Somalia’s transitional government looks as if it is about to flatline. The Ethiopians who have been keeping it alive for two years say they are leaving the country, essentially pulling the plug.
For the past 17 years, Somalia has been ripped apart by anarchy, violence, famine and greed. It seems as though things there can never get worse. But then they do.
The pirates off Somalia’s coast are getting bolder, wilier and somehow richer, despite an armada of Western naval ships hot on their trail. Shipments of emergency food aid are barely keeping much of Somalia’s population of 9 million from starving. The most fanatical wing of Somalia’s Islamist insurgency is gobbling up territory and imposing its own harsh brand of Islamic law, like whipping dancers and stoning a 13-year-old girl to death.
And now, with the government on the brink of collapse and the Islamists about to seize control for the second time, the operative question inside and outside Somalia seems to be: Now what?
“It will be bloody,” predicted Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group, a research institute that tracks conflicts worldwide. “The Ethiopians have decided to let the transitional government sink. The chaos will spread from the south to the north. Warlordism will be back.”
Rashid sees Somalia deteriorating into an Afghanistan-like cauldron of militant Islamism, drawing in hard-core fighters from the Comoros, Zanzibar, Kenya and other neighboring Islamic areas, a process that seems to have already started. Those men will eventually go home, spreading the killer ethos.
“Somalia has now reached a very dangerous phase,” he said. “The whole region is in for more chaos, I’m afraid.”
Most informed predictions go something like this: If the several thousand Ethiopian troops withdraw by next month, as they recently said they would, the 3,000 or so African Union peacekeepers in Somalia could soon follow, leaving Somalia wide open to the Islamist insurgents who have been massing on the outskirts of Mogadishu, the capital.
The transitional government, which in reality controls only a few city blocks of the entire country, will collapse, just as the 13 previous transitional governments did. The only reason it has not happened yet is the Ethiopians.
The government has been a mess for the past few weeks — many would argue for the past few years — with the president and the prime minister bitterly and publicly blaming each other for the country’s crisis. More than 100 of the 275 members of parliament are in Kenya, refusing to go home, saying they will be killed.
Western diplomats, UN officials and the Ethiopians finally seem to be turning against the transitional president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, a cantankerous former warlord in his 70s who has thwarted just about every peace proposal.
But Yusuf’s clan still backs him, and Western diplomats said he might soon flee to his clan stronghold in northeast Somalia.
Most analysts predict that the war-weary people of Mogadishu will initially welcome the Islamists, out of either relief or fear. In 2006, Islamist troops teamed up with clan elders and businessmen to drive out the warlords who had been preying upon Somalia’s people since the central government first collapsed in 1991. The six months the Islamists ruled Mogadishu turned out to be one of the most peaceful periods in modern Somali history.