Bush war in Africa

Published : Jan 26, 2007 00:00 IST

IN MOGADISHU, EHIOPIAN soldiers who, alongside the provisional government forces in late December, drove out the Islamic Courts alliance of clerics that controlled Mogadishu for six months.-MOHAMED ABDULLE HASSAN SIIDI/AP

IN MOGADISHU, EHIOPIAN soldiers who, alongside the provisional government forces in late December, drove out the Islamic Courts alliance of clerics that controlled Mogadishu for six months.-MOHAMED ABDULLE HASSAN SIIDI/AP

The U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia has the potential to push the country to civil war and anarchy.

THE Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia was seemingly on the verge of doing the impossible. The Courts, an alliance of Islamic clerics, most of them espousing moderate views, liberated the capital Mogadishu and most of Somalia from the warlords in June 2006. There were hopeful signs that Somalia would once again be a viable nation-state, after more than a decade and a half of civil war. The warlords were either defeated or in total retreat. Mogadishu was no longer a divided city.

True, the Islamists were responsible for some overzealous acts but they established law and order in a country that had been parcelled out into many parts by rapacious warlords. They banned the sale of "Qat", the narcotic leaf to which millions of Somalis are addicted, and disbanded the private militias. Mogadishu, where anarchy used to prevail, became a functioning city with the reopening of the airport and the harbour. The "provisional" government managed to retain a foothold in Baidoa, a small town not far from the Ethiopian border. It was no secret that in late 2006, Ethiopian troops moved in and prevented Baidoa from falling into the hands of the new government in Mogadishu. The Ethiopian invasion of Mogadishu in the last week of December was timed to prevent the total military defeat of the provisional government and it had the full backing of the United States.

The Ethiopian government led by Meles Zenawi has assumed the role of regional policeman, on behalf of the Bush administration, for the past couple of years. Two years ago, British Prime Minster Tony Blair praised Zenawi as a role model for the rest of Africa. Since then, the Ethiopian leader has rigged an election, imprisoned political opponents, and reneged on commitments to the international community. A United Nations-appointed international tribunal had ruled in favour of Eritrea in the border dispute with Ethiopia and asked the latter to withdraw from the territory it occupied in the bloody war the two countries fought in the beginning of the decade.

But the West obviously has different yardsticks while treating favoured countries like Israel and Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government insists that the dispatch of its troops to Somalia was at the request of the provisional government of Somalia, holed up in Baidoa. But very few have been taken in by this charade. Ethiopia, the only predominantly Christian country on the Horn of Africa, and Somalia have been traditional rivals. The two countries, among the poorest in the world, fought a bitter war in the late 1970s over a territorial dispute. At the time, Ethiopia was backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba. The American-backed Somali regime of Siad Barre was handed a crushing defeat in what was known as the Ogaden War. The Somali army never recovered from the defeat. Ethiopia, even after its division with the creation of Eritrea, is known to have one of the best equipped and disciplined armies in Africa. After September 11, 2001, Ethiopia became a staunch ally of the Bush administration in the war against terror.

The Islamists in Somalia have repeatedly emphasised that they have nothing to do with the terror groups that have been waging a global jehad against American interests. They have said that their only interest is to bring back peace to the long-suffering people of the country and make Somalia a unified state once more. In more than a decade and a half of civil war and anarchy, there have been moves to balkanise the country. The Republic of Somaliland, with Ethiopian help, has already proclaimed independence. It has not yet received official recognition from any country. The "Republic of Puntland" is another part of the country attempting to break away. With the Islamists on the ascendant, the attempts to secede were on the verge of being nipped.

The U.N. seems to have given its tacit approval to the Ethiopian military adventure. The Security Council did not take up the issue after Ethiopian troops launched their invasion when much of the world was getting ready to celebrate Christmas. Before that, the Security Council had authorised the entry of a regional peace-keeping force to bolster the transitional government, just as the forces of the Islamic Courts were knocking on the doors of Baidoa. Before the Islamists came to power, the West or the U.N. did not show any interest in sending a stabilising force to the country ravaged by 16 years of civil war. Only after the Islamists restored the rule of law in most of the country did the U.N. think of expeditiously sending, under American and British prodding, a regional force to fight the very forces that brought stability to the country. The provisional government is dominated by the warlords who were responsible for much of the misery that the Somalis have experienced.

The Security Council Resolution, while recommending the deployment of an African peace-keeping force, was mum about the presence of more than 8,000 Ethiopian troops that had already positioned themselves in and around Baidoa, deep inside Somalian territory.

In a desperate bid to keep the Islamic Courts from gaining ground, Washington liberally bankrolled the warlords in early 2006. According to reports appearing in the American media, even the warlord Abde Hasan "Qaybdid" Awade, responsible for the downing of the American Black Hawk helicopters that led to the death of 18 American soldiers in 1993, was given money to fight the Islamic Courts alliance. Another new-found ally of Washington is Hussein Aided, son of Farah Aided. Aided Sr. was the bete noire of the Americans when they went into Somalia in the early 1990s. Aided's son is the national security adviser in the American-backed provisional government of Somalia.

