With Ethiopian soldiers leading combat missions against al-Shabaab militants in neighboring Somalia,
questions are being raised about Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s authorization of the mission.
Proponents of the move say the government is legally cooperating with regional actors to help the region currently challenged from fragile Somalia and attacks by extremists based there who didn’t only wage war against Ethiopia but also recently announced a merger with the terrorist group al-Qaeda.
Some legal experts and opposition politicians say no matter necessary such combat missions may be, only the federal parliament has the power to authorize them.
A senior Ethiopian diplomat on Thursday said Ethiopian forces are helping wipeout the al-Qaeda linked extremists leading them into ‘disarray’.
“Al-Shabaab at this point in time is in disarray. They are only left with heinous crimes of suicide bombings,” Getachew Reda, Public Diplomacy and Communications Director General at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told ruling party affiliate Walta Information Center. “Al-Shabaab, as a fighting force, is very likely to disappear.”
According to the official, troops from Kenya, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Ethiopia and other allied forces have launched an offensive against al-Shabaab. However, they are not part of the troops embedded within the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
“There is no unified command [of these operations]. However, the military offensives against al-Shabaab are being carried out in a coordinated manner with each having their own zones of operations”.
While the weakening of al-Shabaab seems to boost optimism that Somalia could finally become stable, the legality of the Ethiopian troops’ mission in the country is being questioned.
“It all comes down to what our troops are doing in Somalia; is it a peace keeping mission or a combat operation outside the borders of the country? It appears the latter is the case. The Prime Minister as per the constitution doesn’t have the authority to sanction such missions which basically amount to war. It is the House of Peoples’ Representatives ‘in the basis of a draft law submitted to it by the Council of Ministers’ which can proclaim a state of war,” said one legal expert who asked not to be named.
Since February 9 the House of Peoples’ Representatives has been in a month long midyear recess. Ethiopian troops crossed into Somalia as early as December fighting alongside pro-TFG militias and took control of Baledweyne, Hiran region in central Somalia. This means the executive could have consulted lawmakers before the mission if it wished to do so.
“I think the executive is of the opinion that they don’t need the House’s OK for the operation; I think this opinion is wrong and amounts to the PM circumventing both the constitution and parliament. The PM is the Commander-in-Chief of the national armed forces so he is accountable for the force’s actions,” added the legal expert on Friday.
Other experts argue to the contrary.
“Take the latest example of Abyei in the Sudans; it is a United Nations’ mission accepted by Ethiopia. Parliament didn’t have any say. As per the constitution the PM ‘exercises overall supervision over the implementation of the country’s foreign policy’. Accordingly, the Ethiopian troops have been invited by both the eastern African bloc Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the TFG. Therefore, the latest operation is hardly a war, it can be seen as a cooperation with neighbors which is principally a foreign policy decision the PM has the power to lead,” says one expert.
Yet to formulate a party stand, opposition party officials are divided on the issue.
“Whether it is joining the so called coalition of the willing in the antiterrorism war or entering other sovereign territories, it all needs an explicit approval from the federal parliament,” says the former president Dr. Negasso Gidada.
Dr. Negasso, who stressed the opposition coalition he leads is yet to deliberate on the issue, says the parliament is the only constitutionally mandated organ to authorize such combat missions.
“See the case of every other country; from Ethiopia to the United States of America such war declarations need approval from the country’s supreme authority which is the House of Peoples’ Representatives in our case. It is only the parliament that has the mandate to say this money, and more importantly sacrifices of our men and women in uniform would make are necessary and declare a war,” said Dr Merara Gudina, another opposition politician.
Dr. Merara says if Ethiopian forces were operating alongside Ethio-Somalia borders and in self defense, “the executive may have discretion and also an obligation to authorize and engage combats.” But declaring a war against the militants inside Somalia is another issue which needs the federal parliament’s sanction.
Both politicians, who were MPs in the previous House and voted against the 2006 Council of Minister’s request to declare a war against al-Shabaab militants, says the House is yet to be informed about losses from the past mission. “In a country where there is some sense of accountability, the public and parliament should have been told both how many men we have lost and how much was spent on the war.”
PM Meles told lawmakers in 2008 “it is not necessary” for the House to know the figures.
The only opposition member in the current House stands differently from his party colleagues.
“I don’t think there is any constitutional breach because of the latest mission in Somalia. What the government is saying is it is a regional cooperation with the IGAD members, not an outright attack on sovereign power,” said MP Girma Seifu.
The MP however wants parliament to deliberate on the mission’s financial ramifications. “How much are we spending for the mission and where is it coming from? Since at the start of the fiscal year parliament did not approve any budget for a mission in Somalia, if the expense is being paid from the federal government the executive needs to table a supplementary budget proposal or explain where the money is coming from,” said Girma who chairs the House’s Public Accounts standing committee that oversees the government’s spending.
“My fear is since the defense ministry has several income sources, they would borrow the money for the Somalia mission from theses sources and later have the House approve the money in another form,” said the MP.
Various attempts to include the government’s views into the nature of the latest Somalia mission have not been successful.
The weakening of the Somalia extremists has been coming in the last few months with Ethiopia recommending a unified military action once the drought, which transformed into famine in al-Shabaab controlled areas, passed.
“This is a difficult moment in the history of Somalia. It is difficult because the security situation is complicated with the prevailing drought and famine. If you take security actions now it might complicate the humanitarian aspect, so we need to take utmost caution in this regard,” had cautioned Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in an interview with Capital in October 2011.
“Since al-Shabab is losing ground in its ideology as well as in security, it is a positive sign to push the needs of the Somali people,” said the DPM indicating the latest clampdown.
While the capital elites debate whether Ethiopian troops’ entering Somalia should be approved by lawmakers or not, things seem to be finally getting better for the country. The international community unanimously backed IGAD member countries’ operations to dismantle al-Shabaab.
United Kingdom’s Prime Minister David Cameron, earlier this week hosting a conference that drew 55 countries and organizations in London to help find lasting solution to Somalia, said that setting up an inclusive government was vital to the country’s future. Ethiopia was represented by PM Meles.
“Those young people who take up guns for al-Shabaab need to be able to see that there is a future in a prosperous stable Somalia that offers them what everyone wants, which is a job and a voice,” he told a news conference, according to a report by the BBC.
“So the connection between military action to put huge pressure on al-Shabaab, which has been happening, and the political process, they are two sides of the same coin.”
In a final communiqué, the London conference attendants said they would:
• Back the handover of power from the transitional government to an inclusive administration by August 2012
• Provide more support for African Union peacekeepers
• Better co-ordinate humanitarian aid, shifting focus to long-term needs
• Crack down on piracy by expanding on agreements to bring suspects to trial in countries away from Somalia.