Somali troops representing the UN-recognized government have retaken Mogadishu from the Islamist rebel government, the capital of Somalia. This is a striking reversal in the often-dark recent history of Somalia, a country in the horn of Africa, bordering Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti (see a map of the region).
The Somali government forces were backed strongly by Ethiopian forces. In fact, it’s fair to say that Ethiopia (which, according to this New York Times article, has the tacit approval of the U.S.) is making a bet on propping up a government in Mogadishu long enough to create a stable situation. Mogadishu has been ruled by factions and warlords for over a decade now, and the Islamists who took over were the first to impose a semblance of order. The question now is whether the Somali military will be able to set up a government that can actually impose order.
The New York Times quoted a staff member in the Somali government as saying, “And now we are where they used to be, in control of Mogadishu — well, as much as anyone can be in control of Mogadishu.”
Ethiopia and Somalia have been at each others’ throats for quite some time. Ethiopia is 61% Christian and 33% Muslim (and has had its own bloody civil war that ended with Eritrea becoming a separate nation). Interestingly, in Ethiopia Christianity is by no means a European import- most Ethiopians belong to the orthodox Coptic Church, which became the region’s principle religion as early as the 4th century AD. Somalia, on the other hand, is predominantly Sunni Muslim today.
The Islamist government that had taken over Mogadishu was acting on the spiritual authority of very conservative clerics, and the struggle between conservative (Wahhabist) and more moderate Islamic leaders in Mogadishu (as well as the ever-present local warlords) will continue to be fought out in the hearts, minds, stomachs, wallets, and safety of the people of Somalia.
U.S. support of the Ethiopean-backed Somali government is understandable. The rise of radical Islam in Somalia has been accompanied by (or possibly partly caused by?) ties with Al-Qaeda. The perpetrators of the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya have long been thought to be hiding somewhere in Somalia.
Ethiopian airstrikes and mass desertions from the Islamist military set the stage for the takeover of Mogadishu. About 1000 mostly teenage troops from the Union of Islamic Courts were “mowed down by the better-trained and equipped Ethiopian-backed forces.”
Another quote from the NYT:
It seems that many people, inside Somalia and outside, overrated the Islamists’ strength and popularity. Part of the reason, analysts now say, is that the Islamists had an excellent propaganda machine, controlling most media outlets in Somalia. Another factor was that many Somalis supported the Islamists because they had no option. After Ethiopia got involved, that changed, with the transitional government becoming strong enough to be a realistic alternative.
So, encouragingly, the Islamists may not have been as popular as we had thought. But the new transitional government won’t be popular either if a suitable power-sharing arrangement among local warlords can’t be settled on. And without Ethiopian backing, Islamist militia forces might be able to retain large portions of the country. So are the Ethiopians going to stay long enough to make things work? The NYT:
The Ethiopians say that they have no intention of staying and that their mission to neutralize the threat in Somalia has been mostly accomplished.
That doesn’t sound like good news to me. The other possible development to watch out for is a rise in assymetric warfare, such as suicide bombings, in Mogadishu. While the Islamists may not have a strong enough following to create a dominant government, they may very likely have enough support to disrupt any other government. The situation in Somalia is one for which I’ll currently withhold my optimism.