The Somali capital, Mogadishu, has in late March and early April 2007 been witnessing the heaviest fighting and most woeful destruction since the start of the civil war in the early 1990s. A local human-rights organisation recorded nearly 400 deaths and more than 500 people wounded during just four days of fighting between the two sides (in their way more coalitions than single entities): the Ethiopian army, operating in support of Somalia's transitional federal government (TFG), versus Islamic fighters and militias from the city's dominant clan, the Hawiye.
The primary victims of the violence are, as so often, civilians. The United Nations estimates that as many as 100,000 people have fled Mogadishu since February, among them 47,000 since 21 March alone. These figures add many more displaced to the huge numbers of Somalis - uneasily settled, or on the road - who are unable to find even the minimal security to build their own lives in their own country.
A fragile ceasefire agreed between Hawiye clan elders and Ethiopian officials on 2 April (which came into effect the same day) has brought a brief calm; the two sides are due to reconvene on 6 April. There remains disagreement on at least two key points relating to the Ethiopian army: its withdrawal from the areas it has recently captured, and setting a timetable for its evacuation of Somalia as a whole.
A further drawback of this Mogadishu deal could derail it in any case: the fact that the Somali government feels excluded from it, and is unhappy with the process or the result (or both). Some reports indeed suggest that the Somali government was not invited to the talks between the clan elders and the Ethiopian officials. In defence of the TFG's position, deputy defence minister Salad Ali Jeelle has been pressing on the media its view that the ceasefire agreement is "non-existent".
Some reports indicate that the TFG, justified by the conditions of insecurity in Mogadishu, might consider postponing the reconciliation conference scheduled to be held in Mogadishu on 16 April; though at the time of writing there has been no official confirmation of this. Meanwhile, both the main sides are organising reinforcements. All the indications are that another round of fighting is inevitable. A human tragedy is enveloping Mogadishu.
Somalia and its neighbours
The new round of confrontation followed three months of unrest and sporadic clashes since the entry of Somali government troops, backed by the Ethiopians, into Mogadishu in January 2007.
The appearance of a lightning victory by the TFG was always deceptive. From the start, it has been unable to impose its authority in Mogadishu. The daily or near-daily attacks on its forces and the Ethiopians have intensified, gradually forcing the nominal allies to launch a further offensive. As the Mogadishu fighting escalated in the early weeks of 2007, initial reports suggested that members or supporters of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) were responsible for most of the attacks. But in regard to the latest fighting at least, it is also believed that several other groups - Hawiye clan militias, supporters of Mogadishu warlords who failed to secure positions within the TFG, and independent Somali nationalists - have all been involved.
The international community, itself divided, is both help and hindrance. The International Contact Group on Somalia (ICGS) - a informal gathering of diplomats from the United Nations, United States, the European Union, the Arab world and African states (including the Intergovernmental Authority on Development) - issued a statement from its meeting in Cairo on 3 April; this condemned the fighting and demanded that "all parties in Somalia comply with international humanitarian law, guarantee the safety and security for all humanitarian and relief work in Somalia, and ensure the protection of the Somali population".
Meanwhile, the African Union (AU) has promised - under the auspices of the United Nations-sanctioned African Union Mission to Somalia (Amisom) - to send 8,000 peacekeeping troops to Somalia, and the first contingent of these (1,500 Ugandans) arrived in Mogadishu in March. But neither the declamations of the ICGS nor the presence of AU forces addresses the main source of the current phase of conflict in Somalia: the continued presence of the Ethiopians.
Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's prime minister, had said at the time of their swift advance that his troops would leave Somalia within a few weeks. Now it seems that he has backtracked on this pledge. Notwithstanding the fact that the Ethiopians have been working alongside the Somali government, it seems that they still have their own "unfinished business" in the territory of their neighbour and historic adversary. At least part of its ambition in Somalia is connected too to the interests of another stakeholder in the country: the United States, which strongly supported the offensive against the Islamic Courts when the latter controlled Mogadishu.
Harun Hassan worked for Associated Press and the BBC in Somalia. He currently works as a freelancer
Also by Harun Hassan in openDemocracy:
"Not housewives any more: Somali women of the diaspora"
"Black Hawk Down: the Baghdad sequel?"
"The 'Axis of Anarchy'"
"Iraq: the lesson from Somalia"
"Somalia: exit into history?"
"America's two faces in Somalia"
"Yahya: death of a peace campaigner"
"Somalia twists in the wind"
"Somalia's new Islamic leadership"
"Somalia's thorny road"
"Somalia's stony path"
(5 October 2006)
"Somalia slides into war"
(3 November 2006)
"Somalia: diplomacy's last chance"
(6 December 2006)
"Somalia at the crossroads"
(10 January 2007)
"Somalia: the way forward"
(13 February 2007)
The Hawiye perspective
The Somali government claims that former members of the ICU are active in Mogadishu and responsible for much of the recent fighting. Indeed, it is believed that several high-ranking ICU officials have returned to Mogadishu, leaving only two of its leaders (Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed and Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys) outside the capital. The ICU deputies again based in the city include Sheik Abdulkadir Ali Omar, Sheik Janaqow, and the influential defence chief Sheik Mohamoud Indha'adde.
