Richard Spring is Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party and MP for West Suffolk
Well over 1000 people have been killed in the Somali capital Mogadishu this month, and 200 plus so far this week. The death toll continues to rise as chaos descends. There are 174,000 refugees in Kenya, which has now tightened its borders. Over 300,000 have fled and attempts to provide UN humanitarian aid have failed.
Many have fled by boat to Yemen; others have drowned or been thrown overboard on the way. Unlike its neighbours, as signatories of the 1951 Refugees Convention, Yemen is generously accepting thousands of Somalis, who are penniless and in many instances have health problems. It is a huge problem for a poor country. I saw this for myself just after Easter.
Earlier this week, 9 Chinese and 65 Ethiopian oil workers were killed in Ethiopia by a separatist group. It looks as if there could be a clear linkage between this and events in Mogadishu.
Last year, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) seized control of much of southern Somalia, imposed Sharia law, and laid claim to part of Ethiopia. Allegations followed of al-Qaeda operatives basing themselves in Somalia, encouraging the formation of an Islamic state. The UIC had replaced the weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG).
So Ethiopia – without UN authority – invaded, in large measure to restore the previous government and banish the UIC. Like the United States, it is determined to prevent the spread of Islamist fundamentalism in Africa. However Ethiopia – substantially Christian – is hated in Somalia, and its troops, fighting the remnants of the Islamic militia, are part of the cause of the dying and mayhem. The largest local clan, the Hawiye, has joined in the resistance to the Ethiopian troops. Between 1960 and 1978 there were three wars between the two countries.
The Yemenis fear a major regional conflict. Eritrea is blamed for supporting the separatist group which killed the oil workers. It has also been accused of supporting the Somali Islamists, not because it shares their beliefs, but to hit their enemy Ethiopia, which in turn may retaliate, as in the past. The African Union has sent a limited number, but far too few troops, to seek to bring order. Many Yemenis feel that the chaos in Somalia will now actually precipitate Islamic terrorism, al-Qaeda links in particular.
So we have a real powder keg – death, suicide bombers, refugees, lack of food, foreign occupiers, warlords and Islamists, and the potential for a wider war. The British Government is alive to this and wants to broker a conference of all interested parties to try to thrash out some way forward. The aim would be to restore the TFG by separating more moderate individuals from opposition groups and negotiate with clan loyalists. It is a tall order. As Kofi Annan has observed, our clout in the world is now diminished, but at least others share our objectives, notably Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately each day that passes the problem becomes more difficult. In all of this there are echoes of the situation in Iraq, with the added threat of the conflict spreading to neighbouring countries.
And apart form the Somalis themselves, it is Yemen that is paying a very heavy humanitarian price indeed.