After months of tough fighting, Somali government forces and their African Union allies this week defeated fighters of the al-Shabaab militant Islamic group and opened up the key 240-kilometre road between the capital, Mogadishu, and the strategic central city of Baidoa.
Friday, April 05, 2013
The victory for the government forces and the 17,000 soldiers of the African Union force in Somalia, known as AMISOM, is the latest in a series of defeats for the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabaab group, which controlled almost all of Somalia until April last year.
Now most of the major towns and cities in Somalia - which has had no effective government since the ouster of dictator Siad Barre by regional clan warlords in 1991 - are in the hands of the AMISOM forces, drawn from Kenya, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Burundi and Djibouti, as well as Ethiopia, which is operating independently.
But al-Shabaab retains its grip on much of the countryside and has shown it is ready and able to retake towns and cities whenever the intervention forces offer an opening.
The fragility of the success of AMISOM and government forces is of mounting concern because of evidence of discord and frustration among the regional intervention contingents.
Ethiopia in particular is keen to withdraw its force of several thousand soldiers, the most formidable and best armed of the foreign troops who began arriving in 2011.
But the Addis Ababa government is showing impatience at AMISOM's slowness in finding other countries willing to replace the Ethiopian troops.
In what is being widely interpreted as a demonstration by Addis Ababa of its frustration and the dangers, Ethiopian troops late last month withdrew from the southwestern Somali town of Hudur.
Thousands of civilians and the poorly equipped and inadequately trained Somali government troops went with them, fearing the al-Shabaab militants would fill the vacuum. These fears were well founded, and militants swept back into Hudur within a matter of hours.
To remind the local people that an unmerciful interpretation of Islamic law again rules their lives, the al-Shabaab fighters publicly beheaded a well-known local Muslim cleric whom they accused of collaborating with government and Ethiopian forces.
The demonstration by Ethiopia and the loss of Hudur has caused outspoken consternation among regional leaders. Government administrators are all too well aware that their own military and police forces, often made up of clan militia fighters, are unable to guarantee security.
Somalia's hopes for getting beyond the chaos and bloodshed that have dogged the country for more than 20 years still depend on the contingents of foreign soldiers.
But even the 17,000 AMISOM soldiers are not nearly enough to defeat al-Shabaab or provide security outside the towns and cities.
The government of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, which took power last year with the United Nations' blessing after the removal of a deeply corrupt and ineffectual transitional administration, is now being criticized for its claim that al-Shabaab has been defeated.
It is now clear both from the Hudur incident and a string of suicide and other bomb attacks that at the very least, al-Shabaab has the capacity to mount a terrorist war, even in the cities. If the AMISOM forces leave too soon or drop their guard, al-Shabaab will be back in force.
The uncertainty about security is an unwelcome backdrop to continuing discord about the design of a new federal constitution for Somalia.
After the ouster of dictator Barre, Somalia fragmented.
The major fissure was between the old British protectorate of Somaliland in the north and the former Italian colony of Somalia in the south from which the independent country was formed in 1960.
Somaliland has done very well as a separate state since 1991, and many of its people are reluctant to rejoin the south, although Turkey is going to host talks on reunification.
Another secession was Punt-land on the very tip of the Horn of Africa. But most of Somalia fractured into petty fiefdoms under the control of warlords from the 33 clans on which the country's social structure is based.
Many people, therefore, welcomed the security imposed by the Islamic Courts Union, predecessor of al-Shabaab, when it took control after 1999, even though, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, it imposed a harsh interpretation of Islamic law.
Now the authority of clan elders has returned, and there is much dispute about the size and powers of regional administrations within the federation.
Late last month, local leaders met in the southern coastal city of Kismayo, liberated from al-Shabaab by invading Kenyan forces early last year.
The local leaders, heavily influenced by Ahmed Madobe, the warlord of the highly profitable port city of Kismayo, want to include the regions of Juba, Lower Juba and Gedo in the new regional authority.
Madobe, supported by neighbouring Kenya, wants to remain master of the region, but President Mohamud fears what is being created is not a federation so much as, yet again, a collection of warlord states.