Will a frustrated Ethiopia threaten Somalia’s brittle security?

Why is Ethiopia not a part of AMISOM?

 Somalia is in a steady recovery from the devastation of the last two decades, but will a frustrated Ethiopia threaten its brittle security?

Tsedale Lemma, Mogadishu & Addis Ababa  

As Head of State of a country worn out by two decades of successive wars and anarchy that condemned it to a status of the notorious ‘failed state’ and abandoned by the rest of the world, President Hasan Sheikh Mohamud, elected in Sept. 2012, humbly refers to his country as a country which has been in a “unique situation for the last two decades.” Since the ousting in early 1991 of the country’s then president Mohamed Siad Barre by a coalition of armed opposition groups, Somalia has been a host of ruthless mayhem fuelled by domestic clan loyalty and external military interventions, until it finally succumbed to become a safe haven for international terrorist organizations from the early 2000s to a certain extent until today.

Brigadier General Ondoga may think it is hellish, but he says it with a smile
Brigadier General Ondoga may think it is hellish, but he says it with a smile

Now, thanks largely to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the first ever African peacekeeping mission deployed there since mid 2011, and in part Somalis themselves, who are growing tired of dealing with a substandard existence, the people of most of Somalia are not waking up to a gunshot; the country has a parliamentary system in place that is readying to question the President come May 2nd on what lawmakers angrily said were flawed clauses in the Ankara Agreement; on April 25th the British Foreign Secretary William Hague reopened his country’s embassy in the capital Mogadishu for the first time since 1991; and Nigeria, which in 2009 refused to contribute troops to any peacekeeping mission in Somalia because “there is no peace to keep,” has sent Rex Bundun, AMISOM Police Chief of Staff, who today passionately speaks of the success by AMISOM’s police force division and says “Anything you are doing, you are doing [it] for the Somalis.” President Mohamud not only talks about how to fight terrorists and calm clan loyalists that wrecked his country but Somalia the “land of opportunity with 3, 300 coastline full of marine resources, two permanent rivers throughout the year, 10 million people, 8 million hcts of arable land, and the highest per capita of livestock in Africa.”

Of course, for Somalia and its people, this is a small fraction of the success

What is left of Mogadishu isn’t encouraging
What is left of Mogadishu isn’t encouraging

story so far. Close to 2.1 million Somalis are still refuges both in their own country and in neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya; the city of Mogadishu is nothing but a ruin, buildings that used to house five star hotels are reduced to rubbles and potholes on the streets are as big as the sizes of small fishponds; the government is not yet in charge of most institutions Somalis depend on to run their daily lives; and ordinary Somalis are not sure whether or not they can cruise the streets in their towns without a suicide bomber blowing himself up.

For President Mohamud though, “this is a time we are trying to make Somalia move away from its past.” However, during a visit to his office in Mogadishu by a group of journalists from different African countries including this magazine, the president has candidly admitted “starting from a scratch is much, much easier than restructuring a house already there.” Somalia was there before 1991 but it was wrecked in the 22 years that followed. Now, he is tasked to rebuild it and with a bit of luck, he may just do that.

But how hard is Somalia’s come back?

No one believes the job of getting Somalia correct could be an easy one. During the opening of the British embassy Foreign Secretary William Hague cautioned the world “should be under no illusions” when it comes to helping Somalia stand on its feet. Since he was elected, President Mohamud’s government has been busy preparing six priority frameworks of which three have been selected as “priority of priorities”: security, judiciary reform and public finance management.

Inarguably, security throughout Somalia has improved significantly but remains brittle. Although Somalia has had a relative calm – some of it at gunpoint – during the six months when members of the Union of Islamic Court, who snatched power from the internationally backed transition government, were in charge, Ethiopia’s 2006 military intervention caused a new and unpredictable era of insecurity as extreme groups such as Al-Shabab have started forming in the name of resistance against Ethiopia’s military intervention. Given the delicate diplomatic relationship Ethiopia and Somalia have since the latter’s independence in 1960s – a relationship President Mohamud said was marked by “conflict, devastation and destruction,” – no ordinary Somali can receive with open arms an “invading Ethiopian army.” The world had no less distrust about Ethiopian troops in Somalia, too.

But many now believe that Ethiopia’s daring military involvement, no matter how infamous, had paved ways for the international community to focus its attention back on Somalia since it abandoned it in the aftermath of the U.S. troops’ mortified withdrawal in 1994. But as President Mohamud believes, security is a “very expensive sector and it requires time, effort and money.”

Somalia’s walk to a meaningful judiciary reform will not be easy either.  According to President Mohamud, in the first week of April his government has held a five days national dialogue on the reform of the judiciary. It was attended by some 200 Somalis from Diaspora, traditional leaders, lawyers and activists who all came together to discuss ways on how best to reform the judiciary. “After five days, they produced a set of recommendation, and that

Rex Bundun would not have come to Somalia five years ago
Rex Bundun would not have come to Somalia five years ago

will be the base for the upcoming judiciary reform,” the President said.

Dubbed as the most corrupt country in the world, perhaps the biggest challenge awaiting President Mohamud’s government is the public finance reform. His government is not yet in charge of almost all public institutions but he says “with the support of the World Bank and friendly countries such as Turkey,” the country has recently produced a fragility assessment and an action plan for public finance reform. However, going through the country’s airport shows result is far off.

