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Conflict in Somalia: Islamic Courts Abandon Mogadishu as U.N. Warns of Humanitarian Crisis

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Hundreds of people are feared dead as fighting between Ethiopian forces backing Somalia’s government and militias loyal to the Union of Islamic Courts intensifies. Islamic fighters have abandoned their stronghold in the capital Mogadishu as the U.N. is warning of an impending humanitarian crisis. Who are the key players in this conflict? What is the U.S. role? We host a roundtable discussion with three Somalia experts. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Early this morning, Ethiopian troops backing Somalia’s transitional government forced militias loyal to the Union of Islamic Courts to abandon their stronghold in the Somali capital Mogadishu. Over the past week, the number of people killed has been estimated to be as large as 1,000. Thousands have also been displaced since Ethiopia sent 15,000 troops into Somalia in order to fight the Union of Islamic Courts. The Bush administration has openly backed the Ethiopian military and has opposed the Islamic Courts based on alleged links to al-Qaeda. Weeks before the invasion, General John Abizaid, the head of the U.S. Central Command, flew to Ethiopia to meet with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Ethiopia has claimed to be protecting its interests in the region. Here is Prime Minister Zenawi speaking yesterday.

PRIME MINISTER MELES ZENAWI: In Mogadishu, we have a mission to do. We have done more than half of our mission already. As soon as we complete the other half—and it won’t take us long—we will be out of there, so they won’t have a target to fight against.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. has long supported the Ethiopian military, and in May was exposed as a primary supporter of one of the Somali transitional government’s major warlord factions. Much of the international community, however, has not supported Ethiopia’s intervention. The African Union and Arab League have called for Ethiopia to withdraw from Somalia. Outgoing U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for Somalia’s neighbors to stay out of the crisis.

Last night, the U.N. Security Council failed to agree to a statement calling for the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces. On Wednesday, the U.N. also warned of an impending humanitarian crisis as aid flights to the drought-stricken population were suspended as an effect of the fighting. Somalia has not held a stable government for more than a decade. The Islamic Courts seized power this past summer from a weak but internationally backed transitional government composed of the country’s major warlord factions.

Said Samatar is with us, a professor of African history specializing in Somalia at Rutgers University based in Newark. He’s also managing editor of The Horn of Africa independent journal and author of many books on Somalia. He’s with us in our firehouse studio at DCTV.

Nii Akuetteh is also with us in Washington, D.C. He is the new executive director of Africa Action. He is also the founder of the Democracy and Conflict Research Institute based in Accra, Ghana. He joins us in D.C. at the Reuters studio.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! I want to begin with Nii Akuetteh in Washington, D.C. Can you lay out the conflict as you see it? And especially for people here in the Untied States, who, to say the least, get very little on Africa in the media, put it also in a geographical context for us.

NII AKUETTEH: Sure. Thank you very much, Amy. I think the conflict that’s going on now in Somalia has several elements and aspects to it. On the surface of it is the struggle between the transitional government of Somalia and the Islamic Courts Union. And Ethiopia has stepped in, with the support of the United States, as it was laid out in the background, to support the transitional government, which does have international support, but it is weak. The government does not seem to have the support of the Somali people. The Islamic Courts Union seems to have more support. And they were—the Islamic Courts Union, actually, to a certain extent, were created, were embraced and emboldened by the CIA’s intervention last year, when it funneled money to antiterrorist warlords.

Now, in the bigger, regional context, you have three other conflicts that are playing a role. There is a conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and in fact Eritrea has been backing the Islamic Union. And then, within both Ethiopia and Eritrea, you have repressive governments. You have authoritarian governments who look to this fight in Somalia. They are backing groups rather than dealing with democracy in their own countries. And finally, Ethiopia and Somalia have had a long rivalry over a common area that they share called the Ogaden. They’ve fought several wars. I know that Professor Samatar has written about it and is actually from the area.

And so, you have a confluence of many different factors. We consider that it is quite a mistake for the United States to so boldly enter the conflict behind Ethiopia, where there are other regional powers who will be threatened by what Ethiopia is doing and will be sucked in, and you’ll get a larger war.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Said Samatar, what is the interest not just of the regional powers, but of the great powers that are not in the region, in terms of what is going on right now?

SAID SAMATAR: Well, I think the guest has explained that one of the principal interests of the West, especially the United States, is the presence of al-Qaeda-related elements in Somalia—I should say alleged presence, especially people who are alleged to be responsible for the bombing of the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1998, so that Western forces, Western governments do not want the possibility of the growth of a militant, anti-Western base in the Horn of Africa.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But isn’t it ironic that for so many years Somalia has been wracked by civil war, and at precisely the time when it seemed like there was some stability finally coming into the country, admittedly as a result of the Islamic movements there, now suddenly the international community wants to step in, and the Untied States wants to support Ethiopia in entering the country?