For their part, Hawiye elders have denied knowledge of any participation by the ICU in their clan's fighting. The Hawiye are now in a particularly interesting and difficult position. They fear that the Somali president wants to enforce disarmament in Mogadishu with the help of the Ethiopian troops; the Hawiye regard this as unfair insofar as rival clans in Somalia would still hold their weapons. The only reprieve for the position of Hawiye elders is coming from the United Nations, which on 5 April warned against "disarmament by force" in Mogadishu.
The Hawiye have played a delicate game amidst Somalia's intricate struggle of the past year: backing the ICU when it emerged in spring 2006 to take power in Mogadishu, while now alert to a new balance of power that could seriously undermine the clan's longstanding and hard-won influence in Somali politics. The clan spokesman Ahmed Dirie says the government should start disarming clans "at the same time and on the same terms", and accuses the president of targeting the Hawiye out of a desire for revenge.
What seems to alienate the Hawiye more than anything is the government's lack of discrimination towards its adversaries, its refusal to distinguish between the ICU and those who supported them. One analyst says that "lots of people from all walks of life supported the ICU for different reasons. But the TFG treats everybody as the same. It regards all of them as ICU and does not deal with them".
Behind the Hawiye's fears is the perception that the Somali government - and especially the president - has an old score to settle with the clan. The president belongs to a rival clan, the Darod. These two clans have dominated Somali politics since independence in 1960, together producing all the country's presidents. The fall of Somalia's leader Mohamed Siad Barre (a Darod) in 1991 after twenty years in power was hard for the Darod, and they suffered at the hands of the Hawiye.
True, there are Hawiye members in the current TFG (including the prime minister himself). But their influence in the TFG may have been compromised by their past support for the ICU. Some Hawiye leaders are arguing that the president is dividing his own forces by training a new "Somali" army dominated by his clan, and promoting four Darod commanders to head each of its four main military divisions. Against this is the argument that he has no choice, since the Hawiye militias have been or are fighting alongside the Islamic Courts Union.
Clan and nation
Clan rivalry has been rife in Somali politics, and a way of life for Somali society, for a long time. It underpins much of the country's factional strife, reinforces its military and political stalemate on many occasions, and guarantees the failure of so many conferences designed to reach a settlement. As long as clan prejudices overshadow the shared loyalty to a Somali national identity, it is near-impossible to achieve reconciliation.
For example, the government prior to the TFG (formed in Djibouti in 2000) was led by a Hawiye president. Its failure is partially owed to the fact that the main Darod leaders, among them the current president, refused to support it. The clan must see that its own interest is being served.
Yet the complex reality, hard for non-Somalis to grasp, is that the divisions within the different political "sides" are often as great as those between them. The TFG contains many clans and factions within it. At the same time, clan interests do not simply align with political ones; the Hawiye members in the TFG find that they have little or no standing among their clansmen who experienced better times when the ICU ruled Mogadishu.
Clan prejudice, national weakness, international interference, a country awash with guns - can it get worse? It can. For to this destructive mix, regional fragmentation must be added. The current confrontation could see the further disintegration of an already fissured country. The existing autonomous regions - Somaliland, Puntland and the little publicised Galmudug - operate according to their own rules; and just before the Islamic Courts emerged, there was talk of a Jubaland state in the southern region towards the border with Kenya. Now for the first time, Hawiye intellectuals are discussing the prospect of having their own regional administration - partly as a way to ward off the influence of the Darod through its domination of the transitional government.
More optimistic Somali analysts believe that the TFG has the chance to perform some constructive (and highly symbolic) acts: among them, opening direct dialogue with the ICU and Hawiye elders independently of the Ethiopians, and perhaps even allowing political parties in order to nurture loyalties to ideas and social interests rather than blood. Such moves could work if backed by tenacious political commitment, a fair share of political appointments, and transparency of finances and distribution of wealth, these analysts say.
The TFG has needed to back its military advance into the Somali capital with a political breakthrough, and has so far failed. A central reason has been the president's consistent refusal to invite opposing groups, including the ICU, to the proposed (and now postponed) reconciliation conference. "Only unarmed groups will be allowed", he said during a recent visit to London.
If there is any hope of progress, it now lies in the same place where the latest tragic explosion of violence and displacement has taken place: Mogadishu. Somali's capital, the scene of the latest ugly turn in the Somalia debacle, has undermined so many attempts to achieve peace and progress in the country. In 2006, the ICU won applause for taming Mogadishu. In 2007, the TFG wants to do the same by force. If it does not work, it could be 2008 before Mogadishu, and Somalia, have a chance to turn the corner for the better.