September 18, 2005

Political crisis pushes Somalia closer to war

By William Maclean

NAIROBI (Reuters) - A worsening political crisis threatens
to plunge Somalia back into war and open a new era of
humanitarian suffering, experts say.

Trust collapsed between the two opposing wings of its
divided government many months ago, triggering a mainly
rhetorical struggle for power as both sides squabbled over
where in the failed state their administration should be based.

That development failed to stimulate a forceful
international response, due to growing disarray among
interested foreign powers over how to handle the Horn of Africa

But recent events have taken emotions inside President
Abdullahi Yusuf's government to new levels of acrimony, and
foreign powers will find it hard to remain aloof if warlords
start settling their disputes through armed force, Somalis say.

Worried analysts point to movements of pro- and anti-Yusuf
militias, a huge increase in arms imports, assassinations of
high profile Somalis in Mogadishu, the failure of a disarmament
project in the capital, and increased activity by militant
Islamists seeking to exploit a deepening power vacuum.

"The ill-will of the protagonists has brought our people to
the brink of another bloody war," wrote elder statesman and
former Prime Minister Abdirazak Haji Hussen in a paper
circulated among Somalia analysts.

"Recent militia movements in the central region and
reportedly from Ethiopia, and in Mogadishu, are clear signals
that something ominous is about to unfold.

"I alert the world community to brace itself for another
catastrophic humanitarian situation and a flood of refugees."


If the country tumbles deeper into anarchy, the only
winners are likely to be warlords skilled at thriving on
conflict and militant Islamists who have adroitly used the
political crisis to carve out a bigger role in Mogadishu
politics, experts say.

The government has been recruiting fighters across the
country in recent weeks in what looks to many like the prelude
to an attack on bases held by some cabinet ministers critical
of Yusuf, many of whom are based in Mogadishu.

Yusuf, on good terms with regional power Ethiopia, said he
would persuade rather than force his critics, who include some
Mogadishu warlords and powerful businessmen, to cooperate.

But critics say the attempt by Yusuf, 70, to build a force
is consistent with his past as a provincial warlord who has
never shown flair for the diplomatic deal-making needed to
build alliances among Mogadishu's fractious clan militias.

Ethiopia, Somalia's historic foe, denies giving Yusuf
military help, but witnesses have reported Ethiopian officers
helping train Yusuf's forces in several places in recent weeks.

Yusuf's opponents -- warlords and Islamists -- have reacted
by reorganizing their own militias to form a united front
strong enough to deter what they see as Yusuf's bid to impose
his rule.

"Abdullahi Yusuf's militarist approach to reconciliation
has produced an opportunistic solidarity among warlords in
Mogadishu," said Somali analyst Abdi Ismail Samatar.

Some dismiss the effort to create a common front as a
marriage of convenience to defend lucrative businesses
including ports, airports, checkpoints, drug smuggling and
weapons trading.

But so big are the spoils, the alliance could well last as
long as it takes to rebuff any attack by Yusuf, experts say.

Yusuf's opponents want him and his prime minister, Mohamed
Ali Gedi, to come and govern from Mogadishu. But Yusuf, whose
political base is north-central Somalia, is working temporarily
from provincial towns as he feels the capital is too risky.

Earlier this year the U.N. Security Council declared that
any hostile military action by any party would be unacceptable.

But no major foreign government has bothered to repeat that
message consistently at a senior level, partly because there is
no consensus on how to restore the peace process, experts say.


Italy, China and Ethiopia are seen as closely allied to
Yusuf. Eritrea, and some Arab states, are seen as allied to the
Mogadishu group. Other major powers want to hold back funding
for the government until it can agree where it should be based.

"It is incomprehensible that the international community is
inattentively watching the two factions prepare for war," said

Somalia has been without a central government since
warlords ousted former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
Most of Somalia has since been carved up between rival militias
and hundreds of thousands of people have died from famine and

Any conflict would trigger yet more suffering, Somalis say.

The Food Security Analysis Unit, a project of the European
Union and U.S. government, predicts the lowest cereal harvest
in a decade in southern Somalia this year thanks to poor rains.

It said one million Somalis, including 377,000 displaced
people, urgently needed food to stay alive. "The entire
southern part of Somalia (is) on alert status due to unsolved
tensions within the government and reports of military
build-ups," it said. "If widespread combat were to ensue it
would have a devastating effect on human lives and