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The Impacts of Ethiopia’s Invasion of Somalia

By Buri M. Hamza*
Monday,  January 07, 2008



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US-backed Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia in December 2006. Meles Zenawi had then described his unjust invasion of Somalia as: “A military operation that was prompted by the menaces posed by the growing influence of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC)”. He also said: “The Ethiopian forces are waging a war against Islamists in Somalia in order to protect their nation’s sovereignty and also protect the internationally-recognized Transitional Federal Government of Somalia.”


Zenawi’s rationale for the invasion of a sovereign nation was vehemently contested by international scholars, political analysts and human rights activists, and dismissed by many conscientious Somali nationalists, scholars and politicians. His insistence to posit the Union of Islamic Courts as a terrorist organization that represents an existential threat to Ethiopia was nothing but an incendiary foolishness. Jumping on some naïve statement made by a leader within the Union of Islamic Courts, or making a fuss over this leader’s blithe declaration that the Somali Islamists would destroy Ethiopia together with its Abyssinian leadership, Meles Zenawi was being utterly disingenuous with very deadly intent


As I have previously argued, Meles Zenawi’s motive for occupying Somalia is consistent with Abyssinian’s obsession of weakening Somali irredentist hope for a Greater Somalia, and is in harmony with Ethiopia’s insistence to impede any conflict transformation efforts that aim at alleviating the suffering of the Somali people.


One year has already elapsed since the US-backed Ethiopia’s occupation of Somalia began. This occupation has caused an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe, and there is no sign that Meles Zenawi is willing to withdraw his occupying forces anytime soon. The regime in Addis Ababa has made it openly clear that its military might in Somalia is being extended – a move very much in line with Ethiopia’s determination to plunge Somalia into an irreversible coma.


 I will attempt, in Part One of this paper, to assess the impact of Ethiopia’s occupation of Somalia – one year after. I will, at the outset, reiterate international community’s contention that Somalia is now considered to be Africa’s worst humanitarian catastrophe, despite the blatant denials of the leadership in Addis Ababa. The paper intends also to lay a foundation for further informed discussion and debate over “occupation – resource nexus” and Ethiopia’s long-term obsession of securing access to Somalia’s natural resource-based assets with the view to consolidating its hegemony in the Horn of Africa.

Part Two of the paper, which will appear soon, will look at, among other cogent issues, Ethiopia’s military intervention and the de-legitimation of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).


Assessing the Impact of Ethiopia’s Occupation


1.         Humanitarian Impact


Somalia is worse off now than it has ever been since the start of the civil war. Occupation has fuelled catastrophic humanitarian and environmental disasters. Thousands of civilians in the capital city and in other parts of Somalia have been killed and the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of others have been shattered. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has recently stated that the number of displaced people is now one million.


According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the fighting waged by the TFG/Ethiopian troops   against the forces of the resistance has led to “severely disrupted economic activities which is affecting poor urban households that rely on petty trade and casual labour as main sources of income”. The agencies have also disclosed that in host communities outside of Mogadishu, the inflows of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) have increased competition for already overburdened social services, markets, housing, and employment opportunities. These early warnings reported by the UN and its specialized agencies, as dismal as they appear, are signs of a disaster that is now looming in Somalia.


Human Rights Watch has recently described the indiscriminate bombardment of the densely populated neighborhoods of the capital city of Somalia by the Ethiopian forces “as violations of the principles of the laws of war and suggest the commission of war crimes”. Ethiopian troops have deliberately targeted civilians and damaged their vital infrastructures. As the occupying Ethiopian troops were legally obliged to distinguish between the actual combatants of the Somali resistance movements and the civilians in order to avoid any collateral damage, they have opted to defy all international conventions and wreck havoc to innocent Somali women and children.


The passionate anger and fury that the Ethiopian military forces continue to evoke on the people of Mogadishu and its surroundings will undoubtedly bedevil feelings of compassion and love that the Somali people have harboured for their brothers and sisters in Ethiopia. Not only have the Ethiopian troops, with full blessings from their Prime Minister, unleashed a massive slaughter of innocent civilians, they have also desecrated the sanctity of mosques and other Islamic centres in Mogadishu.

While Somalis have every right to resist invasion/occupation, they must, however, equally audibly and unambiguously condemn the barbaric acts perpetrated by certain individuals in Mogadishu. The dragging of dead Ethiopian bodies through the streets of Mogadishu cannot be condoned – it is despicable, abhorrent, inhumane, and anathema to the Islamic and Somali values and convictions. Besides, the rising tide of intimidations, the murders of members of the Transitional Federal Institutions, and members of the Somali civil society organizations in Mogadishu and elsewhere in Somalia, allegedly by the resistance forces and the TFG soldiers, have only deepened hatred and heightened tension.


