Somalia: Teenagers With Guns Threaten Region

1 June 2009
guest column

Seated on the leather carpet covering the floor of his living room, Mohamed Abdi Rahman is surrounded by friends and family members coming to convey their condolences over the death of his youngest child, Osman Abdi Rahman. Painfully, he greets his visitors with the phrase: “It should have been me.”

Rahman, 73, formerly a civil servant under Mohamed Siad Barre, the dictator who ruled Somalia with an iron fist for 22 years until 1991, left Somalia in 2006. He took his two wives and three youngest children to Mombasa to escape the fighting between then President Abdullahi Yusuf’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), backed by Ethiopian troops, and the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) led by Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, which had taken control of most of Mogadishu.

After spending more than two years in Mombasa, Rahman welcomed the ascent to the presidency of Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, the former ICU leader now considered a moderate.  Sharif was selected in Djibouti in January this year as part of the culmination of a peace process sponsored by the United Nations and the African Union.

Encouraged by positive reports from former neighbors who had remained in Somalia, and by the warm welcome the country’s new president enjoyed within the Somali community in Kenya, Osman Abdi Rahman decided to return to his native land.

After consulting his older children living in Canada, Britain and the United States, he decided to send his son, Osman to Mogadishu. With the money Rahman had saved, Osman was to repair the family’s home ahead of their return.

On May 22, Osman was killed in violence which broke out days after his arrival in Mogadishu. He had to be buried there by friends and relatives in the absence of his immediate family, whose hopes to be able to return have been shattered – just as have those of Somalis who had started to believe in the possibility of peace and order after 18 years of violence and chaos in their country.

In the latest fighting, a coalition of violent groups has seized strategic installations in the capital and is threatening to march on the presidential palace. It comprises Al Shabaab, an Islamist group suspected to have links with Al Qaeda (which is led by, among others, Sheikh Hussein Ali Fidow) and Hizbul Islam (led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, President Sharif’s former mentor and ICU ally now on an American terrorist list and wanted by Interpol).

The coalition has moved on Mogadishu, attacked the TFG and caused the deaths of at least 200 civilians in the last two weeks.

Last weekend Aweys admitted that there are “Arabs” fighting on the side of the Islamists, who have sworn on the Quran to topple the newly-installed government, which they accuse of being a puppet of the West. They are determined to drive out of the country the government’s protectors, a 4,300-strong African Union (AU) peacekeeping force composed of troops from Uganda and Burundi.

The admission by the insurgents’ leader has confirmed warnings by analysts that Al Qaeda operatives who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan have resurfaced in Somalia in response to calls by Osama Bin Laden, who has described Sharif as “a mujahidin who has partnered with the infidels.”

Responding to the threat to his regime, President Sharif told a news conference on May 25 that “we will not allow Somalia to be a haven for groups with foreign ideologies from Iraq and Afghanistan… We urge Somalis to defend against those groups that include foreigners and ask the international community to back us.”

There is no obvious sign that his plea has been heard. Not many countries in Africa and beyond have the desire to become actors in the Somali quagmire. Apart from the AU peacekeepers, the only other organized military forces in the region are those of Ethiopia and Eritrea, who have fought a proxy war against one another in Somalia.

The United States and the European Union, despite having played an important role by encouraging and openly supporting the Djibouti-based peace process, appear to have adopted a wait-and-see approach. The ghosts of Black Hawk Down still haunt the sleep of many political and military decision-makers in the West.

Yet the stakes in Somalia are immense. At issue is not merely the rule of a “reformed” Islamist who has instituted Sharia law to try to bolster his position and seeks to restore law and order in his country. Should he fall, an iron curtain similar to the one imposed by the Taliban in Afghanistan will fall on Somalia. Al Qaeda and its allies will threaten peace and security in the entire East African region. The consequences will be felt by innocent civilians far beyond Somalia’s borders.

For this reason alone, both the East African region and the West – the administration of Barack Obama and its allies in Europe – should go beyond symbolic acts and take a firmer stand in the ongoing conflict.

They could do so by providing the backing necessary to make the TFG a success, including the political and military support needed to strengthen Sharif’s hand. It is extraordinary that small groups, mostly composed of teenagers armed with guns, are testing the will of the international community.

Failure to act decisively now will almost certainly add Somalia to the growing list of pariah states the international community is desperately trying to contain: Sudan, Eritrea, Iran and North Korea.

Sebastien Satigui is the pseudonym of an observer of the Somali situation based in Kenya.

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