Ethiopia tightening grip on Somalia —or losing it?

In a near-explicit threat, Somalia’s President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed Nov. 13 called on Mogadishu residents to help fight insurgents—or suffer in government crackdowns in the violence-torn capital. “My government is doing all it can to save the lives of the Somali people, but insurgents are responsible for the continued violence,” Yusuf told a press conference in Nairobi. “People in neighborhoods must also fight the Shabab and chase them away. Otherwise they are the ones who suffer in crackdowns.” The Shabab (Arabic for “Youth”) insurgent movement continues to harass government and Ethiopian troops in Somalia’s capital. “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers,” Yusuf warned.

Dozens of civilians have been killed and at least 114,000 displaced from Mogadishu in recent weeks in some of the worst fighting since April, when Ethiopian troops took Mogadishu. The recent clashes have deepened Somalia’s humanitarian crisis, with rural areas struggling to cope with the new influx of displaced people. Meanwhile, the Shabelle region—known as Somalia’s breadbasket—has suffered its worst crop in 13 years. Relief agencies warn that food shortages threaten the lives of thousands. (AFP, Nov. 14)

Somalia is without a prime minister since the resignation late last month of Ali Mohamed Gedi—long seen as a rival of Yusuf—in the interest, he says, of national unity. In his resignation speech, Gedi said he had survived five assassination attempts in his three years in office. The Economist writes Nov. 1: “It was probably the prime minister of next-door Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, who advised Mr Gedi to go.”

Gedi and Zenawi are said to be close. Gedi’s father was a colonel in Somalia’s intelligence service in the ’80s, and was assigned to oversee cross-border aid to Zenawi’s then-rebel group, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). But Zenawi apparently perceived that the younger Gedi had outlived his usefulness. In The Economist’s words: “Mr Gedi belongs to the Hawiye clan, the most powerful in Mogadishu, Somalia’s ravaged capital. He has been unpopular with Hawiye elders, some of whom have Islamist sympathies so are hostile to Somalia’s feeble, Ethiopia-backed government. It is unclear whether or not his exit will make it easier for Mr Yusuf, now squarely in charge, to strike a deal with the Hawiye to deprive jihadist fighters of clan support and shelter.”

Eritrea plays “Greater Somalia” card

A Nov. 15 commentary by Patrick Mutahi in Nairobi’s The Nation (online at finds: “Ghedi’s resignation has once again brought to the fore the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea being fought in Somalia.” Violence has once again mounted in Somalia since Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki pledged support for the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS), formed in Asmara by Somali opposition figures and Islamist militants. “The Eritrean people’s support to Somalis is consistent and historical, as well as a legal and moral obligation,” Afewerki proclaimed.

But Mutahi finds that Ethiopia’s counterinsurgency war in Somalia “has put the Bush administration in a dilemma. While Washington is concerned about Eritrea’s support for al Qaeda-linked Somali Islamist militants, it is not clear how it intends to handle Ethiopia’s governance record.” Congress has passed the Ethiopian Democracy and Accountability Act, which threatens military aid cuts if Ethiopia doesn’t clean up its human and civil rights record. “Yet Addis Ababa is Washington’s major counter-terrorism partner in the Horn and has troops in Mogadishu.”

Despite the Congressional slap at Zenawi, Washington has failed to pressure Addis Ababa to implement the April 2002 Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission ruling—much to Afewerki’s frustration. Mutahi quotes an unnamed Kenya-based Somali analyst saying: “Ethiopia will not relent until it accesses the Red Sea port it lost to Eritrea. Access to the port through a superhighway was in their development plans before the 1998 war.”

This conflict has led Eritrea to play a “Greater Somalia” card—a phenomenon which Mutahi sees as hstorically recurrent:

The irredentist hope for a Greater Somalia since colonial times has sucked the region into an endless conflict. Britain’s hope was initially for a united Somalia comprising Kenya’s Northern Frontier Districts, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia. This was fiercely resisted by the new Kenya government, prompting a severance of diplomatic relations between Mogadishu and London, while Somali ethnic patriotism in Kenya rose. The shifta (bandit) war, led by the Somalia-backed Northern Frontier District Liberation Movement, broke out in north-eastern Kenya. It ended only when the Kenya and Somalia signed a Memorandum of Understanding in October 1967.

A direct result of the shifta war was the signing of a mutual defence treaty between Kenya and Ethiopia in 1964. Both President Jomo Kenyatta and Emperor Haile Selassie acknowledged the need for cooperation to bar Somali irredentism…

The proxy war intensified as Somalia turned into a stage for the Cold War rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union… President Siad Barre‘s 21-year rule (1969-1991) initially relied on Communist support. Buoyed by Russian military equipment, Mogadishu’s irredentist ambitions drove it to Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, triggering the 1977-1978 war.

This unsuccessful invasion of the American ally permanently redefined politics and conflicts in the Horn of Africa. The Soviets switched their backing to Ethiopia’s President Mengistu, while Somalia suffered growing Ethiopian-backed domestic dissent, including a failed coup in April 1978.

The same rivalry is still playing itself out in the current, considerably more chaotic situation:

After more than a dozen peace attempts, Djibouti’s May 2000 effort was significant, yielding the first transitional national government (TNG), led by Abdulkasim Salad Hassan. But the TNG received little support from the international community. Somali warlords then based in Ethiopia formed the Somali Reconciliation and Restoration Council (SRRC) in 2001 to challenge the legitimacy of the new government.

