The Horn of Africa is once again on the edge. After years of chaos and warlord-ism, an ultra-conservative Islamist movement known as the Union of Islamic Courts has begun to unify Somalia. This unification via the whip, reminiscent of the approach of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, is linked to a mythical view of fundamentalist Islam counterpoised to the terror that the Somali people have experienced since the 1991 overthrow of long-time dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.
The ironies in Somalia are many. Most of the rest of the world was prepared to be content while Somalia degenerated into clan and warlord chaos for most of the last 15 years. Only with the rise of the right-wing Islamist movement known as the Union of Islamic Courts, and allegations — never proven — of ties with Al Qaeda, did a buzz of concern begin to spread about what could unfold.
Since the overthrow of Barre, there have been countless attempts to resolve the turmoil and create a new national government. Each effort failed.
Thus, it should have been no surprise that a movement would rise, promising stability and order. The fact that this movement is highly repressive and seeks to criminalize much of the behavior that has been part of Somali society — such as films and certain music — should also not surprise anyone, since desperate conditions often lead to desperate and irrational decisions.
This is a matter that must be settled, ultimately, by the Somali people.
Into this mix have stepped both Ethiopia and Eritrea. Since the degeneration of their relationship and the insane war that the two countries fought over their border from 1998 to 2000, tensions have remained high. Somalia has now become a site for a proxy fight between the two sides, with the Ethiopians supporting the Somali transitional government and the Eritreans allegedly supporting the Union of Islamic Courts. There is profound danger in this game of regional politics.
Standing behind this entire mess appears to be the United States. No surprise there. The Bush administration is concerned about the rise of the Union of Islamic Courts and, having branded them as Al Qaeda lite, wishes to see this movement blocked, if not destroyed.
It appears that the Ethiopian government, led by a regime that at one point claimed to be anti-imperialist, chose to serve the interests of the United States in this case. Thus, not only does Ethiopia face the prospect of a deadly, long-term conflict to its south, but the United States faces the prospect of potential involvement should the conflict evolve either into another Ethiopian/Eritrean war or should the Union of Islamic Courts gain public sympathy because they are seen as victims of the one global superpower.
One can disagree with and, indeed, fear the Union of Islamic Courts, while at the same time recognizing that the Somali people will need to resolve this situation. The involvement of other nations does nothing to advance a desperately needed peace process, but instead pushes the situation toward a dramatic escalation. Not only must the United States stay out of Somalia, but all friends of Africa must insist that Ethiopia and Eritrea step back from the precipice. The flames of hell are already scorching their feet.
Bill Fletcher Jr. is a long-time labor and international writer and activist.