its differences with the Islamists and build a government of national unity, based on democratic principles supported and reinforced by an AU peacekeeping force, will help cement its hold on power while strengthening the fragile peace holding Somalia together.
It will be tested in the coming months on its ability to build a credible and legitimate government not only in the eyes of the international community, but more importantly among Somalis.
Hany Besada is the Senior Researcher working on the Fragile States research project at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Canada.