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Conflict in Somalia Escalating Toward War

December 26, 2006 at 6:05 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Now, the growing war in Somalia. We begin with some background about the conflict there, present and past.

The fighting in Somalia, after more than a decade of strife, has been brewing for months. It pits the transitional government, based in Baidoa — about 140 miles northwest of the capital, Mogadishu — against Islamist fighters, who seized control of Mogadishu and most of southern Somalia in June.

The Islamists are led by the Somalia Islamic Courts Union, or ICU. They claim broad popular support in this predominantly Sunni Muslim country. They say their aim is to restore Sharia, or Islamic law.

The Islamic movement declared last Thursday Somalia is in a state of war. The country hasn’t had an effective government since 1991, when warlords ousted longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.

In 2004, the U.N. helped set up a transitional government. But so far, it’s been unable to exert influence.

Abdullah Yusuf is recognized as the country’s interim president. He blamed the Islamists for the breakdown on talks on sharing power earlier this month.

ABDULLAH YUSUF, Interim President, Somalia (through translator): They are the ones who effectively closed the door to peace talks, and they are the ones who are waging the war. I don’t see peace, and I don’t think they want peace.

As long as the Islamic Courts Union are working to the dictates of the international terror groups, there is no way but to prevail over them.

RAY SUAREZ: Somalia’s western neighbor, Ethiopia, sent troops to Baidoa after the Islamists seized control this summer. Their stated purpose was to shore up the transitional government. The Islamists, now officially at war with the Ethiopians, want them out.

SHEIK MAHMUD IBRAHIM SULEYM, Council of Islamic Courts (through translator): I say to the people of Somalia: Evict the enemy from our country.

RAY SUAREZ: The United States played a past role in trying to stabilize Somalia. American troops landed in Mogadishu after the 1991 coups.

The most vivid image of U.S. involvement came in October 1993, when two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were shot down over Mogadishu. Eighteen Army rangers and Delta Force operators were killed in heavy fighting; the bodies of dead Americans were dragged through the streets.

That incident eventually led to the withdrawal of most of the U.S. forces by March of 1994. More recently, some U.S. officials have expressed concerns that Somali warlords are linked to al-Qaida.

Earlier this month, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer said the Council of Islamic Courts is now controlled by al-Qaida cell individuals, East Africa al-Qaida cell individuals.

The renewed violence has also displaced thousands of Somalis. Today, Ethiopia launched air strikes for the third day in a row. Other attacks have pushed an estimated 34,000 south into Kenya over the last six months.

DHAKALE ADAM, Relief Coordinator (through translator): We have no food, no shelter in this camp. Three children have already died. Old people are the most vulnerable, and we desperately need help.

Somalia's turbulent past

Akwe Amosu
Open Society Institute
In a situation where you have no national government, you do have a vacuum. You have space for different individuals to pull together militias and contest for power, and that's been a picture throughout this period.

RAY SUAREZ: In response to the burgeoning humanitarian and political crises, the U.N. Security Council called an emergency meeting on the conflict this afternoon.

For a closer look at the conflict, I am joined by Akwe Amosu, senior policy analyst for Africa at the Open Society Institute in Washington. She's written and reported widely on African issues for over 20 years.

And Abdi Samatar, a professor of geography at the University of Minnesota, born in Somalia, he's now a U.S. citizen and last visited his homeland in November.

Akwe Amosu, for people who haven't been paying attention since U.S. troops left the Horn of Africa, what's been going on in Somalia for the last 10 years? Bring us up to today.

AKWE AMOSU, Open Society Institute: Well, obviously, in a situation where you have no national government, you do have a vacuum. You have space for different individuals to pull together militias and contest for power, and that's been a picture throughout this period.

This year, you've seen a major stand-off between so-called anti-terrorist coalition warlords, who are funded by the United States, who were fighting against a loose coalition of militias, who group themselves under the Islamic Courts Union banner. And the Islamic Courts Union won.

That's a coalition, as I say, of some moderate, some more hard-line Islamic organizations who have set themselves up originally through the past couple of years to try and reestablish some kind of governance in the capital city, Mogadishu, by establishing courts, trying to draw lines between what was criminal, what wasn't, and at that level were very much welcomed by ordinary Somalis in Mogadishu, but subsequently have become rather more organized around the military objectives that we're now seeing.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Samatar, what do the Islamic Courts Unions want? What kind of Somalia would they build if they were able to get control of the country?

ABDI SAMATAR, University of Minnesota: I think, Ray, the overwhelming majority of them would like to see a stable state. And they have written papers -- that's all we can go on with -- which says that they will want the Somali people to elect their own governments, and it's the government in Baidoa is a warlord-compromised government that was created in Kenya.

And so my sense is that the vast majority of the folks in Islamic Courts really at the end want to see a country in which its basic principles are based on Islam but which can have a democratic constitution at the end. And there's some differences of opinion among the Islamic Courts on that call.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor, what do you make of those accusations, those speculations about the Islamic courts having connections with international terror groups, like al-Qaida?

ABDI SAMATAR: Well, the assistant secretary and many of our officers have not produced really any evidence, so it's their word against the word of others.

When I was in Mogadishu numerous times over the last year, I tried to figure out and find out from people whether, indeed, there was individuals of this kind. There may be, and I don't know.

But the vast majority of the leadership of the Islamic Courts are very moderate people -- Sunnis, that is -- and people who have been burned by war and sort of a warlord's terror in that country, and who would like to see a degree of peace and semblance of order in the place.

