The International Community Faces a Test in Somalia
NAIROBI -- When violence broke out in Somalia's battered capital this summer, cynics called it "business as usual." Once again, they claimed that the warring Somalis were embroiled in an incomprehensible clan struggle and that the international community should stay away and let them get on with it.
I could not disagree more. We are at a critical juncture here, and the international community must fully engage.
This is not a classic civil war but an externally funded attempt to overthrow a legitimate, recognized government. President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was elected by a parliament specially expanded to include opposition members who wanted to be involved in the U.N.-brokered peace process. Ahmed, who ran Mogadishu in 2006 under the Islamic Courts Union, has attended the U.N. Security Council as well as summits of the African Union and League of Arab States.
In contrast, those who attacked Mogadishu in May are extremists with no common agenda except to seize power by force. They include individuals on the U.N. Security Council's list of al-Qaeda and Taliban members and a few hundred experienced fighters from other areas of Africa, as well as Arabs and Asians. While the world focuses elsewhere, groups of foreign extremists are trying to take control of a strategically placed country. Somalia has the longest coastline in Africa and borders international maritime routes as well as regional powers Kenya and Ethiopia. Somalis and others need to ask whether these foreign fighters are working to provide a better administration, peace and employment -- or are using Somalia to further their agenda of spreading international violence.
Such brazen threats to Somalia's legitimate government should be a concern. In April, the U.N. Security Council condemned such coups; the African Union made similar pronouncements at its 1999 and 2000 summits, and many nations have spoken out against the recent military takeover in Honduras. The regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development has taken the lead in supporting the Ahmed government, and the United States, France and Norway are among the countries that have condemned the attempted coup.
Yet the credibility of the United Nations and others is threatened if they stand by and allow such a takeover in Somalia.
When I visited Ahmed recently, I saw what a tremendous effort his government is making. Officials are organizing an effective administration that is working for the people. But how can they defend against determined suicide bombers such as those who killed the extremely able internal security minister and dozens of innocent civilians in May? Their opponents keep changing their "justifications" for the continued violence. For example, one group had maintained that its sole objective was to force Ethiopian troops out of Somalia. Those troops left early this year, yet these Somalis are still killing their own people, creating a renewed cycle of suffering, displacement and violence.
How can the international community help? U.S. Rep. Donald Payne has noted that "a strong government is key to bringing peace to Somalia . . . and willful negligence is no longer an option." An April summit in Brussels raised millions in pledges for Somalia's security forces, but that money will take time to materialize. The African Union has sent peacekeeping troops who need better equipment, improved living conditions and logistical support. Countries that can provide this aid directly should do so right away. Others can at least provide assistance to the suffering population.
The U.N. Security Council has been clear that it will act against those attempting to disrupt the peace process and create anarchy. A list is being compiled for the U.N. sanctions committee of those who may find their assets frozen and face a travel ban. It is not only ideologues. A few businessmen have profited hugely from the continuing conflict. Those who support the extremists, whether out of conviction or in pursuit of profit, may be hit in their wallets. Some are working in Kenya, Congo and South Sudan, but they are known. Likewise, those extremist leaders who have sent their families abroad while they destroy innocent lives here should understand that these family members will no longer be welcome.
Unfortunately, analysts who have been sounding the death knell for the Somali government over the years are adding to the crisis. Many "experts" trade rumors, often spread by Somalis comfortably ensconced in Nairobi hotels, suggesting that this is the "final assault." Such reports terrify the Somali population and boost the extremists.
The government in Mogadishu continues to stress its commitment to the peace process -- open to all Somalis willing to promote the return of peace and stability to their country. It is widely accepted that peace in one of the continent's longest-running conflicts will require continued dialogue, as provided for in last summer's U.N.-brokered Djibouti Peace Agreement.
The situation in Somalia should concern the international community. With help, this conflict can be ended as other seemingly endless internal wars have been brought to a close. If the Somali government manages to hold on, it will not solve all its problems instantly; there will still be piracy, kidnapping and targeted killings. But the international community will have a credible partner in Mogadishu, committed to peace and dialogue.
The writer is the U.N. special representative for Somalia.