The Somalia threat

2010-08-13 00:00

IT took the terrorist attack by al-Shabab on Kampala during the final match of the World Cup for South Africa to wake up to the threat posed by the anarchy of Somalia.

Generally referred to as the world’s most notable failed state, it is a relic of Cold War meddling. Without any lasting or effective government or civil authority for 20 years, it has been remarkably successful at exporting refugees, piracy and, more recently, terrorism.

Ironically, Somalia has an advantage possessed by few African nations — a linguistically and religiously homogeneous population. But it has been a victim of post-colonial interference, regional territorial claims and tensions (most notably involving Ethiopia and Eritrea, two increasingly authoritarian states), and internal clan rivalry. Large numbers of its people have fled and there is a substantial refugee population in South Africa, a persistent target for xenophobic attack.

This is ideal territory for al-Shabab, an Islamist terrorism outfit supported by Iran that seems at present to be the most active branch of al-Qaeda. One of its commanders is from the Comores. Al-Shabab controls much of southern Somalia.

In May 2009, it shot down a Kenyan helicopter, but it is currently on the back foot against the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its new allies from the Sufi militias. Current strategy in Western capitals is to do a deal with the TFG, including its fundamentalist elements, in order to neutralise the growing terrorist threat. This appears to involve acceptance of an Islamist state, flying in the face of traditional Somali secularism.

South African interest in contributing to the beleaguered African Union force (Amisom) in Somalia, at present staffed largely from Uganda and Burundi, could be a reaction to Western pressure. Or it may be part of post-World Cup hubris and a sense of renewed continental importance. Whatever the reason, South African involvement will not be easy. There is currently no peace to keep in Somalia and there is a sense that any multinational force is set up for failure. With violent clan rivalry a well-established way of life, and the prospective government no more than a volatile alliance, it is hard to be too optimistic about future stability.

South Africa has been providing training support to Amisom, but if its troops are among the extra 2 000 African Union soldiers destined for Somalia, they will find previous peacekeeping duties a walk in the park by comparison. Somalia is reckoned to be the most dangerous place in the world. Indeed, Ugandan troops have had such a hard time that Amisom’s rules of engagement have been changed to a shoot-first policy when under threat.

Al-Shabab describes Amisom as bacteria and infidels, the reason Muslim-majority countries such as Guinea and Djibouti are being encouraged to contribute reinforcements.

There has long been reason for South Africa’s navy to join in the fight against Somali piracy.

The pirates’ reach is enormous — 1 000 nautical miles into the Indian Ocean and very occasionally as far south as the Mozambique channel. It is a massive and underreported threat to international maritime law that has been attributed to Western destruction of the Somali fishing industry. Fishermen may be involved, but this is organised crime on a grand scale. Based in the self-declared (and unrecognised) autonomous region of Puntland, piracy uses sophisticated technology and deadly weaponry, displays considerable bravado and ingenuity, and reaps massive ransoms using a well-developed international system. In 2008, this handled $200 million. Last year, ransoms exceeded the Puntland gross domestic product. Piracy is highly lucrative and tacitly accepted.

This year there have been over 100 attacks and 27 hijackings. The newest area of operation is the Red Sea and the Bab al Mandab straits, where a chemical tanker was seized in July. Piracy can be restricted, with difficulty, at sea. The latest proposed defensive weaponry consists of sonic and water cannons. But it can only be eliminated by defeating its land-based masterminds. The United Nations has authorised hot-pursuit operations in Somalia, but the problem is one of knowing whose jurisdiction pirates fall under once captured.

Aside from terrorism and piracy, there is another Somalia. The former British protectorate to the north, now known as Somaliland, declared its independence in 1991 but is unrecognised. Yet, while poor, it has a functioning government and a police force, a business community and a currency. The port of Berbera earns revenue from land-locked Ethiopia. In June it held multiparty elections that resulted in a change of government.

Foreign policy should ideally involve a balance between material interests, practical necessity and moral imperatives.

If South Africa is to be awarded a greater role at the United Nations, a willingness to be actively involved in Africa’s crisis points is a logical price. And the periodic persecution of its Somali refugees suggests that South Africa has a moral obligation to play a part in restoring some semblance of normality to their country.

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