2.         Addis Ababa’s Denials and Defiance


In a recent interview with AlJazeera television, Meles Zenawi was asked about the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in Somalia and the thousands that have been killed, both Ethiopians and Somalis. His reaction was: “We are not responsible for the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in Mogadishu. We have responded to problems that were created by terrorists; we have responded at the request of the internationally-recognized government; and we have responded after the repetitive provocations of the Jihadists against us.”  And when told that his troops were accused of human right abuses, he defied reports of the international human rights organizations and described them as “flawed and baseless.” But when he was later told that there has been “video evidence linking his soldiers to killing, his response was “I did not see that.” Ostensibly, Meles Zenawi was not being honest. How could he possibly be so oblivious to the atrocities perpetrated by his soldiers in Somalia?


Likewise, Les Nouvelles D’Addis has recently interviewed Seyum Mesfin, the Foreign Minister of Ethiopia.  The Minister so defiantly asserted during such interview that the “situation has remarkably improved when compared to what Mogadishu and Somalia were in December of last year. Just a year ago, Somalia was a no-go area – today there is no any no-go area in Somalia.” Les Nouvelles D’Addis has also put the following question with regard to the rebuilding of Somalia and what this Ethiopian Blog refers to as “the fiction of a united Somalia”:          

“The problem is that the international community wants to create a Somali government from the top. There is a building block theory, i.e. the formation of entities like Somaliland, Puntland, and Bay and Bakool. The paradox is that the UN has always maintained the fiction of a united Somalia which does not exist anymore. Another paradox is that Ethiopia has sent an Ambassador to Mogadishu, but not an Ambassador to Hargeisa…………………”

As biased and lopsided as the question appears, the response of the Minister is even more astounding. Assuming that the translation of what the Minister said was accurate, the Blog reported the following response:


“Let me indicate this: You are right. Somaliland has been an island of peace for over a decade. I accept that Somalia cannot be reconstituted in the old way. I agree with you that Somalia cannot be re-built in the old way. A new reality has emerged. The various regions of the country are insisting for decentralized state structures. Somaliland is pushing along a line of secession. So definitely there is a new reality in Somalia that the Somalis have to face.”


The Minister’s statements represent his government’s firm position vis-à-vis post-war Somalia. Addis Ababa has for some time now been paving the way for the introduction of its own version of post-civil war peacebuilding and conflict transformation strategies for Somalia. These strategies – not to be construed as being long-term social transformation designed to address structural imbalances from which the Somali conflict and violence have arisen – are geared toward the creation of a country that is dissipated, alienated, polarized in terms of its clan and regional differences, and permanently subdued and restrained. Commenting on Mesfin’s acknowledgement of the “new reality”, Dr. Michael A. Weinstein, in his latest report, said: “Ethiopia would be satisfied with a decentralized Somalia, which would eliminate the latter as a potential security threat and would allow Addis Ababa to gain influence through its traditional divide-and-rule strategy.”  Moreover, Ethiopia’s unwavering tenacity that “the reconstitution of Somalia to its pre-1991 status would not serve the national interest of Ethiopia” has been well-articulated in the policy proposal submitted to Meles Zenawi by his close aides. 


3.         Environmental Impacts


Conflict-induced forms of environmental degradation and resource depletion (e.g. deforestation, desertification, and soil erosion), particularly in countries where environmental governance structures are weak or lacking, can lead to an increase in displaced persons, a growing strain on resources, and eventually an escalated inter and intra-communal conflicts.

The protracted civil war in Somalia has unleashed unbearable stress on the country’s ecosystems. It has been a constant menace to the livelihoods of those who depend on these ecosystems for survival. The migration and displacement of the Somali populations to ecologically fragile areas, because of the factional fighting, has caused local resource depletion, poverty, and further displacement. Ethiopia’s invasion and the massacre unleashed by its troops have exacerbated the plight of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and have consequently heightened competition of the already scarce resources.             

