The AU has called on Ethiopia to remove its troops from Mogadishu and has urged a multilateral approach to solving the conflict.
Six months after the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) was installed in Mogadishu, Ethiopia came to the assistance of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), a regional and internationally brokered entity with little local credibility, and displaced the Islamists who brought a degree of stability to southern Somalia but threw away the goodwill of Somalis and their neighbour Ethiopia by happily declaring Jihads and banning soccer viewing.
The TFG unfortunately represents the weakest of all three forces presently governing this coastal African country. Once the Ethiopians withdraw, it will once again be unable to govern on its own.
Somalia has effectively had no real government for the past 15 years. It reflects three power centres: the formerly Baidoa-based TFG backed by Ethiopia, UIC supported by the Arab League, Egypt, Djibouti and Eritrea and Somaliland in Hargeisa in the north.
In a paper recently published by the Johannesburg-based Centre for Policy Studies, Unisa academic Iqbal Jhazbhay argues for urgent provisional recognition of Somaliland as a prerequisite for building stable government in southern Somalia.
Somaliland, the northern part of Somalia, formerly under British rule, has been successfully governing itself and calling for recognition as an independent country. It is the only UK-sized pocket of the region where an effort has been made to set up functional, governing, democratic institutions. Somaliland has a democratically elected parliament and president, a thriving media and a home-grown economy.
This has been done by Somalians themselves, with no outside interference. Northern Somalia referred to as Somaliland, according to Jhazbhay, represents proof that local people are in a position to negotiate their own systems, if left alone.
Somaliland could be described as a fledgling democratic state serving a Muslim population and living peacefully for the past 15 years with its neighbours Ethiopia and Djibouti. The leadership there includes men and women committed to progressive governance. This is very different from the extremist Islam espoused by the Islamic courts that for six short months ruled Mogadishu.
"The zone of peace, security and stability that Somaliland has brought to the north-west Somali region is an achievement that should be strengthened and consolidated in the interests of the AU's wider aims of stabilising the Somali coast," said Jhazbhay.
He expects that this month's AU summit will see the tabling of the Somaliland issue, giving some recognition to Somaliland's stability and emerging democracy. This, he says, will open the way for AU-led multilateral negotiations which are expected to be long and protracted.
"The aim would be to shift the current scene from one of political and diplomatic stalemate in what amounts to a multilayered proxy conflict by various external actors, towards an emphasis on concentrating energy on regional peace negotiations and demilitarisation," he said.
Ethiopia and Eritrea are the two principle proxy antagonists in the Somali conflict, supporting the TFG and the UIC respectively. Thrown into this mix is the United States and its obsession with its war on terror. Specialists on Somalia argue that the US has given special attention to Somalia because it believes that it might become a new sanctuary for Al-Qaeda. The US has therefore not hesitated to give military support to Ethiopia in its fight against the Islamists.
"Ethiopia has been fairly pivotal in providing exaggerated intelligence to the US Department of Defence," says one specialist, Prof Ken Menkhaus, meaning intelligence about the UIC's alleged links with Al-Qaeda. Instead of concentrating on external tensions and military solutions, the rebuilding of a locally-driven state should be the prime task.
Specialist John Drysdale calls for attention to be given to the reality that there are two competing sub-clans, the Abgal and the Habar Gidir wings of the Hawiye in Mogadishu.
"… without reconciliation between the two major sub-clans in Mogadishu, where a future central government for Somalia was expected to be seated, any attempt at imposing an extrinsic national government on top of unfriendly independent power bases, supported by Ethiopia … was folly," said Drysdale.
Somaliland president Dahir Rayale Kahin has declared that Somaliland would not take sides with either the TFG or UIC and was willing to have friendly bi-lateral relations with any authority in Mogadishu. The recent fighting in the south has, however, overtaken dialogue between Hargeisa and Mogadishu, and this dialogue will not happen until it is clear who represents Mogadishu.
The UIC leaders have insisted that they retreated from the superior military power of the Ethiopians only to regroup and not to surrender. They have threatened to conduct a low-intensity insurgency against the TFG which does not begin to resolve the problems in the region.
While South Africa has remained silent on the Ethiopian incursion into Mogadishu, it has supported the AU's call for its troops to withdraw.
When President Thabo Mbeki met US President George Bush in Washington recently, he is believed to have reiterated the South African support for a multilateral negotiated solution to problems in the region.
South Africa stands poised to play a constructive role at the AU summit and is particularly well placed to broker an innovative solution for the Somalia-Somaliland stalemate.
While sympathetic to Somaliland's legitimate case for self-determination, South Africa is on excellent terms with all regional state actors, is a leading member of the AU's Peace and Security Council and has just taken up a two-year non- permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Intractable anarchy in Somalia and ignoring stability and good governance in Somaliland definitely represents a serious challenge to the credibility to the AU's Peace and Security Council.
"South Africa is well positioned to discretely and consultatively undertake a preventative diplomacy initiative that would centre on the development of a regional peace, drawing on its rich recent experience from Burundi, the DRC and Great lakes region" said Jhazbhay.
Zubeida Jaffer is a freelance journalist writing on South Africa, Africa, international politics and is a former senior editor