Pirates, Byproduct Of Somalia's Internal Conflict

A spike in piracy off the horn of Africa has focused the international spotlight on Somalia. While the world's most powerful navies try to protect ships from pirates, aid groups say more needs to be done inside Somalia. But so far there seems to be little appetite for or at least a few good ideas on how to resolve an internal conflict that has ravaged the country.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. A spike in piracy off the horn of Africa has brought the international spotlight to Somalia again. Aid groups say the piracy problem shows more needs to be done inside Somalia, to bring about stability. And in a moment, we'll hear about the bitter political in-fighting, in the country. But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, so far, there seem to be few good ideas on how to resolve the conflict.

MICHELE KELEMEN: In the final weeks of her tenure, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, has been spending more time than she might have thought on Somalia - at least on the piracy problem emanating from the lawless country.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Department of State): It's kind of ironic, Thomas Jefferson came in worried about pirates, it looks like I'm going to leave, worried about pirates. But, it is seriously an important issue to maintain freedom of navigation of the seas. And some of it of course, comes - most of it comes from the instability in Somalia, so that is also an issue that we're spending a lot of time on.

KELEMEN: Last week, she persuaded the UN Security Council to authorize nations to go after pirates on land in Somalia, as well as at sea. But she's had a much tougher time getting the UN to take on a new peacekeeping mission there. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made clear at his final news conference of the year that few are ready to provide troops.

Mr. BAN KI-MOON (Secretary General, United Nations): I've been trying very hard during last four months to establish multi-national forces, as requested by the Security Council. I have contacted a list of 50 countries, but I have not been able to identify any single country who volunteered to lead this mission.

KELEMEN: There is a small African Union force in Somalia protecting Mogadishu's port and a few key neighborhoods. Ban says his advisers in the UN peacekeeping office are lukewarm about taking that operation over.

Mr. BAN: You know, it's just when you start, to address the situation, it's not ripe, the conditions are not favorable to consider a UN peacekeeping operation.

KELEMEN: Somalia has been without a functioning central government since 1991. Two years ago, the U.S. gave a green light to neighboring Ethiopia to invade, to defeat a group of Islamists that the U.S. accused of harboring terrorists. Ken Menkhaus, an expert on Somalia at Davidson College, says this is a policy that badly backfired.

Dr. KEN MENKHAUS (Professor, Somalian Expert, Davidson College): It has created space for a very radical wing of the Islamists called al Shabab, to regroup and conflate its agenda with a nationalist, anti-imperialist movement to oust Ethiopia. And so, we've ended up with the exact opposite of what we intended, in supporting the Ethiopians' offensive into Somalia. It's now a much less safe place, for Somalis, for the region, and for the United States.

KELEMEN: Now the U.S. faces a new dilemma. The Ethiopians have said they will pull out by the end of this year. And U.S. officials are worried that could leave a vacuum that the Al Shabab could fill. Menkhaus argues the opposite, saying the Ethiopians have been a lightening rod for the insurgents, so, if the Ethiopians leave, that could take the wind out of the sail of the Al Shabab.

Dr. MENKHAUS: The Bush administration may have to take some decisive action on Somalia, but the fear is that they're going in directions that could actually bequeath to the Obama administration a huge mess.

KELEMEN: Already, Somalia is a humanitarian disaster and one of the most dangerous places on earth for aid groups. Most have withdrawn their international experts. And shipping supplies into Somalia has become increasing difficult and costly, according to the World Food Program's Executive Director, Josette Sheeran.

Ms. JOSETTE SHEERAN (Executive Director, World Food Program): We hope the world hangs in there with Somalia. We have over 2.8 million people who are totally dependent on the goodwill of the world to be able to eat, and piracy is rampant in the water.

KELEMEN: WFP ships now need international escorts to reach Somalia. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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