The reasons behind Ethiopia’s sudden withdrawal from Somalia holds key lessons for the future success of AMISOM in Somalia, for Somalia as a viable nation state, and similar military operations across Africa. James Jeffrey reports from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Ethiopian troops began pulling out of Somali towns in the second week of October, a few days after the Ethiopian government declared a six-month emergency on 9 October to tackle a wave of unprecedented unrest since November 2015. Surely the timing of the redeployment was no coincidence.
As Al-Shabaab retook a number of towns after the Ethiopian troops’ departure, in Addis Ababa journalists were quick to pounce on government spokespersons to question the coincidental timing, some commentators opining the withdrawal was a response to the mushrooming protests from Ethiopia’s two biggest ethnic groups. It does appear a big coincidence, suggesting the two phenomena must be tied. But to settle for that risks missing a more nuanced picture that reveals problems within the internationally funded African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) that is battling al-Qaeda linked militants in Somalia, and within the UN peace-keeping system in general. It also highlights an ongoing geopolitical shift, in which changing Western aid priorities could be causing countries like Ethiopia to manoeuvre in whatever manner possible, to ensure Western money keeps flowing in, impacting Africa’s ability to collectively and self-sufficiently deal militarily with its future crises.
It also highlights an emerging geopolitical dilemma:
“The withdrawal of Ethiopian troops certainly gives al-Shabaab an opportunity to regain control of settlements it had previously lost,” says Paul Williams, a peace and security expert, and a professor in international affairs at George Washington University in the US. “Al-Shabaab is unlikely to resuscitate to the level it held in 2009-10 but it will be a major boon for its forces and its propaganda machine.”
“Ethiopian troops are militarily effective against al-Shabaab but potentially politically toxic with the local population.”
The initial mandate of AMISOM was six months long, but 10 years later the mission is still alive. Its force has grown from an initial deployment of 1,500 Ugandan soldiers in 2007 to a multinational African force of over 21,000 soldiers, with troops from Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Uganda (Sierra Leone withdrew its battalion of troops in early
Ethiopia’s military, the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF), provides around 4,000 to that AMISOM force – the third-highest amount – and they remain in Somalia. The withdrawn Ethiopian soldiers were part of an additional Ethiopian force of about another 4,000 that operates outside of, but in tandem with, AMISOM, providing crucial support.
“AMISOM should be able to do its mission with its quota of 21,000 – but it’s not managing it,” says a foreign politico with a large multi-national political organisation in Addis Ababa who wished to remain anonymous. “AMISOM can’t do anything without those additional Ethiopian troops.”
Ethiopia has been receiving up to $4bn annually in aid from Western donors, a healthy chunk of it in the form of military aid. As a result, Ethiopia has one of the largest, if not the largest army on the continent (estimates of size range from 140,000 to 200,000) and one of the most well-resourced – all from Western money.
“Ethiopia didn’t need extra troops for the state of emergency, it has more than enough,” says an Addis Ababa-based Horn of Africa political analyst.
“But the unrest was making it more expensive for Ethiopia to have its non-AMISOM troops in Somalia, as its foreign direct investment has been hit
and its foreign exchange reserves
The international community pays each AMISOM soldier-supplying country $1,028 per month for each soldier – countries are free to choose how much of that each soldier receives – while the United Nations Support Office for AMISOM (UNSOA) covers all logistics and associated costs. Ethiopian troops outside of AMISOM, however, qualify for none of that, while the Ethiopian army pays them the same given to
its AMISOM troops for parity’s sake.
General Samora Yunis, the ENDF Chief of Staff, had been saying for months the army could not sustain the cost. But the international community was not willing to pay more – it was already shelling out for AMISOM, as well as having to find funding for military responses to the rise of jihadists in Mali, the conflict in Central African Republic and the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region.
“It wasn’t just the money,” the Ethiopian analyst says. “The Ethiopian government felt it didn’t have the diplomatic support it should have and that its efforts hadn’t been recognised.”
Ethiopia’s modern military forces have not had much of a break for the last 50 years, whether fighting internal insurgencies, border skirmishes or all-out international wars. “If you sent 21,000 Ethiopian soldiers into Somalia now they’d sort out al-Shabaab,” says the foreign politico, adding that an increasing problem for AMISOM is that due to its dependence on the UN it is increasingly hamstrung by UN peacekeeping processes when it needs to be operating as a warfighting force.
“African troops don’t have the capacity or expertise yet, so the United Nations steps in to help,” says a security analyst with an international organisation in Addis Ababa. “But the UN is geared toward peacekeeping – and in Somalia there’s no peace to keep; so the UN is doing something out of its comfort zone, it doesn’t have a warfighting logistics mechanism.
