Many Somalis are alarmed at a recent decision to include Ethiopian troops in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a peacekeeping force in the war-ravaged country.
Somali analysts opposing the decision have called it “a mistake”, a “political and military miscalculation” that has the potential to “change the body politic of Somalia”. After decades of bad feelings between Mogadishu and Addis Ababa, many Somalis see their western neighbour as a Christian arch-foe that should have no role in the affairs of a Muslim country.
Ali Mohamud Rage – a spokesman for al-Shabab, an armed anti-state group in Somalia – urged his countrymen to rise up against the Ethiopians to defend their country or “suffer regret when it’s too late”.
“The AMISOM shirt legitimates the spilling of the blood of the Somali people and the occupation of the Muslim land of Somalia and the elimination of their religion… We say: ‘Wake up from your slumber.'”
The addition of 4,395 Ethiopian troops will bring the total number of African peacekeeping forces in Somalia to 22,126. Most of the soldiers currently there come from Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Djibouti.
Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud welcomed the African Union decision to have Ethiopians on board, saying they will add “energy” and boost efforts to defeat al-Shabab, whose stated aim is to topple his government and establish an Islamic state in its place. As a result of 22 years of civil war and chaos, Somalia lacks a strong and reliable army that can take on al-Shabab, making the presence of foreign peacekeepers in the country all the more necessary.
“One should positively look at the whole picture, especially those of us who are concerned about regional peace and security,” said Ibrahim Farah, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi.
But many others fear that history may repeat itself, and that the presence of Ethiopian forces may add to already existing anti-Ethiopian sentiments in Somalia, and energise anti-government groups. David Shinn, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia, told Voice of America that he thought the decision was “a mistake” and that Ethiopia’s involvement could be a “rallying cry” for al-Shabab.
After Ethiopia’s military invasion of Somalia in 2006, local and international human rights groups accused Ethiopian troops of killing civilians and committing atrocities, with Amnesty International citing throat-slitting, the gang-raping of women, and reports of Somalis being “slaughter[ed] like goats”, in the words of witnesses. The Ethiopian government has denied these allegations.
Although the governments of Ethiopia and Somalia currently claim to have a good working relationship, the two countries also went to war in 1977 over the Ogaden region, which is located in eastern Ethiopia but claimed by Somalia. Many Somalis still harbour a grudge against Addis Ababa, which they believe is occupying Somali territory.
Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers were sent to Somalia in 2007 to replace the Ethiopian forces, who had invaded the country to oust Islamists who had seized control of much of central and southern Somalia. The Ethiopian invasion has become a battle cry for Somali nationalists and Islamists who eventually forced Ethiopia to withdraw its troops from Somalia in 2009.
An AMISOM spokesman, Colonel Ali Houmed, told Al Jazeera that Ethiopian forces deployed to Somalia will have to “comply with” the peacekeeping force’s standard operating procedures. He said the aim of adding Ethiopians to AMISOM was to bolster the push to get rid of al-Shabab fighters.
Since the implosion of Somalia’s central government in 1991, Ethiopia has taken a keen interest in the affairs of its eastern neighbour, keeping closer tabs on its security and political developments in a bid to prevent a takeover by anti-Ethiopian Islamist forces.
“To include Ethiopian forces in AMISOM is a dangerous decision that will not in any way help the stability of Somalia and the region in the long term,” said Zakariye Haji Mohamud, a Somali member of parliament and a former chairman of the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia, a group formed in 2007 to remove Ethiopian troops from Somalia.
Mohamud said Ethiopian forces are not the “ideal force” to stabilise Somalia, “because there is historical hostility between Somalia and Ethiopia, and that Addis Ababa was never interested in bringing about peace in Somalia… In 2006, they invaded a relatively peaceful country, and when they pulled out they left behind chaos in every corner of southern and central regions.”
Faisal Roble, a Horn of Africa analyst and director of research at the US-based Institute for Horn of Africa Studies and Affairs, said the inclusion of Ethiopian troops “could politically destabilise Somalia, galvanise Islamists and may even revive genuine pan-Somali opposition to the presence of Ethiopian and Kenyan forces in the country”.
Some Somalis suspect that their country is taking the shape of what its rivals, especially Kenya and Ethiopia, want it to be: a militarily weak nation that is split up into clan-based mini-states, which are unable to mount any effective resistance.
Somalia is already fragmented: Somaliland, in the country’s northwest, broke away from Mogadishu in 1991, and northeastern Puntland claims autonomy. Meanwhile, the Kismayo-based Juba Administration, made up of three southern regions, presents itself as the second viable regional administration after Puntland.
Efforts are also under way to form a third state for southwestern regions of Somalia, with little input from the national government in Mogadishu.
“Kenya and Ethiopia would rather have a weak Somalia as a neighbour. This is realpolitik,” said Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, a Horn of Africa specialist who teaches history and political science at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya. “The reason is that Somalia has not officially renounced its dream of a greater Somalia,” which would include Somali-inhabited regions in northeastern Kenya and the Ogaden region in eastern Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s move to join AMISOM follows the example of Kenya, which invaded Somalia in 2011, and the following year joined the peacekeeping mission in the country.
Abdisamad said it is hard to find a country in sub-Saharan Africa that has successfully helped its neighbour recover from armed conflict, while history is replete with examples of countries taking advantage of their neighbours’ weaknesses – most notably in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Although Somalia’s army and parliament did not mount much resistance to Ethiopian and Kenyan troops joining the AU force, that hasn’t stopped other Somalis from protesting. “There is no need to have foreign forces in Somalia, be it AMISOM or others from Africa. Somalia has to administer itself and rebuild its army,” said Somalia’s former president, Abdiqasim Salad Hassan, in an interview with a local radio station.
Hassan, a staunch critic of Ethiopian interference in Somali affairs, called on the central government to ask AMISOM donors to help rebuild Somalia’s army instead.