Somalia: an under-reported failed state
Updated on 06 February 2009
Jonathan Rugman looks at the fate of country that has been a failed state for longer than most of its citizens can remember.
What is the most under-reported story of our time? Probably a story which is evolving at its own slow pace in such a way that journalists don't choose to notice it. After all, our trade is notoriously bad at covering processes, preferring the news allure of events.
What television journalists are additionally bad at, though with some justification, is covering stories that don't have many pictures. Darfur, maybe? Though Somalia is something of an obsession of mine at the moment and therefore has my vote.
Somalia has been a failed state for more years than most Somalis can remember. The death toll in the last two years is something like 17,000 though estimates vary. At least a million people have fled from Mogadishu, and a third of the population needs food aid.
We used to have a cameraman providing us with extraordinary material from Somalia itself, but the cameraman now considers it too dangerous to work there.
The Dadaab refugee camp in neighbouring Kenya is now so full of Somalis that it can lay claim to being one of the biggest refugee camps in the world. That's 247,182 people in Dadaab's three sites according to the latest UNHCR count.
We used to have a cameraman providing us with extraordinary material from Somalia itself, sent by courier in a jiffy bag, but the cameraman now considers it too dangerous to work there. No wonder. This week the head of a Somali radio station was shot dead. Six aid workers were reportedly beheaded by Islamist militia in December alone.
And the sight of a new Somali president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, elected by MPs last week, does not inspire much confidence. The UN backs Sheikh Sharif, but two days after he was elected in the safety of neighbouring Djibouti, the Sheikh showed up at a summit in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.
Yes Ethiopia, the very country which has only just withdrawn its troops from Somalia itself. And not surprisingly, some of the Islamist warlords who had been busily fighting the Ethiopians for the last two years had a thing or two to say about that.
"We shall fight the so-called government of Sharif in every place!" said Sheikh Hayakalah, of the hard-line Al-Shabaab ("The Youth") militia, which with its associate Islamist groups controls much of southern Somalia.
"He is now with our number one enemy, Ethiopia, and calling for more support from non-believers. Imagine how Sharif, who was once our leader, deceived us and Islam!" he continued.
Reuters also quoted the Al-Shabaab spokesman for the port of Kismayu, Sheikh Hassan Yacqub, as follows:
"Sharif Ahmed is a traitor and we should fight him! Help us with your sons, weapons and wealth, so that we uproot this irreligious government of Sharif before it gets strong!"
The Somalis may have finished fighting the Ethiopians for now, but they haven't finished fighting one another.
As you will have gathered from the above, President Sharif's first and unenviable task will be binding various fractious factions together. Some of those factions are relatively moderate (Somalia has traditionally pursued a moderate version of Islam).
But others want nothing less than Sharia law. The view being (and it is a view which bears some examination) that only religion can bring Somalia's warring clans together.
Sheikh Sharif once led the Islamic Courts Union until the Ethiopians invaded. As such he's a known commodity to his fellow Islamists, and maybe he can win them over. But while it is true that Al-Shabaab once formed the armed wing of Sheikh Sharif's movement, it has now fragmented and become battle-hardened by two years of war.
So the Somalis may have finished fighting the Ethiopians for now, but they haven't finished fighting one another. And only when that stops can this begin to become anything other than a failed state.