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


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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration Engineer

£24000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: These refrigeration specialists...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Logistics and Supply Chain

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an operational role and...

Recruitment Genius: CNC Sheet Metal Worker / Fabricator

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working within the workshop of ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st / 2nd Line IT Support Engineer

£20000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This specialist high tech compa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A German prostitute, called Eve, waits for clients behind her window in the red light district of Amsterdam on December 8, 2008. Under a plan called Coalitions Project 2012, unveiled on December 6, 2008 by the city council, Amsterdam plans to halve the number of prostitution windows and cannabis-vending coffee shops in a revamp of its historic center aimed at curbing rising crime. Prostitution was legalized in the Netherlands in 2000 ANOEK DE GROOT/AFP/Getty Images  

As a former prostitute, it feels wonderful that there are now places where I could not legally be for sale

Diane Martin

Charles Kennedy: A talented politician and a great friend, with a shared enemy

Alastair Campbell
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral