When I went to Baidoa and Mogadishu on 22 December in a last-ditch attempt to prevent conflict in Somalia, I told the leadership of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) that only a political solution could bring about serious chances of lasting peace and stability in their country.
The fighting that has since occurred between the TFG, with the support of Ethiopia, and the Islamic Courts has changed the political landscape in Somalia. No one will lament the demise of the Courts in which radical Islamists had gained the upper hand. But the problem remains unaddressed in the same terms as before: only a process of dialogue and national reconciliation can save Somalia from the curse of recurrent chaos and violence.
Somalia is not doomed. The Somali people are tired of war and violence. They crave peace and a chance to build decent livelihoods. The Somali leaders should seize this opportunity to lay the foundations of a proper state, with functioning institutions, security, public services for all and an environment in which a vibrant Somali private sector can flourish.
A concerted international approach to the crisis is needed more than ever. The European Union, together with other key international actors is committed to help at this critical juncture. Our support will have to be rooted in a Somali-owned process, and we all have the collective responsibility to get it right.
I see three main challenges that need to be addressed. First, security. It is crucial that Ethiopian troops - the current guarantor of stability and TFG power - withdraw quickly and an international stabilisation force deploys in Somalia within weeks. The longer Ethiopian troops stay, the greater the risk the TFG will lose support and credibility. Without doubt the Jihadi elements of the courts that are still active will exploit the Ethiopian presence to launch guerrilla warfare and terrorist action.
Considering the heavily charged history of international military presence in Somalia, some basic parameters must guide the deployment of an international force. Its mandate should focus on ceasefire monitoring and support for the building of effective Somali security forces with the progressive dismantling of militias. This mission should be limited in time, and composed of African troops including contingents from Muslim countries.
The political challenge is even more crucial. An international force should be conditional upon an unequivocal political commitment by the TFG to engage in inter-Somali talks with a view to achieving more representative and all-inclusive institutions. The rise of the Islamic Courts can, to a great extent, be explained by the rejection of power sharing which gave too much weight to warlords.
The Transitional Federal Charter should constitute the basis and framework of such a process. This should pave the way for the drafting and adoption of a new constitution. Such a constitution would almost certainly have to have some sort of federal architecture. What matters most in any case is that power-sharing arrangements be guided by genuinely inclusive considerations rather than personal motives.
The third challenge is that of rebuilding the country. There is an urgent need forrecovery and development assistance and a concerted plan for reconstruction.The EU, as Somalia's biggest aid donor, can play an active part in this process. It is, however, clear that reconstruction can succeed only if there is a genuine political process of reconciliation and power-sharing in place.
Finally, the regional dimension needs to be factored in as the fourth element in the Somali equation. Up until now, Somalia has primarily suffered from external interference and intervention. At the same time, the stability of the Horn of Africa can be ensured only if there is peace and security in Somalia.
Good neighbourly conduct is, therefore, of paramount importance. This can be achieved only through by addressing some of the root causes of regional tensions in the Horn - whether they relate to border disputes, illegal migration flows, or competition for scarce resources such as water. The Horn of Africa is one of the most strategic regions in the world, at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East, bordering the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. It has the potential to become a key trading hub between two continents and a place of vibrant exchanges between cultures and religions.
Only a comprehensive regional agenda based on security and development can help stabilise Somalia and the Horn.
The writer is European Commissioner in charge of relations with Africa, the Pacific and Caribbean countries