Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Somalia: Presence of Ethiopian Troops Fuels Insurgency, Humanitarian Crisis

The end of 2007 will mark the one-year anniversary of an Ethiopia-led offensive that ousted Somalia's Islamist movement from power and helped install a secular interim government in its place. As VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu in our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi reports, the military action sparked a proxy war and an Iraq-style insurgency that have plunged Somalia into what the United Nations now calls the worst humanitarian crisis in Africa.

Following Ethiopia's swift military victory over militiamen from Somalia's Islamic Courts Union in late December 2006, western nations urged Somalia's transitional federal government to initiate a genuine, broad-based national reconciliation process that could help end 16 years of war and lawlessness.

The United States, eager to keep radicals within the Islamic courts from making a political comeback, was especially vocal in calling for Somalia's internationally recognized-but-weak interim government to quickly work toward establishing grassroots support.

During a January press conference in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer said the United States expected Somalia's transitional federal government leaders to do their best to heal and unite the country.

"We have made clear that we see a role in Somalia for all who renounce violence and extremism," said Jendayi Frazer. "Over the course of the last few days, I have encouraged the leadership to make clear through statements and actions their commitment to an inclusive process of dialogue and reconciliation. They should start with reconciliation amongst themselves."

Somalia's transitional federal government was formed in 2004, largely among rival factional leaders who had kept the country without a functioning government since 1991. By 2006, the transitional government was isolated in the provincial town of Baidoa, with the Islamic Courts Union having taken over most of south and central Somalia.

Many ordinary Somalis agreed that the transitional government, installed in the Somali capital Mogadishu in January 2007, would have to show unity and an ability to work together to gain public trust and confidence.

But soon after top government leaders took power in Mogadishu, clan divisions worsened as officials jockeyed for power and control over Somalia's finances, resources, and infrastructure.

At the same time, some of the ousted Islamic Courts leaders and other Somalis opposed to Ethiopia's intervention moved to Eritrea, Ethiopia's arch-rival in the region. In the Eritrean capital Asmara, they began forming an opposition with the backing of Eritrean President Issaias Afeworki.

The Asmara opposition group joined militant Somali Islamists in denouncing the transitional government and its chief backer, Ethiopia, which left tens of thousands of troops in Somalia to protect the fragile government.

The opposition vowed to fight the interim government until all Ethiopian troops leave Somalia.

In an interview with VOA earlier this year, a Somali political consultant working with the transitional government, Ali Abdullahi, said he was concerned that the Ethiopian presence in Somalia was damaging the credibility of the government.

"The biggest challenge is the Ethiopian presence in Somalia," said Ali Abdullahi. "They need to be replaced constructively by African Union forces. The time frame should be as quickly as possible."

The Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa had pledged to withdraw its troops once a full contingent of 8,000 peacekeepers from the African Union arrived in Somalia to take over security duties.

But by March, only 1,500 soldiers from Uganda were deployed. Meanwhile, a full-blown, Iraq-style insurgency against the government and Ethiopia ignited in Mogadishu.

The rising insecurity deterred other African Union members from contributing troops to the peacekeeping mission.

Militant Islamic fighters supported by disgruntled members of Mogadishu's most dominant clan, the Hawiye, targeted Somali government officials, security forces and Ethiopian troops almost daily with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, roadside bombs, and suicide attacks.

In response, the Ethiopian army conducted house-to-house searches for insurgents and weapons, and counter-attacked with tank fire on insurgent strongholds in heavily populated areas of the city.

Somali security forces made mass arrests and shut down businesses with clan ties to Islamists. They harassed journalists and media organizations, accusing them of siding with insurgents.

Meanwhile, a report issued in July by a U.N. monitoring group fueled fears that Somalia had become an Ethiopia-Eritrea war by proxy. The report accused Eritrea of secretly shipping weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, to radical Islamists in Somalia. Eritrea denied the report.

In a July interview with VOA, a Mogadishu resident, who identified himself as Nur, said many in the capital blamed the interim government and Ethiopia, not Eritrea, for causing chaos and suffering.

"Most of the people see the insurgents as freedom fighters," said Nur. "The problem of the government is that they might want to secure peace. But, on the other hand, they are creating more problems, more insecurity."

The violence in Mogadishu has killed and wounded thousands of civilians, and by November, more than one million Somalis had fled their homes.

The United Nations now believes that the conflict, combined with severe droughts and floods in other regions of the country, has created a humanitarian crisis that surpasses the disaster in the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan.

A Horn of Africa researcher for the London-based Amnesty International human rights group, Martin Hill, adds that the situation in Somalia has something in common with Darfur: allegations of widespread human rights violations by all sides in the conflict.

"The question of war crimes was documented by Human Rights Watch," said Martin Hill. "But very recently, the U.N. Secretary General's new representative for Somalia mentioned that these were crimes that could be investigated by the International Criminal Courts. The crimes we are talking about are killing of civilians, which are arbitrary and disproportionate, arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial executions, and disappearance of civilians."

The Washington Post newspaper reported earlier this month that a debate is taking place among decision makers in the Bush administration about whether to remain committed to Somalia's transitional federal government or to find another way to stabilize Somalia and the region.

By Alisha Ryu Nairobi
Published with the permission of
Voice of America
Disclaimer: This report does not necessarily reflect the views of Mike Hitchen Consulting