Ethiopia’s occupation of Somalia will ultimately have large scale impacts on the country’s natural resource wealth. Because the government in Ethiopia is desperately in need of immediate revenue to sustain its military activities in Somalia, it will continue to plunder these resources. Meles Zenawi has earlier said: “The presence of our troops in Somalia is a burden financially. Money for our Somalia operation was being “squeezed” out of our defense budget, with “not a single cent” from abroad. We have to bear this burden on our own. It cannot be sustained indefinitely.” Drawing on these revelations, which underscore the fact that keeping  thousands of Ethiopia’s occupying troops in Somalia is an unbearable burden for a country wrestling with poverty and other economic and social ills, it is intuitively correct to conclude that the regime in Ethiopia will have to rely heavily on Somalia’s resource wealth to feed its soldiers to sustain occupation, and ultimately use it in the consolidation of its regional hegemony and its brutal oppression of the people inside Ethiopia.  



4.         Occupation – Resource Nexus


Ethiopia’s determination to hold onto larger areas of Somalia by force has also a lot  to do with control of resources. In the absence of effective governance structures capable of protecting the country’s resources coupled with lack of any environmental vision from the current Transitional Federal Institutions and its leaders, the conditions will be extremely propitious for the occupiers to loot and exploit resources. This exploitation and looting will in turn further degrade the ecosystems, destroy the resource base, and enhance the cycle of violence in the country.


The most telling example of the resource looting and extortion is the exportation of charcoal and other key primary commodities. Charcoal, now overtly exported from the Mogadishu Port with the tacit connivance of Ethiopian military generals and the TFG, continues to strip Somalia of its trees. The areas of the country that bear the brunt of this destructive lucrative business legalized by the TFG and the occupiers are the Shabelle and Juba Valley Regions.


The Ethiopian occupying forces are said to be also involved in the export of livestock, bananas, and in the issuance of fishing licenses to foreign maritime companies to undertake fishing and exploitation of the natural resources of the long Somali coast. The revenue accrued from these illegal activities will not only continue to feed the corrupt politicians and unscrupulous businessmen in Somalia, but also the Ethiopian government, which is desperately in need of cash for its military operations in Somalia.

Moreover, Somalia has recently witnessed an overwhelming number of Ethiopians moving into Somalia. The exodus is staggering – many estimate that hundreds of thousands if not already millions have so far poured into Puntland and Somaliland. Others are now drifting towards other regions to settle permanently and consequently induce not only a demographic change, which is part of a long-term strategy of Ethiopia, but also encroach on the fertile and untapped areas of the country.


The effects of deforestation, desertification, and species extinction engendered as a result of resource wealth looting and plundering know no regional or global boundaries. The social costs of such effects will initially be internalized by the people in Somalia, but eventually they will certainly spill way beyond Somalia’s borders.  As I have mentioned above, the “occupation-resource nexus” part of this paper aims solely at eliciting discussion and debate – it does not intend at this juncture to put forth a detailed analysis on the gravity of the situation.




Somalia is now a colossal mess. Ethiopia’s occupation of Somalia has become a nightmare and has exacerbated the humanitarian and security situation in the entire country. The zero-sum approach employed to suppress violence in Mogadishu, in order to allegedly bring about a secure environment, has utterly proved to be a mockery. Ethiopian troops are responsible for the worsening of chaos. They have muddied the already murky water of the Somali politics, and have rendered clan politics more bestial, brutish, and uncivilized. Clan polarization is now worse than anytime before.


The US is perceived as being behind Ethiopia’s occupation of Somalia. It has been obsessed with terrorism and has favoured military action over diplomacy. This has nurtured and encouraged relationship with Meles Zenawi’s government that uses terrorism as a pretext to fulfill its sinister agenda in Somalia and in the Horn.

The deployment of the African peacekeeping mission (AMISOM) has not yet materialized. Only 1,400 Ugandans and a few Burundi peacekeepers are now in Somalia. The planned 8000 peacekeepers are yet to be deployed. This delay will provide more pretexts for the Ethiopians to prolong their presence in Somalia. And it is utterly a mythology and a recipe for more Ethiopia’s meddling to assume that the withdrawal of the occupiers’ forces prior to the full deployment of AMISOM peacekeepers will engender a vacuum and deteriorate security in the country. The security was relatively better before Ethiopia’s invasion. I argue that this “vacuum” may create a window of opportunity for the people to reconcile and quell their differences peacefully. I may sound a bit too optimistic here, and many of our readers will probably laugh at this very daring argument, but I reiterate: given the chance and if Somalis are left alone, they will be able to demonstrate a genuine commitment to peace and dialogue. But will Ethiopia and other external spoilers leave the country and its people alone?


*Buri M. Hamza is an independent researcher in peacebuilding and environmental governance. He can be reached at [email protected]

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