By Emmanuel Fanta
Regional Coordinator Great Lakes Conflict Early Alert Report


Just one moth after the Ethiopian government officially recognised it had sent troops into Somalia, the first contingent of Ethiopian troops have started pulling out of Mogadishu. Although African Union (AU) troops are not expected to be deployed in Somalia for at least two weeks, the Ethiopian military look unwilling to stay in the country any longer.

Given the weakness of the official Transitional Federal Government (TFG) military forces, there are fears that the rapid withdrawal may create a power vacuum. However, this pullout may not announce a profound change in the Ethiopian strategy towards Somalia. In order to understand that statement, it is necessary to look back at the context in which the military intervention occurred in order to understand better the Ethiopian strategy.

Too often, reports have paralleled the Ethiopian intervention in Somalia to the US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan predicting the same fate to the Ethiopian troops. Such a reading of the situation undermines some important issues that are specific to the region’s historical and geo-political dynamics.

Moreover, the highly visible military intervention that was launched on 24 December 2006 is only a tip of the iceberg regarding Ethiopia’s involvement in Somalia. Far from being a brutal change in its strategy, the deployment of Ethiopian troops is part of a longer and continuous strategy that dates back to more than two years.

The long term Ethiopian plan


To understand how this strategy was launched in the first place, one should remember that since the Ethio-Eritrean war of 1998-2000, both countries have been competing for support all over the Horn of Africa and beyond. At that time, Eritrea started actively supporting any rebel group that opposed the Ethiopian government. Ethiopia engaged in a similar strategy and has been trying to establish a good relationship with all the other countries in the region. As such, the political power vacuum that existed in Somalia represented a clear threat for Ethiopia mainly because it had become a safe heaven for Ethiopian rebel groups (including the Oromia Liberation Front and the Ogaden National Liberation Front) and created a risk of opening another front thousands of kilometres away from the Ethio-Eritrean border.

It was with the aim of having a friendly government and stabilizing its south-eastern neighbour that Ethiopia decided to spearhead the establishment of the TFG based on the Transitional National Government. Abdullahi Yusuf, a long time opponent to the Siad Barre regime and previously president of Puntland was elected President of the TFG at the Nairobi Conference in October 2004.

It is interesting to note that the Ethiopian influence is quite visible in the way the TFG has been organised. The “4.5 formula” which implicates that seats in the Somali parliament shall be shared by the four major clans and the remaining 0.5 being allocated to an alliance of smaller clans, is more or less similar to the ethnic division found in the Ethiopian Parliament. Another example of the Ethiopian footprint on the TFG is President Abdullahi Yusuf.

President Yusuf had been a long time exiled opponent in Ethiopia and as President of Puntland had maintained close ties with Addis Ababa. Moreover, one of the first international moves made by the newly elected TFG president was to join the Sanaa’a Forum, a regional group comprising Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen, which coincidentally have all opposed Eritrea. The TFG also had the full support of Kenya whose tourist industry had already been affected by terrorist attacks in 2002 and has since been trying to limit the infiltration of Islamist groups from Somalia.

Once it had secured the support of a friendly and internationally recognised Somali government, Ethiopia had to strengthen Abdullahi Yusuf’s government to reduce the threat posed by an uncontrolled Somalia. The relocation of the TFG from its exile base in Nairobi to Somalia was the next step to take and it was not until February 2006 that the Parliament was able to organise a session in Baidoa, a city 250 Km northwest from Mogadishu.

Part of the plan was to enforce the TFG through the deployment of African troops under the auspices of the AU Peace and Security Council. The deployed troops were expected to be drawn from IGAD member countries as part of the IGAD Peace Support Mission to Somalia (known as IGASOM) despite Somalia’s outcry against the presence of Ethiopian troops on its soil. On 6 December 2006, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1725(2006) allowing the deployment of IGAD troops by lifting the arms embargo it had imposed back in 1992.

However, the difficulty of the TFG to establish its authority in Somalia was obvious after the assassination attempts on President Abdullahi Yusuf and on his Prime Minister Mohammed Ghedi. In fact, at the same time, another force was getting stronger and stronger in Southern Somalia. Dating back to the time when Siad Barre government had been ousted, various informal courts based on the Sharia had been functioning around Mogadishu and some of its surrounding areas. It was only in 1999-2000 that these courts united, started asserting authority and armed themselves by establishing a militia.

Slowly but surely, these courts became a credible armed force capable of fighting against any other warlords and in fact taking control of most part of the Somali capital. At that time, the success of the UIC was not only due to its military power but also to the fact that it was mainly based on the Hawiye clan one of the most important clans living in South and Central Somalia.

