Stephanie Nolen's incisive New Years Day report in the Globe and Mail on Somalia[i] was a welcome and informative antidote to the dearth of attention to the ongoing tragedy there. One key assertion - that the current troubles are rooted in the 2004 peace deal that "produced a transitional government made up largely of warlords" - invites a small quibble, but the unending horror faced by Somalis, and vividly portrayed in her report, is the only history that matters.

As noted once before in this space, I had the privilege of being present as an observer at the first meeting of the new Parliament of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) established by that deal, and neither it nor the subsequent Cabinet was, or was thought to be at the time, dominated by warlords. There were warlords present, not least being President Abdullahi Yusuf, but the problem was really the opposite. That first Parliament was built on a careful and complicated formula for balancing clan representation, and one important reason that it failed to establish itself in the capital, Mogadishu, was that it lacked the backing of warlords, or at least the support of any credible national or multilateral security forces.

It was the warlords of Mogadishu who kept it out, partly because they did not want their own self-defined power and authority supplanted by a more broadly-based Government and partly because Abdullahi Yusuf, with links to Ethiopia, assembled a Government that was perceived to be overtly pro-Ethiopian (and antagonistic to the Hawiye clan dominated warlords of Mogadishu).

The peace process, brokered by Kenyan diplomat Bethuel Kiplagat on behalf of the Horn of Africa regional organization, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, involved more than 500 delegates in broadly based negotiations involving clan representatives, women, civil society groups, and, to be sure, some warlords. The TFG it produced had its share of internal difficulties, but it especially faltered when the pleas for international peacekeeping forces to support it fell on deaf ears and when the warlords with the clout to protect it refused to accept it.

But that is history, and whatever hope there was at the time has now been thoroughly dashed. When the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) brought welcome stability to the Capital in mid-2006, as it had to other parts of the country earlier, there were hopes, and talks toward that end, of the UIC and TFG working out a power-sharing arrangement. The failure to pass through that briefly opened window of opportunity is a mixed tale of conflicting clan, Islamist, warlord, and foreign interests.

The Ethiopian invasion at the end of 2006, accompanied by some independent US attacks on claimed al-Qaeda strongholds, was ostensibly to support the TFG, but its only achievement was the return to chaos and inspiration for an insurgency that shows no signs of abating. Since then half of the population of Mogadishu, 600,000 people (a million in the country as a whole), have fled the fighting. The promised African Union peacekeeping force of 8,000 has reached only about 1,700 (1,600 Ugandans and 100 newly arrived Burundians).[ii]

The Security Council has instructed UN Secretary-General to develop contingency plans for a possible UN deployment, despite Ban Ki-moon's own statements earlier that the situation was too dangerous even to send an assessment team.[iii]

In the meantime, the fighting is as intense as ever and hope is as remote as ever.


[i] "Ferocity of conflict threatens Somali," January 1, 2008 (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080101.wxsleepersomalia01/BNStory/International/).

[ii] "Burundi soldiers arrive in Somalia," December 23, 2007, Aljazeera.net (http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/530BA7EA-8C4E-4021-B81C-55A318660BA4.htm).

[iii] Claudia Parsons, "UN Council urges more support for AU in Somalia," Reuters, December 19, 2007 (http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/N19627596.htm).

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