SAID SAMATAR: Unfortunately, the world does not respond usually out of good humanitarian intentions. Sometimes the world does. Sometimes the U.S. does. But, in this case, my hunch is that the U.S. recognized that there could be a dangerous anti-U.S. terrorist group in the Horn of Africa, and that is what’s motivating their renewed interest. It is true that the Islamic Courts have done a lot of good. They have stabilized the capital city Mogadishu. They have restored order, law and order, peace. But they have gone farther by imposing a rigid kind of Islam, which is alien to the Somalis. And, in fact, I doubt that the Islamic Courts have support from the Somali people now, because of their very draconian, harsh kind of Islam on the Somalis.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that the U.S. should intervene?

SAID SAMATAR: Well, the U.S. should not intervene with troops, but I think the U.S. should put its diplomatic backing towards this—behind this weak government which Ethiopia is supporting. And if I may beg to differ, I do not think that the Ethiopia is driving this move to defeat the mullahs. Ethiopia is supporting Somali troops who came from Puntland, largely, and who are doing—who are the linchpin of the fighting.

AMY GOODMAN: Nii Akuetteh, your response?

NII AKUETTEH: Yes, I mean, it may well be that—certainly, there are Somali soldiers fighting. But the intervention of Ethiopia is egregious. It should not be there. In fact, the transitional government that Ethiopia is supporting was also supported by the African Union and the United Nations, but Ethiopia’s heavy-handed intervention in the fighting has isolated it and the United States. Yesterday and day before yesterday, the African Union, the Arab Union called for Ethiopia to withdraw, because, you know, a few weeks ago the U.S. pushed for a resolution in the Security Council that called for peacekeeping troops in Somalia. And it was stipulated that none of the major regional powers that share borders with Somalia should have troops in there. And we are talking especially about Kenya and Ethiopia.

Now, if Ethiopia had stepped in against those wishes, one has to imagine what the other powers in the region will be thinking. And I do think that it is a major mistake for the United States to be encouraging Ethiopia to step in, in such a heavy-handed way. It is not a sustainable solution, because, as Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said, they have a mission; when they are done with the mission, they will withdraw. Well, let’s say they withdraw in several weeks. What happens then to the transitional government? So this is not a sustainable solution either by the Ethiopians or by the Untied States. And I might say that this is just the latest, in our view, of a long series of blunders by American policy in the region, going all the way back to the support of Siad Barre during the Ogaden wars in the 1970s.

AMY GOODMAN: We have Salim Lone on the phone right now from Kenya. He is a former spokesperson for the U.N. Mission in Iraq, a columnist for the Daily Nation in Kenya. Salim, welcome to Democracy Now! You’ve written a piece in the International Herald Tribune called “In Somalia, a Reckless U.S. Proxy War.” What do you mean by that?

SALIM LONE: Well, let me first address what I just heard on your program, which is that this is a blunder and that this is not a sustainable solution. This is actually a crime. If Europeans, for instance, had invaded a sovereign country, there is absolutely no legal justification. And what’s more, the United Nations resolution, that the U.S. itself pushed through two weeks ago, specifically forbids neighboring countries from even joining a peace-keeping force that the region would send in. So this is a crime. It is against the U.N. Charter, and it is explicitly forbidden to send in neighboring country’s troops. So, that’s number one.

In terms of the “proxy,” the headline that was used by the Herald Tribune, it’s actually much more than a proxy, in the sense that the U.S. has been trying for many months now to try to undermine the Islamic Courts Union. They have been abusing—no, sorry, they’ve been violating the existing U.N. resolution since 1992, which forbids any arms assistance to Somalia. Likely story. You remember when the 18 American soldiers were killed at that time, and the U.N. peacekeeping mission was terminated. The U.S. has been violating the arms embargo, voted by the U.N., and using private contractors to funnel arms to the warlords.

These warlords, most of them, are terrorists, and they are part of this government that was based in Baidoa. This government is a government only in name. It was not created by Somalia, by Somalis. It was created in Nairobi, where I am right now, with the help of Kenya and with the help they still get primarily through U.S. allies. Hence, it is so weak and divided that it only controls this one town, Baidoa, a very small town. It has not been able to move beyond it. It has had mass resignations from its people. It is not a government. And it is only able to do what it did with the help of the Ethiopians. And I’m sure others have told you on this program that Ethiopia is universally reviled in Somalia, for a number of historical reasons, including a war that Somalia actually started against Ethiopia to regain the Ogaden, which the Ethiopians took from Somalia about a century ago in the colonial period. So, for this government to actually need Ethiopian tanks and Ethiopian troops to come to power, it destroys its credibility. It has absolutely no credibility.