International attention was only drawn to the UIC in mid-2006 once it started fighting against a coalition of warlords supported by the United States and known as the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT). After managing to defeat the ARPCT the UIC appeared as a force that had to be taken into account. UIC leaders, including Sheik Sharif Ahmed and Sheik Hassan Dahir Awey, decided to expand the territory upon which the courts exercised their authority and their Shahab troops gained control of more areas of the Somali territory.
The UIC was also encouraged by the tacit support it received from various international actors such as the Arab League and, of major importance to Ethiopia, Eritrea. The ease with which UIC troops captured territory formerly held by warlords over-shadowed the fact that the Islamic courts still did not have sufficient military power to sustain an armed confrontation with a properly trained military force.

However, UIC leadership, unhappy with the Ethiopian support in favour of the TFG and Ethiopia’s un-admitted military cross-border incursions, started pointing fingers at the Addis Ababa government. At that time, the UIC had become a real threat to all the efforts made by the Ethiopian Government to establish the TFG as the only credible governing body in Somalia. Moreover, UIC leaders were openly opposing the deployment of foreign troops as part of an African peacekeeping force.

The Ethiopian military intervention


At the beginning of December 2006 the situation in Somalia had reached a stand-off, the major part of southern Somalia was under the control of the UIC while the TFG only controlled small areas around Baidoa but had international recognition. The deployment of IGASOM troops looked unlikely, Uganda the only country that had officially offered to send troops in Somalia, was even reconsidering its deployment. At the same time, the UIC leadership was becoming more and more vocal against the Ethiopian government. The UIC and Ethiopian armed elements had already clashed on numerous occasions between July and November 2006, but no full-scale clash had occurred.

However, a combination of factors was to favour the Ethiopian military intervention alongside the TFG. One of them was the Ethiopian Parliament approval of a bill authorising the government to take any necessary measure to counter threats posed by the UIC in Somalia. Another important legal step was the adoption on 6 December of Resolution 1725 by the UN authorising the entry of armed personnel on the Somali territory. Soon thereafter Ethiopia started sending troops, then only officially recognised as “military advisors”, to be stationed in and around Baidoa, still at that time TFG’s capital, as well as in the Mudug area where they were stationed alongside troops coming from Puntland.

Once Ethiopia had stationed sufficient troops to protect the TFG but most importantly repel any offensive launched by the UIC, the Addis Ababa government let the UIC have the initiative. Major fighting broke out on 20 December when the Islamic forces attacked the TFG troops in the towns surrounding Baidoa. TFG troops with the help of the Ethiopian “military advisors” where able to resist the offensive and inflict casualties on the UIC side. This represented the first time in months where the UIC faced a staunch opposition.

On 21 December 2006, Sheik Hassen Dahir Aweys, one of the UIC leaders declared from Mogadishu that Somalia was in a state of war against Ethiopia, and that all Somalis should take part in this struggle against Ethiopia. This was just what the Ethiopian leadership had been waiting for as it provided them with a legitimate reason to officially confront the UIC in Somalia. Thus on the 24 December 2006 the Ethiopian government could recognize the implication of its troops by declaring that “The Ethiopian government has taken self-defensive measures and started counter-attacking the aggressive extremist forces of the Islamic Courts and foreign terrorist groups.”

Ethiopian forces concentrated their forces on two different fronts. Coming from the North-East and assisted by troops coming from Puntland, a first front was opened near Gaalkayo in the Mudug region, proceeding towards Bandiradley and later on marching on to Beledweyne by following the Mugadishu-Garoowe road. In Beledweyne, the eastern front would be able to join the central and main front. This central front was opened in the Bakool, Hiraan and the northern part of the Bay region that surrounds Baidoa mainly aimed at securing the area, protecting the TFG as well as ensuring another route towards Mugadishu.

Advancing rapidly, troops from the eastern front followed the road down from Beledweyne towards Mogadishu, while their counterparts did the same on the road from Baidoa to the Somali capital. Just three days after having launched their offensive Ethiopian troops alongside their TFG counterparts had reached the outskirts of Mogadishu. The Somali capital was to fall in their hands after the UIC decided not to defend the town in order to avoid bloodshed.

Meanwhile, another front was open, with the Ethiopian troops marching South-West from Baidoa towards Bu’uale in order to take control of the Juba River Valley and thus cornering the UIC troops in the South-Western part of the country between the sea and the Kenyan border. The UIC thus retreated towards Kismayo in the Southern tip of the country where they would stage a last attempt to resist the Ethiopian military force without much success.

