Ethiopian Troops Have Returned to Somalia—That’s Not a Good Thing
Around 4,000 troops from Ethiopia have joined the African Union mission
Somalia is often stereotyped as a lawless, abandoned country where few dare to go. But since 2007, it has been home to a force of thousands of African peacekeepers sent to bring stability to the nation.
Manned by a mix of Ugandans, Nigerians, Kenyans and others, the African Union Mission in Somalia—acting with financial and logistical support from the United States—has been hailed as an African solution to an African problem.
Indeed, the force has made significant strides toward the goal of stabilizing Somalia, while refusing to back down after sustaining hundreds of dead and wounded in insurgent attacks.
Now, thousands of troops from Somalia’s neighbor Ethiopia have formally joined the force. This move was surprising—perhaps even shocking—as Ethiopia has a long and brutal history with Somalia in the form of border wars, invasions and accusations of torture, rape and executions.
There’s also a fear this has the potential to undo everything AMISOM has accomplished. But to understand why the Ethiopians returning to Somalia is a concern, it’s worth revisiting this ugly, embattled history.
Let’s not understate things. Somalis have an intense hatred for the Ethiopian army.
In the early 1960s, both nations engaged in a series of border clashes. The situation escalated in 1977 when Somalia invaded the disputed Ogaden region—and was expelled by Ethiopian troops backed by the Soviet Union.
The wars didn’t end.
In 1982, Ethiopia invaded several towns in central Somalia, leading to a brief border conflict. Ethiopian troops were also involved in incursions and skirmishes in the late 1990s as civil war and famine led to the collapse of Somalia’s ability to govern itself.
Then in 2006, Ethiopian forces invaded again to depose the Islamic Courts Union—an Islamist movement that seized control of the country during the civil war. Though the ICU was not an ideal solution to Somalia’s woes, they brought a measure of stability.
This time, Ethiopian troops drove all the way to the capital Mogadishu, occupied it, and set the stage for a prolonged insurgency. The Ethiopians also did little to help the situation. Soldiers gang-raped women, executed prisoners or gouged out their eyes.
One of the worst consequences of the invasion was the rise of Al Shabab, a brutal and fanatical jihadist group that represented the worst elements of the ICU. Al Shabab quickly became linked with Al Qaeda, attracting funds and fighters from abroad.
By 2007, a peacekeeping force was sent into Somalia under the banner of the African Union. Troops, mostly Ugandans, were tasked with securing roads and ports so that aid and commerce could resume. The Ethiopians were put under pressure to get out of town and let AMISOM handle things.
Ethiopian troops officially withdrew in 2009.
AMISOM hasn't had it easy. Its troops have suffered hundreds of dead and wounded in insurgent attacks—and has struggled to end one of the world’s longest and most intractable conflicts.
However, between the efforts of AMISOM and local tribal leaders, Somalia has been able to achieve a relative level of stability it has not seen since 1991. Al Shabab is on the run, having been driven out of Mogadishu to seek refuge in southern, rural outposts.
What happens next
Ethiopia—for the most part—stepped aside and let AMISOM deal with Somalia. But it did not stay entirely out of the fray.
Ethiopian troops continued to make small incursions into Somalia at various points, striking at militants along the border, but usually staying just long enough to hand things back over to AMISOM.
But now, around 4,000 Ethiopian troops will operate in Somalia under the AU banner. According to news reports, the troops will be based in the south-central town of Baidoa and the port town of Kismayo. The soldiers are expected to free up other AMISOM troops, largely Kenyans and Burundians, who will move south to fight an offensive against Al Shabab.
There are several good reasons to use Ethiopian troops. For one, they don’t need to be airlifted into the country like many of the other contingents. The soldiers will also bring the AMISOM force to 22,000 troops—a number mandated by the U.N. Security Council.
It could also backfire.
David Shinn, the former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, worried in an interview with Voice of America that the move could “revive the Ethiopian intervention more broadly in Somalia that they engaged in from the very beginning of 2007 through January of 2009, particularly their engagement in Mogadishu. And that did not end well.”
There’s also a very real concern the Ethiopian presence could be exploited by Al Shabab. One of the reasons AMISOM was so successful is that they weren’t the Ethiopians.
Now that the Ethiopians are a part of the organization, AMISOM can be more easily cast as occupiers with nefarious territorial interests. Indeed, Al Shabab has already vowed to aggressively fight the Ethiopians and urged Somalis to fight against AMISOM.
It’s possible that Ethiopian troops, under a new mandate and the supervision of AMISOM, could end up doing well—or at least not terribly—and help stabilize areas that would otherwise be vacated by AMISOM forces.
But even assuming Ethiopian commanders and troops work with the best intentions, they will have to overcome their awful reputation. And by AMISOM allowing them into their ranks, it could undermine the mission’s legitimacy in the eyes of Somalis.
The African Union has made a huge gamble. Let’s hope it has good luck.