Somalia: Tentative Hope and Little Else

22 January 2007

Across a wide spectrum of political opinion there is a lot of hope for the success of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) but little expectation it will be fulfilled.

Although the Bush Administration has pinned its best hopes for Somalia on the TFG, the words of Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, in a recent interview with AllAfrica, suggested an undercurrent of worry. "We need to support the government as the legitimate government of Somalia," she said, "and we certainly have been trying to do so - understanding that it is still very weak and has a lot of work to do to gain the support of the Somali people broadly."

Ted Dagne, Africa analyst at the Congressional Research Service and an expert on the countries in the Horn of Africa, has a harsher assessment. The TFG has failed miserably, he said in an interview. "In terms of functioning as a government, what have they done? Very little. Did this government get the support of the people? Well, the answer is no," he said.

Dagne noted that the inadequacies of the transitional leadership predated the arrival of the Islamist Courts, the coalition of militia groups that controlled the capital Mogadishu for the past six months. "The agreement [creating the TFG] was signed in October 2004," he said, while the Islamists did not push the warlords out of Mogadishu until June 2006.

According to Dagne, the TFG is made up of people who have continually kept the transitional authority from setting up operations in Mogadishu or functioning in an effective manner.

After its creation, the TFG operated from Kenya and later from the southern Somalian city of Baidoa. They only managed to get to Mogadishu with the backing of Ethiopian troops, Dagne said: "Without the protection of the Ethiopians, the transitional government cannot survive."

Susan Rice, a senior scholar at the Brookings Institution who served as assistant secretary of state for Africa during the Clinton administration, says it is hard to be optimistic about Somalia: The transitional administration "is certainly not viable if it doesn't get very swift and meaningful support from the international community," she said. "The Ethiopians can't stay in there very long; they shouldn't stay in there very long [and] our piddling 40 million dollars (pledged by the U.S. for political, humanitarian and peacekeeping assistance) doesn't look like we're very serious yet."

According to Ken Menkhaus, professor of political science at Davidson College, North Carolina and author of Somalia: State Collapse and the Threat of Terrorism, outside involvement is essential if peace is to be achieved. "We're hoping that people like Jendayi Frazer, Ethiopia and the European Union will put pressure on the transitional government leadership to sit at the table [with] important powerful constituencies who can play the potential role of spoilers …and hammer out a real power-sharing agreement."

Regional interests and rivalries, along with U.S. concerns about global terrorism, greatly complicate the scenario, often making Somalia seem like a pawn on other chessboards rather than a player in its own game of nation building.

According to Frazer, Ethiopia attacked because militias loyal to the Council of Islamic Courts were escalating attacks on Ethiopian troops who were training TFG soldiers.

That assessment leaves Dagne bemused: "Ethiopia? With the largest armed force in sub-Saharan Africa, with one of Africa's best air forces, compared to an Islamic Courts that came to power just six months earlier with no conventional forces?" Ethiopia's security was not threatened, he said: "The threat was the ouster of the TFG." In any case, he adds, no specific act, no single provocation led to the Ethiopian invasion.

Ethiopia's relationship with TFG President Abdullahi Yusuf is very close. "Ethiopia would ideally like to have a moderate government in Mogadishu that can serve as a strategic partner in security in the region, Menkhaus said, "that is to say a Somali government that made sure it was always asking itself, 'well before we do this we should check with Ethiopia.'"

After becoming interim president in 2004, Yusuf's first foreign visit was to Addis Ababa, where even at that early date he asked for 20,000 troops to back his government, then setting up in Baidoa. Ethiopia began sending troops, claiming they were only there to train TFG forces.

Part of Ethiopia's concern for the kind of government that finally gains legitimacy centers on Somalia's past irredentist history - its old ambition for incorporation of Ethiopia's Ogaden region, northeast Kenya, what is now Somaliland, and part of Djibouti into a "Greater Somalia." The 1977-78 Ethiopia-Somalia war over the Ogaden may have been forgotten by most of the world, but not in Addis Ababa.

Eritrea is an even larger Ethiopian concern. An ally in Mogadishu would enable Ethiopia to pull most of its troops away from the border it shares with Somalia and deploy them to the north, where a resumption of war with Eritrea is considered the real threat.

And not surprisingly, Eritrea has been supporting the Islamic Courts. In an Al Jazeera television interview, Eritrean President Issaias Afwerki denied supplying arms to the Islamic Courts but said that the Courts "have not been defeated." Afwerki also warned that, "People who have wanted to intervene for their own agendas in Somalia have put themselves in a very serious circumstance."