“Ethiopian troops are the only ones that are mobile and taking the fight to al-Shabaab, while the rest of AMISOM stay in Mogadishu or a few major bases,” says the Ethiopian analyst. “They know the land, they’re used to the temperatures, they are the only ones who have fought both guerrilla and conventional warfare.”
But there is another side to the seemingly impressive capabilities of Ethiopia’s decisive troops. “The ENDF intervention [in Somalia] in 2006 was what created al-Shabaab as we know it today,” Williams says. “It moved them from a fringe element of the Union of Islamic Courts to the dominant force whose ranks were swelled by anti-Ethiopian vitriol.”
During two years of fighting between Ethiopian troops and Somalian insurgent fighters an estimated 10,000 civilians were killed, while the UN High Commission for Refugees estimates that more than one million people, mainly from Mogadishu, were displaced. “ENDF troops are militarily effective against al-Shabaab but potentially politically toxic with the local population,” Williams says.
“Historical baggage” from major conflicts between the two countries during the 20th century exacerbates the situation. Deep-seated rivalries between Somalis and Ethiopians go back centuries, over land and power in the region. When Islam came to the Horn of Africa around the 7th century and spread widely – including securing a foothold in present-day Somalia – highland Christian Ethiopia found itself marooned, and up until the 18th century spent much time fighting off existential Islamic threats.
Christian Ethiopia survived, but its current rulers are still deeply wary of Islamic threats, having learnt the hard way during the early 1990s when, following a revolution, the new government’s fledgling foreign policy was seen by other countries as a sign of weakness.
“The country found itself under assault from dissidents and Islamists operating from both Sudan and Somalia,” says Medhane Tadesse, an Addis Ababa-based peace and security analyst. “Repeated attacks from Somalia led to successive interventions.” The result of these is that Ethiopia has become the principal military enforcer in Somalia, certainly from the viewpoint of countries such as the US, a contentious role that both incites and draws support. “No one likes to have their neighbours interfering in their affairs,” the Ethiopian analyst says. “But when it comes to the Somalia government, they view Ethiopia as a strong ally – they know that without Ethiopia, al-Shabaab will come knocking on their door.”
The perceived Islamic threat doesn’t just lie outside Ethiopia’s borders. A significant proportion of Ethiopia’s population is Muslim, possibly more than 35% of its roughly 95 million population. Overall the relatively successful assimilation of those Muslims with a larger Christian population marks a success story.
But between mid-2011 and mid-2013 Ethiopia experienced a wave of peaceful protests by Muslims objecting to state interference in religious matters.
“[Ethiopian Muslims] still have to struggle against the suspicion that they could be vectors of external threats emanating from the wider Islamic world,” says Éloi Ficquet, an anthropologist and historian working on religion, ethnicity and power in Ethiopia.
Following Ethiopia’s hard lessons learned in the early 1990s, part of its government’s strategy to safeguard that integrity has involved projecting power to ensure its neighbours pose no threat. Initially that projection took the form of military engagement, though of late that projection has taken the form of economic integration to bring stability to the region.
But such economic projection is not yet an option in strife-torn Somalia – neither for Ethiopia nor for the AU. Hence AMISOM still has work to do, but for the time being, it appears, without those extra Ethiopian troops. “Even with the extra Ethiopian troops AMISOM can’t take and hold territory,” the foreign security analyst says. “That’s only going to happen with Somali troops and police assisting – and they’re not ready yet.” Whether internal capabilities can be achieved, will be the deciding factor in whether Somalia can rebuild and develop democratically – the end of 2016 saw the country attempting to
hold parliamentary elections – to become a viable self-sufficient nation-state.
But now the EU’s bean-counters are having their say about so-called funding profligacy: in early 2016 the EU downsized its funding to AMISOM by 20%, in doing so riling the contributing African governments as they scramble to come up with their own money.
The fallout from this has seen Kenya and Uganda – the largest contributor, with 6,000 soldiers – threatening to pull out forces from Somalia if the international community does not fully cover the peacekeeping costs.
The Kenyan government also threatened to close the world’s largest refugee camp at Dadaab; the camp is home to more than 300,000 refugees, mainly Somalis. The reduction in funding to AMISOM happening at the same time as there has been an increase in funding for UN peacekeeping missions means “you’ve now got the situation where troops on the firing line in Somalia are getting paid about $500 less than UN peacekeepers, who spend much of their time playing volleyball in safe camps”, the foreign security analyst says.
AMISOM was created as part of the African Standby Force – a continental and multidisciplinary peacekeeping force with military, police and civilian contingents – whose genesis lay in the terrible fallout of a series of violent conflicts in Africa during the 1990s, most importantly the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in a desire to have an integral and self-sufficient African military capability to be deployed in times of crisis.
“If at the end of 10 years of international support to AMISOM all we’ve created is another type of UN force then we will have failed,” says the foreign politico. “The whole point of the African Standby Force is to be able to do what UN peacekeeping can’t do.”