Some Points on how to Avert a Dangerous Conflict in the Horn of Africa

Fekade Shewakena
It appears that the Horn of Africa is on the brink of war. The Ethiopian rubber stamp parliament has given authority to Meles Zenawi last week to decide on whether there should be a war or not. The Somali Sheiks have made multiple declarations of Jihad in response to Ethiopian intrusion in their country. If this drumbeat for war turns out to materialize, the poorest corner of Africa will simply go in flames and the humanitarian disaster that follows may dwarf anything the world may have seen recently. This is a war that should be averted. It is also an avoidable war. The insanity of Meles Zenawi and his backers must be replaced by a more thoughtful approach. Those who want to pour benzene in the region in pursuit of one interest or another should pull their hands back and leave Somalia for Somalis.
That the Horn of Africa is located at the geographical and geopolitical junction between South Asia, the Middle East and the continent of Africa, means any crisis in this region can have far reaching consequences than conventional wisdom suggests. We may end up making the gates of hell wide open if current skirmishes and war of words escalate to bigger physical confrontation. The warning of the International Crisis Group recently is right on the mark. Anyone who thinks this is going to be contained within the front line states is just not familiar with the socio-cultural geographical and geopolitical setting of the region. The Horn countries have long and porous boundaries though which anything can easily move. The countries in the region are inhabited by ethnic groups that straddle national boundaries. In many cases the boundaries are unmarked and hard to mark because of the religious and cultural continuum that does not recognize political boundaries.
The talk about deploying a peacekeeping force in Somalia by the United Nations and the AU is an insane idea and will only exacerbate the problem. In the first place there is no peace to keep and secondly such an effort will only inflame more resentment by Somalis. Where and who in between are the peace keepers going to stand? The transitional government in Somalia is no more a government and simply lives on life support particularly the support of by Meles Zenawi. It has reached its dead end and anything the world may want to do to resuscitate it would only be wasting human life, time and resources. There is no civil war in Somalia – There are no warring factions to speak of. The only impending war is between Ethiopia that provides army to the weak transitional government and the UIC militants. What kind of peace are peace keepers going to keep? Attack the whole population in support of a few war lords that the Somali people as a whole despise? It is hard to understand.
Then how do we avoid war in the region? I think the best solution in my view is to let the UIC take over the government of Somalia, let it win. Once they become the government we will have a legitimately established government that both the international community and the Somali people will be able to hold to account for their actions. The UIC is only insurgency at this stage. Perhaps, who knows, the UIC may even change its mind and become a more moderate government and even friendly to its neighbors and the West. Hadn’t the TPLF changed its worship of Albanian communist ideology and Karl Marx while it was an insurgent to supporting white capitalism when it became the government? There is a model already.

