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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Somalia’s forgotten war

|Medeshivalley.com|By  : OSAMA AL SHARIF | ARAB NEWS|

Al-Shabab’s celebration of the Kampala attacks is bad news for Africa
Sunday's twin suicide blasts in Kampala, which killed more than 70 people mostly football fans, are a grim reminder of the festering conflict in Somalia. The radical Al-Shabab movement has claimed responsibility and threatened to carry out more attacks against Uganda and Burundi unless the two countries withdraw their forces from Amisom, the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
Somalia has been embroiled in a bloody civil war, which has left this once promising country in tatters, for more than 20 years. The tragedy of Somalia is compounded by the fact that no one really cares about what’s happening there. Its conflict has become invisible. But this is proving to be a costly mistake, as the terrible attacks in Kampala have shown. Somalia’s disintegration as a country has produced a number of anomalies such as pirates, but the biggest threat is the rise of extremist movements in the midst of total anarchy and their quest for control.
Baghdad and Kabul are like Scandinavian cities compared to Mogadishu, Somalia’s decrepit capital. The daily reality there is made of street wars, bombings, beheadings and tribal fighting. It’s a forgotten war that now threatens to bring to power a regime that is more ruthless than the Taleban. But what is worse is that if it succeeds then Al-Qaeda and other fanatics will have a base from which they can destabilize other countries in Africa.
But getting involved is costly. Those who did were eventually chased out. The US, under President Bill Clinton, intervened briefly but left in a hurry after suffering 19 Marine casualties in Mogadishu. The UN too sent two peacekeeping missions between 1992 and 1995 only to see its coalition forces attacked by power hungry warlords. It finally abandoned the country and few months later the government collapsed.
As Somalia became engulfed by civil war, its neighbors, primarily Ethiopia, stepped in. Addis Ababa had previously supported the armed insurgency that ended the long rule of the country’s dictator Mohammad Siad Barre. But that only led to Somalia’s partition with Somaliland, the northwestern part of the country, declaring independence in 1991. By then the various Somali parties and coalitions had declared war on each other and a long and brutal fighting ensued. The result was disastrous for civilians and famine claimed the life of no less than 300,000 people in the mid-1990s.
By the onset of the 21st century Somalia had been divided largely along tribal lines with Somaliland and Puntland autonomous regions in the north and in the Horn of Africa while the south slowly fell under the control of Hizbul Islam and Al-Shabab movements. The federal government, recognized as the legitimate power in Somalia, could barely keep hold of parts of the capital and nearby regions.
When the Islamic Courts Movement briefly took over in the south, including the capital, in 2006 and imposed Shariah law, Ethiopia and the African Union quickly responded. Ethiopia invaded the south dislodging the Islamic Courts, but that only led to the birth of more radical off-shoots including Al-Shabab.
Al-Shabab was able to regroup and become a considerable force. They defeated the Ethiopians in a number of battles and finally drove them out the country. Now they have managed to neutralize the interim federal government and wage war against fellow Islamist rivals, including Hizbul Islam and others. The small African Union force is what stands in their way.
Al-Shabab movement will almost certainly take over Mogadishu and overthrow the government in the coming weeks and months. It will impose a strict Shariah law and turn what is left of the country under their control into a closed society run by arbitrary laws and ironclad rules. But that should be the least of the world’s concern.
The collapse of Somalia will have catastrophic results on all of its neighbors and most of Africa. The Kampala attacks prove that Al-Qaeda-like tactics, adopted by Al-Shabab, can easily move across borders with lethal results. The fact that the African Union peacekeeping mission there is hapless and could soon abandon the country is frightening.
Somalia is an ancient civilization and a land that has played a key part in East African history. Like many of its neighbors it has a checkered past and a complicated tribal and ethnic make-up. Now major chunks of this country have been impregnated by extremist militants. Piracy is only one face of Somalia today. This Arab League and African Union member state has been abandoned by the world community. But leaving it to its fate will not be easy or free of cost.
Somalia could prove to be more dangerous to world stability than Afghanistan and Iraq put together. It is true that it is an impoverished land, with little strategic assets, but allowing a radical Islamist movement to take over will have severe consequences on Africa and the region.
It is a tough challenge. The country has been allowed to succumb to innumerable failings in the past 20 years that it is almost ridiculous to suggest a solution. Al-Shabab’s celebration of the Kampala attacks is bad news for Africa.
— Osama Al Sharif is a veteran journalist and political commentator based in Amman. 

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