Western and African powers in Nairobi last week described the defeat of Somalia’s Islamic Courts by Ethiopian-backed forces as a “historic opportunity” to rebuild the shattered horn of Africa country, and put an end to the “warlordism” that has torn apart efforts at political reconciliation since the 1990s.
But a history of botched intervention in the world’s most failed of failed states leaves few doubts that fixing Somalia poses a severe challenge to the world’s peacekeeping systems, and may yet embroil Ban Ki-moon, the new UN secretary-general, in one of the first major challenges of his tenure.
At stake are questions of which international bodies should be responsible for the often expensive, thankless task of peacekeeping, and what their forces should be doing wherever they police.
A senior EU envoy in Washington said the buck must stop with the UN. “The UN will have to take responsibility. The rest of the world will have to pay.”
But the world body’s peacekeeping department is already overstretched with almost 100,000 troops in 18 operations, and there is little appetite for a UN mission in Somalia after the ill-fated operation of the early 1990s.
Officials and diplomats have been keen to encourage alternatives to traditional peacekeeping, such as providing international support to regional groups such as the African Union (AU), and are trying to develop an African standby force for such situations.
Last month, the UN Security Council authorised a regional “protection and training mission” to be sent to the country. Diplomats say a new resolution will be needed to take account of the changed circumstances since a two-week war put Somalia’s weak transitional government in control of most of the country.
The resolution gives little indication of how the mission might work, or who would step in to provide troops. The only candidate to have come forward so far is Uganda, whose President Yoweri Museveni last week promised, pending parliamentary approval, to send a battalion of 1,000 troops.
A much larger contingent than that would be needed for any properly constituted peacekeeping force, and diplomats are urgently searching for other African powers to contribute.
“It is important for the African Union to take over,” said one UN official. “Museveni cannot do it alone.”
Nigeria is seen as one possible contender and South Africa suggests it could help with logistics. But it is unclear whether even an expanded AU force would be up to the job in the longer term. The body’s peacekeeping force has struggled to maintain itself in Sudan’s Darfur region, where the UN has been trying to bolster its presence in the face of staunch government opposition to UN involvement.
Dumisani Kumalo, South Africa’s UN ambassador who also sits on the Security Council, said that UN support must follow early African intervention in Somalia.
“If your house is on fire, your neighbours go first,” he said, “but you would still hope for the fire department to arrive later.”
“The UN must be involved. We can’t have the UN subcontract international peace and security.”
UN peacekeeping officials concede that they may eventually have to step once more into the Somali breach, and note that, in contrast to the situation in Sudan, the Somali government appears amenable to UN action.
But the approval of Somalia’s government may not be enough on its own. UN officials insist that for any intervention to work, the government must start a genuine reconciliation process and earn legitimacy.
At the moment, one said, that legitimacy was “in serious doubt. They were put there by the Ethiopians. A very co-operative approach has to be taken”.
Without legitimacy, international troops risk being caught in a conflict in which there is no peace to keep. But Idd Mohamed, Somalia’s deputy envoy to the UN, insists any force would be welcomed. Somalis were tired of war, he said.
Washington think-tanks complain that once again the Bush administration, which backed Ethiopia’s intervention, has got itself involved in a war with no post-conflict plan – a view echoed by Democrats.
“The US must play more of a leadership role, instead of relying on the piecemeal diplomacy that has failed us in the past,” Senator Russ Feingold, the new chair of the Africa sub-committee, said.
Leading Somali Politician Seeks Truce
NAIROBI, Kenya - (AP) A top Somali politician with ties to leaders of Somalia's militant Muslim movement appealed for calm in his country Sunday and urged remnants of the routed Islamic militia to surrender and join a peace process to end 15 years of anarchy.
Sheik Sharif Hassan Aden, speaker of Somalia's transitional parliament, told The Associated Press that the time for fighting is over and that all Somalis should cooperate to restore stability.
He also dropped his opposition to having foreign peacekeepers in Somalia, calling on Somalis "to welcome, to hail, to respect, to accommodate them in a peaceful manner."
Aden has been a strong critic of Somalia's U.N.-backed interim government and is closely linked to leaders of the militant Council of Islamic Courts, who have scattered into the countryside and promised a guerrilla war after being defeated on the battlefield last week.
"To my Somali people, I would say to them to please be calm, remain peaceful," Aden said after meeting with U.S. diplomats in Nairobi. "I will call (the Islamic militants) to come for peace, I will call them to come to the table and persuade them ... to be part of the national reconciliation talks."
Aden said he was sure one of the movement's two top leaders, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, would listen to his appeal.
"What I know from him, he is a peaceful man and if I have an opportunity to reach him, I will convince him to join us, it is good for his people and good for the country," Aden said.
Because of Aden's influence and past association with the Islamic militants, his support is considered key to any peace and reconciliation process.
Somalia's government had struggled to survive since forming two years ago and was under attack by the Islamic militia when Ethiopia's military intervened Dec. 24 and turned the tide. But while government forces have now taken over most of southern Somalia, clan warlords have begun to reassert themselves and the leaders of the Islamic Courts remain in hiding.
On Saturday, the interim government indefinitely postponed plans to forcibly disarm the Somali capital, Mogadishu, as hundreds of protesters declared they would not give up their guns.
In Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, the prime minister has named a 10-member committee on national security and disarmament, Yusuf Mire Serare, a parliament member appointed to the panel, said Sunday. He said the group includes civic group members, clan elders and businessmen.
Somalia's last effective central government fell in 1991, when clan-based warlords overthrew military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on each other.
Jendayi Frazer, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, has been shuttling around the region to build support for the government and to encourage nations to prove troops for an African Union peacekeeping force to stabilize Somalia.
"Some people would like the United States to lead on this issue," Frazer said. "I would prefer that we lead from behind, and what I mean by that is pushing the Somali people first, pushing the sub-region next and then mobilizing the resources of the international community."
Frazer said Somalia is important to the United States because of its location in the Horn of Africa, where the Red Sea opens into the Indian Ocean.
The U.S. also wants to make sure Islamic extremists do not take advantage of the chaos to establish a safe haven. Frazer has repeatedly said al-Qaida's East Africa cell, blamed for bombings of two U.S. embassies and a Kenyan resort hotel, infiltrated the Islamist movement in Somalia.
Aden thanked Frazer for her involvement and asked for greater U.S. involvement in Somalia.
"We want to reconcile with each other and we want the United States to create confidence between Somalis and to create trust between the United States and Somalis," he added.