There is reason to believe that the hard line rhetoric of the UIC could disappear if they are helped to soft land and take power and get encouragement to peacefully resolve their problems. So far they have shown they are willing to talk. I don’t see anything bad about talking to them and the conditions they are asking are not hard to meet. They only demand the removal of foreign soldiers from their country. The recent CNN news that Ethiopian Foreign Service officials were talking to UIC officials in Djibouti, if true, needs to be commended.
Some of the policy from the West regarding Somalia is based on ignorance of the sociology and history of the country. The Somali people are not culturally predisposed to hard line Islamism of the brand we see in the Middle East and South Asia. Those of us from Ethiopia know Somalis very well. They are independent minded people who love their identity. There was a time when they withstood Arabizing their culture. Their refusal to use the Arabic script to write their language and their choice of the Latin alphabet instead is noteworthy. Meles Zenawi’s choice to intervene in Somalia in support of the hated and weak Transitional Government is now fueling the hard liner positions in Somalia than their Islamic thinking. Hard line Islamism that some in the leadership of the UIC professes now does not have a social base in Somalia but this conflict may help to change it altogether. The only way the current radicalism can grow is if it feeds on the confrontational polices being pursued to solve the crisis. Moreover, we all know that the UIC is patched up from a fairly heterogeneous group of adherents of Islam some of whom are moderate. I doubt if the UIC movement can even be referred to as extremists at this stage. To use the rhetoric of one single Sheik as the view of the whole movement in Somalia is as wrong as taking the rhetoric of Meles Zenawi as a view accepted by the Ethiopian people.
At least at this stage, the Ethiopian people have not seen any reason to go to war with Somalia. In fact, Ethiopians see Meles’s war mongering as a diversionary tactic from his internal political crisis. Many Ethiopians are sympathetic to the people of Somalia who have suffered lawlessness in their country for the last fifteen years. The energy that propelled the UIC to their current status is not their Islamic extremism as much as it is the quest of the Somali people for a formally constituted government that brings law and order to the fifteen years of mess in their country. The UIC provided that and that is why they seem to enjoy widespread support. The people of Somalia need to be helped, not fought against.
Meles Zenawi’s involvement in Somalia and his military incursions into their territory that he half denies every time he is asked about, is serving any hard liner positions in Somalia. In times of aggression moderates don’t flourish as hard liners do. That is natural. They react angrily when being insulted and humiliated. That is also natural. Meles Zenawi’s intervention in Somalia has just provided that. It appears that Meles Zenawi is soliciting angry responses from the UIC leaders in order to justify his war. Anytime he and his officials bad mouth or rant to crush them and send his troops across to their territory, he gets one sentence from a raving sheik and uses that to justify his war.
Like any people, Somalis are justified in being angry at military incursion in their country. If anybody does this to my country, Ethiopia, I will be mad as hell and will declare whatever is the Christian equivalent of Jihad. Who can blame the Somalis if they say they will go fight a Jihad under these humiliating circumstances where the army of a neighbor is rampaging in their villages and their hope for peace and order is dashed. Oh yes, a Sheik in Somalia has said that he wants to go for greater Somalia by bringing ethnic Somalis from neighboring countries including Ethiopia. Are we going to declare war and invade countries anytime their leaders make wishes against our interest? Ethiopia has no case for war. Meles Zenawi may have his own case. More importantly Ethiopia is not to benefit out of this war as I will try to show a little later.
What about the commitment of the international community to support the Transitional Government of Somalia? The international community has no business supporting a government that could not stand on its own and rejected by the vast majority of the Somali people, and I doubt if it is part of the future. It is simply foolish and counterproductive to continue to support it. In fact, a large number of parliamentarians including the Speaker of the Bidowa parliament are expressing unhappiness with the intervention of Meles Zenawi in their country.
Ethiopia has fought numerous international wars. In the last one hundred years alone, it fought over 30 such wars. In none of these cases Ethiopia was the aggressor. Meles Zenawi is doing this for the first time in its history.