At the same time, the West glossed over the blatant human rights abuses taking place in Ethiopia. U.S. officials worked overtime to see that military aid to Ethiopia was not cut because of the crackdown on political opponents and civil rights activists in the country. There were calls from human rights groups and activists in the U.S. to end military aid to Ethiopia. The Bush administration successfully blocked a bipartisan attempt in Congress to cut U.S. security aid to Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is now trying to do the job that the warlords were initially recruited for. Despite the protestations of the Islamists to the contrary, the Bush administration keeps on harping that Mogadishu has become a haven for elements linked to Al Qaeda and other terrorist organisations. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Fraser said just before the open invasion by Ethiopian forces the Union of Islamic Courts was nothing but a front for Al Qaeda. She said the Islamic Courts were controlled "by East Africa Al Qaeda cell individuals". The head of the U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid, was in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in November to discuss the invasion of Somalia with the Ethiopian Prime Minister. The Bush administration, at the same, spurned all offers from the Islamic Courts for power-sharing and for bringing about a lasting ceasefire.

Many Western diplomats are of the view that most of the leaders of the Islamic Courts are fiercely patriotic and hold moderate political views. Their supreme leader, Hassan Dahir Aweys, has denied that his group has any links with Al Qaeda. The American-supported Ethiopian invasion of Somalia will no doubt strengthen the radical elements in the Islamic Courts alliance. The initial battle has been won by the overwhelmingly superior Ethiopian forces. The rag-tag Islamic Courts militia, fighting with Kalashnikovs and guns mounted on pick-up trucks, was no match for the Ethiopians using heavy armour and air power. American forces in the region provided the Ethiopian Air Force with crucial intelligence on troop movement and targets. Thousands of Somalis were massacred in the battle near the frontlines.

The Islamists, despite their initial bravado, have now decided to revert to the classical style of insurgency. The lessons of the Iraqi insurgency are sure to be imbibed. The militia of the Islamic Courts has disappeared into the African bush, preparing for a long-drawn out guerilla war. In the first week of January, the U.S. Navy openly entered the fray, joining Ethiopians in hunting down Somalis who were trying to flee in boats. The government of Kenya, too, has promised to extend all help to the Americans in hunting down the remnants of the Islamic militia seeking refuge among the more than a million Somali refugees in that country.

The invasion by Ethiopia seems to have already inflamed nationalistic feelings in Somalia. Most Somalis feel humiliated because this is the first time that the forces of their arch-enemy are in occupation of Mogadishu. The fear in the region is that the war may spill over to neighbouring countries. The Ethiopian government tries to promote the country as Christian despite the fact that between 40 and 60 per cent of the population is Muslim. The Oromos, an ethnic group that constitutes around 40 per cent of the population, have been alienated from Addis Ababa for some time now. If things go bad for the Ethiopian Army in the killing fields of Somalia, the movement for an independent Oromo state will receive a new fillip.

The elections held last year widened the divide. The once dominant Amharas, who ruled the roost till the Tigrayan Liberation Front led by Zenawi rolled into the capital after the overthrow of Mengitsu Haile Merriam in the early 1990s, have no love lost for the present Ethiopian government. The Eritrean government is working overtime to destabilise the Zenawi government. However, the Zenawi government has the unquestioning support of Messrs Bush and Blair. After implementing the American game plan in Somalia, Zenawi can now be expected to crack down harder on the domestic opposition.

When the Ethiopian Army launched its initial attack, the Defence Chief of the Islamic Courts, Yusuf Mohammed Siad, gave a call to Muslim fighters from all over the world to join the war against Ethiopia. "We are saying that our country is open to Muslims worldwide. Let them fight in Somalia and, God willing, attack Addis Ababa. We want anyone who can help us to remove the enemy to come in," the Islamic Courts leader told a press conference just before Christmas. Another Islamic Courts leader, Sharif Sheik Ahmad, said the group's fight against Somalia "will never end and will reach other countries and other cities". He has again strongly denied any links between his group and Al Qaeda. Sheik Ahmad said the Islamic Courts left Mogadishu to prevent unnecessary loss of civilian life, but warned that the war against the occupation forces was far from lost.

The collapse of the Islamic Courts government in the last week of December could once again see a renewal of clan warfare. There are six main clans in the country. The clans are further divided into sub-clans. Before the Islamic Courts established control over Mogadishu, inter-clan fights for supremacy had precipitated a state of anarchy that prevailed for more than a decade and a half. Looting and fighting broke out in Mogadishu as soon as the Islamic Courts militia fled from the approaching Ethiopian war machine. The U.N.'s special envoy to Somalia, Francois Lonseny Fall, warned in the last week of December that Somalia was facing "a period of deepening conflict and heightened instability, which would be disastrous for the long suffering people of Somalia and could have serious consequences for the entire region".

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