Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 May 2007
Issue No. 843
Region
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ethiopian presence a tinderbox


Click to view caption
Somali residents in front of a demolished building in the war-ravaged capital Mogadishu

IT WAS messy. Figures can mislead. It is not just the numbers that kept changing. Nobody knows for sure how many Ethiopian troops are stationed in Somalia, and nobody knows how many Somalis have been killed as a result of the Ethiopian military intervention in Somalia. Statistics tell part of the story. In the past six weeks an estimated 400,000 Somalis have fled the fighting in the war-battered Somali capital Mogadishu. What is certain is that the Ethiopians were and are unwelcome.

In an unprecedented move, the African Union (AU) dispatched 1,600 Ugandan peace-keepers to Mogadishu to replace the Ethiopian troops. The Ethiopians remain, and have not indicated when they will leave or even if they will leave. It is unclear if the Ugandans will be as unwelcome as the Ethiopians in Somalia.

Somalia under the rule of the Council of Islamic Courts (CICs) was transforming itself from a country of civil war and political chaos into a country with a future, however austere, under the leadership of the CICs.

Cries of "totalitarianism" and the institutionalisation of an "oppressive theocratic state" were hurled at it. The legal process was according to Islamic Sharia law. Secularists regarded this as evidence that the country was moving backwards. But, that was far better than the uncontrollable collapse of the society and political system that the Western- backed invasion precipitated.

With the Western-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) sitting in the wings, under the CICs there was no question of tolerating or even encouraging a vigorous, secular opposition. The embattled TFG was besieged in Baidoa, central Somalia, and had no credibility. Worse, it was incapable of defending itself and was utterly dependent on the Ethiopian army to prop it up.

Under these circumstances, for the CICs there could be no room for dissent. Two questions flow from this fact. First, is Western-style democracy the panacea for Africa's woes? Obviously, in the case of Somalia it is not. The people of Somalia wanted law and order -- Islamic-style. Ethiopia has the pretense of some form of democracy, but its meddlesome interference in Somali affairs has alienated it from other countries in the predominantly Islamic Horn of Africa, and aroused the suspicions of Arab and Muslim nations.

For a majority of the Somali people, the CICs encouraged the notion of order which was vastly preferable to the political chaos, uncertainty and licence to kill and loot that were the norm during the pre- CICs period. The CICs instituted law and order and, for the first time in Somalia's bloody contemporary history, a semblance of peace and political stability were instituted. And this has particular consequences for Somalia and the entire Horn of Africa.

The second issue is whether military intervention US-style is the answer. The pounding of Mogadishu by the Ethiopian army in which hundreds of Somalis were killed resulted in deep resentment of the Ethiopian military presence. Muscle-flexing and political violence have never sorted out anything in Somalia. Whatever goodwill the Ethiopians had as backers of the TFG is long gone and Somalis will surely demand good reasons for the result of this Ethiopian misadventure.

There are many reasons to welcome the presence of AU peace-keeping troops in the war-battered Somali capital Mogadishu. Chief among them is that the sooner the Ethiopians are gone, the better.

However, the TFG is incapable of beefing up its own security capabilities. This could lead to a dangerous outcome as warlords start tearing at each others throats all over again. The deeply fragmentary nature of the TFG that it displayed in Baidoa has remained intact, now that it is "governing" in Mogadishu.

Ethiopian troops cannot indefinitely shield the incompetent and indecisive TFG. The bitterness of Somalis and their hatred of the Ethiopian military presence grows daily.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zennawi is incapable of acknowledging that his aggression against Somalia has failed and that he must bring his defeated troops home. Already there is widespread desertion among Ethiopian troops in Somalia and even Ethiopians fleeing to Yemen to avoid the draft.

Moreover, the Ethiopian government fears and is trying to reach out to its alienated and restive ethnic Somali minority. The entire eastern wastelands of Ethiopia are inhabited by ethnic Somalis who have close clan and kinship ties with their fellow Somalis across the border. They have their own autonomous region, but they are on the whole a disgruntled lot.

The CICs are bound to play a prominent part in Somali politics, even after their recent routing by the Ethiopians. The Ethiopians, for their part, must bow out gracefully if they are not to incur the wrath of Somalis any further.

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