During the past fifteen years of war and civil conflict in Somalia, most observers Somalis and foreigners alike have understood that a resolution to the country's problems could only come from agreement among Somalis themselves. Indeed, since the United Nations troops left Somalia in March 1995, the international community has been regularly telling the Somalis that a sustainable future for their country is "in their own hands". True, foreign countries still pursued their rival interests in relation to Somalia, and a number of peace conferences were held abroad, but the standard approach by the world's diplomats was pressure on Somalis alone to find a solution.
This has now changed, in a way that carries potential dangers.
It was all very different only two months ago. In June 2006, the political situation in Somalia seemed to offer grounds for cautious optimism. The Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), backed by considerable popular support, was banishing the warlords and their militias from large swathes of the country (including the capital, Mogadishu). After years of anarchy and chaos, the courts ostensibly presented a model of governance based on a moderate interpretation of sharia law, one that a people hungry for security and order might readily embrace (see "Somalia's new Islamic leadership", 13 June 2006).
Meanwhile, the weak Somali interim government based in the town of Baidoa a coalition of forces which had emerged from the peace agreement painstakingly negotiated during two years of difficult consultations in Kenya was obliged to acknowledge the courts's rising power by appearing ready to engage in dialogue with the new movement.
It appeared for a moment that a combination of the force of arms, backing from war-weary Somalis, and understanding of the country's needs might make such a dialogue the foundation of a longed-for political settlement. Instead, two centres of power have been consolidated in Mogadishu and Baidoa, each with a different ideological orientation and each claiming primary legitimacy as the authentic voice of Somalis.
More recently, a new element has been added to the mix with the active involvement of two of Somalia's neighbours in its domestic turmoil, each seeking to strengthen one of the emerging sides: Ethiopia (Somalia's great historic rival) in support of the formal government in Baidoa, and Eritrea (with whom Ethiopia has fought two bitter wars in the last generation) in support of the Islamic Courts.
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)
A regional issue
This strategic rivalry over Somalia was first apparent in the reported incursion into the country by Ethiopian troops to support the interim government. Ethiopia has not officially admitted sending troops into Somalia, but both the United Nations and independent journalists have confirmed their presence in the government's temporary base in Baidoa, and in another of its strongholds, Wajid. Ethiopia has in any case declared its intention to support the Somali government militarily and politically and to help crush the advancing Islamic Courts movement.
The Islamic courts's response has been equally blunt: it has urged a "holy war" against Ethiopia and the courts have mobilised their militias to that end. At one anti-Ethiopia rally in Mogadishu, the leader of the UIC, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed said that Ethiopia's intervention was a violation of Somalia's sovereignty and should be steadfastly opposed. "Ethiopia is bound to regret this", he said.
But the Union of Islamic Courts has its own foreign backer, evident in two secret landings at Mogadishu airport by a plane with unspecified cargo believed to be weapons. The source has not been definitively confirmed, but all indications point the finger at Eritrea.
The United States shares the view of the Baidoa government that Eritrea is indeed involved in the internal Somali conflict. The US's assistant secretary for African affairs, Jendayi Frazer while observing the election in the Democratic Republic of Congo warned both Ethiopia and Eritrea that they should stay out of the crisis. But in saying that the international community must help the interim government stand on its feet, Frazer was also making clear where the US government's core sympathies lie (see "Somalia twists in the wind", 12 April 2006).
The logic of these foreign interventions is that the Somali crisis is no longer going to be left to the Somalis. But will this "assistance" from other countries in the region help shorten or prolong the standoff between the principal Somali forces?
The indications so far veer more to the latter. The presence of the Ethiopians is a factor in delaying the start of proposed talks between the Islamic courts and the government which were expected to take place in Khartoum this week. The UIC leaders say they will not discuss matters with the government as long as foreign troops remain on Somalia soil; and the Somali parliament (also based in Baidoa) is equally opposed to any Ethiopian presence.
The African Union solution
The UIC statement has a wider relevance than to the Ethiopian issue. An initiative by the African Union's regional inter-governmental authority on development (Igad) which includes Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia among its members is also on the table; if implemented, this would see peacekeepers from other parts of the continent enter Somalia.
The proposal is still at an early stage: the AU has yet to approve its timescale, its mandate, and the number of troops to be sent. In order for it to proceed, the AU first wants the UN to lift an arms embargo on Somalia. Meanwhile, it now seems that two of the AU's member-states have already violated the embargo by taking matters into their own hands.
The reported involvement of Eritrea and Ethiopia in taking unilateral action in Somalia, independently of their participation in Igad, represents a potent challenge to an African Union which especially in its operation in Darfur, western Sudan has displayed growing ambition and leadership in recent years. In any case, there are three obstacles to the African Union proposal.
