Can AMISOM be Neutral?
On January 22nd, Ethiopian troops officially joined the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), contributing about four thousand soldiers. If past experience is anything to go by, when troops from Somalia’s neighbouring countries have joined the peacekeeping effort in Somalia, this has damaged the credibility of AMISOM as a neutral force. Furthermore, the presence of Ethiopian troops as part of AMISOM will probably fuel factional fighting in Somalia and strengthen Al-Shabaab in the process.
There are three main reasons why Ethiopian troops should not be part of AMISOM. First, there is a long and bloody history between Somalia and Ethiopia and unresolved land disputes that should be settled first. For example, it would be inconceivable to contemplate sending Indian troops to Pakistan for peacekeeping purposes, or Iranian troops to Iraq for the same reason. Immediately after Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2007 to combat the Islamic Courts Union, after being encouraged by the United States to do so, the United Nations reported, “Public sentiment of the continued presence of Ethiopian troops in Somalia has created a volatile situation, which has seriously constrained humanitarian delivery and emerging operations in the centre and south of the country.”
Second, Ethiopia’s continued political and military involvement in Somalia after the collapse of the central government illustrates that Ethiopia is part of the problem not the solution and until it changes its policies towards Somalia it should keep a distance from developments within the country. Third, Ethiopian troops have been accused of egregious human rights violations during its occupation of Somalia from 2007 to 2009. Essentially, legitimizing their presence sends a wrong message. Human rights abuses are rewarded, and consequently it encourages impunity. Since the long and dark history between Somalia and Ethiopia is generally known, and both sides acknowledge it, this article will elaborate on the other aforementioned points.
There are three main flawed assumptions underpinning the whole idea of increasing the number of AMISOM troops and allowing Ethiopia and Kenya to be part of AMISOM.
The first is that Al-Shabaab is the only problem hindering the establishment of a functioning government in Somalia, and if Al-Shabaab is militarily defeated Somalia’s protracted political stalemate will come to an end. Facts do not bear this out. In actuality, Al-Shabaab has been active in the Somali political scene for less than six years, and the problem of statelessness has existed since the collapse of the last functioning government in 1991.
Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, in the regions where there is no Al-Shabaab presence, there are no signs of local administrations and other leaders trying to work towards the establishment of a functioning central government.
In that respect, if Al-Shabaab completely disappears tomorrow, it is most likely that little will change and the vacuum created by the absence of Al-Shabaab will be filled by other groups, as has always been the case. The second wrong assumption is that foreign troops can create peace and functioning state institutions, and at the same time prevent Somali groups from carrying out terrorist activities outside Somalia. The reality is that to defeat Al-Shabaab and other armed groups in Somalia, a well-trained, well-equipped and well-resourced Somali security force is a prerequisite. Evidence suggests that foreign troops from neutral countries may sometimes help, but cannot make any meaningful positive contribution if there is no functioning domestic structure. The third wrong assumption is the belief that troops from the neighbouring countries can assist Somalia in defeating Al-Shabaab or achieve peace and reconciliation.
Ethiopia’s Interferences in Somalia
After the collapse of Somalia’s central government in 1991, the Ethiopian government started meddling in Somalia’s internal affairs. The late Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, informed the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Somalia “Ethiopia was, in an open manner, involved diplomatically, [militarily] and politically in Somalia and would continue to be involved, not least to protect its national security interest.” Explaining its foreign policy towards Somalia, Ethiopia’s government admitted that the policies had been designed to “…dismantle Somalia to the extent possible,” and furthermore take “…the war to Somalia and, along the way, aggravating the contradiction between the Somali clans.”
Even though the present Ethiopian government claims that its policy towards Somalia has changed, its actions and policies point to the continuation of their previous approach. Consequently, it is not unreasonable to assume that the reason why Ethiopia wants to join AMISOM is to serve the purpose of taking “the war to Somalia,” albeit presently under the guise of AMISOM.
For instance, in 2002, the UN panel of experts reported “Ethiopian military presence in Western Somalia is significant that Ethiopia continues to provide military assistance to various factions of the Somali Reconciliation and Restoration Council. One international observer who visited Baidoa saw ammunition boxes with Amharic writing on them in July 2002. Other international observers reported seeing and even meeting Ethiopian military officers.” In fact, Ethiopia not only supplied weapons and ammunition to Somali factions but “Ethiopia has several times conducted fairly large scale operations in Somalia.” According to a report of a UN panel of experts on Somalia, “Ethiopia has played an overt role in Somalia. Not only has Ethiopia been a major source of weapons for a number of Somali groups, but Ethiopia has also invaded and occupied parts of Somalia.” In late 2006, Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia allegedly with the tacit support of the United States.
