The rise of Al-Shabab in Somalia must be seen in the context of decades of mismanagement, dictatorship and abuse, writes Yohannes Woldemariam. Following Ethiopia’s US-backed intervention in 2006, the ascendancy of Somalia’s moderate UIC (Union of Islamic Courts) was blocked and some 300,000 people were displaced, in the wake of which ‘the Al-Shabab extremists triumphed as a hegemonic force’ from within the UIC. And as the dust settles on last week’s Kampala bombing, Woldemariam contends, the governments of US allies Ethiopia and Uganda are once again seeking to capitalise on the tragedy for their own ends, ‘with Obama playing right into it’.
The emergence of Al-Shabab in Somalia is not an accident. It stems from many decades of mismanagement, dictatorship, regional and international abuse. Superficially, one expects Somalia to be a unified entity because all Somalis speak a common language and are not plagued by ethnic differences as in many parts of the post-colonial world. Yet Somalia was always beset by deep clan cleavages even as Somali elites fantasised about the notion of a ‘Greater Somalia’ and made it their mission to unite all Somali-speaking peoples. This included Somalis in neighbouring states: the Ogaden region in Ethiopia, the Issas in Djibouti and the Somalis who inhabit the area known as the Northern Frontier District of Kenya. The Horn of Africa was of course faced with the same arbitrariness of borders inherited from colonial rule, where there were cultural links with people across borders.
Notion of 'Greater Somalia' marked in yellow on map
But the project of an ethnically homogenous state by embracing neighbouring Somali minorities was a non-starter and contrary to the African charter of respecting colonial boundaries. Hence, Somali irredentism pitted it against Kenya and Ethiopia, worsening in particular its historic enmity with Ethiopia. The tension between the two countries provided one of the openings for the Soviet Union and the United States to use these nations as proxies in the geopolitical games of the Cold War. The Horn of Africa of which Somalia is a part became much like Afghanistan, Vietnam and other hot spots of that era.
Ethiopia and Somalia waged two major wars, including one that involved Cuban troops in 1977–78. A combined force of Ethiopians, 15,000 Cubans, 1,500 Soviet advisors and weaponry broke the back of the Somali army. This defeat was the beginning of the end of a functioning Somali state. It was followed by a protracted civil war in the 1980s, culminating in the disintegration of the country. Clumsy US and UN involvement in the 1990s made an already bad situation worse. Clan-based warlordism replaced the centralised dictatorship of Mohammed Said Barre, who ruled Somalia from 1969 to 1991. After the fall of Barre, Somaliland and Puntland became two separate, relatively stable but unrecognised entities. In fact, in late June 2010, Somaliland held the only election in the region which met international standards. Opposition candidate Ahmed M. Maha Silanyo won the election, defeating incumbent President Dahir Riyale Kahin. In contrast, anarchy had reigned in southern Somalia and the Mogadishu area for at least the last two decades.
For the most part, the US disengaged after the death of 18 of its marines and the downing of two Black Hawk helicopters in 1993. The gruesome scene in October 1993 – with pictures of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu and dubbed the ‘CNN effect’ – is a fixture in the memory of many Americans. It influenced the Clinton administration’s decision to withdraw US troops from the country. Somalia became of renewed interest only after 9/11 out of concern that it would be a breeding ground for global jihad and a hide out for Al-Qaida elements.
