Historic and religious factors, and US backing, shaping Ethiopia’s aggression in Somalia

Developing Just Leadership

Mahmoud Ahmed Shaikh

Shawwal 09, 1427 2006-11-01

Special Reports

by Mahmoud Ahmed Shaikh (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 9, Shawwal, 1427)

The current conflicts in the Horn of Africa have not merely turned up on the contemporary world stage out of nowhere. Muslims and Christians in Ethiopia and neighbouring regions were engaged in confrontation (armed and otherwise) with each other long before the arrival of the Western colonial powers and the establishment of British, Italian and French protectorates and colonies. Muslims in the subsequent Italian Somali, British Somaliland and the French Somali colony (Djibouti) were, naturally, also involved in the religious friction in Christian Ethiopia. Semitic immigration from Arabia at about the time of Christ had also strongly affected the local culture, and Coptic Christianity was introduced in the fourth century. Two centuries later the growing empire reached its height under the Azum rulers but was checked by Islamic expansion from the East. The independent kingdom of Abyssinia came into being in the eleventh century; modern Ethiopia dates from 1855, when the state finally brought under its control the various tribes in the territory now known as Ethiopia.

As a result Christian Ethiopians pride themselves on never having been colonised. It was in 1896 that Italy tried to invade their country, only to be repulsed. But Italy returned in 1936 and was able this time to conquer Abyssinia and occupy it until its liberation and the return of the Emperor, Haile Selassie, in 1941. This pride of never having been colonised, while admirable in itself, is compromised by the parallel pride felt by many Ethiopians that their country was a colonial power, and was treated as such by the European colonisers in the Horn of Africa. That successive Ethiopian governments have treated the Somali areas and other regions that they conquered in the past as colonies, and their inhabitants as subjects, is not in doubt.

Yet Ethiopia does not allow those colonies the right to self-determination and independence and goes to war with any country that dares to help their struggle for independence. It went to war with Somalia over the Ogaden in 1977 and with Eritrea over their disputed border. Ethiopia was federated with Eritrea in 1952 and annexed the area in 1962. And when the federation came to an end and the issue of shared borders came to a head, Ethiopia rejected the ruling of an independent international commission and chose to go to war with Eritrea.

That Ethiopia is still “at war” with Somalia, though the latter is broken up into its two constituent parts (Somalia, the former Italian colony, and Somaliland, the former British Somaliland), is very clear. Somaliland declared its independence in 1991, after the overthrow of Siyad Barre. Ethiopia was ecstatic over the break-up and resolved to oppose any restoration of a united Somali state – preferring to see Somaliland remain a separate entity, though without diplomatic recognition, and Somalia a failed state mired in internal conflict. Addis Ababa feels that if this state of affairs continues the Ogaden region will be safe in its own hands and the Somali resistance, not getting any external assistance, will have no option but to give up its struggle for independence.

Ethiopia knows that Somalia is riven by tensions between clans, without hope of re-emerging as an independent functioning state if these divisions are not mended. It also knows that the only way to heal these divisions, which have traditionally caused great problems for Somalis, is to invoke their shared Islamic identity. Hence its full support for the transitional government led by Abdullahi Yusuf, a warlord who has participated in the clan warfare waged in Somalia for the past 15 years and helped to made it a failed state. Yusuf was also a strong ally ofEthiopia, and continues to be so. Moreover, Ethiopia is waging a full-scale war against the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). Apart from its historical hatred of Islamic leaders and organisations,Addis Ababa realises that the ICU is more likely to unite Somalis than are clan-based groups and programmes.

In fact, the ICU has managed to take control of most areas of Somalia since taking control of the capital in June and forcing the interim government to take refuge in the remote town ofBaidoa. The fact that the ICU has no large army or substantial budget, yet has achieved so much despite the backing of the interim government by Ethiopia, the US and the UN, shows that the Somali people are fully behind the Islamic movement. Most Somalis are no doubt angered by the undisguised religious prejudice against a movement backed by most of the inhabitants of a Muslim country. Their conviction is confirmed by the obvious Christian-based alliance between the US government and Addis Ababa. The wider international war against Islam waged by the US government has also given credence to that conviction.