Ethiopia's strategic need to oust the Islamic Courts from Mogadishu and the mounting concern of the United States with Somalia as a terrorist sanctuary, converged late last year. On December 14, Frazer said, "The Council of Islamic Courts is now controlled by al-Qaeda cell individuals - East Africa al-Qaeda cell individuals."

She has since moderated that stance somewhat. As she put it in last week's interview with AllAfrica: "I don't think the Courts was a front for al-Qaeda; I think the Courts were a genuine organic Courts based in communities that had come up almost organically to adjudicate cases and provide basic services; but I believe that the al-Qaeda operatives that were in Somalia, hiding out, eventually took over those Courts. Basically they hijacked the Shura [decision-making body]."

However, the intelligence on which this conclusion was based came from sources with a deep and suspect interest in the outcome: Ethiopia, the warlords whom the U.S. had been backing since last spring, and Kenya, in many ways the Godfather of the TFG through the regional grouping of East African nations which goes by the name, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

These same sources gave the U.S. information on the supposed whereabouts in Somalia of the three al-Qaeda operatives responsible for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

Shortly after Ethiopia's recent invasion of Somalia, a U.S. C130 aircraft, in what was called a "surgical strike," attacked the fishing village of Ras Kamboni near the Kenyan border, where Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, also known as Haroun Fazil and considered al-Qaeda's east Africa chief, along with two other al-Qaeda leaders were thought to be.

If the men were there, they survived the U.S. attack, and for many in Africa, their escape is further confirmation that U.S. intelligence capacity and the decision-making that flows from it, is suspect.

No one doubts that al-Qaeda supporters are in communities throughout Somalia and east Africa. The question is, what price should a particular country - in this case Somalia - pay for that presence?

Ted Dagne asks: "How is it possible that the three (al-Qaeda) suspects carried out their acts in 1998, and we allegedly believe that these guys were going in and out of Somalia? How is it that the Islamic Courts, who were not in power for the seven and a half years that these guys were around, would be responsible for protecting these guys?

"In fact Haroun - the mastermind, lived in Kenya, in Lamu; he was a teacher. He got married in Kenya, not in Somalia. Who are the other two? One is a Sudanese (Abu Taha al-Sudani), and the other is a Kenyan (Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan). Has any Somali group carried out a terrorist attack against the West? The answer is no."

No one wants to write off Somalia. If the TFG has a chance of surviving, it lies with a credible peacekeeping force. There is virtually complete agreement that Ethiopian troops cannot remain for long. Then what? United Nations peacekeepers? African Union peacekeepers?

According to Susan Rice, the peacekeeping force should not be "another under-funded African Union force" but must be "UN-commanded, controlled, supported and funded." Frazer would like to see African troops, and Uganda has emerged as a "key candidate," she said. "Uganda said it was willing to do it, so we have been focusing, and continue to focus, on getting them deployed. But the effort to get other troop-contributing countries has been led by Kenya."

Rice doesn't see that as a serious proposition at all. "I don't know why we're repeating the same mistakes of Darfur," she said. "How are you supposed to entice overstretched Africa militaries when you have no assured funding stream, no logistical support in a very dangerous environment. The only way for it to be credible and appealing for potential troop contributors, is that it be a UN force. Everybody's been to the Darfur movie; it's not pretty."

Does this argument - UN troops or troops from the Africa Union - doom Somalia to more or less permanent status as a failed state?

It is within the realm of possibility. says Menkhaus, pointing to another large piece of the tragedy of that East African country. "I think Ethiopia is prepared to live with state collapse in Somalia again. They have learned how to manage that over the past 10 years. It's not ideal, but they can live with it."

Menkhaus believes "that while state collapse is nobody's first choice in Somalia, it's everyone's second choice." The Bush administration would very much like to have a functional government in Somalia, he said, "but it's also learned to live with state collapse." And many Somali constituencies have learned to live with a collapsed state as well. "It's not optimal, but it is manageable."

"When you start to contemplate the enormous energy and cost and risks of building a viable state and a political order based on reconciliation and power sharing," Menkhaus said, "it's not hard to imagine a scenario in which everyone winds up going for their second choice."

For Historical Perspective:

Tangled Ties of the Past Shaped U.S.-Somali Relations (1993)

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