Can African peacekeepers tame Somalia?

The UN Security Council on Wednesday backed the speedy deployment of an African force.

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Pushing Somalia's Islamists out of power in Mogadishu took less than two weeks for Somali government and Ethiopian forces. Keeping them out, and keeping the peace in the midst of what some say is becoming an Iraq-style insurgency, could be a much more difficult job.

Western money will help to foot the bill, but it will be African peacekeepers, from countries like Uganda, Nigeria, and South Africa, who risk their lives in Somali towns that haven't known peace for more than 15 years. The United Nations Security Council on Wednesday backed the speedy deployment of an African peacekeeping force.

Sending African troops may please Western powers, but it doesn't go down well at home, where poor African countries like Uganda and Nigeria have myriad problems of their own, from unemployment and illiteracy to ongoing domestic conflicts. And, while many see the moment as an opportunity to provide African solutions to African problems, the failure of the African Union peacekeeping force to provide security in Darfur, Sudan, is not an promising sign.

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"What we've learned over the years is that if you want peacekeeping, you have to have peace, and you don't have it in Somalia," says Alex de Waal, an Africa expert at the Social Science Research Council in New York. "That's the reason the African Union mission has failed in Darfur, and it's the main reason the proposed UN mission for Chad is also problematic."

"The African Union has a lot of ongoing peacekeeping missions that are extremely risky," says Mr. De Waal. "The powers that be are beating their heads against the wall trying to get the AU to move, but everything we know about peacekeeping says that this is not how we do it. What we would see in the future is a very difficult set of problems arising, trying to fight an urban confrontation like the one in 1993, when the US took on General Aideed and you had 'Black Hawk Down'."

Somali anger after US airstrike

The situation in Mogadishu now is growing worse, with reports of Somali and Ethiopian soldiers skirmishing with Islamic militiamen.

The increased violence comes days after the US launched at least one airstrike aimed at killing suspected Al Qaeda terrorists in southern Somalia. Reports earlier this week that the strike killed Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, one of the three senior Al Qaeda members blamed for the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, proved to be false.

In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni unveiled plans to send a battalion of at least 700 Ugandan troops specially trained and equipped for the job. So far, he is the only African leader who has committed to sending troops.

Ethiopia, which sent thousands of troops into Somalia to fight alongside Somali government forces, has indicated that its troops will be withdrawn within weeks. Other East African member-nations in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) gave their support to Ethiopia's intervention on condition that Ethiopia would quickly withdraw.

Amid Western pressure, Africans concerned

Despite Mr. Museveni's enthusiasm, many Ugandan leaders have repeatedly expressed concerns about sending soldiers to Somalia.

"We want to know, what is our objective? How long are we going to stay? And how will we be able to pull out?" says Oryem Okello, the state minister for Foreign Affairs in Museveni's own government.

Many Ugandans say their country should not participate until it resolves its own conflicts.

"Is 20 years and more of war in Uganda not enough to let us build and consolidate peace first in Uganda?" asks Vincent Abura, a Ugandan resident.

Yet a quiet but feverish round of diplomacy by Washington has sweetened the deal. The US has agreed to donate $16 million for the proposed African force, which was endorsed by the UN before the war. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Uganda's foreign minister, Sam Kutesa, in Washington last month that she believes Al Qaeda elements are backing the Somali Islamists.

Uganda Presidential Press Secretary Tamale Mirundi confirmed a recent phone conversation between President George Bush and Museveni in which Uganda was asked to intervene in Somalia.

"The motivation of Uganda is political, partly to keep in America's good books," says de Waal. "Museveni's record on democracy leaves a lot to be desired, and closer to home he's fearful of a resurgence in militant Islam. So the Ugandans want to make sure they are part of some regional coalition with Nigeria and Ethiopia to keep it at bay."

Nigeria, too, has practical reasons for joining the peacekeeping mission in Somalia, says de Waal. "The US could cut a lot of slack for Nigeria. If they stay on side, they can get away with fiddling with elections, get away with corruption. Being a friendly nation is very helpful."

Yet John Prendergast, a senior adviser for the International Crisis Group in Washington, says that the new strategy of forcing peacekeeping onto the backs of poorer nations is a moral failure of the UN and the richer nations of the West.

"This should be a UN responsibility," says Mr. Prendergast. "We are placing all of the burdens of responding to African conflicts on Africa, while the UN deals with the rest of the world, because we want to keep these crises at arm's length. This is a perverse trend that will be reversed years from now only through failure, resulting from too few troops with too little support from donor nations. In the meantime, people from Darfur and Somalia will be left to suffer the consequences."

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