A New War in Africa

28 December 2006

A New War in Africa

By Gwynne Dyer

“The Ethiopians now are advancing, but that is not the end,” Omar Idris, a senior official of Somalia’s Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), told the BBC on Wednesday. “We know what happened in Iraq, the experience of the Americans… I think this is very, very early to say that the Islamic Court forces were defeated.” The war is starting in Somalia, but it may end up being fought in Ethiopia and Eritrea, too. Together, the three countries contain almost a hundred million of the poorest people on the planet.

On Thursday, the Ethiopian army took Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, and the UIC, the closest thing to a government that Somalia has had since the country collapsed into anarchy fifteen years ago, retreated south towards the border with Kenya. Ethiopia has tanks, jet fighters and the tacit support of the United States; the UIC has only light weapons and the support of Somalis who distrust Ethiopians (i.e. almost all of them). So the UIC will probably win in the end, but it will take a long guerilla war.

This is a war founded on a misconception and driven by paranoid fantasies. The misconception was the US government’s belief that the Islamic Courts, local religious authorities backed by merchants in Mogadishu who wanted someone to curb the warlords, punish thieves, and enforce contracts, were just a cover for al-Qaeda. So the US instead backed the warlords who were making Somalis’ lives a misery.

American support is the kiss of death in Somalia, so the warlords were finally dislodged in Mogadishu last June by an uprising led by the UIC and supported by most of the population. The warlords fled to an American ship offshore, their clansmen went to ground, and the UIC rapidly took control of most of southern Somalia, bringing order for the first time since 1991. But the US immediately started plotting its overthrow.

Washington’s principal instrument in this enterprise was Ethiopia, Somalia’s giant neighbour to the west. Ethiopia’s 75 million people outnumber Somalis by more than seven-to-one — but although the Christians of the highlands have always dominated Ethiopia, almost half of its people are Muslims, like the Somalis. In Ethiopia’s sparsely populated eastern desert, the Ogaden, most of the people are not only Muslim but ethnically Somali. This is where the paranoid fantasies kick in.

Most of Ethiopia’s Muslims are too busy scratching a living to challenge the Christian near-monopoly of power in their country, but the last thing Ethiopia’s rulers want to see is an Islamic regime next-door in Somalia. To make matters worse, the Ethiopians suspected that their enemies, the Eritreans, were sending troops and arms to help the Islamic Courts regime in Somalia.

Ethiopia has fought and won two wars with Somalia over the Ogaden, in 1964 and 1977 (back when Somalia had a government and an army). It fought a bitter border war in 1998-2000 with Eritrea, a breakaway province that won its independence in 1993. (Ethiopia has rejected the decision of an independent panel on the border, and that war is just waiting to start again.) So over the past year, Ethiopia’s paranoid fantasies have come together with Washington’s.

The official American position, stated last week by Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, is that the UIC is now “controlled by al-Qaeda cell individuals. The top layer of the Court are extremists. They are terrorists.” Even US diplomats in the region privately reject this assertion, but it is now an article of faith in Washington.

Ethiopia accuses the UIC of “threatening Ethiopian sovereignty,” which merely means that senior UIC members make the same claims about the Somali-Ethiopian border that all Somali nationalists of every party have always made. No UIC troops have even approached that border — but just after the UIC took control of Mogadishu in June, Ethiopia started sending troops into Somalia.

The Ethiopians said they were there to support the so-called “transitional government” of Somalia, a body led by Abdullahi Yusuf, a Somali warlord who is a long-standing ally of Addis Ababa. But the “transitional government,” which emerged from UN-backed talks between Somali factions in 2004, lacked popular support and never controlled much except the town of Baidoa, near the Ethiopian border.

In early December, Islamic Court troops moved on Baidoa with the declared intention of driving the Ethiopian troops out. On 24 December, Ethiopia responded with the offensive that has now taken Mogadishu. With overwhelming material superiority and US-supplied satellite surveillance data, the Ethiopians have won an easy victory, and already the warlords who used to dominate the capital are reasserting their control under the shelter of the “transitional government.”

But this is just the start of a long guerilla war that will sap the strength of the Ethiopian army, a Christian-led force backing unpopular warlords in a Muslim country. It will radicalise the Islamic Courts and turn them into exactly the extremist force that Washington and Addis Ababa fear. It will probably radicalise Ethiopian Muslims and start insurrections there. It will almost certainly trigger a new war between Ethiopia and Eritrea (which has sent troops to Somalia to back the UIC).

The Ethiopian invasion is illegal, unjustified and deeply, deeply stupid, but it has Washington’s strong support. From the same folks who brought you Iraq….


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. “Most…Washington’s”