Both Ethiopia and the US initially underplayed their military presence or cooperation in Somalia in support of the interim government. But they are now increasingly being forced to admit their backing for the interim government, which has no army of its own and cannot engage in battle, having also lost the support of its clan militias. This clearly means that foreign troops have to be present in Somalia to do its fighting for it. Ethiopian troops have frequently crossed into the country in past months to bolster it, and even US troops have crossed the border on one occasion from neighbouring Djibouti, where the US has a naval base. Ethiopia insists that the “military personnel it has in Somalia are there to advise the government, not fight the ICU.”

The US admitted its military cooperation with Ethiopia inside Somalia on October 11, when it dispatched to Addis Ababa a military delegation led by the deputy assistant secretary of defence. The talks centred on the military cooperation between the US and Addis Ababa and their alliance against ‘terrorism’ in the region. An Ethiopian source who had taken part in the talks was quoted in reports on October 12 as saying that the situation in Somalia was discussed and that prime minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia had confirmed to the US delegation that his country had nothing to do with the crisis in Somalia. The head of the US delegation said after the meeting that the military cooperation between the two countries was very strong. She added that the Ethiopian army was cooperating closely with US troops in Djibouti.

But despite their somewhat indirect acknowledgement of their military involvement in Somalia, the Americans continue to proclaim that they will use military might to end terrorist organisations in the region – including the ICU. To justify their claim that the ICU is a terrorist organisation, which is set to invade Ethiopia on a “jihadist programme”, they accuse several countries, as diverse as Pakistan, Eritrea and Indonesia, of giving the ICU both military and financial aid.

A senior US official, for instance, accused Eritrea on October 19 of opening a “second front” in its struggle with Ethiopia by supplying arms to the ICU. Jendayi Frazer, the US assistant secretary of state for Africa, said: “I think Ethiopia is quite clearly attacking Ethiopia on another front. We have pretty clear evidence that that is a fact and they are shipping arms intoSomalia.” Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a border war from 1998 to 2000 and continue to be locked in a boundary dispute, which Frazer called the “first front”.

Meles Zenawi, on the other hand, accused gunmen from Pakistan, Indonesia and the Arab world of backing the ICU to the extent that they are now able to march to the common border in a clear move to invade his country. He told his parliament on October 19 that the “jihadists were massing their forces near our borders,” and vowed to fight them if they chose to invade. “If this activity continues, and is found to threaten our national security, then our forces will have the right and obligation to defend the country,” he said. “However, that does not mean that we will declare war.”

But the members of the parliament he was addressing know that it is in fact their country that invaded Somalia in the first place and has well-armed troops there to protect the interim government, headed by Abdullahi Yusuf, whom they know to be an Ethiopian agent. Foreign journalists and analysts say that there are Ethiopian troops there that number between 6,000 and 8,000. The activities of those troops hit the headlines on October 22, when they attacked the ICU in the town of Bur Hakaba, near Baidoa, where the weak and nominal interim government is based.

Apart from the alleged need to ‘defend’ his country and fight ‘terrorism’ in the region, prime minister Zenawi has good reason to continue his aggressive confrontation with Somalia. He has to deflect attention from the poverty, mismanagement and oppressive rule his regime is responsible for. In fact, there is a high degree of instability in Ethiopia as many people, unhappy with the regime’s failures, protest widely and loudly, and the regime responds by killing, injuring and arresting. In March 2002, for example, violence erupted in the Tepi region between rival ethnic groups and the security forces, after widespread public protests against the results of local elections held in December 2001. Officially 128 people were killed by the security forces, but opposition forces sources put the number dead at about 1,000. Larger numbers were killed in subsequent events, to the extent that the EU threatened to suspend the economic aid Ethiopia receives from it.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the Ethiopian regime is corrupt and oppressive. But despite this the US government, which claims to be working for the entrenchment of democratic rule in the African continent, is a strong ally of Addis Ababa and of Zenawi. This is not at all surprising, as Washington also treats some Arab dictators as allies, despite its claim that it wants to introduce democratic rule into the Middle East. The world’s “single superpower” finds such allies and its faked “war against international terrorism” as a useful tool for imposing its will worldwide. Somalis (and other Muslims) will remain vulnerable to manipulation until they stop letting the wool be pulled over their eyes, and work out viable strategies to deal with these demonic agendas.

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