Help is there,  and on the way too

As security remains by far the largest threat for Somalia’s recovery, AMISOM, the indigenous African peacekeeping mission, is now doing the job left unfinished by Ethiopian troops – cleaning up security threats.

Since its deployment, which consists of police, civilian, military, humanitarian and maritime forces, most of Somalia has fallen under the control of either AMISOM or the Somali Police Force (SPF). From training of the SPF to helping them during night shift patrols in the streets of Mogadishu and elsewhere to providing humanitarian assistance, AMISOM forces are visibly present. On April 15th 96 officers from the Somali National Army have graduated from Platoon Commander and non-commissioned officers training course run by AMISOM at the newly refurbished Jazira Training camp in Mogadishu; the police component led by Mr. Bundun has accomplished impressive tasks so far. “Training offered by AMISOM Police include but not limited to, community policing, human rights, traffic management criminal investigation logistics and management,” read a paper Mr. Bundun has given to journalists. “We are not here to perform police duties but to assist rebuild the police force,” says Mr. Bundun.

That, however, is only the first and relatively easier phase of the battle for a stable Somalia. The second and most challenging phase is “winning the hearts and minds of ordinary Somalis” to the notion that Al-Shabab’s way is no way, and the challenges of “mobilizing popular intelligence” to uncover Al-Shabab’s hideouts within ordinary Somalis such as camps for internally displaced refugees, according to Brigadier General Michael Ondoga, Sector one and Ugandan Contingent Commander. Infiltration by Al-Shabab of the Somali National Force (SNF), and suicide bombings such as the ones in Mogadishu on the 14th of April are bad enough, but most challenging is the work of trust building between ordinary Somalis and the state’s security forces – to put it in President Mohamud’s words making an “ordinary Somali lady in the streets of Mogadishu believe that a [member of] the Somali security force is not the militia of yesterday, but the security force of today.”  According to the President, most members of the SPF have mainly come from a militia background, “they were successful in the war against Al-Shabab, but when it comes maintaining public order and working with the society, it is different.” So his is a task of “building security forces on one hand and fighting Al -Shabab on the other.” For all its good jobs, AMISOM is housed in heavily fortified compounds everywhere in Somalia and its members can only cruise the streets with armored vehicles. As Brigadier General Ondoga put it, “it is just hellish,”

 Will a frustrated Ethiopia threaten Somalia’s brittle security?

President Mohamud is a man tasked to do the incalculable job to do the incalculable job of re-building Somalia
President Mohamud is a man tasked to do the incalculable job to do the incalculable job of re-building Somalia

The mid 2006 military intervention by Ethiopian troops had faced worldwide criticisms. But for the government of the late Meles Zenawi, whose coming into power in 1991 had the unfortunate coincidence of Somalis’ downward spiral into chaos, and whose country shares a total of 1,800 kms border with Somalia, Ethiopia must keep uncompromising strategic interest in security matters inside Somalia. The Ethiopian troops have officially left Somalia since 2009, but maintain their presence in the southern region of Bakool. The deployment of more than 17,000 AMISOM uniformed personnel from Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya and Uganda was meant to seal Ethiopia’s military gain against Al-Shabab militia.

For some curious reasons, however, Ethiopian troops are not a part of the larger peacekeeping mission by AMISOM. But since the deployment of AMISOM, Ethiopia, whose foreign policy towards Somalia since the death of Meles remains unchanged, has been pleading both with the UN Security Council and AU’s Peace and Security department for a hand over by Ethiopian troops of the areas controlled by them to AMISOM forces. In what came as a frustrated action on March 17th Ethiopian and Somali government-aligned forces withdrew from Xudur, the capital of  Bakool region in Southern Somalia, leading to a quick take over by Al-Shabab of the area that led to the immediate displacement of some 2, 500 Somalis.

On April 23rd during a parliamentary appearance Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn frankly admitted that Ethiopia’s decision to pull its troops out of Xudur came following his government’s repeated plea for a replacement of Ethiopian troops by those of AMISOM fell into deaf ears. “They repeatedly assured us that they will replace us, but it has taken them more than a year. Now the most important issue is how we can accelerate our complete withdrawal toward our border,” Prime Minister Hailemariam said. According to him as a country funding its troops’ expensive operations in Somalia, Ethiopia has no ambitions to stay in Somalia more than it already did.  President Mohamud doesn’t dispute this fact too and predicts “it is not very far away the day that we will make a farewell for the Ethiopian force to go home, which they also need to go home.”

The question is in whose interest should Ethiopia withdraw its forces?  The least the government of Prime Minister Hailemariam wants is a Somalia plagued by another civil war. So its recent withdrawal may be nothing but a stern warning. But why has Ethiopia decided to stay away from the larger AMISOM? Some diplomats within the AU say the government of Ethiopia decided not to join AMISOM in order to maintain its own military strategic interest in Somalia, “which may not necessarily be in tandem with the strategic interest of AMISOM,” says a senior diplomat at the AU’s peace and security department. Ethiopian officials are not keen to explain it either. But President Mohamud argues there is no hidden agenda. “Somalia is a country at war… when there is a fire in your neighbor, you put off that fire and that is what Ethiopia is doing,” he says, “they fought, and they are still fighting. But they also trained many of our security forces.”

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