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Ethiopian meddling in Somalia counterproductive

With Islamic militants now in control of all of Somalia’s major cities, the international community needs to take a more assertive role to prevent Somalia from sliding back into civil war and anarchy.

Commentary by Sara Kuepfer for ISN Security Watch (27/09/06)

Islamic militants early on Monday morning took over Kismayo, one of Somalia’s largest cities and a strategic port town. The warlords in control of the city left without resistance. Following the takeover, however, thousands of protesters took to the streets, whereby the militants opened fire, killing a teenager. On Tuesday, militiamen broke up a rally opposing the instituting of Islamic law and arrested 20 women. Meanwhile, thousands of Somalis are reported to have fled the city.

Regional tensions have increased following eyewitness accounts of Ethiopian troops moving into the Somali town of Baidoa, the only town still held by Somali government forces. Ethiopia has publicly denied sending in troops despite its open support of the Somali interim government.

Sheik Yusuf Indahaadde, a spokesman of the Islamic militants, told The Associated Press on Monday, “The incursion of Ethiopian troops into Somali territories is a declaration of war on Somalia.” If Ethiopia failed to withdraw, he continued, “the consequences of insecurity created by Ethiopia will spread to neighboring countries and to East Africa as a whole.”

Shortly after the takeover, Somali interim Prime Minister Mohammed Ali Ghedi accused the West of failing to act against Islamic militants in the region.

Ghedi’s administration was set up in 2004 in an attempt to create the first effective national government since the country slipped into anarchy in 1991.

Furthermore, the interim government called upon the UN to partially lift an arms embargo on Somalia to enable the entry of African peacekeepers, whose deployment the African Union (AU) authorized earlier this month.

The takeover of Kismayo comes after Islamist forces, the so-called Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), took over Somalia’s capital Mogadishu in June. The UIC, which is a network of 11 Islamic courts in Mogadishu, has been enjoying significant popular support, especially among the capital’s business community, which is eager to see an end to the lawlessness and rampant crime in the city.

According to the BBC, the UIC’s stated goal was “to restore a system of Sharia law in the city and put an end to impunity and fighting on the streets.” While the UIC had been quite successful at making Mogadishu safer, there are extremist elements within the network that have called for the creation of an Islamic state. This has raised fears of the potential emergence of a Taliban-style government in Somalia.

But many Africa experts believe that the implementation of Taliban-style rule is highly unlikely in a country whose culture has been dominated by a moderate version of Islam for centuries.

Still, Hassan Turki, the leader of the Islamic militia, is on US and UN lists of suspected terrorists because of alleged ties to al-Qaida. Furthermore, Washington has accused the UIC of sheltering suspects in the 1998 al-Qaida bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

There remains a danger that Somalia, if it saw a return to anarchy, could provide a safe haven and a new base for terrorists.

Meanwhile, Somalia’s neighboring state Ethiopia has used anti-terrorism as a pretext to meddle in Somalia’s internal power structure.

There is a long history of distrust and animosity between the mostly Christian Ethiopia and the majority Muslim Somalia. The two countries fought wars in 1964 and 1977, the latter being particularly costly to both nations. The two countries have repeatedly supported rebel movements within their neighbors’ countries. Ethiopia stepped up these efforts by supporting Somali warlords after Somalia’s central government collapsed in 1991.

Naturally, Ethiopia has a strong interest in having a friendly government in power in Somalia, a wish that became true when Abdullahi Yusuf, an Ethiopian ally, assumed the leadership of Somalia’s interim government in 2004. When the UIC took over Mogadishu this summer, Ethiopia moved troops into the country to halt the advance of the Islamist militia.

However, Ethiopia's attempt to remove Islamic militants from power in Somalia will be counterproductive to the anti-terrorist cause, wrote Gregory H Winger from the US National Defense Council Foundation in this week’s issue of the Christian Science Monitor.

Indeed, Ethiopian soldiers supporting an unpopular and weak government in Somalia are widely hated among the local population, which in turn will only strengthen popular support of the UIC for resisting the foreign invaders.

Winger warned that the US should not be blinded by Ethiopia’s attempt to position itself as an ally in the "war on terror."

During the past year, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has come into international disrepute for fixing elections, cracking down on his opposition and violating human rights. As a result, Western donors, among them the US, have withdrawn much of their economic aid to the country. As such, Zenawi may speculate that these policies would be reversed if his country helped prevent the spread of radical Islam in the Horn of Africa.

Clearly, the international community would be wrong to rely on Ethiopia to counter the Islamist threat in Somalia. Instead, it should enable the deployment of African Union peacekeepers and support the ongoing peace talks between the UIC and the Somali interim government.

Sara Kuepfer is an ISN editor based in Zurich.

The opinions contained in this article are solely those of the writer, and in no way, form or shape represent the editorial opinions of "Hiiraan Online"

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