Leading article: Two failed states, united by a common grievance

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The Independent Online

On the face of it, Somalia and Liberia have a considerable amount in common. Both nations, on either side of the African continent, have been classic "failed states". Somalia has been in anarchy for the past 15 years. For much of that same period, a vicious civil war has been tearing Liberia apart. Both countries also seem to be emerging from that chaos. The Liberian dictator, Charles Taylor, has been ousted and a US-educated economist, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, elected as President a year ago. In Somalia, the internationally-recognised government swept into the capital, Mogadishu, last week with the military support of neighbouring Ethiopia.

But to assume that either country has a brighter future is dangerous. The Somali government has little legitimacy. Just a few weeks ago, it could barely control one town in the country. An organisation called the Council of Islamic Courts held power in the capital and much of southern Somalia. Indeed, some semblance of order was returning to the country for the first time in years. The Courts' supporters melted away in face of superior firepower. But they could emerge again when the Ethiopian army leaves. Yesterday we learned this could happen within weeks. The Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, has called on the international community to send in replacement peacekeepers as quickly as possible.

Yet even if such forces arrive, they are unlikely to be deployed in sufficient numbers. The African Union has its hands full in Darfur. The UN is preoccupied with Lebanon, Congo and Liberia. Washington, suspected of having encouraged the Ethiopian invasion, is not going to put US troops on the ground. Even if it were not tied down by Iraq, America is too traumatised by its previous disastrous 1993 intervention in the country.

Liberia has enormous problems too. The country is still struggling with the legacy of its vicious civil war. Former militants, many of them disturbed child soldiers, have still not been absorbed into normal life. Gang rape, developed as an instrument of warfare, is still a major social problem. There is extreme poverty among the population too. Half live on less than half a dollar a day. Disease is rampant. Health is among the worst in the world. It is little wonder that life expectancy in Liberia is only 40 years.

Liberia's crisis is far from over. But at least this country has hope. It has had a national reckoning of sorts. Taylor is on trial for war crimes. In Ms Johnson-Sirleaf it has the first female president of an African country. She is doing admirably too, having sacked several corrupt officials and promoted women's rights. Largely because of her, Liberia is considerably further down the road to stability than Somalia. But the two nations do have a shared - and justified - grievance. Both have been poorly treated by the international community. The Liberian government is saddled with $3.7bn of debt. None of this has been written off as promised under the 2005 G8 deal at Gleneagles. Aid increases have not arrived either. Ms Johnson-Sirleaf argues in her interview with The Independent today that resources promised to desperately poor countries like hers are being diverted to states which the West fears, rightly or wrongly, could become havens of Islamic extremism.

Somalia has been ignored since the US pulled out 14 years ago. Now the terror threat has caused the world to take a new interest. But for how long will Somalia remain in the spotlight? Is there to be a concerted internationally supported push to restore order? Or will Somalia be neglected, as Afghanistan was after the toppling of the Taliban? The precedents are anything but encouraging.