The mandate of the African Union's military mission in Darfur, western Sudan, has been prolonged until the end of 2006. But even if the Darfur mission is extended indefinitely the organisation will struggle to sustain the operation financially without international help. It seems, then, a dubious calculation that the AU should at this very point be considering opening another front: a fresh and costly peacekeeping intervention in Somalia.
In September, the AU's Peace and Security Council endorsed a plan committing 8,000 troops into Somalia to support the beleaguered interim (or transitional) government based in the town of Baidoa. The initiative - known as IgadSom (the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development for Somalia) was proposed by the Igad regional umbrella - a grouping of states which encompasses Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti and Eritrea as well as Somalia itself. But Igad is so divided over the Somalia issue that many fear it could drag the AU as a whole into a situation as precarious as the one in Darfur.
The regional frying-pan
The problems begin inside Somalia itself, where the Union of Islamic Courts militias now control around 70% of the southern part of the country after their sweeping military gains since June 2006 are vigorously opposed to the deployment. The courts vow to take on any troops deployed in Somalia.
IgadSom was supposed to send its first batch of forces, with contingents from all its member-states, into Somalia by 30 September. Igad's bitter internal divisions - one of its members (Ethiopia) advocates immediate entry into Somalia, while others oppose the operation in principle - meant that the deadline was missed. In fact, even the decision to assign troops was problematic: at the key meeting, only three heads of states (of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia itself) were present, alongside low-level representatives from other Igad member-countries.
Harun Hassan worked for Associated Press and the BBC in Somalia. He currently works as a freelancer
Also by Harun Hassan in openDemocracy:
"'Not housekeepers any more': Somali women of the diaspora" (November 2002)
"Black Hawk Down: the Baghdad sequel?"
"The 'Axis of Anarchy'" (June 2003)
"Iraq: the lesson from Somalia"
"Somalia: exit into history?"
"America's two faces in Somalia" (August 2004)
"Yahya: death of a peace campaigner"
"Somalia twists in the wind" (April 2006)
"Somalia's new Islamic leadership" (June 2006)
"Somalia's thorny road" (August 2006)
Kenya, meanwhile, supports the idea of an Igad operation but does not want to commit troops. The country has been mired in internal political disputes and faces elections in 2007; it is not ready to waste too much time on issues beyond its borders.
Ethiopia is pursuing the intervention agenda most forcefully, and is ready to deploy its troops in Somalia at any time. Indeed, many observers believe that Ethiopia already has troops inside Somalia. At least one local leader has admitted invited Ethiopian troops, though "only to train militias". Ethiopia, well aware of the sensitivity this issue creates in its neighbour and historic rival, has always denied this. The other three Igad countries (leaving Somalia out of the equation at present) vehemently oppose sending troops. The stern critics of the initiative include Djibouti's president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, who says the proposal "to send troops to Somalia is meant to serve the interest of particular nations and not Somalia". In addition, according to Gheleh, the proposal is financially unworkable: "(Igad) projected that $931 million will be required for operational budgets for this mission...but we are among the poorest nations in the world and have no means to raise these funds."Sudan, besides Ethiopia the other regional giant, initially considered sending troops but has now veered to the opposite side. Eritrea, Ethiopia's small but combative adversary to the north, calls the plan to assign troops to Somalia an "Ethiopian crusade". Eritrean officials have visited every capital where the Ethiopians have been lobbying, almost certainly to undermine their rivals' case. Igad's divisions put the larger African Union body in a difficult position. The AU is playing down the east African differences and - publicly at least - is hopeful the mission will go ahead. Assane Ba of the African Union's conflict-management centre denies that there is disunity within Igad over Somalia, and says that the intervention plan has the AU's backing. He goes further: "We have raised the possibility of the AU taking over the mission in Somalia at a later stage, but no final decision has been made on this".
The AU's boldness comes at a moment when the future of its 7,000-strong future of its Darfur operation is unresolved. Its work in Darfur, widely regarded as a brave effort to prevent a government-sponsored onslaught on defenceless civilians, has the support of the international community. But it is also recognised that the AU troops are poorly equipped and overstretched, and have been unable to safeguard civilians or aid workers in the conflict-torn region.
The Somali fire
The scale and contours of Somalia's troubles are very different from Darfur, but the proposed Somalia mission could prove dangerous as well as costly for intervening forces, whether under an Igad or African Union mandate. After some hopeful signs of an internal settlement in mid-2006, the situation on the ground in Somalia is again becoming confrontational.
The Islamic Courts have been making renewed advances. They have captured much of the weaponry held by the country's warlords, and are reported to have acquired a large stock of weapons and ammunition supplied by Eritrea (although the courts themselves deny this). The courts increasingly claim that Ethiopian troops are present in support of the interim government in Baidoa, and say they will not tolerate this any longer.
The Islamic Courts's capture of Kismayo, the capital of the lower Jubba region (bordering Kenya) and the last seaport in southern Somalia not in their hands, is part of their effort to prevent any offshore landing by Igad troops. Now, any Igad troops will have to come by air or overland through Ethiopia. Any imminent signals of such a move are likely to provoke an Islamic Courts attack on Baidoa.
Another regional body - the Arab League (AL) - is attempting to accelerate mediation efforts between Somalia's interim government and the Islamic Courts. The two sides have met twice in Khartoum, and a follow-up meeting there is scheduled by the end of October. The league raised the stakes on 1 October by calling for an international conference on Somalia to take place even before the third round talks.
Hesham Youssef, an Arab League official, says that the African Union, the United Nations and the European Union are all welcome to attend the conference it has proposed. Youssef told Reuters that the attendees would "consult on how to move forward in relation to the (whole) situation in Somalia".
The Arab League approach is in marked contrast to Igad's: it suggests that outside input should focus on diplomatic pressure on both Somali sides to agree a power-sharing arrangement. This has the ingredients of another potential diplomatic crisis in the region. The Arab League is known to be unhappy with Ethiopia's involvement in Somalia, and defers to Egypt as its main advisor on Somalia affairs. Ethiopia and Egypt have never agreed about Somalia and in the past have undermined each other's role there.
Igad and the African Union are uncomfortable with this approach. These institutions, as well as Ethiopia, want to avoid the collapse of the secular government in Somalia in the face of a growing Islamic movement. Against this, the Arab League, Egypt and Sudan see a chance to influence a process which could result in the emergence of an Islamic government across Somalia.Somalia itself is a member of both the African Union and the Arab League. Again, it finds itself at the centre of external, rival interests. Amid the diplomatic initiatives and intervention plans, it needs to be recalled that the interests of the Somali people themselves and of their country are paramount. That principle is the key to a lasting settlement inside Somalia.