I doubt if Meles Zenawi and his advisors failed to understand the disaster that the war they are provoking would create or the danger of the misadventure they are involved in. Meles knows Ethiopia does not have the economic backbone to engage in a long drawn out bleeding unconventional war with Somalia. Suggestions that he is drumming up this war for his own internal political reasons is plausible. Many Ethiopians consider Meles Zenawi’s saber rattling and drumbeat for war with Somalia as a diversionary tactic from his internal political crisis. Meles is rejected by a vast majority of Ethiopians for his cruelty in handling political dissent within the country and his totalitarian rule. He is already implicated in a crime of massacre and genocide against his own people as verified by his own Commission of Inquiry that probed the post election killings of hundreds of Ethiopians in June and November 2005. A good number of the Commissioners and lawyers have fled their country to tell the truth, a gruesome truth, that is shaking our conscience. He is clearly thinking he would change the subject on his crimes by engaging in a war or talking about a war. To the extent he does it for this purpose he already seems to have succeeded. We are now talking about avoiding a war with Somalia instead of how to indict Meles for his crimes and talking about the bombshell Inquiry Commission Report that have rocked the conscience of the international community including respected US congressmen and Human rights groups that saw the evidence first hand. Ethiopians have to focus on the suffering our people are undergoing and the widespread repression in the country.
Meles is expecting the waning unqualified support from the West, particularly from the United States, something he enjoyed over the last fifteen years. It appears he has crafted a way to keep his blind Western support in the name of fighting Islamic terrorism; a tactic many third world dictators have now crafted into art to milk the support of the West.
If a military confrontation ensues, there may be numerous bad scenarios, so worse that they may be all bad to choose from. Ethiopia may succeed in checking the advance of the UIC from their current pace at a huge cost in life and an economy already fragile without defeating them militarily. More external forces would be sucked in to the war including Ethiopia’s traditional foes. Some are already tip toeing. Al Qaeda will have a fertile place to open shop. The Transitional Government that has already been plagued by defections cannot sustain power and extend its rule in vast Somalia even with life support from Ethiopia and the West. Hadn’t they already had that chance over the last several years? More importantly there will be no easy exit for Ethiopia once she is sucked into the war.
For Ethiopia the consequences are even much dire. Ethiopia may bleed to death with a long drawn out terrorist war that may not be limited to its borders. Ethiopia’s economy cannot sustain such a war and it is doubtful if Meles will get unlimited support from the West. The period ahead of us is a reevaluation of the current anti terrorism tactics by the West, particularly in the United States. Most likely, diplomatic overtures may replace the militaristic approach pursued so far. Winning hearts and minds may be the way out however difficult this may be. The West can try a new policy in Somalia by engaging with the UIC. Whatever problem exists in Somalia will be somalianized and Somalis alone can be left to solve their problems based on their lessons of the last 15 years.
A more serious blow to Ethiopia may be that it can end up importing Islamic fundamentalism inside itself. Ethiopia is one of five countries in the world with large Moslem population. There is a possibility that a small fraction of Ethiopian Moslems could be more loyal to their Somali brothers in faith than their country. Melese’s repeated rant that he will fight and crush Judaists and Islamic extremists may not settle well with many Moslems of Ethiopia who want the confrontation be called something else other than “Islamic” as an adjective. There are indications of this radical Islamism cropping up in parts of Ethiopia, although the country is famous for strong Inter-religious harmony over the years. Add to this the grinding poverty that is plaguing the region. It may not be difficult to find many suicide bombers to wreck havoc in Ethiopia. Has anybody seen the movie, ‘The Perfect Storm”?
This war will be Ethiopia’s war only if the Somali insurgents or their supporters intrude in Ethiopian territory. They have not now, and they can’t even if they wish to. They are very weak relative to Ethiopia. They have a hard time getting rid of their warlords’ government and controlling Somalia proper let alone take territory from Ethiopia. I don’t see any threat on Ethiopia. Meles Zenawi also knows there is no threat on Ethiopian territory. He has another agenda.
Ethiopians have learnt a bitter lesson from the war with Eritrea where 70 thousand of their children perished for nothing. Ethiopians should be very careful of their patriotic instinct bought by nationalist appeals. Meles and his clique have traded very well on our patriotism in the past. Yes, we all will fight if our country is violated and we know when that happens. We should not let Meles and his clique take our country to a war of aggression that will not serve our national interest. As much as we love our country and hate our violators, we should hate doing the same to others. That is equally patriotic. We should not be herds that get led in any direction without asking serious questions and understanding the consequences.
The West, particularly the United States, has a good opportunity to try a different approach in fighting terrorism and denying base for hateful terrorists. The best option to solve the crisis in the Horn is diplomatic and diplomatic alone. Africa has had too much killing grounds all over the continent. Let’s please stop making another one in the Horn of Africa.

Fekade Shewakena can be reached at

posted by Ethiounited Moderator at12:09 AM


Post a Comment

<< Home