First, two Igad members (Eritrea and Djibouti) are against it, and two others (Sudan and Uganda) say they will send troops only if all sides in Somalia agree to the deployment and announce a ceasefire. Once more, this places Ethiopia in the eye of the storm: if it declares willingness to contribute to an AU force, it may divide the region's states as it has already reinforced internal schisms within Somalia.
Second, the Somali Contact Group recently formed by the United States (comprising the US, Britain, Norway, Tanzania, Sweden, and Italy) advises against sending troops into Somalia.
Third, the proposal was made when the situation on the ground was very different. At the time, the Islamic courts who vigorously oppose the AU idea had virtually no control over any part of Somalia; now, they control five out of ten regions in southern Somalia after defeating the American-backed warlords.
This, then, is a key test for the African Union. Should it stick to its original plan or show flexibility in light of a changing balance of power inside Somalia; should it seek to curb the influence of its member-states that have taken unilateral decisions, or take sides in Somalia's domestic turmoil? So far, the AU has remained silent on Ethiopian and Eritrean involvement in Somalia but if it pursues a plan to send its own troops there, it cannot do so for much longer.
In considering the issue, the AU might recall the melancholy history of the American-led international military intervention in Somalia, whose peacekeeping or peace-making tasks were unsuccessful, whatever the mandate was. Several African countries such as Nigeria, Botswana, and Zimbabwe contributed to the United Nations-sanctioned missions of the early 1990s, and although their relations with local people were often good, that did not prevent the experiment from ending acrimoniously. Could a fresh contingent of AU troops do better than 22,000 troops just over a decade ago?
There is another significant cautionary factor. The Somali interim government has authority over less territory than its main rivals, and has not been able to reconcile the main contending groups throughout the country. Any deployment of foreign troops is more likely to succeed after mediation through diplomacy with and among Somalia's contending parties; otherwise it might appear as much a one-sided imposition as the Ethiopian intervention. How the African Union approaches this issue will be crucial to its credibility, as well as to the lives of its troops.
The Ogaden issue
Meanwhile, what guides the thinking of Ethiopia and Eritrea in Somalia? It is likely that Eritrea's support for the Islamic Courts movement is largely a case of tweaking the lion's tail, and challenging Ethiopia's regional status. Ethiopia itself, by far the biggest of the three countries, is a major player in the region and its ambitions in relation to Somalia make its strategy highly important.
Ethiopia and Somalia have for centuries been divided by religion (Ethiopia is a Christian country, Somalia is Muslim). They have also been locked in a territorial dispute, one of the legacies of the British empire in the region. In 1948, Britain granted to Ethiopia an area under its protection the Ogaden - inhabited by Somalis. Both countries claim ownership of this land and have fought two major wars, in 1964 and 1977, over it. Somalia has always asked Ethiopia to return the Ogaden, or to ask the Somali inhabitants of the area to express their own views about its future. Ethiopia has always refused to do so, and (partly for climatic reasons, but partly because of this dispute) the Ogaden remains the most underdeveloped region of Ethiopia.
This history helps explain why Ethiopia is so concerned to have a friendly government in Somalia. A strongly Islamic government in Somalia would not fit this category, and the Islamic Courts firmly believe that the Ogaden belongs to Somalia.
In addition, Ethiopia fears that Somalia's Islamic forces would be likely to support two rebel groups Ogaden National Liberation Front and Oromo Liberation Front that are fighting against the government of Meles Zenawi inside Ethiopia.
Somalis and others
The Somali government itself has in recent weeks been drained by a large number of ministerial resignations; most of the departing ministers criticise prime minister Ali Mohamed Geddi for failing to negotiate with the Islamic Courts. On 30 July, the government narrowly survived (by thirteen votes) a no-confidence vote in the Baidoa parliament. It is clear that Somalia's government wants help from the international community, including the deployment of troops; but the president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, is under great pressure from within parliament to negotiate with the UIC.
The result, for the present at least, is stalemate. A key issue is the basis of any new Somali state. The Islamic Courts may not endorse a Somali government without a complete overhaul of its constitutional framework; they believe that political Islam is the only way forward. This was highlighted in a comment from one of the UIC leaders, Hassan Dahir Aweys: when it comes to choosing between an un-Islamic constitution and an Islamic one, the courts "are right on this point, therefore I would not say 'let us meet half-way'."
On his side, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed is a secular politician who firmly rejects Muslim organisations and political Islam. At the same time, he might just be willing to offer some ministerial posts to the courts's leaders, while asking them not to interfere with politics.
There seems no space for compromise between the polarised positions inside the country, and these are only complicated by outside intervention. Even if the two sides eventually talk, there is a thorny road ahead for Somalia. Somalis need to find a way forward that avoids a new round of bloodshed. They may need the constructive help and support as opposed to the self-interested interference of their African neighbours. But ultimately, Somalis must do it for themselves.