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Somalia: 'Most Lawless War of Our Generation'
The US helped government forces into power, but now it is protesting that the regime is blocking aid to thousands of suffering people
Martin Fletcher in Mogadishu
From The Times
April 27, 2007
Ali Mohamed Gedi greeted The Times in a large, icily air-conditioned reception room in his grand, three-storey villa hidden behind high walls near Mogadishu’s beachfront.
The Somali Prime Minister, dressed in the kind of short-sleeved khaki suit beloved by African strongmen, barely smiled.
The interview began predictably enough, with Mr. Gedi claiming boldly that the insurgency would be quickly crushed and — despite much evidence to the contrary — that the Somalian people overwhelmingly supported his Government because they were sick of conflict.
It was when we raised charges that his Government was blocking humanitarian relief deliveries to hundreds of thousands of Mogadishu residents displaced by the fighting, and now living in vast encampments outside the city, that Mr. Gedi veered off message.
He launched into a tirade against international aid organizations. He accused them of corruption; of using private airstrips to ship in contraband, weapons and insurgents; of striking cozy deals with warlords and the ousted Islamic Courts regime and pocketing the proceeds.
He said the United Nations’ World Food Programme and other agencies were upset because they had lost power after effectively governing Somalia during its 15 years of civil war and anarchy.
“They want to operate in this country without any control,” he declared. “They know they can’t do that any more . . . Now there’s a Prime Minister who knows them too well.”
Mr. Gedi’s attack was astonishing because he was rebuffing not only the UN and the aid agencies, but the United States — hitherto one of his Government’s chief sponsors and champions.
The Times has obtained a letter sent to President Yusuf of Somalia by Michael Rannenberger, the US Ambassador in neighboring Kenya. In it he complains angrily about the “new and unreasonable regulations” imposed on the relief agencies at a time of desperate need — the Government’s closure of airstrips used for delivering aid, its insistence on inspecting aid consignments, the looting of food deliveries by government-controlled militias, the harassment of aid workers and demands for bribes.
“These practices are unacceptable and undermine the legitimacy of your Government,” Mr. Rannenberger wrote. “I request that your Government immediately take steps to resolve these issues. The highest levels of the US Government are concerned and urgent action is required.”
The Times has also obtained a letter sent to Mr. Gedi this month by Graham Farmer, the UN’s acting humanitarian coordinator for Somalia. He protested: “Continued insecurity, militia checkpoints, and threats and intimidation of humanitarian personnel have made it impossible to deliver even minimal assistance to tens of thousands of extremely vulnerable IDPs [Internally Displaced People].”
There were signs last night that the Government may finally be relenting in the face of such protests. The World Food Programme was allowed to deliver its first large consignment of food.
Barely 24 hours after arriving in Mogadishu we were summoned to explain our presence by General Mohammad Aden Darwish, head of Somalia’s national security agency (and former resident of Kilburn High Road, London). As we sat in his office near the Presidential Palace we heard the whoosh of Katyusha rockets being fired at residential districts controlled by insurgents. The general merely laughed. “This is our music,” he said.
On another occasion we met the Environment Minister in a hotel lobby. We asked if he had any civil servants. “No,” he replied cheerfully. “But we have guns.”
Mr. Rannenberger’s stern letter may have been motivated by more than purely humanitarian concerns. Somalia’s “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) is in danger of becoming a severe embarrassment to Washington. It was the US, after all, that helped to propel it to power as part of its War on Terror last December when it encouraged Ethiopia’s repressive regime to remove the Union of Islamic Courts.
After nine days of increasingly fierce fighting in Mogadishu the TFG claimed last night to have beaten the insurgents and to be clearing “pockets of resistance”. Western diplomats were skeptical, however. The TFG is deeply unpopular and remains utterly dependent for its survival on forces from Somalia’s bitter enemy Ethiopia.
Indeed, European diplomats, officials and other experts fear that in helping to oust the Islamic courts, Washington could have wrecked Somalia’s best chance in a generation of achieving a lasting peace. For six months the courts had, for all their faults, managed to impose order on the world’s most lawless city.
The Americans “have three priorities — counter-terrorism, counter-terrorism and counter-terrorism, and they can’t see wider than that,” one diplomat told The Times.
Chatham House, the British think-tank, published a paper this week arguing that “multilateral efforts to support Somalia have been undermined by the strategic concerns of other international actors — notably Ethiopia and the United States”. It added: “The subsequent disorder has served to make [the courts'] time in control appear as a ‘Golden Age’.”
Professor I. M. Lewis, a Somali expert at the London School of Economics, says the Americans had failed to appreciate the achievements of the Islamists’ brief months in power in southern Somalia, where the courts, “with their mostly humble and poorly educated local leaders”, had taken big strides to restore order and social progress.
