Suddenly, after more than 15 years of vicious, vengeful war, there is a chance of peace in Mogadishu, and perhaps in the rest of Somalia. The warlords have fled. In May, as the battles raged, such an outcome was as improbable as Somalia winning the World Cup. Today, peace reigns on Mogadishu's streets and the city has a single authority. This has been achieved by an even more unimaginable and unintended factor: American policy.
Like a fire that incessantly re-lights itself, Somalia has erupted again and again since 1991 in battles for territory, power or honour. The reasons: outside interference and the fractious rivalry between the clans and sub-clans that define Somali life. While Africa's troubles are often blamed on too many "tribes", Somalia, the continent's most disastrous polity, has one ethnicity, one language, one religion, one culture. But the individualistic and recriminatory Somalis find it hard to make the compromises necessary for national coherence.
In 2000 a national government was formed in exile, and in 2004 its assembly elected president one of the warlords, Abdulahi Yusuf. But he has failed to establish the Transitional Federal Government on Somali territory. The three warlords who divided the capital between them did not recognise his authority. With two breakaway regions, Somaliland, the north, and Puntland, the north-east, it looked as if Somalia would remain divided.
Meanwhile Somali businessmen, fed up with having their goods stolen at gunpoint, began funding Islamic courts in Mogadishu to try to establish some law and order. Presided over by Islamic lawyers, the courts formed a Union in 2004, although they remained clan-based - the Habr Gedir court in south Mogadishu cannot charge an Abgal from the north of the city.
Espying al-Qa'ida activists in Mogadishu, America's securocrats reckoned they were being protected by these Islamic courts. They decided to hire some guns to go and get the bad guys. They chose Mogadishu's warlords, and in February and March CIA planes delivered hundreds of thousands of dollars through Isaley airstrip north of Mogadishu. The three warlords, armed with new weaponry, created the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism.
The reaction was devastating - if utterly predictable. Somalia is a very open society, and everyone knew within days about the planeloads of money. For keeping Somalia at war for 15 years, the warlords are already widely hated. So is American meddling. Somalis bitterly remember the bungled American intervention in 1991 which ended with some thousand Somalis and 18 American soldiers killed in a single night - the Blackhawk Down incident. The subsequent abandonment of Somalia by the US and the UN has allowed the country's wounds to fester ever since.
Somalis may be divided by their very Somali-ness but they are united by two factors: their Muslim faith and a xenophobic opposition to interference by outsiders. In May young men with guns poured into the capital from all over Somalia to attack the warlords. After a few fierce battles, it was all over. The warlords fled. At a stroke Washington had achieved the very opposite of what it intended and added an extraordinary and unintended bonus: peace in much of Somalia.
The hesitant and placatory chairman of the Islamic Courts Union, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed Sheik Ahmed, is a member of a Sufi sect. He denies any intention to set up an Islamic state, condemns the desecration of the Christian cemetery in Mogadishu and says he wants to talk to President Yusuf and the Americans.
Somalia has no tradition of Islamic Wahabi militancy - until very recently Somali women did not cover their heads or arms. Somalia's home-grown Islamist movement, al-Itahad, died out some time ago, and the attempt last week by some Islamic Court officers to stop people watching the World Cup in local TV cinemas was quickly stopped. No one tells Somalis what they can watch on TV.
Although the media has concentrated on Sheikh Ahmed, the real power behind the movement is the businessman Abukar Omar Adan, who controls Somalia's busiest port, El Maan, just north of Mogadishu. Like all businessmen, he is open to negotiation. The Islamic Courts have no direct political ambition or capacity, but their support is essential for the establishment of a national government.
Negotiations are the only way forward, but President Yusuf, whose support is in the north-east, knows he can only attain national power by force with the help of outsiders. His main ally in the region is Ethiopia. There are already reports of Ethiopian troops crossing the border. President Yusuf is also supported by the African Union as representative of the Transitional Government. On Monday the AU agreed to send a delegation to examine the possibility of providing peace-keeping troops.
Armed intervention would be a terrible mistake. The role of the AU and all outsiders should be to facilitate an agreement between the courts, the Transitional Government and other power bases. Outsiders can still stir up trouble in Somalia, but this is perhaps its reunification moment, a real chance of a lasting peace.
The author is director of the Royal African SocietyReuse content