So my sense is, until we see evidence produced by our government here in the United States, then the jury is out.

'Moderate voices'

Akwe Amosu
Open Society Institute
One of the tragedies of the present situation is that it gives the hard-liners or the elements that are bent on a completely different, non-Somali set of objectives the opportunity to push forward their agenda.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Akwe Amosu, you've talked about a vacuum and how a country in a vacuum seeks that kind of stability. Is that a Petri dish, a place where international terrorists could gain a foothold?

AKWE AMOSU: Yes. I mean, I think it's obvious that, in those situations where you don't have a comprehensive security policy and indeed a machine to carry it out, that people can come and go and take the opportunities where they can to get in and influence the situation.

And, as I say, the United States was funding one group of warlords earlier this year; that group was defeated. And Osama bin Laden actually went on record, and a tape was shown with him saying that, you know, he welcomed the possibility of a fight against the United States being waged from Somalia's territory.

And there has been clearly a sign, either among jihadist forces outside of Somalia or some voices apparently inside the country, seeing this as an opportunity to open what you could call a third front, after Iraq and Afghanistan, where that jihadist war could be waged.

But I very much agree with Professor Samatar that that is not the full picture by any means. There clearly are moderate voices.

And one of the tragedies of the present situation is that it gives the hard-liners or the elements that are bent on a completely different, non-Somali set of objectives the opportunity to push forward their agenda.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, speaking of non-Somali objectives, Professor, why is Ethiopia crossing its borders and involved in this war? And why did it weigh in on the side of the government in Baidoa?

ABDI SAMATAR: There are two reasons, Ray, why the Ethiopian government has done this. The first one is that it took part in the conference which created the Somali government in Kenya and virtually handpicked the leadership of that government, so it would like to see a government of Somalia that's beholden to it to be in place in Mogadishu and the rest of the country.

The second reason why Prime Minister Meles Zenawi did this is to focus attention away from the problems Ethiopia has. This is a country and a government in which international human rights groups have documented huge violations of human rights, and that the opposition members of parliament in Ethiopia are against this war, and others who are appointed or elected as members of parliament in Ethiopia are imprisoned.

So there are an incredible number of problems in Ethiopia itself. So this provides attention away from that. Those are the two reasons why Mr. Meles Zenawi has sent the troops to Somalia.

United Nations' involvement

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the professor explained why the Ethiopians would be involved and what their motives are, but what about the United Nations, which also supports the Baidoa government, and the United States, which also supports the Baidoa government?

AKWE AMOSU: Well, I agree with the analysis of how the transitional federal government came to be. I think the problem is that internal Somali affairs get very complex.

As we say, there are these various elements represented in the mix that are useful for people to pursue their own agendas. And it makes it a lot easier for the international forces to follow, in the U.N. or in the African Union, to follow the lead that are made by the people who have the most interest.

So, when the United States takes a view, when Ethiopia takes a view, there's an inclination to go with that view, and then for the enemies of those countries to take the opposite view. So there's too little engagement with the actual detail of what's happening on the ground in Somalia, which, as I said, is very complicated.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the professor gave a very skeptical view of why Ethiopia would want to be involved in Somalia, but Meles Zenawi, the prime minister, says he can't have this kind of instability on his doorstep. Doesn't he have a point there? Doesn't a continuing problem in Somalia create problems among its neighbors?

AKWE AMOSU: Well, there are two cases that he might make. One is that there is -- nearly 50 percent of the population in Ethiopia is Muslim. And he doesn't want to see an aggressively jihadist Islamic organization running the country next door, particularly as his neighborhood -- and this is the second point -- of the Ogaden, which is inside Ethiopian territory, is a Somali area.

And there are voices in Somali, have been on many occasions, who advocate a greater Somalia and an annexation of some of these areas where Somalis live across borders.

And so, from the point of view of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, these are justifications for him to say, you know, he needs to be proactive in defending his territorial integrity, though it has to be said a great many, very skeptical voices in Ethiopia and in the region are saying that actually that's a cover for a much more aggressive desire to confront his enemies via Somalia, for example, Eritrea, which is actively funding anti-Ethiopian and ICU forces in Somalia, and to try and get its own favored government, the Baidoa government, into Mogadishu.

A regional war?

Abdi Samatar
University of Minnesota
The issue here is Somalia has been unstable for over a decade-and-a-half. And the Ethiopian government never saw it fit to come to the rescue of the Somali people. Instead, it was supporting warlords who have terrorized those people.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, is there a risk of a wider regional war that takes in the whole Horn of Africa?

ABDI SAMATAR: There's always that possibility, but I don't really quite foresee it in the immediate future. I think the issue here is Somalia has been unstable for over a decade-and-a-half. And the Ethiopian government never saw it fit to come to the rescue of the Somali people. Instead, it was supporting warlords who have terrorized those people.

The second issue here is, what we see coming already is that the warlords who were defeated, who in essence are terrorists, are coming back on the backs and the tanks of the Ethiopian government.

So, for instance, in a place like Beladoin (ph) today, the former warlords were put back in power. So my concern here is that, if the Ethiopian government is seriously concerned about the welfare of the Somali people, then what it should be able to do is to provide the spaces so that Somalis can make up their mind.

Secondly, Ray, is the question of, what does this mean for the American government in the region? I think our association with Ethiopia in the minds of the Somali public, and certainly Muslims in the region, doesn't go very well for our future in that region, because we are seen closely tied to that Ethiopian agenda, itself quite an undemocratic country.