Somalia: Plunder Me Gently, Or Else


February 24, 2008: Over half the population of Mogadishu (about 600,000 people), the largest city in Somalia, have fled the violence. Nearly 50,000 have let the city this year, and about a thousand casualties have occurred because of the fighting. The clans that traditionally ruled the area are fighting a losing battle with the other southern Somali clans (in the form of the Transitional National Government) and the Ethiopian army. At this point, the best weapon the anti-government forces have is a few mortars, which are fired at the port and government compounds. This causes some fear, but not much damage or casualties. That's because the mortars are being energetically sought by the government and Ethiopian troops. So the mortar crews fire a few rounds, without careful aim, and then run.

The Mogadishu clans had lined up with the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which had organized an invasion of Ethiopia, demanding the annexation of the Ethiopian province of Ogaden. That proved to be a bad idea, even though most of the people in Ogaden are ethnic Somalis. The Islamic Courts Union has largely faded away. The ICU was an attempt by clerics to usurp the traditional clan leaders, and two years ago it seemed like the religious leaders might pull this off. But they failed, and now the clerics are keeping a low profile. Most of the al Qaeda guys are gone, since the American Special Forces troops up north in Djibouti will pay for Islamic terrorists, dead or alive. If not the terrorists themselves, then good information on where the terrorists are. Somalia has become an inhospitable place for Islamic radicals.

The UN has authorized the African Union (AU) peacekeeping operation in Somalia, for another six months. But so far only Uganda and Burundi have sent troops, and only a quarter of the 8,000 man AU forces is in Mogadishu. And these AU troops mainly protect themselves, and the airport. That's something, but does little to end the fighting. The UN is trying to round up countries that would supply troops for a UN peacekeeping force. But there is little enthusiasm for this. About 5,000 Ethiopian troops are having more success, but are not a solution. The clans driven out of Mogadishu have set up housekeeping along roads on the outskirts, and are supported by UN aid organizations. The clan militias see these aid groups as a source of income, but the UN has learned to play hardball. If the clans get too greedy, the UN threatens, and sometimes does, remove itself, and its food, from the area. So the UN aid groups allow themselves to be plundered, but only up to a point. Most of this aid is paid for by the United States.

Up north, Puntland, one of the two unofficial new countries carved out northern Somalia, is coming apart. Unlike its neighbor, Somaliland, which wants to be independent, Puntland declared itself a separate, and well governed, area, until a new national government was created for Somalia. But several of the clans that formed Puntland have split from the coalition. To keep the peace, Puntland has been low key about all this, not wanting to fall into the endless chaos seen in the south.

With the defeat of the Islamic Courts last year, the number of roadblocks (which demand a payment for vehicles to pass) has doubled in central Somalia. There are currently over 300 of these roadblocks, which support thousands of gunmen, who mainly extort payments from UN aid trucks, or vehicles carrying commercial goods for merchants. While there are a few merchants organization that could muster enough muscle to fight their way through, it's safer to just pay. Playing road warrior would create a feud between the clans (where the gunmen at the roadblocks, and the merchant groups, come from). Some of the roadblock gangs are also attacking the warehouses that store the food aid, for distribution.




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