Road to anarchy

Published : Aug 11, 2006 00:00 IST

The Ethiopian bid to remove the Union of Islamic Courts from power in Somalia risks destabilising the entire region.

WITH the attention of the international community riveted on West Asia, another country has sent its forces into its neighbour's territory. In the third week of July, Ethiopia officially acknowledged that its troops were in the Somali city of Baidoa. From indications available in late July, Ethiopian troops are preparing for a march on the Somali capital, Mogadishu, having secured control over two towns.

The Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) and the United States-backed alliance of warlords that constitutes the Somali "provisional government" have been fighting for control over the country. The Islamist militia has taken most of Somalia, including Mogadishu, and is now proceeding towards Baidoa, the last major hold out of the provisional government. Though it is in control of very little territory now, the provisional government continues to be recognized by the United Nations and the African Union (A.U.).

Both the U.S. and Ethiopia, its major ally in the Horn of Africa, have made it clear that they will not countenance an Islamist-dominated government in Somalia. Washington has accused the Islamic Courts Militia of harbouring terrorists, including individuals owing allegiance to Al Qaeda. The new rulers of Mogadishu have denied these charges vehemently. Chairman of the UIC Sharif Sheikh Ahmad has written to the U.N., the U.S. and the European Union calling for the establishment of normal relations based on mutual respect. In his four-page letter, he denied giving sanctuary to Al Qaeda or other extremists in Somalia. Ted Daigne, an American expert on the region, told The New York Times that "the so-called Islamists provide a sense of stability to Somalia in education and social services, while the warlords maimed and killed innocent civilians."

Though the UIC has repeatedly stressed that it does not intend to set up a Taliban-style government, there are reports that some overzealous Islamists have imposed a ban on music, dance and Bollywood films in parts of Mogadishu.

The Ethiopian government said that the provisional government that functioned out of Baidoa had asked for assistance. The presence of Ethiopian troops inside Somalia was officially confirmed on the eve of the peace talks between the internationally recognised provisional government and UIC militia leaders, held in the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

Both sides signed a ceasefire agreement in June after the last warlord in Mogadishu, Abdi Hassan Awale Qeydid, surrendered to the Islamic militia. The militia leaders had said that they had no plans to attack Baidoa. It is no secret that the interim government of "President" Abdullahi Yusuf has been under the protection of Ethiopian troops for some time.

Ethiopian Information Minister Berhan Hailu asserted in the third week of July that his country would use "all the means at our disposal to crush the Islamist group if they attempt to attack Baidoa". Before that U.S. President George W. Bush warned that he would not tolerate Somalia becoming another Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The UIC chairman in turn warned the U.S. against interfering in the affairs of Somalia. "If U.S. forces intervene directly against us in Mogadishu, then we are ready to teach them a lesson they will never forget and repeat their defeat in 1993," Sheikh Ahmad told the Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat. A U.S. anti-terror task force is based in neighbouring Djibouti and may intervene in support of the Ethiopian troops.

The open involvement of Ethiopia in the internal affairs of Somalia has the potential to ignite another deadly conflict in the Horn of Africa. The two countries have viewed each other with suspicion for a long time. Since independence territorial disputes have dominated their relations. The most serious of these, the Ogaden War (1977-1978) was eventually won by Ethiopia, with the backing of countries like Cuba. The U.S. and the West generally supported the Somali government then led by General Siad Barre. Ethiopia was then a united country under a left-wing government.

Today Ethiopia is firmly aligned with the U.S. The current Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, was a guest of the then pro-Western Somali government, when he was leading a guerilla war against the Ethiopian government in the 1970s and 1980s. There is a sizable Muslim population in Christian-dominated Ethiopia. Some estimates put the Muslim population at around 40 per cent. The large Oromo ethnic group, which is marginalised in Ethiopian politics, is predominantly Muslim. The present rulers in Addis Ababa would prefer a chaotic and anarchic Somalia, which would pose no threat to them in the short-term. After the flawed elections held last year, the popularity of the Ethiopian government, especially in Addis Ababa, is said to be at an all-time low. Some critics of the Ethiopian government say that the despatch of the army to Somalia is a tactic to distract the attention of the populace from pressing domestic issues. The government of Eritrea is said to be quietly supplying the Islamists with material help and logistics.

After it seceded from Ethiopia in the early 1990s Eritrea was also a close ally of the West. The Eritreans, however, are now disillusioned with what they see as the double standards adopted by the West; in 2005 the International Court of Justice finally ruled in its favour on the boundary dispute with Ethiopia, but has failed to enforce the decision in the face of Ethiopian intransigence.

The Somalis have never been reconciled to their existing borders with Ethiopia and Kenya. A prominent Islamist leader in Mogadishu, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, told a Western news agency recently that Ethiopia "mistreats" its Somali population. "The land was given to them by the colonialists and we will seek justice to resolve the crisis that is dividing the two countries," he said. Sheikh Aweys has already issued a call for a jehad against the invading Ethiopian forces.

The residents of Mogadishu, enjoying comparative peace and tranquility for the first time in more than 15 years, have rallied behind the Islamists. Thousands of people marched from one end of the city to the other in protest against the Ethiopian incursion and calling for peace. Until a couple of months ago, the city was full of barricades manned by fighters loyal to the rapacious warlords.

Last year, the International Crisis Group, a political think-tank, reported that in the "rubble - strewn streets of a capital of this state without a government Al Qaeda operatives, jehad extremists, Ethiopian security services and Western-backed counter-terrorism networks are engaged in a shadowy and complex contest waged by intimidation, abduction and terror."After a long time there is peace in Mogadishu and there is a real chance for a government to be put in place. If proxy forces are used by Washington to remove the Islamists from power, the entire region could be destabilised.

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