Africa, Headlines | Analysis

SOMALIA: Counting the Cost After Ethiopia Withdraws

MOGADISHU, Jan 31 2009 (IPS) - The suicide car bomb that struck Mogadishu Jan. 24, killing at least twenty people and injuring nearly fifty others is an explosive comment on the failure of the Ethiopian military deployment to Somalia two years ago to oust Islamist forces it believed represented “a clear and present danger” to Ethiopia.

Somali refugees in Kenya - as many as 1 million people were displaced by fighting between Islamists and Ethiopian soldiers. Credit:  Manoocher Deghati/IPS

Somali refugees in Kenya - as many as 1 million people were displaced by fighting between Islamists and Ethiopian soldiers. Credit: Manoocher Deghati/IPS

The last Ethiopian troops have now left Mogadishu as part of an agreement between Somalia’s government and one major opposition faction, the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia based in Djibouti (ARS-D) which is dominated by the Islamist movement known as the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC).

The movement controlled the southern and central parts of Somalia during the latter half of 2006, where it was credited with establishing a semblance of law and order. People are today nostalgic about the “Six Months of Peace” during which violence all but ceased and life for ordinary Somalis returned to something but normal after 15 years of conflict.

Responding to pressure to follow the UIC’s lead and impose Islamic law, leaders in the autonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland announced plans to implement shari’a on the one hand, and arresting suspected Islamists on the other.

The UIC’s success was in marked contrast to the difficulties encountered by the internationally-sanctioned Transitional Federal Government of Somalia. The TFG was formed in 2004 as a result of two years of peace talks held in Nairobi and sponsored by the regional body, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development.

But for the first two years of its existence – during which the TFG was constantly grappling with political infighting and persistent allegations of corruption – it was unable to impose itself on the war-torn country and was confined to the southern town of Baidoa.

The growing strength of an Islamist government was of concern to at least one of Somalia’s neighbours: Ethiopia accused the Islamists of threatening its national security by collaborating with arch-regional rival, Eritrea, and Ethiopian rebel groups to destabilise it.

“We sent our troops to Somalia two years ago because there was a clear and present danger posed against Ethiopia,” Wahde Belay, spokesperson for the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry in Addis Ababa, told IPS, “The Union of Islamic Courts had waged a jihad against us. That is why we decided to bang the UIC”.

Ethiopian troops and tanks rolled over the border with Somalia in late December, 2006 and easily unseated the Islamists in less than two weeks. But the Ethiopian forces spent the next two years fighting a deadly Islamist-nationalist insurgency and have now withdrawn under fire from the same Islamists they came to crush.

“The fact that Ethiopian troops could easily defeat the Islamists did not guarantee lasting victory as the fighters soon regrouped and started fighting back. Now as the Ethiopians are withdrawing from Somalia, most of the south-central regions are again under the control of the Islamists,” Yusuf Maalin, an independent political analyst told IPS.

Evaluating Ethiopia’s presence

During the past two years, nearly 10,000 civilians have lost their lives while the U.N. High Commission for Refugees estimates more than one million people, mainly from Mogadishu, have fled their homes to escape the nearly daily violence between insurgent fighters and Ethiopian troops backing Somali government forces.

A number of local and international human rights organisations have accused the troops of committing atrocities against local civilians and of indiscriminate bombardment of built up residential areas. They have also accused the Islamist insurgents of using civilians as human shields by firing from populated areas.

Abdelfatah Shaweye, deputy major of Mogadishu, says despite criticism of Ethiopia’s presence in the country, the intervention was instrumental in establishing the internationally-recognised government in the capital and most of the country in the first months after the invasion.

“No matter what the human rights groups say about the troops from the friendly country, they have helped us a lot and sacrificed to bring order to our country,” Shaweye told IPS.

However Sheik Abdirahim Isse Adow, a spokesman for the armed wing of the UIC, said Ethiopia had not achieved its main aim of defeating the Islamists who he says are now “as strong as ever” and control the same territory as when the troops invaded Somalia.

“What the (Ethiopian) troops brought about is just more misery for the people of this country and more bloodshed. They failed to impose themselves on us or hold on to our country.” Adow told IPS.

Ethiopia has now fully withdrawn its troops from Somalia, saying the threat posed to it by the Islamists has cleared.

“If Ethiopia believes there is a clear and present danger, there is no reason why we shouldn’t take an identical measure in the future,” Wahde Belay said.

However Maalin said Ethiopia would have to think hard before re-entering Somalia as “the adventurism and opportunism” of the first invasion cost Ethiopia dear in terms of lives and the standing of its human right record.

“The Islamists have hurt Ethiopia more badly than they have been hurt, since as even the most casual observer can ascertain, Ethiopia is leaving the Islamists in a much stronger position than before the invasion two years ago. And what has transpired during its presence has eroded much more from Ethiopia than it gained,” Maalin said.

What next?

UIC and a splinter group, the hardline faction known as al-Shabaab – listed as a terrorist organisation with links to Al-Qaida by the U.S. State Department – are again running much of the south-central Somalia while the transitional Somali government is in control of small pockets in the capital Mogadishu where nearly 3,400 African Union peacekeepers are protecting government installations including the presidential palace, airport, and seaport.

The peacekeepers are part of an 8000-strong peacekeeping force authorised by the U.N. Security Council early in 2007 to replace Ethiopian forces. But only Uganda and Burundi have sent troops as promised; other African countries which pledged to contribute forces have cited security and logistical reasons for not deploying soldiers.

Elements of the UIC signed a peace and power-sharing deal with the TFG in October 2008. Sheik Sharif Ahmed, leader of the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia’s Djibouti faction (ARS-D) and head of the UIC’s government during 2006, was elected president of the TFG on Jan. 31. He is now more conciliatory towards Ethiopia, but faces strong opposition from rival factions of the ARS and from al-Shabaab, which continues to strongly oppose any foreign presence in Somalia.

Ethiopia has not left its “enemy” to enjoy its newly regained power in Somalia without numerous killjoys. A new and well-armed faction, Ahlu Sunnah, appeared out of nowhere to confront al-Shabaab in the days leading to the announcement by Ethiopia of its decision to pull its troops from Somalia.

Al-Shabaab claims that the new faction has been created, armed and supported Ethiopia to fight a proxy war against the Islamist forces. In a Jan. 26 press conference, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said that Ethiopia is not “disappointed” or “unhappy” that al-Shabaab is now facing armed opposition from within Somalia.

“I cannot tell you that we are unhappy that they chose to fight back. I cannot tell you that we would not be supportive of any such endeavours on their part,” Zenawi told reporters.

Despite now heading an internationally-sanctioned government of Somalia, Sharif will likely find running the country much harder than the first time around.

(Michael Chebud in Addis Ababa contributed to this report.)

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