In 2008, Somalia became the scene of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and observers say it’s unclear what 2009 will bring to the country. VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu is closely following developments there. From Nairobi, she spoke to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua.
“It was a very, very turbulent year for Somalia in every respect. There was a lot of hope in the beginning that Somalia might try to become a lot more stable this year (2008). There was a great deal of effort on (the part of) the United Nations and the international community to try to kick start peace talks between the moderate faction of the Islamist group and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The (peace) process known as the Djibouti Agreement was finally inked in June. It was hoped that that would be able to solve the insurgency problem that has been raging in Somalia for the past two years. Unfortunately, it did not. It created a lot more problems than it intended because the Islamist movement itself began fracturing. The Transitional Federal Government itself was in complete disarray because of infighting between the president and prime minister. The president, Abdullahi Yusuf, has just resigned as a result of all the problems that had occurred within the TFG, which made it very ineffectual,” she says.
Looking ahead to 2009, Ryu says, “A lot more uncertainty in Somalia because right now the situation is very fluid in terms of what’s going to happen with the Islamist opposition. They’re already starting to fight amongst themselves for this power vacuum that is supposed to be arising from the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops out of Somalia. And if they leave, will the Islamists themselves – hardliners in the Islamist movement and somewhat of the moderates – will they start slugging it out amongst themselves? And then what happens to the Transitional Federal Government? The president is no longer there. The speaker of parliament is going to be taking over for a while, but then they need to establish a new president so that they can have a functioning government of some kind that can negotiate with the moderate Islamists…and perhaps create a new unity government. But none of that is certain. Somalia is one big question mark.”Is Ethiopia leaving Somalia having accomplished its security mission there or has it learned some hard lessons dealing with the insurgency? Ryu says, “I think it’s leaving Somalia with a degree of frustration and I may even say a bit of resentment towards the West. I think Ethiopia when it intervened militarily in Somalia in 2006, it was under the impression that it was going to be there for a very short time. It did get US support to do that in order to go in and take out the hard-line Islamist group called the Shabaab that was taking over the Islamist movement that was in power in Somalia for six months in 2006. Ethiopia, I think, felt that it was going to be a quick military strike and that the TFG would be able to gain control of the situation and to bring some stability to the country. And then troops from the African Union would then come in and add more stability. Well, none of that happened. As soon as the Ethiopians came in the insurgency began, fighting increased, creating a terrible humanitarian situation, which is one of the worst in the world, if not the worst in the world. Thousands of people dead, up to three million in dire need of food aid now.”
Ryu says Ethiopia may have felt it was left alone to bear the burden of Somalia and the insurgency. “Ethiopia neither had the will nor the power to do that and so I think it decided, well, we have to leave.”
2008 was the year of the pirate off the Somali and Kenya coastlines. The international community has responded to the threat to both cargo and passenger ships alike, but it is difficult to patrol the entire Gulf of Aden and beyond.
“The pirates certainly have done very, very well in 2008, no doubt about it. The piracy situation -- probably starting February is when it started garnering some attention and then has steadily escalated throughout 2008 until to a point in September when something like five or six vessels were being hijacked in one single day. And it shocked everybody in the international community. They just didn’t believe that the Somalis would have that kind of sophistication or try to go after these big large vessels…. And when they became successful, then it started making headlines,” she says.
Ships from over 12 countries are now patrolling the waters prowled by Somali pirates, trying to protect shipping routes. But it’s been a lucrative year. Ryu says, “The pirates have garnered something like $120 million or more and that is a tremendous amount for a country that barely can feed itself…. So maybe a thousand pirates are making a tremendous amount of money.”
The VOA correspondent says it’s unclear who’s receiving the money besides the pirates. Observers say some Somali politicians may be involved, as well as Islamist groups. Ryu adds, “It’s the ordinary Somalis themselves who are being left out of this whole process and they are not getting anything.”