x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Somali government battles for survival

Intense clashes around Mogadishu may see Ethiopia re-invade only months after its troops withdrew.

An Islamist fighter involved in the running street battles in Mogadishu.
An Islamist fighter involved in the running street battles in Mogadishu.

NAIROBI // Intense fighting over the past two weeks in and around Mogadishu, the Somali capital, has displaced tens of thousands and threatened to topple Somalia's moderate Islamist government. The latest round of clashes, which has killed about 200 people, has further weakened the western-backed government and pitted various Islamist factions against one another. Reports indicate that a few hundred foreign fighters have joined a militia with terrorist ties.

On Sunday, a suicide bomber linked to the insurgents killed seven government troops at a military base. The fighting started on May 8 when al Shabab, a hardline militia that the United States says has ties to al Qa'eda, and other militants attacked government positions in Mogadishu. The weak transitional government controls only a few pockets of the shell-shocked capital and is backed by 4,000 African Union peacekeepers.

Analysts say the insurgents are bent on overthrowing the government of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a moderate Islamist who was elected in January amid much hope he would be able to unite the warring parties and end the country's 18-year civil war. "It is difficult to tell whether the government will ultimately collapse or if it will repel the attacks," said Rashid Abdi, a Somali analyst with the International Crisis Group, a think tank in Brussels. "But it is clear that the government is definitely in a difficult position and is under a lot of pressure."

If the government falls, it would likely plunge the country further into chaos, Mr Abdi said. After years of clan fighting, the war in Somalia has taken a decidedly religious turn since Ethiopian troops invaded the country in early 2007 to oust an Islamic government. Al Shabab and other Islamic radicals fought the Ethiopians and the transitional government, which was headed by a former warlord. It seemed the hardliners achieved their goals at the beginning of this year when the Ethiopians pulled out and the president stepped down paving the way for Mr Ahmed to take power. But Mr Ahmed curried favour with the West, which is almost a certain death knell in his country, which has a history of fierce opposition to western influence.

"This attack has again demonstrated that such groups were not, as they claimed, fighting against Ethiopian troops but are trying to establish a very different agenda," said Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the United Nations special representative for Somalia. "Those same individuals who rejected dialogue in 2006, and continue to do so, are again trying to bring about further destruction of their own people."

Even more troubling are reports in recent days that foreign fighters have joined ranks with the Somali militants. Almost 300 foreigners including nationals of the US, United Kingdom and Canada are fighting alongside Somali insurgents, according to the UN. "These extremists know that they do not have the support of the Somali people and that is why they have to bring in foreign fighters who are not connected to the situation in Somalia in any way," Mr Ould-Abdallah said.

The African Union last week called for sanctions against Eritrea, which is a known supporter of Somalia's insurgents. A destabilised Somalia causes problems for Ethiopia, which is Eritrea's traditional enemy. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a hard-line leader who controls many of the insurgents, returned to Somalia in April from exile in Eritrea and called for the overthrow of the transitional federal government.

In a statement, the African Union singled out the government of Eritrea for "continuing to instigate, recruit, train, fund and supply the criminal elements in Somalia". Reports also indicate that Ethiopian troops are massing along the Somalia border and may have entered the country. The recent fighting has deepened the country's humanitarian crisis, which is already one of the worst disasters in the world. At least 57,000 people have fled the clashes in the past two weeks including nearly 10,000 who fled fierce fighting over the weekend, according to the UN.

"The deteriorating security situation has sharply decreased humanitarian space in the conflict area, hampering the delivery of aid to the displaced," said Roberta Russo, a spokesperson for the UN refugee organisation. "Some of the displaced say they do not believe that they will ever return to a peaceful Mogadishu." Those fleeing the violence end up in makeshift camps in the dusty interior of the country, where the worst drought in a decade is causing massive malnutrition for the one million displaced people and the rest of the population. One third of the country relies on food aid.

"Without good access to water, livestock are dying, leaving their owners in dire straits without their main source of income or food," said Bruce Hickling, Somalia country director for the International Rescue Committee, which is bringing clean water to parts of Somalia. "We've seen some herds depleted by up to 60 per cent." mbrown@thenational.ae