A land of despair

It’s been a bad week for Somalia. It would also be accurate to say it’s been a bad few decades, but last week was particularly bad when it comes to international efforts to bring peace to the country.

The week started out with 11 Burundian soldiers killed in an explosion triggered by a Somali suicide bomber. The Burundians are in the capital Mogadishu with soldiers from Uganda who make up the African Union’s peacekeeping mission to Somalia (Amisom).

It’s sad for the peacekeepers and it’s sad for peacekeeping. In the world of peacekeeping missions Amisom is the poor cousin. It’s in a part of the world most people don’t care about and more importantly it’s in a part of the world most people don’t want to go to.

The fact that Burundian and Ugandan troops are in Somalia at all is a small miracle. Both the African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN) have made appeals to member states to contribute to Amisom, with the call falling, for the most part, on deaf ears.

A Ugandan soldier based in the small part of Mogadishu that is controlled by the AU told me that the absence of oil or any other strategic commodity on or under Somali soil is, as far as he can see, the reason Amisom doesn’t get the troops.

The only real interest in the region is offshore, and that’s not because of oil trapped beneath the ocean floor; rather it’s because of the oil and other goods passing by Somalia in tankers and ships — the world tends to know much more about Somali pirates and the efforts to stop them than it does about the chaos on the mainland.

The pirates have only one motive and that’s to make as much money as possible from either the ransoms they collect in return for freeing the vessels they board or the money they make by selling whatever they happen to loot from the cargo holds.

Politically, they do not discriminate, raiding ships from Europe, China and countries of the former Soviet Union. It didn’t take too much effort to assemble an international security force to protect shipping — the Chinese and Nato countries are all well represented.

Any success at stopping the war on piracy does not, however, translate into a successful effort to bring peace to Somalia. This week the fledgling AU Force was probably too shell-shocked to react effectively to further gun battles raging in the streets of Mogadishu. A battle in the south of the city on Tuesday was described as the fiercest since last month’s UN-brokered peace deal made Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed the latest president.

Presidents and prime ministers tend not to last very long in Somalia mainly because they have virtually no support base. The country is ruled for the most part by a combination of Islamist groups, notably the Islamic courts and the al-Shabaab, a militant youth group, and by competing clans.

One of Amisom’s primary goals is to convince Somalis to unite under the president and a transitional administration. So far it has had almost no success. The AU mission is too small, underfunded and it doesn’t enjoy the support of the local population. Part of the problem is a constant disinformation campaign mounted by the various fighting groups and disseminated through, among other things, radio stations in the capital.

The situation on the ground is likely to worsen before it improves. Al-Shabaab sees AU peacekeepers as legitimate targets because they are foreign, non-Muslim forces and has vowed to continue attacking them. Eritrea’s call this week for peacekeepers to leave won’t help either. The Eritrean government has been fanning the flames of violence in Somalia to undermine security in its neighbour and bitter enemy Ethiopia. An unstable Somalia tends to affect Ethiopia, which is the permanent home of a sizeable and restless Somali minority as well as a large population of Somali refugees.

The UN Security Council has voted in favour of a resolution to assist and eventually take over from the AU in Somalia, but no date has been fixed.

Even if the UN does take over from Amisom, it is unlikely that potential troop contributing nations will be keener on sending their peacekeepers to Somalia than they are now.

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