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Allies at odds over Somalia

For the past 20 years, Ethiopia has been heavily involved in the Somali conflict….

By Afyare Abdi Elmi

The US and its main ally in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia, are pursuing contradictory policies when it comes to dealing with Somalia’s Islamist movements.

While Addis Ababa is pursuing its traditional unaccommodationist and at times hostile policy towards these groups, Washington is encouraging all those Islamist movements that are interested in renouncing violence to participate in the political process.

Last week, Ethiopia called a ministerial level emergency session of member states of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). IGAD’s subsequent communiqué calling for a meeting of heads of state in order to “re-engineer” the Somali peace process points to gerrymandering of the crisis by Ethiopia, which seems to want to impose its proxies on the Somalis.

This is an interesting development.

Backdoor intervention

For the past 20 years, Ethiopia has been heavily involved in the Somali conflict, with interventions that have ranged from supporting warlords and regional authorities through the provision of weapons, to a full-fledged invasion in 2006.

Ethiopia was chosen by IGAD and the African Union as early as 1992 to play a key role in helping to stabilise Somalia – and it is a role it is determined to maintain for as long possible.

The international community, however, realised that the Ethiopian invasion only worsened Somalia’s security and humanitarian situation by creating the conditions in which extremism flourished.

As a result, Ethiopia was pressured to withdraw from Somalia, moderate Islamists were included in the peace process, the Somalia file was removed from IGAD and the United Nations was tasked with leading the Somali peace process.

However, Addis Ababa has been unhappy with the developments that have taken place in the country since the Djibouti process – which resulted in the formation of the current unity government – ended in 2009, and has sought to insert its influence via backdoor means.

Re-appropriating the peace process

It has done this by exploiting the legitimate grievances of Somalia’s traditional Sufi orders, while sidelining the genuine representatives of the moderate Sufi group Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama’a. It has also militarily supported local warlords and empowered some pro-Ethiopian Somali politicians, effectively forcing the leaders of the transitional government to share power with them.

For Addis Ababa, this whole exercise is about securing politically what it failed to achieve militarily in its 2006-2009 invasion – that is re-appropriating the peace process and transitional government institutions, and eliminating and/or weakening those Islamist groups that are part of the transitional government.

In fact, Ethiopia has often sought to present all of Somalia’s Islamist movements and nationalist forces as extremists and terrorists, expelling many members of these groups from the peace process it controlled between 2002 and 2004.

As a result of the Djibouti peace process, which began in 2008, besides Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, the Somali president and a well-known Islamist leader, some 60 Islamists joined the 550-member Somali parliament. Moreover, of the 39 cabinet members, eight ministries were allotted to Islamist groups that joined the government.

But, at least half of these ministers are no longer in the fold. Ibrahim Hassan Adow and Ahmed Abdullahi were killed by suicide bombers, while others have resigned. Many of those that remain are frustrated, in part by Ethiopian pressure, and may not hang on for too much longer.

In fact, if Ethiopia’s intrusion and control becomes more apparent, many Islamists will quit the transitional government, while those interested Islamists on the outside will choose not to join the peace process. This will present an excellent opportunity for extremist groups to fill the vacuum left by the departing Islamists.

Accommodation versus confrontation

Ironically, while the US’ ally is advancing these counterproductive policies, Washington is promoting a contradictory policy that aims to accommodate moderate Islamists in order to isolate extremist elements.

In the early 1990s, author and professor Fawaz Gerges characterised US policy towards Islamists as “accommodationist in rhetoric” and “confrontationalist in reality”.

During George Bush’s ‘war on terror’, however, even the rhetoric changed, with the US clearly engaged in a war against political Islam.

But by 2008, Washington had realised that its hostile policy was empowering the extremist elements within Islamists movements at the expense of more mainstream groups.

In an article that appeared in Foreign Affairs magazine in July/August 2008, Condoleezza Rice, the then US secretary of state, said: “Although we cannot know whether politics will ultimately de-radicalise violent groups, we do know that excluding them from the political process grants them power without responsibility.”

Although this sentiment has not yet been articulated in a policy document, it reflected a clear shift in Washington’s policy towards Islamists.

The positive rhetoric of the Obama administration was an even clearer indication that the US was becoming more pragmatic in dealing with Islamist movements.

Even though the Bush administration initially endorsed Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia, in 2009, the US pressured it to withdraw. It also accepted the inclusion of moderate Islamists in the peace process.

Most importantly of all, Washington has been keeping Ethiopia out of Somalia for the past 18 months.

Holistic approach

The reason for this is simple: The US does not want to provide al-Shabab and other extremist groups with a legitimate cause, although Ethiopia would no doubt like an international mandate to re-occupy Somalia.

Recently, Johnny Carson, the US assistant secretary of state for Africa, has been keen to stress its support for the Djibouti process and its concern that the transitional government make progress in the areas of security and governance.

He also asserted that even though some members of al-Shabab are linked to al-Qaeda, it is not “a homogeneous, monolithic … group that is comprised of individuals who completely share the same political philosophy from top to bottom”.

This is an advanced understanding of the ever-changing Islamist organisations in Somalia.

There are indeed many within al-Shabab and other groups that can be de-radicalised and rehabilitated if the central government functions well.

Many in Washington have also realised that it is the weakness of the government, not the strength of al-Shabab that is responsible for the current stalemate. They are, therefore, encouraging the Obama administration to adopt a more holistic approach in Somalia.

I believe that Ethiopia’s zero-sum approach will only produce the opposite of its desired results, as it did in 2006. Indeed, it is in the interests of regional states and the world community to work towards the full inclusion of all of those groups that are willing to be a part of Somalia’s political system.

Ethiopia’s efforts to impose opportunistic politicians will only exacerbate the already difficult situation in the country.

In short, the US and the rest of the international community must not allow the status quo of 2006 to 2009 to return to Somalia.

Imposing the short-sighted policy of eliminating Islamist movements from the political process will provide extremist and violent groups with the circumstances in which they thrive – and subsequently invite another Ethiopian occupation.

This is an unacceptable scenario and the US along with the rest of the international community should pressure Somalia’s neighbours into supporting the building of a durable peace and a functioning state in Somalia.

  • Dr Afyare Abdi Elmi is a professor of International Affairs at Qatar University and the author of Understanding the Somalia Conflagration.
  • The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Aljazeera

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