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With an apparently facile victory achieved over the Council of Somalia Islamic Courts, the Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government faces a more difficult challenge in establishing a functioning government in Somalia.

Ethiopian soldier (AFP/Getty)
Ethiopian soldier (AFP/Getty)

By Simon Roughneen


After a blitzkrieg campaign launched Christmas Eve involving an estimated 15,000 Ethiopian troops backed by tanks, fighter jets and helicopter gunships, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has established itself in Mogadishu, after spending most of its precarious and ineffective existence thus far in the western town of Baidoa.

The quick defeat of the Islamists has averted fears of a Somali vortex pulling the Horn of Africa into a regional war. But in its place, a long-running guerrilla campaign and renewed insecurity are likely. Princeton Lyman, Africa Program Director at the Council on Foreign Relations, told ISN Security Watch, “I expect a good deal of instability and warlord-type of activity for awhile at least.”

Ethiopian and TFG troops much assert control rapidly, before Islamists regroup or are rearmed by the Hawiye, as a means of curbing renewed warlord chaos. The Ethiopian presence may radicalize a greater proportion of Somali Muslims. The early signs are not propitious with recent fighting in Mogadishu between unidentified gunmen and Ethiopian soldiers. A TFG deadline for weapons to be handed in was ignored by secular warlords and Islamists. And while the latter suffered a comprehensive defeat in the face of one of Africa’s largest standing armies, 3000 CSIC fighters have reportedly melted into Mogadishu’s civilian population. With warlords reasserting their presence across the city through the use of roadblocks and renewed extortion and intimidation of the civilian population, the Somali capital is a tinderbox.

Throughout early 2006, the CSIC conducted a 6-month campaign to assert control over Mogadishu’s hitherto rampant warlords, who had carved Mogadishu into fiefdoms resulting in a state of violent anarchy. The Islamists then sought to bring all of Somalia under its control, leading the country on a collision course with the TFG and the Ethiopians. Peace talks between the two sides were held in Khartoum, but were breached by the Islamist advance and the Ethiopian presence at Baidoa.

Stephen Morrison, Africa Program Director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, told ISN Security Watch that the Ethiopians and the International Somali Contact Group have a “brief window to press the TFG to enlarge its support and credibility by co-opting moderate Islamist elements and others.” Hardliners in the CSIC have been defeated, for now, and the CSIC was as much a business-sponsored and clan-based entity was it was a religious-ideological one.

However, the TFG must rein in its own warlord allies and persuade them not to carve up Mogadishu and the rest of Somalia into fiefdoms. The TFG must prioritize the powerful Hawiye clan of which President Abdullahi Yusuf is a member. The Hawiye provided the backbone of the CSIC, but are not ideologically-committed to an Islamist state in Somalia, and may be persuaded to consent to TFG rule if co-opted into government. The CSIC set a mid-December deadline for the Ethiopian troops to withdraw, but when it became apparent that the stability brought about by the CSIC was to be jeopardized by the Ethiopian desire to fight, the Hawiye curtailed the CSIC weapons supply.

But while the Ethiopians remain in the country in large numbers, it is difficult to envisage the TFG acquiring the legitimacy needed to govern or to persuade even its own warlords to disarm at the behest of a foreign power. UN Security Council Resolution 1725, passed 6 December, may have been a trigger for conflict, given that the CSIC regarded the proposed African Union (AU) peacekeeping force as a US proxy occupation, but the politics and logistics of peace enforcement mean that the Ethiopians must withdraw soon – within weeks according to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi – but some effective armed force must be present to attempt to disarm secular warlords and allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians and ensure that Islamists do not revive.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has agreed to send a 1000-strong detachment of peacekeepers as part of the proposed AU force, and Nigeria has made positive noises on deployment without any official commitment. However, the AU force must be deployed quickly to enable the Ethiopians to leave. Given the ineffective AU presence in Darfur, it remains unclear how a similar deployment could work in an even more volatile context in urban Mogadishu. The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Morrison said that a UN force was necessary. It may be seen by Somalis as less partial than a force comprised of Ethiopian allies such as Uganda.

While fears of guerrilla attacks persist, the CSIC’s combination of battlefield bravado and military naivety meant they suffered heavy losses after engaging one of Africa’s biggest armies in pitched battles. According to Lyman, “It is too early to be certain about the capacity of the Islamists to launch a guerrilla war or to carry out terrorist attacks. They lost many in the fighting and some of their adherents gave up and went home. “Others, however, have escaped to the hills and probably to Kenya. My guess is that they will seek to take advantage of anti-Ethiopian feeling to build up cadres to carry out such attacks. Thus, how long Ethiopian troops remain in Somalia will be a factor,” he told ISN Security Watch.

Al-Qaida second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri released a statement calling on the CSIC to resist the TFG and the Ethiopians, and an Islamist youth-party militant section, the Shabaab, has stated that it would maintain resistance. Despite a UN report outlining a steady flow of foreign arms to the CSIC, they appeared poorly-equipped when fighting the Ethiopians, and there has been little evidence that foreign jihadists took to the field alongside the Somali Islamists.

Kenya, and to a greater extent Ethiopia, have ethnic Somali populations. Kenya’s closing of its border has entrapped hundreds of Islamists in a marshy region in southern Somalia, where TFG and Ethiopian troops are closing in. Ethiopia intervened in Somalia in the 1990s, destroying the al-Ittihad Islamists there. Somali dissidents in the Oromo region have launched sporadic attacks on Ethiopian troops in recent years, while still-unexplained car bombs occurred in Addis Ababa last year.

Ethiopia sought to destroy the CSIC as it made irredentist claims on ethnic Somali regions of Ethiopia and had US backing in ending the short reign of an organization that sheltered three suspects in the 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. It is unclear whether many Eritrean casualties were incurred. Asmara’s secular regime provided training and arms to the Islamists in an attempt to open a proxy second front in its unresolved conflict with Ethiopia, which remains frozen since a disputed 2000 peace agreement.

Financial assistance as part of a sustained political engagement with Somalia is crucial to the TFGs prospects. During the formation of the TFG, the US donated just US$250,000 to maintaining that political process. However the US funded some of the secular Mogadishu warlords, who lost out to the Islamists in early 2006. Ironically, these are some of the same warlords which fought US troops in the early 1990s and have thrived amid Somalian anarchy ever since. The US has just announced over US$30 million in funding for the TFG, perhaps suggesting a more consistent and less-opaque policy toward the country.

Somalia will likely remain mired in factional fighting. Stability means having the capacity to control warlords – as the CSIC did during 2006 – and co-opt pragmatists in the CSIC. However, the unpopular Ethiopian garrisons are the chief source of the TFGs military capacity. Without quickly replacing Ethiopian troops with a multinational force, in tandem with providing the TFG with resources to build its own capacity, Yusuf will not bring about a restoration of effective sovereignty in Somalia, while the region’s western-allied nations may now be vulnerable to random terrorist attacks.

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