So, it is a disaster through and through. It is a violation of every U.N. resolution that exists so far in Somalia. The new U.N. resolution says—which the U.S. pushed for, asks for a regional peacekeeping force into Somalia in order to, I guess, restore peace and stability. I think that’s what it says, to restore peace and stability. I mean, the huge irony is that it’s under the Islamic Courts Union that Somalia has seen some peace and security for the last six months. It is the opposite what the U.N. resolution is trying to accomplish. It is the opposite, meaning there will be less peace, less security, now that the IUC has been [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: Salim Lone, we have to break for stations to identify themselves. Salim Lone is a columnist for the Daily Nation in Kenya. We’re also joined in studio in Washington by Nii Akuetteh, executive director of Africa Action. And here in our firehouse studio is Said Samatar, professor of African history at Rutgers University. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about what’s happening in Ethiopia and Somalia with Said Samatar, professor at Rutgers University of African history; Salim Lone in Kenya, a columnist with the Daily Nation in Kenya, former U.N. official; and Nii Akuetteh in Washington, executive director of Africa Action. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, I’d like to ask Salim Lone, if you could just briefly respond, what about the whole issue of the internationals who have come in on the other side, on the side of the Islamic Courts, both Eritrean advisers, supposedly, as well as the call that they put out, I think it was last week, for international fighters, mujahideen, to come to assist them in their battle?

SALIM LONE: Yes, well, look, the first thing that’s important to keep in mind is there is absolutely no evidence, that I have seen or that most people have seen, which indicates that there are Eritrean troops in Somalia. We have not seen any evidence of that. We have seen, of course, plenty of evidence for months about the Ethiopian presence—number one.

Number two is the notion of foreign fighters. If you know Somalia, and most countries like Somalia, yes, there are plenty of people who are constantly coming in from Yemen, from Saudi Arabia, from Oman, from Zanzibar. I mean, these countries have lots of close relations, and people are moving back and forth there. So, to make a case about terrorists—basically, that’s what Ethiopia has done, and that is what the U.S. has done, as well, to make the case that foreign intervention is needed because there are terrorists there—I mean, this is 100 percent duplication of what was done in Iraq. There were no terrorists there. In fact, the Americans actually created more terrorists, many more terrorists, and much more instability. And that is what I see happening here. There is no evidence whatsoever of large numbers of foreign fighters coming in just to do this. Yes, it is true that last week one of the leaders of the Islamic Courts called for foreign fighters to come in and help them. I don’t see anything wrong with them asking for people to come and help defend Somalia, because there is an invasion by 15,000 troops from Ethiopia, a reviled enemy.

So, if a few foreign fighters come in, that is not the basis on which you make policy. You make policy on the basis of international law, the U.N. Charter, but most important of all, for peace for Somalia. And that is what Somalia has had for the last six months. You know, the U.S. tries to camouflage its hegemonistic goals by pointing to the need to crush terror. That is what is happening here. They want a client regime. The U.S. wants a client regime in Somalia. Ethiopia wants a client regime in Somalia.

AMY GOODMAN: Salim Lone is speaking to us from Kenya. Nii Akuetteh, your response? Executive director of Africa Action in Washington. Nii, can you hear us? Well, let’s ask Said Samatar.

SAID SAMATAR: Well, unfortunately, I haven’t quite heard all that Mr. Salim said. But, first of all, let’s remember—and I’m surprised at myself, because I never thought the day would come when I would be defending either Ethiopia’s activity or that of the U.S. in the Horn of Africa. But in this case, let’s look at the reality. I mean, it may be simple enough to say blatantly U.S. doing this, Ethiopia doing that. Here we have got a Somali people who have been terrorized for 16 years and who are yearning, almost crying, to have their state back, to have some semblance of dignity. And they have a government, obviously a weak, dysfunctional government, but nevertheless backed both by the international community, by the African Union, by the United Nations and by the League of Arab Nations. That government could not govern because you have too chaotic a situation in the country. You have had the warlords. Now the Islamists came in. As I said, they provided a semblance of order in and around Mogadishu, the capital city. Now, that weak government—but they have gone farther and imposed a rigid kind of Islam on the country, which the Somalis do not want. And that’s why Somali government has invited the Ethiopians.

AMY GOODMAN: Nii Akuetteh, final word?

NII AKUETTEH: Sure. I think that two quick things. Yes, the government is weak, and it was imposed by the international community. It seems to me that what they need then to do is to find domestic legitimacy. And it would seem, therefore, that they should be negotiating with Islamic Courts Union rather than having Ethiopia come in and cause a war, saying that it will go back very soon. Once again, I have to say that it is unsustainable. And from the point of the United States, it seems to us that this is really a terrible way of trying to fight the war on terrorism. The answer to terrorism is stable, democratic states, not by army warlords. And as Salim Lone said, some of these people that the U.S. has armed are actually terrorists themselves. So it seems to me that even the U.S. trying to protect its interests in the region is going about it in a horribly, terribly bad way. And I don’t see how they are going to sustain it. It seems to me they will make the situation much worse.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Nii Akuetteh, executive director of Africa Action. Also want to thank Salim Lone, former U.N. official, who wrote the piece in the Daily Nation in Kenya, and Said Samatar, professor of African history at Rutgers. Thanks so much for being with us.

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