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Somalia back at square one

Whether the next chapter is one of unity and peace is the test for Somali leaders and their international backers as they try for the 14th time to form an effective government since the last one collapsed in 1991.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Some Somalis danced in the streets of central Mogadishu to welcome their prime minister Friday, while others across town threw stones at the Ethiopian troops who brought him to the capital.

Divisions over clan, politics and power have been the bane of Somalia. Whether the next chapter is one of unity and peace is the test for Somali leaders and their international backers as they try for the 14th time to form an effective government since the last one collapsed in 1991.

Since then, Somalia has become the archetype of the failed state, beset by anarchy, famine and a steady influx of weapons from abroad. And nowhere in the country has the competition for power and privilege brought more destruction than the pockmarked streets of Mogadishu.

There are dozens of clan factions in the capital, each making demands on the government and each a potential spoiler, capable of extreme violence if ignored. Alliances can also shift dramatically in just a few city blocks, depending on which clan controls the street.

Ethiopian support
Prime Minister Mohamed Ali Gedi said Friday that he would try to unite the city’s disparate clan leaders. “In the coming days I will visit every corner of the city,” he said.

But he acknowledged that he will need the support of Ethiopian troops for some time to come.

“They will stay until we agree to send them back to their country and this depends on the stability of Somalia,” Gedi added.

Ethiopia will not be the first foreign power to try to install a government in Somalia since clan warlords drove out dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, plunging the country into chaos and sparking a famine that left 500,000 people dead.

A U.N. peacekeeping force including American troops then arrived in 1992 and tried to arrest warlords and create a government. That experiment in nation building ended in October 1993, when fighters loyal to clan leader Mohamed Farah Aided shot down a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter and battled American troops, leaving 18 servicemen dead.

Aided’s son, Hussein, is now the government’s national security minister in a Cabinet where positions are assigned according to clan. Despite efforts to create a government where every clan had an equal voice, some warlords prevented the internationally recognized administration from taking power because they refused to settle for anything less than the presidency.

Even now, the speaker of the transitional parliament, Sheik Sharif Hassan Aden, is throwing his support behind the Islamic movement, which has vowed to wage a last stand from southern Somalia.

“The presence of Ethiopian troops in Somalia is illegal, it is against the charter of the transitional government,” he told the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Somali service. “Somalis should resist against Ethiopian troops.”

It’s an evocative rallying cry. Predominantly Muslim Somalia and Ethiopia, with its large Christian population, fought a bloody war in 1977.

Divisions within government
Gedi will need to reshuffle his Cabinet and make concessions to bridge the divides in the country. But persuading Somali leaders to continue to cooperate when they don’t get what they want has always been a problem, even though everyone shares the same language, religion and culture.

Divisions within the government opened the door to the Muslim fundamentalists, some of whom have spent the last 30 years trying to install an Islamic state in Somalia. The Islamic movement started out by setting up courts to resolve disputes peacefully, then grew to become the most powerful military force in the country.

Some elements of the movement, though, espoused a harsh vision of Islam at odds with Somali culture. Their departure in the past week was greeted in many areas with celebratory blasting of the Western music the clerics had banned.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, long a backer of Gedi and his government, has a long history of antagonism with the leader of the Islamic courts, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys. Aweys twice before tried to start Islamic movements in Somalia, and both times Meles sent troops to crush them.

Now Meles and Somalia’s President Abdullahi Yusuf both say they will pursue Aweys and his remaining 3,000 fighters to the southern town of Kismayo where they have retreated. Four suspected terrorists, wanted by the U.S. for involvement in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, are reportedly among them.

Backed up against the Indian Ocean and a sealed Kenyan border, the fighting will likely be vicious and could degenerate into a lengthy guerrilla war.