The Next Great War of Africa?

The Second Congo War, which gripped the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the turn of the new millennium (1998-2003), is sometimes also called the Great African War or Africa's World War.  The reason is simple, at the height of the hostilities, the armies of no less than eight nations were directly involved in combat, along with two dozen foreign-backed militias, ranging from independence-minded ethnic movements to the nihilistic death cult, the Lord's Resistance Army.  As one would expect from such a multi-faceted conflict, the reasons behind the war are both numerous and complex, but for some of the belligerents, the Great War of Africa allowed for them to engage in war-by-proxy – a conflict then between two state actors without an outright declaration of hostilities, call it war with plausible deniability.  One such example from the war was the Rwandan government's backing of Tutsi militias in the Congo as part of their their ongoing inter-ethnic campaign against the Hutus.

It seems now that a Second Great African War is shaping up in that most failed of failed states, Somalia.  While Somalia's two decades of lawlessness have been marked by an almost constant level of conflict among warlords, militias, Islamist forces and the occasional foreign power, the situation has taken a more serious turn in recent weeks.

In late October, Kenya launched Operation Linda Nchi, a military incursion deep into southern Somalia.  The casus belli for Linda Nchi were the kidnap of a handful of Western tourists by al-Shabaab, the group that has emerged as the strongest of Somalia's militant Islamist militias.  The Kenyans' plan was to cut across the southern quadrant of Somalia to the port of Kismayo, al-Shabaab's base of operations, clearing the land of the Islamic militants as they went.  Kenya is no stranger to meddling in the affairs of their neighbor – for years Somalia's would-be national government, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) met in exile in Kenya, while earlier this year Kenya supported the creation of Jubaland, a new autonomous region within Somalia, whose “government” vowed to fight al-Shabaab - with Kenya's financial support, of course.  Operation Linda Nchi though, marked a turning point for Kenya, since it was the first time ever in Kenya's history that their military launched an incursion beyond their own borders.

But six weeks on, Linda Nchi is turning into a quagmire for the Kenyans.  Al-Shabaab, taking a page from the insurgent's playbook, has largely melted into the population rather than confronting the Kenyan military directly.  Meanwhile, heavy seasonal rains have bogged down the Kenyan drive towards Kismayo and grounded the Kenyan air force.  The result is an ever more-costly military mission that is yielding few tangible results.  The situation has gotten to the point where last week Kenya asked Ethiopia if they would join in on Operation Linda Nchi; the Ethiopians demurred, remembering their own unfortunate Somalia experience.  In 2006, it seemed like Somalia's era of lawlessness might be at an end as an umbrella group of Muslim forces came together as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and largely routed the warlords who at the time controlled much of southern Somalia, including the capital, Mogadishu.  But seeing a powerful Islamic group on the rise in Somalia was too much for Christian Ethiopia, which launched its own military mission, ostensibly to install the rightful government of Somalia, the TFG, who were cooling their heels in Kenya.  Initially the mission went well for Ethiopia, and the TFG finally returned to their capital, but the mission soon turned into a protracted guerrilla campaign. After two years, the Ethiopians had enough and withdrew, leaving an undermanned African Union peacekeeping force (AMISOM) to defend Mogadishu and a militant al-Shabaab as the most powerful faction to emerge from the wreckage of the more moderate ICU.  Ethiopia replied to Kenya that they preferred to support the Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca, a Somali pro-Mogadishu/anti-al-Shabaab militia of their own creation rather than joining in Operation Linda Nchi directly.

For their part, at the start of 2011, al-Shabaab looked like they would become the dominant force in southern Somalia.  They struck an accord to absorb their main Islamist rival, Hizbul Islam, forced the Somali pirates based in the port of Haradheere (known for having its own Pirate Stock Exchange), north of Mogadishu, to pay al-Shabaab a tax on all of their lucrative pirating activity, and boasted of links to the world's most famous terror organization, al-Qaeda.  But in response, Uganda poured more troops and resources into AMISOM and went on an offensive against al-Shabaab in and around Mogadishu.  By this autumn the situation had gotten bad enough that al-Shabaab announced a “strategic withdrawal” from Mogadishu, into the rural hinterlands of southern Somalia, much of the same region the Kenyans are now trying to trek across.

Support for the Ugandan mission has come from several countries, including the United States, which fears that anarchic Somalia could become a safe haven for al-Qaeda in much the same way that anarchic Afghanistan did in the 1990s.  The US has given financial and material support to Uganda's portion of the AMISOM mission, helping them to become much more effective against al-Shabaab, according to a recent article in The Nation.  That article also went on to discuss a secret CIA-run detention facility in Mogadishu for suspected al-Qaeda militants.  The skies above Somalia are now routinely patrolled by American drone aircraft, launched from bases in neighboring countries like Djibouti and Ethiopia. But the US is also inadvertently supplying al-Shabaab as well: according to the same Nation article, some of weapons used by al-Shabaab militias are US-made guns supplied to Uganda and sold by their underpaid AMISOM troops on the black market in Mogadishu.  There have also been reports of Somali-Americans, youth brought to the US on refugee visas, returning home, joining al-Shabaab and offering themselves up as suicide bombers.  Al-Shabaab's other main patron is rumored to be Eritrea.  Muslim Eritrea fought a bloody, three-decade civil war against Ethiopia, which resulted in Eritrea's independence in 1993, and Ethiopia's loss of their Red Sea coastline.  Ethiopia has long accused Eritrea of supporting Islamic militias in Somalia as part of an undeclared continuation of their civil war.  Ethiopia, and Somalia's other neighbors are now pushing the United Nations to levee sanctions against Eritrea for their backing of al-Shabaab.  It's worth noting here that last Wednesday reports from Somalia were that al-Shabaab had launched a new offensive against Uganda's UNISOM contingent in Mogadishu.

So as 2011 draws to a close, we find no fewer than five foreign powers involved in Somalia, two of whom have active, ongoing military missions within their territory.  Also active are a host of militias drawing support from foreign lands, and we only briefly mentioned the actions of the Somali pirates and didn't discuss at all Somaliland – a de facto, though internationally unrecognized, nation carved from the northern quarter of Somalia.  It is a situation that provides some clear parallels with the DRC at the turn of the century, only this time with the involvement of the United States and al-Qaeda, meaning Africa's next Great War could soon begin

Africa, Islam, Kenya, Pirates, Somalia, US Foreign Policy