Somalia: chronicle of failure

A succession of western-backed transitional governments have failed to unify south and central Somalia

History repeats itself, nowhere more so than in Somalia. As was widely predicted at the time, the Ethiopian intervention in 2006 did little more than galvanise radical Islamism. Clans who had fought each other for years united against the foreign invader, one which they had little difficulty in portraying as Christian. Five years later, after a series of bombings and cross-border kidnappings, Kenya deployed thousands of troops in Somalia’s Juba valley in an invasion that was ill-thought out, ill-prepared, and with loose military objectives.

It was initially called an operation of hot pursuit; that became a mission to weaken al-Shabaab militants; and finally the deployment became open-ended. Kenyan troops are still there. Bogged down amid heavy rains and undependable Somali clans, despite some successes the force remains some way from taking the port city of Kismayo, where al-Shabaab earn its revenue. Faced with superior conventional firepower, al-Shabaab has melted away and used guerilla hit and run tactics. To cap this chronicle of failure, Britain and other EU countries are considering conducting airstrikes on al-Shabaab camps, particularly where the militants co-exist with pirates. The two problems are being conveniently conflated. Armed helicopters are being flown in from warships acting on unreliable local intelligence. It is a recipe for civilian casualties, which al-Shabaab would skillfully exploit.

Human Rights Watch in a new report this week documents the increasing use of child soldiers by all sides, but particularly al-Shabaab. This may reflect the military pressure they are under, or their loss of local support. But it also means that some of the soldiers at camps targeted in special operations could be children. Adult fighters who have shown no compunction abducting children from playgrounds, and throwing them into the frontline, will not shy from inviting such attacks.

Al-Shabaab is not a unified force, but an affiliation of militias. It could unravel in the right conditions. The one political organisation that was able, briefly, to unify south and central Somalia by transcending clan loyalties was the Union of Islamic Courts. But they were declared the enemy, and their forces defeated by the Ethiopian invasion. A succession of western-backed transitional governments, all dependent on foreign armies, have failed. The current transitional federal government is corrupt and its writ does not run far even in Mogadishu. When its mandate expires in August, it should not be renewed.

Somalia’s root problem is governance. A federal structure that is to work will be loose and constructed from the bottom up. The donors and the UN agencies who will be represented at Thursday’s London conference, who have spent decades working with discredited governments in Mogadishu, do not know which clan leaders to talk to. Somali clan politics work by consensus, and through representatives who establish a proven track record. Legitimacy is not built by elections. The donors are beholden to the countries that finance them, not the Somalis they supposedly serve. The two cycles of the emergency and of the western response are permanently out of sync with each other. At worst, the money that pours in as a result of the drought feeds the corrupt government that produces the next disaster.

Freelance military operations by foreign armies should end. If security is to be provided against al-Shabaab, it should come from Amison, the African Union Mission in Somalia, but that then needs resources. Military action cannot be taken without the support of local clan leaders. Further militarising the conflict could well see it spread to the north-east province of Kenya, where there are now 500,000 Somali refugees. MI5 fear a Somali-linked bombing campaign in London could follow. After two decades of war, Somalia can only find its feet under a coalition of regional groups and an absence of foreign armies. Drones and helicopter strikes are not equipped with political night-vision. A certain level of disengagement might be what Somalia needs. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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