Tuesday 29 April 2008

Oh My Gosh, Pirates!

I wrote this with my then colleague, Daniela Kroslak, for the International Herald Tribune, which ran it on 29 April 2008.


Strange how an African country can be moving from prolonged chaos to violent collapse and no one in the world notices until a couple of European boats get seized by armed gunmen.

War-ravaged Somalia is in the worst shape it has been in for years - which, for this devastated country that has not had a proper government for nearly a generation, is really saying something.

Yet, neither of the two resolutions currently in preparation at the UN Security Council mention the 85 dead in Mogadishu last weekend, or the exodus of newly displaced persons from that city, or Ethiopian shelling of civilian areas or the dwindling international humanitarian response.

Instead, one of the resolutions proposed by France, the United States and Britain is a reaction to the hijacking of a French yacht and a Spanish fishing vessel, and would authorize countries to fight piracy off Somalia's coast.

It is like watching flames engulf your neighbor's house and calling in the fire brigade to help you wash your car.

The death and displacement in Somalia is caused by the violent confrontation between the evaporating transitional government troops and its Ethiopian allies on the one hand, and insurgents on the other.

Officials in African and western capitals shrug their shoulders when confronted with the dire situation in Somalia. A lack of political will, investment and imagination has made Somalia a hopeless case in their eyes.

Realizing no one in power cares in the slightest, most international media have also been ignoring Somalia, barely mentioning the recent heavy fighting in Mogadishu for example.

Ethiopian troops have been accused of having targeted mosques and killing religious leaders and civilians in the north of the capital. Whole areas of Mogadishu were sealed off, leaving outsiders only to guess the gravity of the plight in those sectors. Did anyone hear about any of this?

But pirates taking a French luxury yacht? That story was hard to miss.

According to the United Nations, 2.5 million people are in urgent need of assistance in Somalia. 750,000 alone were displaced from Mogadishu over the last 15 months. Critical water shortages and a severe drought have befallen central and northern Somalia further aggravating the hardship for the civilian population.

The verdict seems to be clear: combined Ethiopian, African Union troops and transitional government forces have failed to establish security in the capital Mogadishu, or any other part of the country.

Islamist al-Shabaab militants in southern and central Somalia are combining their military operations with political outreach. Ultimately, the rise and consolidation of an Islamist movement pursuing a regional and international agenda will create a growing threat to the rest of the Horn of Africa.

A narrow window of opportunity has emerged in the form of Somali Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein's recent offer to negotiate with both the internal and external opposition, including al-Shabaab, many members of which belong to the clan controlling Mogadishu, the Hawiye. This bold political initiative led by a widely respected figure, if seized upon, could potentially usher in an inclusive Somali national political dialogue.

But it now faces a steep hurdle, if not a fatal blow, from the U.S. designation of al-Shabaab as a terrorist organization. Whether well founded or otherwise, the U.S. move - preceded by the latest American air strikes on Dobley in southern Somalia - could undercut the prime minister's initiative, widen the rift between the president and the prime minister and undermine local and international efforts to facilitate a political resolution to the Somali crisis.

The lack of strategic engagement by the international community is a significant obstacle to progress. The efforts of the UN special representative, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, to build greater cohesion among members of the international community should be encouraged, and he should be supported to build a strategy for a meaningful peace process.

This new political process should work to achieve an end to the current insurgency. The first point on the agenda for negotiation should be a cease-fire. Involved parties need to be given security guarantees in order to agree to it and truly engage in political dialogue. For the opposition this might involve a clear plan and timeline for phased Ethiopian withdrawal supported and monitored by the international community. The Ethiopians would be given guarantees about greater Somalia claims and other security concerns.

The negotiations should include an agreement on the borders of the federal state, its internal divisions and the devolution of powers between states and central government. Also, a national reconciliation process should put an end to the cycle of revenge that has ruined the country for over two decades. The incentive for the parties to discuss this issue would be accountability mechanisms that would apply to perpetrators of crimes committed by all sides of the conflict. Finally, there must be an agreement on an electoral process leading to a democratic election of political leaders.

All this may seem quite a reach for a collapsed state like Somalia. But if world leaders and the international media gave this the kind of priority they have given the pirates, then progress would be far easier.

Daniela Kroslak is the deputy director of the Africa Program, and Andrew Stroehlein is media and information director, of the International Crisis Group.

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