By David Blair
Of all the trouble-spots in Africa, nowhere is quite as surreal as Somalia. Where else would a national parliament meet in a battered warehouse, attended by ministers without ministries, generals without soldiers and a president without a country?
This was the scene in the ruined town of Baidoa yesterday when the 275 members of Somalia's official parliament gathered inside the cavernous storeroom, once piled high with sacks of grain, which has become their home and listened to the septuagenarian warlord who the world recognises as "president of Somalia".
Abdullahi Yusuf announced the dismissal of Somalia's official government and sacked 100 ministers. None of them had been any good, he said, and a new administration was sorely needed.
This political crisis in Africa's most anarchic corner might appear a bizarre sideshow. Yet it has global importance. Somalia's central government was destroyed when President Mohammed Siad Barre was overthrown 15 years ago. This created a vast power vacuum, filled by an ugly assortment of warlords.
Most have no higher ambition than to enrich themselves through plunder. But the latest entrants into this vacuum are very different. They are Islamist radicals, styling themselves the Supreme Council of Islamic Courts. In June, this well-funded coalition managed to capture the capital, Mogadishu, and much of the city's surrounding territory. They are now bidding for total control of southern and central Somalia - and the official government in Baidoa is all that stands in their way.
So when Mr Yusuf sacked every member of his threadbare administration, it amounted to another sign that resistance to the Islamists is crumbling by the day.
What is at stake? First, a word of caution. There is no immediate chance of Somalia falling into the hands of Muslim extremists. Two relatively stable enclaves, known as Somaliland and Puntland, have emerged in the northern half of the country. For the moment, they are unlikely to succumb to Islamist expansion.
But the radicals, led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who appears on an American "watch list" of suspected terrorists, are extending their hold over southern Somalia every day.
If Sheikh Aweys can sweep aside the official government in Baidoa, only 150 miles from Mogadishu, he will seize a strategically vital arc of territory bordering both Ethiopia and Kenya. He will also control scores of ports and airstrips scattered across southern Somalia.
This is the most vital factor. These transport links could become the conduits for arms and supplies for Islamist terrorism worldwide. Already, Sheikh Aweys has reopened Mogadishu's port and the city's main airfield. The first two aircraft to land were giant Ilyushin cargo planes, registered in Kazakhstan and believed to be carrying weapons.
Anyone who followed events in Afghanistan in the 1990s will find this familiar. The parallels between the radicals of Mogadishu and the Taliban, between southern Somalia and pre-2001 Afghanistan, are obvious. The danger is that southern Somalia becomes a new haven for Islamist terrorism, a vast centre for recruiting and training volunteers and for arming and financing their campaign across the world.
Again, a word of caution is needed. It is far from obvious that Sheikh Aweys and his colleagues have this ambition. Moreover, southern Somalia lacks the natural cover afforded by the mountain peaks of Afghanistan. Any terrorist training camps in its flat, barren terrain would be quickly detected.
Somalia's extremists certainly possess a sophisticated funding network stretching across the Muslim world. There is also evidence that Arab volunteers have trained militias loyal to Sheikh Aweys. In several taped messages, Osama bin Laden has mentioned Somalia as a key battleground against Western influence.
But this does not amount to a clear link between the radicals in Mogadishu and al-Qa'eda. So far, no hard evidence links them to international terrorism and we can only guess at their intentions.
The real danger is that terrorists will move into the area controlled by the Islamists whether Sheikh Aweys and his followers wish it or not. Perhaps the most enduring lesson of Afghanistan's tragedy after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 is that power vacuums are always a magnet for terrorism.
This possibility is already having terrible consequences in southern Somalia. Ethiopia has a vital interest in stopping the Islamist advance. It has a large Muslim population of its own and a longstanding territorial dispute with Somalia over the Ogaden, a region controlled by Ethiopia but inhabited largely by Somalis where a war was fought between the two countries in 1977.
Ethiopia has already deployed troops inside Somalia to prop up Mr Yusuf's government. If the Islamists advance on Baidoa, direct clashes between their militias and Ethiopian troops may take place. A regional war may then engulf the Horn of Africa.
Ethiopia's arch-rival, Eritrea, is believed to be supplying the Islamists with arms, on the principle of "my enemy's enemy is my friend". In the Cold War era, Somalia was a battleground for a proxy war between the superpowers, with Siad Barre allying first with the Soviet Union, then with the Americans and latterly with the USSR again. Today, Ethiopia and Eritrea are playing the role of the two superpowers and Somalia is the theatre for their confrontation.
Southern Somalia could produce another terrible war in Africa or another centre for terrorism to replace Afghanistan. Whatever happens, Mr Yusuf's government is unlikely to survive for long inside its warehouse parliament. However this crisis plays out, the lesson is clear - failed states are a menace, and watching passively as they collapse is the height of folly.