Richard Dowden: This war in Africa should not be taking place

Nothing will unite Somalis like a fight with Ethiopia, with whom they've fought two wars

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It's religion. It's nationalism. It's clan. It's money. It's strategic. It's personal. The war in Somalia is all of these things and more. But one truth stands above all of them: it was - and maybe still is - avoidable.

Somalia has lain broken since 1991 when the last national government fled and the country was ruled by clan warlords. The north, the old British protectorate of Somaliland, elected a government and declared itself independent. No one recognised it. The north-east, Puntland, also has its own government but does not claim independence. Civil war rumbled on in the rest of Somalia.

Despite several attempts, no national government has ever been accepted by all parties. One reason was that Ethiopia undermined the efforts because it did not want a strong central government in Somalia - in effect Ethiopia's eastern coastline. The latest effort, the Transitional Federal Government formed in Kenya in 2004, has little support within the country and fell apart as soon as it tried to return. In February it moved to the western town of Baidoa unable to reach the capital Mogadishu.

Meanwhile, the Americans have recently become interested in Somalia again because it believes it is a haven for "terrorists". Earlier this year the Americans employed some "good guys" to go and get the "bad guys". Those good guys were in fact some of Somalia's nastiest warlords. That united other Somalis as nothing else has done since 1991 and they came together under the Union of Islamic Courts. The Courts are a disparate group of varying degrees of Islamic militancy. They at least brought peace to their areas and in May led the charge against the warlords, driving them from the capital, Mogadishu, and much of the south.

Being disparate, the Courts are difficult to label. There are reports of Islamist training camps funded by al-Qai'da and that they are hiding some who were involved in bombings that targeted westerners in Kenya in 1998 and 2002. The militancy has been fuelled by Saudi Wahabis who have poured money into relief aid and Islamic education in Somalia. Lacking basic security and hope, many Somalis have unsurprisingly turned to religion in the face of lawlessness and poverty. But Somalia has no tradition of intolerance or militancy and its politics tend to be local, clan-based and personal. Attempts to ban television or force people to stop chewing khat - the Somali equivalent of a pint down the pub, go down as well in Mogadishu as they might in Manchester.

Their growing power, however, has put Ethiopia in a quandary. An ancient Christian empire, its greatest threat has always come from militant Islam. If there is one thing worse than a failed state on its eastern border it is an Islamist state. In this they are at one with their American allies whose one-eyed, anti-terrorism agenda for the region has already strengthened the people they were trying to destroy. Encouraged by Washington and mustering support from a careless United Nations and the African Union who thought they were supporting a peace initiative, the Ethiopians backed the government in Baidoa with force. For domestic reasons Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia needs to portray himself as a nationalist and a friend of the West.

Just to complicate matters the Eritreans, who fought a horrendously pointless war with Ethiopia in the 1990s, are paying and arming the Courts - just to get back at the Ethiopians.

Attacking the Courts - as the Americans did and as the Ethiopians are doing - will however strengthen the militant element. Nothing will unite Somalis like a fight with Ethiopia with whom Somalia fought two major wars in the 1970s. So to establish their own nationalist credibility, the militants promptly marched to Baidoa to drive out the Transitional Government and take on its backer, Ethiopia, the old enemy. After a week of fighting the Ethiopians have hit hard but the Courts have warned of a long war. Who will suffer? As usual the ordinary Somalis, many of whom will be killed or starve to death. Those in the south where the fighting is taking place are now trying to recover from flooding. War will make trade or food deliveries impossible.

Worryingly one of the militant leaders has announced that the Courts want to unite all Somalis. That means, as everyone in the region knows, taking over Puntland, Somaliland, the little state of Djibouti, most of eastern Ethiopia and part of northern Kenya. If Eritrea continues to back the Courts and they are joined by other countries keen to hit American allies, this war could get a lot bigger and more chaotic. At least all the main actors still have names and mobile numbers. There is still time to talk.

The author is director of the Royal African Society

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