Magazine article New African

Somalia: Anatomy of an Unending Conflict

Magazine article New African

Somalia: Anatomy of an Unending Conflict

Article excerpt

Ethiopian forces, with American support (if not instigation), moved into Somalia on Christmas Eve and drove away the Islamic militants who, for six months last year, had succeeded in imposing some semblance of order in the war-ravaged country. But, as Najum Mushtaq reports, Ethiopia's entry into the conflict could bring a new dimension of violence to an already complex and complicated conflict.

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Somalia is the bleeding sore of the Horn of Africa. The 16-year-old civil war in the country took another vicious turn on Christmas Eve as Ethiopia's formidable military might forced the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) out of Mogadishu and put the internationally-backed interim government back in charge of most of South-central Somalia.

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At the time of writing, America was patrolling the waters off Somalia's coast to prevent UIC militants from fleeing the country by sea, and had actually launched air strikes, killing many of them; the Ethiopian forces were tracking and killing them; and Kenya had closed its borders and vowed to stop the defeated militants from crossing over.

But this does not, however, spell the end of Somalia's woes. Nor does it mean that the Islamic movement, which had taken control of Mogadishu in June 2006 and for six months brought a semblance of order and security in the war-ravaged southern heartland of Somalia, is already history. More likely, the return of the interim government with the help of Ethiopia, which most Somalis see as their ancient foe, will add new dimensions of violence to an already complex and complicated conflict. There are three levels at which the conflict in Somalia can be analysed: the local clan dynamics which dictates the country's politics and marks the geographical and political fault-lines; the regional level where countries like Ethiopia and Kenya have to manage sizeable Somali populations of their own; and the international level which is defined by Americas "war on terror". Viewing Somalia from all these three levels is a sorry sight.

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The political landscape

The regions now comprising Somalia were decolonised in 1960. Somaliland was a British protectorate, while the rest of Somalia was an Italian domain. On the eve of decolonisation, British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland merged as the Somali Republic on 1 July 1960.

In terms of political administration, the country is divided into three units: the autonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland, and South-central Somalia. The last region includes the historical capital city of Mogadishu, most of the strategically vital ports and some of the more dominant clans. It is largely inhabited by sub-groups of the Hawiye clan whose militia were also dominant in the UIC. Most of the top UIC leaders are Hawiye. It is the South-central region that had fallen into the hands of the Islamic militia. The other two regions (Somaliland and Puntland) had remained fiercely resistant to UIC expansion.

All these regions are inhabited by different clans--there are six major groups. Clan affiliation is the most crucial identity marker and the cause of political divisions. State government has been weak and the process of building a nation-state has failed as the clan system continues to hold sway.

The clans of Somaliland had had an uneasy and confrontational relationship with the central government in Mogadishu and remained marginalised from power. In 1991, as the rest of the country plunged into warlordism and internecine violence after the collapse of the Siad Barre government, Somaliland declared its independence although it does not enjoy international diplomatic recognition.

By and large, Somaliland has remained at a distance from the civil war and enjoys a certain degree of stability and peace, even though it has territorial disputes with Puntland over the Sool and Sanaag regions. …

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