There were 14 unsuccessful top-down attempts for a centralised government in Somalia between 1991 and 2010. The current Transitional Federal Government (TFG) led by Sharif Sheikh Ahmed is the latest mutation of these trials. Most Somalis view Sharif Ahmed as an Ethiopian puppet, but Hillary Clinton had called him the ‘best hope’ for his country. He barely controls two blocks in Mogadishu and only because of the protection of approximately 3,000 Ugandan and 2,000 Burundian troops representing the ill-conceived AU Mission In Somalia (AMISOM). The Ugandan, Burundian and Ethiopian intervention is deeply resented by Somalis of various political persuasions. The justification for their presence is ostensibly to keep peace, but there is no peace to keep in Somalia. Uganda and Ethiopia really need peace within their own borders before pretending to bring peace to other lands. Among several insurgencies within Ethiopia is the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), which is waging a perennial struggle for self-determination for the four million or so ethnic Somalis. It has claimed thousands of lives and is being called ‘the other Darfur’ by some observers. Since the 1980s, Uganda’s northern region has also been ravaged by a murderous group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
The primary reason for Ethiopian intervention is its vested interest in a weak and disintegrated Somalia. It also benefits from American financial, military and political support by positioning itself as an ally in the ‘war on terror’. Ethiopia receives the largest amount of American aid of any country in sub-Saharan Africa. Similarly, Uganda and Burundi are intervening to garner support from the United States when they don’t even share a common border with Somalia.
In return, the US keeps mum when these leaders rig elections or change constitutional clauses to enable them to extend presidential terms. It is a Machiavellian game all around.
If one were genuine about peace, Ethiopia would be among the last countries in the world to be encouraged to send troops to Somalia. Yet in 2006, it intervened in Somalia with American support and pre-empted the ascendancy of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), who were relatively moderate Muslims and had managed to establish a modicum of order for the very first time in 15 years. From the ranks of UIC, the Al-Shabab extremists triumphed as a hegemonic force. Ethiopia officially withdrew in 2009, but only after experiencing a quagmire which plunged Somalia into deeper chaos, displacing 300,000 Somalis and causing disarray for a grassroots movement that had seemed promising before it was nipped by Ethiopian intervention. And this official withdrawal notwithstanding, Ethiopian troops still make periodic incursions into Somalia at will.
Given the predatory nature of the governments of Burundi, Ethiopia and Uganda – which are essentially military dictatorships or de facto one-party control – little faith can be placed in them for enhancing regional stability in the Horn region. Current Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki is also believed to have stolen the presidential election from Raila Odinga (who happens to hail from the same ethnic group as Barack Obama's father), who is now prime minister in a shaky power-sharing government. Yet the country is an ally in security matters in the region and therefore immune from any serious US scrutiny.
In 2006, the Bush administration provided intelligence to Ethiopia in support of the invasion. It also used military facilities in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya to launch air raids and missile strikes against Al-Qaida suspects at several sites in Somalia in 2007 and 2008. The air attacks killed several dozen Somali civilians and injured hundreds more, and they made US backing for the invasion highly visible. These periodic airstrikes are continuing under the Obama administration. The killing of Somali civilians only serves to drive Somalis into desperation and extremism. AMISOM is not any better. There are credible reports that it is responsible for civilian deaths and other excesses.
In the aftermath of the Kampala bombings, Obama said that Al-Qaida is racist and doesn’t care about African lives. No sane person would dispute that. However, the real question is whether Obama cares about African lives. If he truly does, why would he meddle and prop up dictators like Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, dictators who wilfully sacrifice their soldiers and the lives of innocents for some foreign exchange dollars? Not surprisingly, both Zenawi and Museveni are already positioning themselves to argue for expanded intervention and to milk the Kampala tragedy, with Obama playing right into it. Ironically, Al-Shabab will also welcome the escalation and regionalisation of the conflict in the hope of bolstering its waning domestic support base as ordinary Somalis become weary of the heavy-handed repression by the movement.
Relying on Ethiopia, Uganda and Burundi for keeping peace in Somalia is like sending Indian soldiers to occupy and pacify the Pakistani tribal areas. It is an oxymoron. It undermines the moderates and helps the extremists. The willingness of the United States to endorse interventions is rarely matched by a commitment to a comprehensive effort of securing peace. With the quagmire in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is hardly any political will in the US to effectively deal with the complexities of the issues in Somalia. Somalia does not need intervention and further militarisation by self-serving neighbours. A possible starting point for rebuilding Somalia could be to use the money that is being wasted on AMISOM to assist the Somali people and the nascent democratic experiment in Somaliland in light of the severe democratic drought in the region.
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