According to the United Nations, the invasion created “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.” Ethiopian troops withdrew from Somalia in 2009 after lengthy resistance from various Somali groups. It is important to mention that there have been thousands of Ethiopian troops in Somalia since 2011 ostensibly fighting Al-Shabaab.
In acknowledging the effect of interfering in Somalia’s affairs, the UN Security Council suggested, “in particular those of the region, should not interfere with the internal affairs of Somalia.” The Council further recognized that “Such interference only further destabilizes Somalia, contributes to the climate of fear and impacts adversely on the human rights, and could jeopardize the sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence and unity of Somalia.” According to numerous UN monitoring groups’ reports, Ethiopia has been arming different warlords in Somalia since the collapse of the central government in 1991, in contravention of the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Somalia.
Undoubtedly, those supplies of weapons to warlords were intended to perpetuate chaos and instability in Somalia. In that respect, it is difficult if not impossible to expect Ethiopian troops to make any positive contribution in terms of re-establishing functioning state institutions.
Human Rights Abuses by Ethiopian Forces
Immediately after Ethiopian troops ousted the Islamic Courts Union from power at the end of 2006, a BBC journalist, Adam Mynott, contrasted the insecurity created by the Ethiopian invasion with the relative security during the Islamic Courts Union’s brief rule: “Just a few months ago, Mogadishu and much of Somalia were enjoying their most stable period for 16 years. Under the brief control of the Islamic Courts Union, the grip of the warlords was loosened and some of the basic expectations of an organized life were being restored. Schools were opening, police were being trained, roadblocks were removed and litter was even collected from the streets.”
According to the United Nations, in 2007, Ethiopian invasion and subsequent violence created the “largest new population displacement anywhere in the world.” In a similar vein, in its report “Shell-Shocked: Civilians Under Siege in Mogadishu,” Human Rights Watch accused Ethiopian troops of human rights abuses against Somali civilians, stating: “Ethiopian forces backing the Somali transitional government violated the laws of war by widely and indiscriminately bombarding highly populated areas of Mogadishu with rockets, mortars, and artillery. Its troops on several occasions specifically targeted hospitals and looted them of desperately needed medical equipment. Human Rights Watch also documented cases of Ethiopian forces deliberately shooting and summarily executing civilians.” Similarly, Amnesty International in its report, “Routinely Targeted: Attacks on Civilians in Somalia” documented human right abuses against Somali civilians by Ethiopian troops and their allied Somali militias.
The report stated “There is a dire human rights situation in southern and central Somalia, which was largely contributed to the current humanitarian emergency. One million Somalis internally displaced…some 6000 civilians were killed in attacks in 2007, and the entire population of Mogadishu carries the scars of having witnessed or experienced egregious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.” The seriousness of the human rights violations in Somalia by Ethiopian troops prompted the European Union to start its own investigation into the alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, those responsible for these heinous crimes were not brought to justice.
The Way Forward
According to the United Nations, the Ethiopian government spokesperson stated: “the total number of Ethiopian troops deployed in Somalia would not likely be increased, in which case their re-hatting to AMISOM may not improve the over-all counter-insurgency capacity against Al-Shabaab.” By the same token, the Secretary-General of the United Nations reaffirmed that to reduce the asymmetric threat posed by Al-Shabaab “a comprehensive strategy that includes political, economic and military components is needed.” There is evidence that Al-Shabaab is already using the presence of Ethiopia and Kenya as a recruiting tool with some success. If the international community is serious about helping Somalia, a concerted effort should be made to train and equip Somali security forces. To an extent, this is already happening on the ground but the effort should be stepped up.
Perhaps it is time to transform AMISOM into a UN peacekeeping operation. This may have several advantages. First, troops from Muslim countries, who can easily establish a good rapport with the Somali people and discredit Al-Shabaab’s claim that “non-Muslims are taking over the country,” can join the UN mission. These troops from neutral countries can keep the agenda of the neighbouring countries in check. Second, UN troops will have a unified command structure and will make accountability easy. At the moment, it seems that each contingent follows the policies of its country. The fact that Kenyan troops prevented ministers from the Somali Federal Government to visit Kismayo and their unwavering support for one of the warring factions in the area is a case in point. In view of that, there is no benefit in legitimizing Ethiopian troop’s presence in Somalia.
This move will most likely complicate efforts to establish a functioning government in Somalia because Ethiopia will continue with its deleterious interference in the internal affairs of Somalia, even though they will be paid for their destructive actions this time around. Moreover, letting Ethiopia and Kenya form part of AMISOM almost certainly damages the credibility of AMISOM as a neutral force.