Allies at odds over Somalia

Posted on 26/07/2010


The US and its main ally in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia, are pursuing contradictory policies when it comes to dealing with Somalia’s Islamist movements.

While Addis Ababa is pursuing its traditional unaccommodationist and at times hostile policy towards these groups, Washington is encouraging all those Islamist movements that are interested in renouncing violence to participate in the political process.

Last week, Ethiopia called a ministerial level emergency session of member states of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). IGAD’s subsequent communiqué calling for a meeting of heads of state in order to “re-engineer” the Somali peace process points to gerrymandering of the crisis by Ethiopia, which seems to want to impose its proxies on the Somalis.

This is an interesting development.

Backdoor intervention

For the past 20 years, Ethiopia has been heavily involved in the Somali conflict, with interventions that have ranged from supporting warlords and regional authorities through the provision of weapons, to a full-fledged invasion in 2006.

Ethiopia was chosen by IGAD and the African Union as early as 1992 to play a key role in helping to stabilise Somalia – and it is a role it is determined to maintain for as long possible.

The international community, however, realised that the Ethiopian invasion only worsened Somalia’s security and humanitarian situation by creating the conditions in which extremism flourished.

As a result, Ethiopia was pressured to withdraw from Somalia, moderate Islamists were included in the peace process, the Somalia file was removed from IGAD and the United Nations was tasked with leading the Somali peace process.

However, Addis Ababa has been unhappy with the developments that have taken place in the country since the Djibouti process – which resulted in the formation of the current unity government – ended in 2009, and has sought to insert its influence via backdoor means.

Re-appropriating the peace process

It has done this by exploiting the legitimate grievances of Somalia’s traditional Sufi orders, while sidelining the genuine representatives of the moderate Sufi group Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama’a. It has also militarily supported local warlords and empowered some pro-Ethiopian Somali politicians, effectively forcing the leaders of the transitional government to share power with them.

For Addis Ababa, this whole exercise is about securing politically what it failed to achieve militarily in its 2006-2009 invasion – that is re-appropriating the peace process and transitional government institutions, and eliminating and/or weakening those Islamist groups that are part of the transitional government.

In fact, Ethiopia has often sought to present all of Somalia’s Islamist movements and nationalist forces as extremists and terrorists, expelling many members of these groups from the peace process it controlled between 2002 and 2004.

As a result of the Djibouti peace process, which began in 2008, besides Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, the Somali president and a well-known Islamist leader, some 60 Islamists joined the 550-member Somali parliament. Moreover, of the 39 cabinet members, eight ministries were allotted to Islamist groups that joined the government.

But, at least half of these ministers are no longer in the fold. Ibrahim Hassan Adow and Ahmed Abdullahi were killed by suicide bombers, while others have resigned. Many of those that remain are frustrated, in part by Ethiopian pressure, and may not hang on for too much longer.

In fact, if Ethiopia’s intrusion and control becomes more apparent, many Islamists will quit the transitional government, while those interested Islamists on the outside will choose not to join the peace process. This will present an excellent opportunity for extremist groups to fill the vacuum left by the departing Islamists.

Dr Afyare Abdi Elmi is a professor of International Affairs at Qatar University and the author of Understanding the Somalia Conflagration.


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