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Into Chaos

Tuesday 29 May 2007, by John CHERIAN

The country’s capital plunges into anarchy after the US-backed regime change, and the refugee crisis is worse than that in Iraq.

AFTER the United States-backed Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia and overthrew the government led by the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in late December, there still seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel for ordinary Somalis. Mogadishu, the capital, seems to have once again plunged into anarchy. The Somali people have not taken kindly to the presence of Ethiopian troops on their soil and the reimposition of a government led by warlords. The Bush administration has tried to portray the "regime change" it effected by force of arms as a decisive victory "in the global war on terror": in fact, President George W. Bush grandiosely declared so. What has happened in reality is more deaths and suffering for the long-suffering Somali people. A United Nations spokesperson said in early May that the refugee crisis today in Somalia is worse than the situation in Iraq or Darfur.

Without giving out any important evidence or details, the Bush administration decreed that Somalia under the ICU had become a "haven" for Al Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups. According to reports in the American media, more than 200 Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents have been stationed in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. These days, they are said to be busy interrogating civilians picked up after the invasion of Somalia. Hundreds of such individuals are held in secret prisons in Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti. Human rights activists have described this operation as a kind of "decentralised Guantanamo" in the Horn of Africa. The only specific allegation Washington made before the invasion was that three known Al Qaeda fugitives involved in the bombing of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salam were hiding in Mogadishu.

During the six months the ICU was in control of Mogadishu, there was little evidence of any heightened Al Qaeda activity. The ICU, however, refused to kowtow to Washington and its main proxy in the region, Ethiopia. The two countries wanted the ICU to cede power to the transitional government controlled by warlords. The ICU chased out the warlords from most of Somalia. A loose union of clerics from various clans, it vehemently denied charges that it harboured terrorists of any kind. The Bush administration convinced the American media that its support for the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia was in line with the war on terror.

American officials claim that the invasion was an illustration of how the US could fight the "ubiquitous war on terror" by using a proxy state to do the dirty job. But this can be a dangerous precedent. Ethiopia and Somalia were traditional rivals jockeying for influence in the Horn of Africa. They fought a bitter war in the 1970s. Tomorrow, Washington could manipulate a similar scenario in South Asia, pitting two traditional rivals against each other in the pretext of combating terrorism.

Many commentators have warned that the invasion of Somalia will provide Al Qaeda with a fresh recruiting ground. Before the invasion of Iraq, Al Qaeda was an unknown entity in that country. Today the group claims responsibility for some of the worst instances of terrorism there.

During the Ethiopian-led invasion, American planes indiscriminately bombed fleeing civilians in a bid to capture a handful of alleged Al Qaeda functionaries. Hundreds of people were killed in such bombings and also in attacks by US naval boats on civilians fleeing across the sea. Western media reported that the US Air Force used AC-130 gunships to mow down civilians. More than 1,400 Somalis have been killed since fighting escalated in Mogadishu in April. International relief agencies say that more than 350,000 residents of the capital, with a population of two million, have fled. Bodies were left to rot on the streets for days.

Ethiopia, which always had an image problem with ordinary Somalis, is now even more despised following the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas by its forces in April. The Ethiopian government announced with much fanfare earlier this year that it had started the withdrawal of its forces from Somalia. Ethiopian Prime Minster Meles Zenawi delivered a George Bush-like "mission accomplished" speech in January. The Opposition in Ethiopia is comparing the Ethiopian invasion with the US invasion of Iraq, calling it a futile exercise.

There are strong indications that the Ethiopian army is overstretched and that the consequences of the invasion are felt back home. In late April, the Ogaden Liberation Force (OLF), which has been waging a low-intensity guerilla war against the Ethiopian government since the early 1990s, attacked a Chinese-run oilfield. Nine Chinese were among the 70 killed. The OLF warned all foreign companies against doing business in the Ethiopian province.

Somalis have never reconciled to Ogaden being part of Ethiopia. Commentators in the region say that the scale of the Ogaden attack shows that there is close coordination between the OLF fighters and the Somali resistance fighting against the occupation forces. Ethiopia has also accused neighbouring Eritrea of being involved in the attack in Ogaden. The two countries, locked in a bitter border dispute, fought a brief but bloody war (from 1998 to 2000).

According to reports, it is US pressure that is stopping Zenawi from withdrawing the 20,000 troops from Somalia. The US fears that such a move will create a dangerous political vacuum. The UN as well as the African Union (AU) had virtually sanctioned the US-sponsored invasion of Somalia. The ever acquiescent Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon went to the extent of proposing a UN-sponsored "coalition of the willing" to enforce law and order in Somalia. The AU was supposed to send peacekeepers to Somalia to replace the Ethiopian occupation forces. But very few African countries are willing to commit their forces on the ground in a volatile place like Mogadishu. AU chairman John Kufuor said recently that the AU, which wanted to send 8,000 troops, had trouble finding them. In the April fighting , the Somali resistance reportedly shot down an Ethiopian transport plane and a helicopter, besides inflicting heavy casualties on the Ethiopian troops and the Somali militias allied to them.

According to Salim Lone, a former high-ranking employee of the UN, in the invasion of Somalia, the UN Charter and international laws were violated. Lone, writing from Nairobi, has regretted that the international community has generally remained a mute spectator while carnage is going on in Mogadishu.

The silence was broken after Germany’s Ambassador to Somalia wrote to the government in Mogadishu criticising the indiscriminate use of air strikes and heavy artillery in the capital’s densely populated areas. He also mentioned the high incidence of rape, bombing of hospitals and blocking of relief supplies. Germany currently holds the presidency of the European Union (EU). SOS Children’s Villages were among the sites targeted by Ethiopian forces. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) representative in Somalia described the action "as totally unacceptable". He said that thousands of people were being displaced every day, most of them women and children living through a "nightmare of violence".

The "Transitional Federal Government", which the Americans and the Ethiopians have installed in Mogadishu, seems to have turned into an embarrassment for its sponsors. The newly appointed Mayor of Mogadishu, Mohammed Dheere, is a notorious warlord. His militia was involved in the shooting down of two American Black Hawk helicopters and the dragging of bodies of dead American soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu during the civil war in the 1990s. Now, he is an ally of the US in the "war against terror".

The new Prime Minister, Ali Mohammed Gedi, has ordered the closure of airstrips used by international humanitarian agencies to transport desperately needed aid for the tens of thousands of refugees. The UN’s acting coordinator for humanitarian aid wrote a letter to the Prime Minister complaining that "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]". More than 160,000 Somali refugees have poured into Kenya after the ouster of the ICU.

Chatham House, the British think tank, concluded in a recent paper that multilateral efforts to support Somalia were "undermined by the strategic concerns of other international actors, notably Ethiopia and the United States". The paper observed that the chaos that had followed the occupation made the six months of rule by the ICU look like a "golden age". A British scholar on Somalia, Professor I.M. Lewis of the London School of Economics, told The Times (London) that the US had failed to recognise that the ICU had made big strides in restoring law and order and building an atmosphere for social progress.

CHERIAN writes for FRONTLINE, a political magazine published in Delhi.

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