The Ethiopian military forces are called upon to be in Somalia in a bid to crush Al-Shebaab and restore stability in the country. With similar undertaking, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM); with troops from Burundi and Uganda has been protecting the Transitional Government of Somalia (TFG) for years. But the situation in Somalia remains murky.
The problem isn’t that the people of Ethiopia or Somalia and others don’t want the demise of Al-Shabaab and live well following that. Al-Shabaab and its Al Qaeda affiliates are threats to the people of the region at large. Few in Ethiopia had the stomach to positively consider the devastating Kampala bomb blast during the 2010 World Cup that killed people watching a football match. That was, indeed, the most atrocious crime made by the Somali Qaeda group who took responsibility.
Trust the fact, no one who has ever seen the dirty war in Somalia will be happy to be there. The reason, believe it or not, isn’t that the fighters doubt the importance of this campaign. But the complex nature of the war against Al-Shebaab and the very intricate relations the Somalis have with Ethiopia for over a century is the major problem.
This is the second time for the Ethiopian Army to intrude in to the territory of Somalia in the space of five years. The coincidence is dramatic. When the Ethiopian troops first marched in 2006, it was just a few days before the 2007 New Year. This time the long march to conquer Al-Shebaab and Qaeda began a month earlier.
In the first intervention Ethiopia presented a sweet Christmas gift to the United States of America with the swift victory over the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), the most powerful group at the time. But as time passed the resilience of the Islamic courts Union and the emergence of the Al-Shebaab group eventually forced the Ethiopian forces to pull out.
Though by then Prime Minister time and again said that his decision to go in to Somalia was motivated mainly to fight the terrorists where they are, the secret Wiki-leaks document confirmed that he took that action after the heavy pressure of the United States of America. According to the Wiki-leaks, the main actor in the fight against Qaeda group was Jendayi Frazer, former Assistant Secretary for African Affairs. The Americans may want the war waged against the Qaeda group to be carried out by other forces. This seems easier for them. In America casualties are officially announced. The death of a soldier raises serious public question or debate. In most cases the casualty increase has disastrous consequences. Presidents face challenges. The 36th US President Lyndon Baines Johnson had difficulties because of the rising casualties in Vietnam War.
In Ethiopia the death toll is not officially announced. When Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was asked to disclose the casualties in Somalia at the Council of the People’s Representatives during the 2006-2009 intervention, he responded that he didn’t have the exact figure. The families were told about the death of their loved ones days after their death. Doing this is not constitutionally allowed in the U.S. But they work closely with countries who face little challenge from the magnitude of casualty.
Human resources, in this specific case soldiers, may not be a problem for Ethiopia. We had the experience of forced recruitment at the time of the former regime. But Ethiopia’s problem is the long held attitude of the Somalis and the bitter historical rivalry that existed between the two countries for over a century. This was also very well motivated and exploited by the Italian and British colonial masters in the 1930s and 40s.
By 1935, the British were ready to cut their losses in “British Somaliland”. Italy invaded and conquered Ethiopia in 1936. The French colony had faded to obsolescence with Britain’s dwindling control, and it too was neglected. According to the British historian the British had been using Ethiopia to help their effort to put down the Somali uprisings. Now with Ethiopia unavailable, the British were faced with the option of doing the dirty work themselves, or packing up and looking for friendlier territory. The Italians then enjoyed sole dominance of the entire East African region including the recently occupied Ethiopia. After World War II the British had put a time bomb between Ethiopia and Somalia. When Ethiopia regained independence from the Italian Fascists in 1941 the British refused to hand over the territory of Ethiopia, in particular the Ogaden area, which was occupied by Italy after the 1936 invasion. (Mussolini proclaimed the creation of the Italian Empire calling it the “Africa Orientale Italiana” (A.O.I.) and formed by Ethiopia, Eritrea and Italian Somalia on May 1936. Many investments in infrastructure were made by the Italians in their Empire, like the Strada Imperiale (“imperial road”) between Addis Ababa and Mogadishu.)
The British agreed to hand over Ogaden to Ethiopia in 1948 after representatives of the victorious Allied nations set up a commission to decide the Somali question once and for all. Though the Commission decided to grant Ogaden to Ethiopia, it sparked war decades later. Ethiopia had full control of Ogaden area since 1887-1893.
Once again this British Bomb blasted in the 1960s when Somalia waged the first war against Ethiopia calling for the reintegration of Ogaden with the Greater Somalia. They failed to do so. The consequence of this war was grave: the then Somalia’s President Abdirashid Ali Shermarke was shot dead by one of his own bodyguards on October 15, 1969. His assassination was quickly followed by a military coup d’état on October 21, 1969 (the day after his funeral), in which Major General Mohamed Siad Barre seized power. Mohamed Siad Barre also waged the second war against Ethiopia in 1996-7. That also foiled with disastrous consequences. People who study Somalia say that that failure was the major cause for overthrow of Siad Barre and the eventual disintegration of Somalia.
Despite these facts the Ethiopia is a rallying cry for the Al-Shabaab and Qaeda group. Knowing that the people of Somalia deeply hate the Christian Ethiopia, the rebels use it to rally behind them. What was observed in the first incursion between 2006 and 2009 was exactly that one. That is why Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary of the US Bureau of African Affairs advised Ethiopia in a recent teleconference by saying; we firmly believe that the best way to deal with Al-Shabaab and restore stability is through working with AMISOM, using it as a vehicle to advance security and open a secure environment for TFG and make substantial progress. Interpretation: Don’t go in alone.
The other problem is that, still connected with the hate issue, is the Somali’s strong clan relationship. The clan groupings of the Somali people are important social units, and clan membership plays a central part in Somali culture and politics. Major Somali clans include: Darod, (Majerteen , Ogaden ), Dir, Hawiye, Isaaq, Rahanweyn (Digil and Mirifle). Clans are patrilineal and are often divided into sub-clans, sometimes with many sub-divisions. One finds rivalry among themselves. This is misleading. They easily get united when the Ethiopians attack them.
So taking all this in to account, the intervention of Ethiopia in Somalia is unlikely to serve the purpose set to crush Al-Shebaab, its affiliates Al-Qaeda and restore stability in the country.