On paper at least, the TFG is an entirely legitimate administration forged by the international community in 2004 after two years of tortuous negotiations in Kenya. Unwilling to move to anarchic Mogadishu, however, it deployed to distant Baidoa, where it was overtaken by events in the capital. The courts, backed by a business community and population tired of endless mayhem, seized power last June after driving out the warlords who had run amok since the dictator Mohamed Siyad Barre was overthrown in 1991.
This alarmed Ethiopia’s Christian elite, who feared that the rise of an Islamic state on its border would radicalize its own substantial Muslim population. It also alarmed Washington, which feared that militant Islam was spreading to the Horn of Africa and had belatedly sought to prop up the warlords. But many ordinary Somalis rejoiced at the return of order despite the courts’ strict Islamic codes.
The courts’ leadership certainly contained extremists. The Bush Administration insists that they were sheltering three al-Qaeda terrorists responsible for bombing the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. “There were some seriously bad guys operating under cover of the courts,” one European official conceded, acknowledging the possibility that the US averted further terrorist atrocities by acting as it did.
But experts also contend that Ethiopia and the TFG leadership exaggerated the terrorist threat to enlist Washington’s support for regime change. Moreover, the courts played into their hands by refusing to renounce violence, and laying claim to disputed territory in both Ethiopia and Kenya.
European diplomats favored engagement with the courts. Their US counterparts did not. On December 20 the courts’ militias clashed with Ethiopian troops guarding the TFG in Baidoa, war erupted, and within days the Ethiopians had crushed the courts and installed the TFG in Mogadishu.
Diplomats say that Washington approved Ethiopia’s actions. “Without the US green light the Ethiopians could not have done what they did,” a European diplomat said. The US also lent Ethiopian troops logistical and intelligence support as they rolled across their neighbor’s territory.
In the midst of the offensive, Washington even permitted Ethiopia to complete a secret arms purchase from North Korea — the country on which the US had persuaded the UN to impose strict sanctions only three months earlier. US intelligence officials have since interrogated dozens of terrorist suspects captured in Somalia and flown secretly to Ethiopia, but the three al-Qaeda embassy bombers have yet to be found.
The TFG always faced an uphill battle to establish itself. Most Somalis regarded it as a tool of Ethiopia. President Yusuf and Mr. Gedi were virtually hand-picked by their friends in Addis Ababa. Mr. Yusuf is also from the Darod clan, the long-time adversary of Mogadishu’s dominant Hawiye clan, which supported the courts.
Diplomats said the TFG had a brief chance to win over its opponents but instead of reaching out to them the President sought to impose a “victor’s peace” and the result is a “disaster”.
The Ethiopian troops were supposed to withdraw within weeks but are still there, looking increasingly like an army of occupation. The harder they pound Mogadishu’s residential areas the more hatred they engender. The insurgents — led by remnants of the Islamic courts and elements of the Hawiye — are thought to be receiving arms from Eritrea and the Middle East, the fighting has spread to the port city of Kismayo, and a Somali separatist group with links to the courts has claimed responsibility for an attack on Chinese oil workers in Ethiopia’s disputed Ogaden region on Tuesday that left 74 people dead.
But for a small contingent of Ugandans, the 8,000 African Union peacekeeping troops that were supposed to replace the Ethiopians have failed to materialize. A National Reconciliation conference scheduled for April 16 had to be postponed. The TFG has no functioning ministries and administers practically nothing.
Somalia is once again a “basketcase”, lamented a diplomat who has spent years promoting peace there. “We are floating down the river towards the rapids with no paddle . . . Sometimes it makes me feel I can’t do this any more.”
European officials see no choice but to continue supporting the TFG in the hope that it can survive long enough to organize elections due in 2009. “The TFG is deeply flawed, but there is only one horse in the race. It’s not a question of backing it, but just getting it to the finishing line,” said one.
Some donor nations want to cut the TFG’s funding unless it starts promoting reconciliation. Diplomats even talk of trying to bring in a UN force to prevent Somalia becoming, once again, the ultimate failed state and a breeding ground for exactly the sort of Islamic terrorism that Washington was trying to pre-empt.
— Ali Mohamed Gedi, 52, the Prime Minister of Somalia, qualified as a vet after gaining a scholarship to study in Italy
— A lecturer at Somalia University before the war, he went on to found the Somalia NGO consortium, an umbrella group for non-governmental organizations
— Affiliated to the Hawiye clan of Mogadishu, one of the country’s two dominant clans, but he was not linked to any of the warring factions during the civil war
— On January 1, having taken Mogadishu, he proclaimed: “The warlord era in Somalia is now over”, before calling for an African Union peacekeeping force and NGOs to help the country
— He then ordered all Somalis, including the warlords and clan militias, to give up their weapons within three days, saying: “If they fail to heed the orders of the Government, the Government will extract weapons from them”