Somalia conflict: Why should the world help?
- 21 February 2012
- From the section Africa
The British government is hoping a conference it is hosting on 23 February can finally start to bring peace to Somalia, which has known little but conflict and misery over the past two decades.
Like many Western governments, the UK is cutting spending in order to pay off debts - but one of the few areas to escape the cuts is foreign aid.
At a time of domestic austerity, why is the government using up its resources on trying to bring peace to a country widely dismissed as a "failed state", which has already seen more than 15 attempts to end the fighting? The government argues it is in Britain's interests to do so.
Somalia's militant Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab recently announced it had joined al-Qaeda, and there have long been credible reports of foreigners attending terrorist training camps in parts of Somalia under Islamist control.
Security think tank Royal United Security Institute recently estimated there are about 50 British nationals engaged in such training and warned they could return to the UK to carry out terror attacks.
Somalia is one of two countries - along with Yemen - listed as "key areas of concern" on the MI5 website, while British aid minister Andrew Mitchell recently told the Sun newspaper: "There are more British passport holders engaged in terrorist training in Somalia than in any other country in the world."
Neighbouring countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia, which have large ethnic Somali populations, also fear that al-Shabab could stage terror attacks on their territories, as it did in Uganda in 2010. Both Kenya and Ethiopia have recently sent troops into Somalia to tackle al-Shabab.
While Western countries are unlikely to do the same, experts say they are helping to co-ordinate the moves against the Islamists by these countries, the UN-backed government and the African Union forces which have recently taken control of the capital, Mogadishu.
Britain hopes to take advantage of al-Shabab's recent losses to help install a government in Somalia, which would take control of the whole country and close down the terror training camps.
Amidst the fighting and suffering, one of the few ways of earning a good living in Somalia is to become a pirate, seize ships and their crew and hold them hostage in pirate bases such as Haradeere until the owner pays a ransom - often several million dollars in cash.
Ships including huge oil tankers and one carrying tanks have been attacked right across the Indian Ocean by Somalia-based pirates.
Navies from around the world have reacted to this growing threat by sending warships to patrol the Somali coast.
This has led to fewer ships being seized, but has also meant the attacks have become more violent and the pirates have moved further and further away from the shore in order to evade the patrols.
Pirate attacks are estimated to have cost companies billions of dollars in ransoms, higher insurance premiums and other additional shipping costs.
Of course, these extra costs are passed on and mean the price of traded goods has gone up. While the naval patrols may have alleviated some of the symptoms of piracy, the only long-term solution is to bring peace, stability and law and order to Somalia.
This is why the British government thinks it is worth trying to bring peace to Somalia. Whether the conference succeeds is another matter entirely.
Last year, East Africa was hit by the region's worst drought in 60 years.
The effects were felt most keenly in Somalia, where the years of fighting meant many thousands of people were already living rough and so had absolutely nothing to fall back on when times got even tougher.
Six districts were declared famine zones and tens of thousands of people are believed to have died.
The fighting also meant that delivering aid was particularly dangerous and difficult.
To make matters even worse, much of the country is controlled by al-Shabab, which banned most international aid agencies, accusing them of exaggerating the scale of the suffering for their own interests and being biased against the Islamist agenda.
An aid appeal for Somalia last year raised at least £72m ($114m) - more than for any other food crisis in Britain's history.
If Somalia had a functioning government, the effects of the drought would have been far less severe and thousands of lives would have been saved.
The UN's latest report on Somalia says that despite the end of famine conditions, around 2.34m people throughout the country - almost a third of the population - remain in crisis, unable to feed themselves.