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Two decades on, no end in sight for Somali conflict

There seems to be no end in sight for Somalia's civil war which has griped the country for two decades

AFP , Wednesday 26 Jan 2011
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On the 20th anniversary of president Mohamed Siad Barre's ouster that triggered Somalia's descent into chaos and one of Africa's longest civil wars, prospects for peace remain slim, analysts said.

The Horn of Africa country is now best known to the outside world for being the place that inspired the Hollywood war movie "Black Hawk Down" and the reason the term "failed state" was coined.

Its seaside capital, once famed for its Italian colonnades and some of the best espresso in Africa is now a bombed-out shell where those residents who have no place to flee to risk coming under mortar fire on a quasi-daily basis.

More than a dozen attempts have failed to restore stability, and the country's current western-backed government has been shrivelled by an Islamist insurgency.

President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed controls just a few sectors of Mogadishu and stays holed up in his fortified Villa Somalia except when heading to the airport under heavy escort.

"The Somalia situation is deeply rooted in a myriad of complex problems, stemming from it's multi-clan break up," said said Oswald Felli, the director of risk assessments at New York-based DaMina Advisors.

"Therefore no amount of money or logistical support will be able to resolve Somalia's problem," he added.

Independence in Somalia started comparatively well and in 1967 even produced the first post-colonial African leader to step down gracefully, Adan Abdulle Osman. He accepted defeat, transferred power to Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke and retired. The calm was short-lived.

Sharmarke was assassinated in 1969, then Mohamed Siad Barre seized power. When the cold war ended so did the system that had propped up his regime and Barre himself was toppled by a coalition of opposing clans on 26 January 1991.

"Siad Barre's Somalia was ... a state that was built on the diplomatic and economic conditions of the cold war," said Roland Marchal, a Somalia specialist with French research institute CNRS. "Once the cold war was over it was obviously very difficult to keep going."

During the 1990s, Somalia was ruled by a patchwork of warlords. A 1992 US-led intervention ended disastrously and later a UN mission also pulled out.

An Islamist movement, which ousted a Washington-backed warlord alliance, took over large swathes of territory and imposed its rule in 2006, prompting Ethiopia to send in troops.

In early 2007, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) also deployed its first troops to protect the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

"The TFG regime is so hopeless that, despite the millions of dollars that the United States and the European Union have poured into training and arming 9,000 troops for it... fewer than 1,000 remain," said J. Peter Pham, Senior Vice President of New York-based National Committee on American Foreign Policy.

Life expectancy in Somalia in 2010 was less than 50, two-thirds of what it is in the European Union. Some estimates say 400,000 people have died in two decades of conflict. There are an estimated 1.4 million internally displaced in Somalia while 570,000 Somalis live as refugees in neighbouring states.

If Somalis single out clan-based politics, analysts outside the country say the international community's response to the Somalia problem has been consistently inappropriate.

"I would not dignify the cynical policy of throwing increasing, but nonetheless inadequate, numbers of African soldiers into a conflict that they cannot hope to win by calling the approach a ‘strategy’," said Pham. "It is nothing more than a charade whereby the international community pretends to be doing something while it really does nothing."

Pham noted AMISOM, which is regularly targeted by Islamists who have vowed to drive the force out of Somalia, has struggled for four years to reach its authorised troop strength of 8,000.

The international community needs to come up with a new strategy for Somalia, analysts said, with Pham suggesting that a new tactic would "likely be the one that eschews any ambition to rebuild a centralised state from the top-down like the current TFG and its 14 equally failed predecessors."

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