From 2002, Kenya hosted the TNG and SRRC for European Commission-financed talks, culminating in a power-sharing agreement brokered through IGAD in 2004. This agreement established the current transitional federal institutions, with Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, a leading member of the SRRC group, elected TFG president. He appointed Ali Ghedi prime minister. This arrangement sidelined core TNG supporters and Islamist groups. In May 2005, the TFG tried to establish itself in Somalia but immediately split, with some members moving to Jowhar and others to Baidoa.

The exclusion of Islamist groups from the TFG, coupled with divisions in the cabinet, heightened the militancy and hostility in the country. The ensuing vacuum was filled by the ICU [Islamic Courts Union]. The Islamic courts emerged in the early 1990s as a response to the need for law and order in Somalia. But in 1998, a new brand of the courts was established under the leadership of Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former vice chairman and military commander of the jihadi Islamist organisation, Al-Itihaad Al-Islam.

The courts formed a non-warlord controlled and pan-Hawiye military force…

The 2006 Sudanese mediation efforts as the chair of the Arab League were ineffective, and the immediate prospects for the Horn of Africa are obviously bleak.

The major test now is to create a wider consensus for peace. As the July 2007 UN Somalia Monitoring Group states, the combined Ethiopian and TFG forces’ rapid success over ICU (Shabaab) forces was less than decisive. The elite Shabaab forces were only scattered. The current bloody insurgency in Mogadishu confirms this.

Somalia’s opposition leaders are predicting that a further surge in Islamist-led insurgency could defeat Ethiopian troops. “The liberation forces are gaining strength day after day,” says Zakariya Mahamud Abdi, spokesman for a congress in Eritrea that has gathered Islamist leaders, exiled lawmakers and diaspora representatives.

This congress in Asmara came just as the Somali National Reconciliation Conference was being concluded. Although the Somali Conference tried to attain some level of inclusiveness, it left out the opposition groups in Asmara…

The TFG is still relying on Ethiopian military backing and African states are yet to send adequate peacekeeping troops.

The UN Security Council, at the prompting of the US, passed resolutions supporting the deployment of the AU Mission in Somalia, and exempted the mission from the arms embargo on Mogadishu. But deployment of these troops remains reviled by Somalis, and is opposed by Eritrea and Djibouti. Its effectiveness is suspect since a lightly armed force is being sent into heavily armed Mogadishu.

Piracy in the time of cholera
The Economist, meanwhile, finds: “The all-out fighting that ripped through Mogadishu in the spring has not resumed, but the seaside city remains violent. Jihadist rebels pin down Ethiopian troops and peacekeepers from Uganda, the only country willing to send troops under the aegis of the African Union. The failure of moderate Islamists to create a plausible negotiating position at a recent meeting in Eritrea may have strengthened the armed radicals, who hope to foment a holy war with ‘Christian’ Ethiopia.” The UN says school attendance in Somalia has “collapsed”; malnutrition and cholera are common.

The recent killing of yet another Somali journalist illustrates the grim situation. Bashir Nur Gedi (no close relation to the ex-PM) was the eighth journalist to be murdered in Mogadishu this year, The Economist finds. “Other Somali reporters have gone into hiding or left the country; both the government and Islamists have targeted them for trying to report freely.”

And the ongoing coastal piracy problem is also telling. US forces pursued two ships hijacked by pirates the week The Economist went to press—one of them a North Korean freighter whose crew managed to kill two of the pirates before the Americans arrived. (Nice to see the US rushing to the defense of an Axis of Evil member.) There is no sign yet of a naval escort promised by France.

See our last post on the struggle for the Horn of Africa.

  1. Somalia: worse than Darfur?
    From the New York Times, Nov. 20:

    Top United Nations officials who specialize in Somalia said the country had higher malnutrition rates, more current bloodshed and fewer aid workers than Darfur, which is often publicized as the world’s most pressing humanitarian crisis and has taken clear priority in terms of getting peacekeepers and aid money…

    The people here are hungry, exposed, sick and dying. And the few aid organizations willing to brave a lawless, notoriously dangerous environment cannot keep up with their needs, like providing milk to the thousands of babies with fading heartbeats and bulging eyes. “Many of these kids are going to die,” said Eric Laroche, the head of United Nations humanitarian operations in Somalia. “We don’t have the capacity to reach them.”


    “The situation in Somalia is the worst on the continent,” said Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the top United Nations official for Somalia…

    United Nations officials now concede that the country was in better shape during the brief reign of Somalia’s Islamist movement last year. “It was more peaceful, and much easier for us to work,” Mr. Laroche said. “The Islamists didn’t cause us any problems.”

    Mr. Ould-Abdallah called those six months, which were essentially the only epoch of peace most Somalis have tasted for years, Somalia’s “golden era.”


    [M]ost Western diplomats agree that unless the transitional government reaches out to Islamist elements and becomes more inclusive, it will fail — like the 13 transitional governments that came before it.

    “This government doesn’t control one inch of territory from the Kenyan border up to Mogadishu,” said a Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing diplomatic protocol.

    Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, the warlord turned transitional president, recently forced out the prime minister and is looking to replace him with a leader who can bridge clan divides.

    “This is basically the last chance,” the Western diplomat said.

    But the people in Afgooye’s squatter camps do not have a lot of faith. “We want the Islamists back,” said Mohammed Ahmed, a shriveled 80-year-old retired taxi driver.

    Mr. Mohammed said he was not especially religious. “But,” he said, “at least we had food.”