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Ethiopia: Meles orders full withdrawal from Somalia

By Steve Bloomfield, Sunday Herald

SOMALIA’S FRAGILE government appears to be on the brink of collapse. Islamist insurgents now controls large parts of southern and central Somalia – and are continuing to launch attacks inside the capital, Mogadishu.

Ethiopia Woyanne, which launched a US-backed military intervention in Somalia in December 2006 in an effort to drive out an Islamist authority in Mogadishu, is now pulling out its troops.

Diplomats and analysts in neighbouring Nairobi believe the government will fall once Ethiopia Woyanne completes its withdrawal, and secret plans have been made to evacuate government ministers to neighbouring Kenya.

That may happen sooner rather than later. A shipment of Ethiopian Woyanne weapons, including tanks, left Mogadishu port last month as part of the withdrawal. Bringing the equipment back to Ethiopia by land would have been impossible – analysts believe Ethiopian Woyanne troops and their Somali government allies control just three small areas in Mogadishu and a few streets in Baidoa, the seat of parliament. There are now estimated to be just 2500 Ethiopian Woyanne soldiers left inside Somalia, down from 15,000-18,000 at the height of the war.

Somalia’s overlapping conflicts go back, at the very least, to 1991, the year the country’s last recognised government was overthrown. Men and women who were children then have since given birth to a second generation of Somalis who have known only war.

But analysts believe Somalia is now in the midst of its worst ever crisis. The ongoing conflict, which has claimed the lives of at least 9000 civilians and forced more than 1.1 million to flee their homes, has combined with devastating droughts and rocketing food prices to create one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes.

Almost half the population – 3.2m people – are in need of emergency aid (the figure has almost doubled in the last 12 months). One in six children is thought to be malnourished.

“This crisis is broadening as well as deepening,” said Mark Bowden, the head of the UN’s humanitarian effort. “It is now the world’s most complicated crisis.”

Violence and insecurity have made it almost impossible for aid to get through, and 24 aid workers have been killed in Somalia so far this year. A recent shipment of food aid needed a military escort to navigate Somalia’s pirate-infested waters. But within hours of the food being unloaded in Mogadishu’s port most of it was stolen by gun-toting gangs.

Oxfam, Save The Children and 50 other aid agencies working in Somalia last week said the international community had “completely failed Somali civilians”.

As the crisis worsens thousands are trying to leave the country every week. Around 6000 people are now crossing the border into Kenya every month – despite the Kenyan government’s decision to close the border. Some are arriving at the overcrowded Dadaab refugee camp in eastern Kenya, which is now one of the largest refugee camps in the world with nearly 250,000 people.

Others try to leave by sea, travelling to the northern town of Bosasso and paying $100 to people smugglers who ram more than 100 people onto a small fishing boat and set sail for Yemen.

Many do not make it. Smugglers last week forced 150 people off the boat three miles off the Yemeni coast. Only 47 made it to shore.

Attempts to find a political solution have stalled. The UN claims progress has been made, citing an agreement signed in neighbouring Djibouti by the Somali government and the opposition Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia (ARS).

But the deal has been signed only by the moderates on each side: Prime Minister Nur Adde and the ARS’s Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.

President Abdullahi Yusuf, a former warlord who controls the government’s security forces, has refused to get involved. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the hardline Islamic leader of another faction of the ARS, has denounced the deal, as have the leaders of the insurgents, a group called Al Shabaab.

Since the deal was struck in June, the level of violence has increased.

Few Somalis will weep if the government falls. In most respects it is a government in name only. Few ministries have offices, let alone civil servants to fill them. There are no real policies – and no real way to implement any.

Worst of all, this government, which is backed by the United Nations and funded by Western donors including Britain and the EU, has been accused of committing a litany of war crimes. Its police force, many of whom were trained under a UN programme part-funded by Britain, has carried out extrajudicial killings, raped women and fired indiscriminately on crowds at markets. Militias aligned to the government have killed journalists and attacked aid workers.

The government’s fall would mark the end of a disastrous US-backed intervention. For six months in 2006, Somalia was relatively calm. A semblance of peace and security had returned to Mogadishu. The reason was the rise of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), a loose coalition of Islamist leaders who had driven out Mogadishu’s warlords.

Hardline elements within the UIC vowed to launch a jihad against Somalia’s traditional enemy, Ethiopia. The US viewed the UIC has an “al-Qaeda cell” – a belief not shared by the majority of analysts and diplomats.

Ethiopia Woyanne, with the support of the US, sent thousands of troops across the border to drive out the UIC. It took just a few days to defeat them. Their leaders fled towards the border with Kenya, while many of the fighters took off their uniforms and melted into Mogadishu.

Within weeks, an Iraq-style insurgency had begun, targeting Somali government and Ethiopian troops. Al Shabaab began laying roadside bombs and firing at Ethiopian troops from inside civilian areas.

The Ethiopians Woyanne responded by bombarding residential areas. Hundreds were killed and hundreds of thousands fled Mogadishu. Human rights groups accused Ethiopia Woyanne of committing war crimes.

The US must now be wondering whether it was all worth it. Western backing for the unpopular Somali government and US support for the Ethiopian Woyanne intervention has created a groundswell of anti-West sentiment in Somalia.

The Islamist leaders they were so keen to oust are the same ones they are now engaged in negotiations with. US officials have met both Sheikh Sharif and the more hardline Sheikh Aweys in an effort to find a peace deal.

Meanwhile, in Somalia, the Islamists taking control of towns and villages across the country are considered far more extremist than Aweys. “They are real international jihadis,” said one Nairobi-based diplomat. “The Americans’ fear of al-Qaeda in Somalia is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.”