Gathering foreign support


On 12 January, the fall of Ras Kamboni would announce the final victory of the Ethiopian military in Somalia. However, a milestone has occurred on 8 January, when President Abdullahi Yusuf entered Mogadishu and re-established his government in Villa Somalia, the presidential palace that had been unoccupied for the last 15years. So far this represented one of the most important symbolic steps taken by the TFG and by itself it has increased the legitimacy of the TFG as the new ruler of Somalia. President Abdullahi Yusuf and his Prime Minister Mohammed Ghedi soon engaged in talks with local warlords to ensure their support, while the Ethiopian Foreign Affairs ministry was busy trying to gather support in favour of its intervention in Somalia. Another ally for that task was Mwai Kibaki the Kenyan President who is also currently IGAD’s Chairperson.

US backing of the Ethiopian intervention, or at least the refusal to criticize it, has also been instrumental for both the Addis Ababa government and the TFG. In fact, the day before the presence of Ethiopian troops had been recognised by PM Meles Zenawi, Condoleezza Rice the United State Secretary of State, ensured the support of Uganda and its commitment to send troops in Somalia after meeting with President Museveni. During the Ethiopian military operation in Somalia, the United States also provided the Ethiopian army with satellite intelligence on UIC’s troop’s movement. Military vessels had also been patrolling near Somalia’s coast to prevent any Islamic fighters to flee by boat. The most visible aspect of the American involvement in this conflict has been the bombings carried out by an AC-130 that flew from the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) base in Djibouti. The TFG is also likely to receive important backing from the US as it represents a rare opportunity to stabilise a country considered to be a hotbed for Islamic terrorism.

The US pledged $40 Million for the reconstruction of Somalia, including $15 Million for the peacekeeping force that would be deployed in the country. Meanwhile the EU has been more cautious, conditioning its financial help to the acceptance of holding talks with Islamic leaders. The African Union, after convening a meeting eventually agreed to send an 8000-strong peacekeeping force as part of the African Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). Following up from its IGASOM pledge, Uganda was the first country to announce its readiness to send troops amounting up to 1500 men in Somalia. Since then, both the Somali government and the Ethiopian one have sent delegations to tour Africa in order to find other countries willing to send troops. Up to now, only Uganda, Malawi and Nigeria have made firm offers while Ghana and Tanzania are said to be considering their deployment.

It is in this context that the Ethiopian government announced the start of its withdrawal, Zenawi declaring that the last phase of the Ethiopian withdrawal would occur when the first batch of AMISOM troops are to be deployed. It would be naïve to think that no Ethiopian soldiers will be left in Somalia, once the official withdrawal will be completed. For years, Ethiopia has been making incursions into Somalia with total impunity and it is likely that these incursions will not stop until the bordering areas are fully and strongly controlled by a Somali government. Nonetheless, by ensuring the existence of a friendly government in Somalia that enjoys international recognition, and by securing its South-Eastern neighbour by the way of the AMISOM troops, Ethiopia will now be able to focus its military strength towards Eritrea its northern and problematic neighbour.

Somalia’s future


Within Somalia, one of the most important questions that will have to be dealt with from now on will be how to accommodate both the TFG and the Somaliland leadership. Since 1991, the Northern part of Somalia, where Somaliland is situated, has been one of the only regions of the country that has witnessed relative stability. However, despite all its diplomatic efforts the self-proclaimed state of Somaliland has not been recognised as an independent state and is still considered as part of Somalia. Even Ethiopia despite maintaining extensive relations with the Hargeisa-based government does not recognise it as an independent state. The Somaliland population is also very suspicious of any future re-unification with the rest of the country. Undoubtedly, tensions will arise between Somaliland’s authorities and the TFG, which claims to be the government of all Somalia.

Another problem to be resolved concerns the distribution of power between the qabills (clans). In the near future, it is most likely that the TFG will maintain the Somali version of the Ethiopian ethnic-based federal framework. But on the long term, the Somali government will have to create safeguards so as to not fall back in the clan based anarchy that favoured its state of collapse. Disarming the various clans will be an extremely difficult task that will need all the diplomatic talent of both the Somali President and Prime Minister. The massive flow of arms that has characterised the country since 1991 will have to be stopped in the interest of all the Horn of Africa and even beyond.

Compared to these two issues, guerrilla resistance mounted by Islamic fighters will only be a minor issue more likely to be very limited in scope. Attacks will most surely be limited to Mogadishu and the very Southern part of Somalia that had been the stronghold of the UIC. The main reason why Somalia will not turn into a new Iraq or a new Afghanistan is also due to UIC supporters’ lack of training especially regarding bomb-making and terrorist tactics. Most attacks will be very brief and characterised by the use of machine-guns and occasionally mortars.

The credibility of the TFG will rest on its potential to truly act as a state authority within Somalia, a part of the world that has been lacking one since 1991. The UIC had been able to gather support by bringing peace and security to Mogadishu. The TFG, with the help of the AMISOM will have to convince Mogadishu residents that it is not just a coalition of warlords, but a viable national institution able to impose its authority, all over the country and thus protect the people living in Mogadishu.

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