November 23, 2011
Ethiopia’s first invasion of Somalia was the major contributing factor in causing the complete breakdown of government in Somalia. It also helped to create Al Shabaab. Five years later, Ethiopian troops are back over the border, in force, hoping to make amends and make sure that Kenya doesn’t get all the glory. Chances are, there won’t be much glory to go round.
In an echo of 2006, Ethiopian troops are once again pouring across their eastern border into Somalia. This is round two of the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, and this time they’ve gone in to clean up the mess they made the first time round. Although the Ethiopian government haven’t confirmed their participation, multiple news agencies are reporting that eyewitnesses have seen 20 or 30 Ethiopian trucks filled with troops in and around the Somali town of Guriel. It’s unclear in what context Ethiopia is framing this incursion, and how significant their contribution will be, but the target is obvious: Ethiopia has joined Kenya and the African Union in the fight against Al Shabaab.
There’s an unmistakably historical irony to this. It was Ethiopia – with the tacit support of an overly-paranoid United States – that created the conditions for Al Shabaab to prosper. In the early 2000s, Somalia was mostly – but not completely – under the loose control of the Union of Islamic Courts, a relatively moderate Islamic group which was slowly bringing some semblance of stability and security to a country that hadn’t known peace for decades. But the Islamic Courts soon earned the wrath of the United States, which saw in its emphasis on Islamic law a strong link with terrorism. This was near the beginning of the War on Terror, and the United States still had not made the distinction between the moderate if conservative Islam of groups like the Islamic Courts and, to an extent, Hamas in Palestine, and the militant, almost anarchic fundamentalism of Al Qaeda.
Ethiopia, too, was unimpressed with Somalia’s new leaders. Ethiopia and Somalia have a long and bitter history, with the ethnically Somali Ogaden region a constant source of tension. Part of the Ogaden is in Somalia, part in Ethiopia. Historically, Somalia has wanted to claim the entire Ogaden, and Ethiopia continues to face resistance from rebel movements within their part of the disputed territory. Add this historic issue to the seemingly unstoppable recent increase in the number of Muslims in Ethiopia, ostensibly a majority Christian country. Ethiopia’s leadership is overwhelmingly Christian, but the rumour goes that there are now more Muslims than Christians in their country. This is a serious threat to the government of Meles Zenawi in Addis Ababa, as it undermines their natural support. A strong Somalia defined in Islamic terms could only exacerbate this threat.