- By Elizabeth DickinsonElizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based Deca journalist.
When Somalia drops out of the news, it doesn’t usually mean that it’s all quiet on the East African front. It just means there’s no pirates involved.
That’s exactly what the weekend looked like in Somalia: eventful but (relatively) pirate free. Now, the big troubles are on land. On Saturday, a desperate Somali government begged neighboring countries for troops to shore up its grip on, well, a few blocks of the capital, Mogadishu.
On Sunday, militant group al-Shabab promised to kill any foreign troops that came to Somalia to bring calm. (Actually, the spokesman was a little more explicit: “We tell you that our dogs and cats will enjoy eating the dead bodies of your boys if you try to respond to the calls of these stooges.”)
And sure enough, yesterday, the Christian Science Monitor reported that Ethiopian troops, who left Somalia earlier this year after several years of occuption, are back and ready to defend the government — for better or for worse.
What’s going on in Somalia is the battle for the country’s very soul that was supressed for several years under Ethiopian occupation, but has never really gone away. The two major Islamist groups posing a challenge to the central government today are al-Shabab, and Hizbul Islam, headed by the often Eritrea-based Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys. They control much of Somalia, from what scant press reports can tell. Their forces are more armed and numerous than those of the government. And in some cases, they have a bit more street credibility as well. If either were to take power, as they have in some localities, they would likely install Sharia law. Both forces resisted the unpopular Ethiopian occupation the first time around. This time would be no different.
What is different is that this time around, the Islamist groups are looking more serious than mere street gangs. A report in the East African compares Somalia to Afghanistan and Pakistan — and makes the not-so-unimagineable claim that “Last month, several hundred jihadis came to link up with Al Shabaab’s latest offensive, and now the Taliban are reportedly flocking to Somalia en masse.”
Makes the pirates look pretty benign, if you ask me.