Global Policy Forum

Somalia: Conflict A Threat to Regional Peace


By Patrick Mutahi

Nation - Nairobi
November 15, 2007

The simmering war in Somalia following the resignation of Prime Minister Mohammed Ali Ghedi is leading the country to an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe. The UNHCR estimates that about 90,000 Somalis have fled Mogadishu since Ghedi's resignation. Fighting has escalated as Ethiopian troops supporting the fragile Somali transitional government try to flush out Islamic insurgents. It is feared that uncertainty over Ghedi's replacement will yield more violence. Already, 1.5 million people in the war-torn, drought-prone country need help.

Ghedi's resignation has once again brought to the fore the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea being fought in Somalia. The former minister has been frequently portrayed as a puppet of the US and its ally, Ethiopia, with numerous sources pointing to links between Ghedi's father and Ethiopia's president Meles Zenawi. It is claimed that in the mid '80s, the former prime minister's father was appointed coordinator between Somalia and Zenawi, then head of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

The current situation 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. Recently, Congress passed the Ethiopian Democracy and Accountability Act, which threatens the country with security aid cuts should it fail to make positive domestic democratic changes. Yet Addis Ababa is Washington's major counter-terrorism partner in the Horn and has troops in Mogadishu.

Tension in the region reached fever pitch after Eritrean President Issaias Afeworki pledged support for the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS), formed in Asmara by Somali opposition figures and militant members of the Islamic court. "The Eritrean people's support to Somalis is consistent and historical, as well as a legal and moral obligation," Afeworki said in an interview.

The ARS, whose stated ambition is to liberate Somalia, has threatened immediate, albeit unspecified, military action against Ethiopia. It has also ruled out any talks with the transitional federal government before a complete withdrawal of the Ethiopian army. This is likely to defer even further the prospect of reconciliation.

The Somali predicament is not new. And experience shows that the nature of intervention could destabilize the epicenter of Horn of Africa conflicts. Washington's heavy-handed tactics against terrorism have aggravated the crisis and looks set to continue, with the threat to brand Eritrea a sponsor of terrorism.

Washington has failed to pressurise Addis Ababa to implement the April 2002 Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission ruling, to Asmara's great disappointment. "Ethiopia will not relent until it accesses the Red Sea port it lost to Eritrea," observes a Kenya-based Somali analyst. "Access to the port through a superhighway was in their development plans before the 1998 war," he explains. The hostilities between the Zenawi and Afeworki administrations over the peace plan have found a new forum - Somalia.

Epicenter of conflicts

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. It also fuelled the perception, in certain quarters, of ethnic Somalis in Kenya as a security risk.

The proxy war intensified as Somalia turned into a stage for the Cold War rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union. Post-independence Somalia received up to $32 million military aid in 1963. 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. Successive Ethiopian and Eriterian governments have backed Somali opposition groups, fanning the tension and mutual suspicion between them.

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. 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. As William Church, the director of the Great Lakes Centre for Strategic Studies, observes, this development led America's CIA to support the anti-ICU warlords organised as the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT). The ARPCT allegedly received between $100,000 (Sh6.7m) and $150,000 (Sh10.05m) a month. Despite the UN arms embargo, the US military backing also included direct weapon shipments and loans to Ethiopia, amounting to $19 million in 2005 and 2006.

But Washington's support was met with public scorn and hostility. The courts captured Mogadishu and stabilised the city. They removed road blocks, cleared piles of rubbish and even re-opened Mogadishu's main airport and seaport for the first time in a decade. To the consternation of the international community, the ICU was slowly gaining legitimacy. However, Sheikh Aweys stirred the hornet's nest when he aroused pan-Somali nationalist sentiments in his public criticism of Ethiopia's role in Somalia's affairs. This triggered the Addis Ababa military onslaught in Mogadishu, reviving the old hostilities.

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. And aware of the financial backing businessmen offered the ICU, Prime Minister Ghedi flew to Djibouti to win over Abubakar Adan (an influential Somali businessman) to the TFG side. The Somali Conference received the support of the International Contact Group on Somalia as well as the UN Security Council. 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.

Regional states and institutions have long grappled with the Somali situation. 15 major Somali "national" reconciliation conferences have failed to restore the country from the anarchy that has lasted since Said Barre's ouster in 1991. The entry of regional and international actors has complicated the war. Both sides are now deeply distrustful of each other. The legacy of bitterness will remain, fuelled by the attempts to support each other's opponent which is likely to continue.

Multilateral institutions remain the most strategic actors to mitigate the Somalia problem. The Arab League, European Union, IGAD, and African Union need a harmonised approach to stabilising Somalia - and the Horn of Africa. A coordinated and integrated approach to the conflict is imperative. And such an effort should be multi-pronged, with attention equally placed on reviving the implementation process of the Ethio-Eritrean peace plan.

The EU aims at stabilising the Horn of Africa, thanks to its strategic importance to Europe. While addressing the terrorism threat, the EU has developed a regional strategy for peace, security and development in the Horn, emphasising development as an approach to ensure security. IGAD and the Arab League have supported different Somali mediation efforts. The US approach, on the other hand, has been largely counter-terrorist.

There is need for more and adequate AU peacekeeping troops in Mogadishu, with a clear mandate. Such deployments should be part of a larger peace initiative involving Ethiopian troop withdrawal, as well as resolution of the Ethio-Eritrean conflict. The AU and UN should urge Ethiopia and Eritrea to honour the Algiers Agreement and the Eritrea-Ethiopia Border Commission framework pressing Ethiopia to demarcate the border and Eritrea to return to talks.

Building long-term regional peace initiatives should be the ultimate goal. Building new relationships between communities split by the militarised border, groups displaced by the conflict, and families divided by loyalties to rival states will provide a context for new thinking and increased confidence in the formal peace process.

The UN Security Council and the AU should institute effective action to enforce the arms embargo and ensure strict compliance. While welcoming assistance from the international community, they must refrain from creating further instability in the region. In addition, regional states should abstain from interventions designed to further their own interests. All efforts must be pursued within a framework that recognises the importance of a coherent approach to the assistance of Somali reconstruction efforts.

More Information on the UN Security Council
More Information on Somalia
More Information on Ethiopia and Eritrea
More Information on Peacekeeping


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