Policy WATCH:Mubarak's Musings
Mubarak's Musings
The Ethiopian Error
By MUBARAK 03/28/2012
Mubarak's Musings is a Somalia Report weekly column published every Wednesday. Follow Mubarak on Twitter, at @somalianalyst.

The recent Ethiopian push into five Somali regions in the south of the country (Hiran, Galgudud, Bay, Bakool, and Gedo) has lost the Shabaab huge swaths of territory, brought to the forefront clan rivalries, increased al-Shabaab support, and ushered in an apparently short-lived era of peace in the “liberated” territories.

The Ethiopians, apparently encouraged by the Kenyan invasion of southern Somalia in October 2011, seem very keen on installing proxy states around their border. They have been accompanied either by the group calling itself Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa (ASWJ) or by officials from their proxy states—officials who have in few cases, if any, been selected by local elders or through consultations with them, a fact that will most likely cause these states to crumble once the Ethiopians withdraw.

Another problem with the Ethiopian strategy of installing more than one group as the rulers of regions they capture is that it causes a power struggle between competing factions, such as the one between the Kenyan proxy, Ras Kamboni, and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in the Juba regions.

This may very well be the intention of the Ethiopians, so as not to have any of their clients powerful enough to manage without their support in the future. They have infamously supported rival warlords in southern Somalia from 1998 up to the present day. This is one of the (many) reasons the Ethiopians are viewed with suspicion in Somalia.

Their current blitz into southern Somalia has been met with mixed feelings, given the tremendous opposition the Shabaab have managed to cultivate for themselves in the past three years. Yet few of the crucial independent Islamic clerics are calling for jihad against them. There is spirited anti-Ethiopian Somali chatter on online forums, but many commentators also blame al-Shabaab for the invasion.

No Respect For Their Elders

The first major town to fall into the hands of the Ethiopians was Beledweyne, capital of Hiran region, which lies less than 100 kilometres from the Ethiopian border. The city fell on December 30, 2011 (what is with Ethiopians and New Year’s Eve? Remember their invasion of 2006?). Accompanying the Ethiopians were members of one of their proxies, the Shabelle Valley Administration (SVA: an Ethiopian-backed regional state that claims Hiran as its territory) and the TFG. There have been skirmishes between the two groups in the city as they vie for influence, with civilians caught in the crossfire.

Beledweyne, which is strategically located almost halfway between Galkayo and Mogadishu, was an important city for the Shabaab. It was vital for protecting the supply routes to the al-Shabaab-held areas of Galgudud in central Somalia (before the very recent Ethiopian push, the Shabaab effectively controlled most areas of Galgudud lying beyond the paved highway).

The Ethiopian backed-TFG and her clan-based allies have failed to show themselves as a desirable presence to the people in the region, robbing, killing, and arresting locals arbitrarily. Dozens of civilians were killed by the Ethiopians in their first weeks of occupying the city, which has not helped the already tarnished image of the Ethiopians in Somalia.

The Ethiopians and her proxies initiated in Beledweyne a policy of arresting elders who had clearly been working with the Shabaab as a result of clan politics or simple pragmatism. This policy has been repeated in other areas taken by the Ethiopians.

This has to stop. Elders represent their communities and attempt to live in harmony with whoever is in charge at the given moment. Arresting them for trying to live under an otherwise harsh rule is a gift to the Shabaab, and will only push more elders into their arms.

The second major city to fall without a fight to the Ethiopians was the strategic city of Baidoa, capital of Bay region, on February 22. The city was a major Shabaab support base, with the Shabaab earlier claiming to have trained thousands of “volunteers” from the city and its surroundings. Images from the city showed partly-deserted streets, which was consistent with Abu Zubayr’s (Ahmed Godane, the Shabaab supreme leader) claim that the inhabitants of the city had withdrawn along with the Shabaab.

The clan inhabiting the Baidoa area, the Rahanweyne, is one of the most strongly represented within the Shabaab. This has more to do with the clan members’ desire to protect themselves from other clans who had wronged them during the early years of the Somali civil war—and settle scores while they’re at it. That the Ethiopians have continued their policy of arresting anyone suspected of having ties to the Shabaab will do nothing to decrease the Islamists’ popularity in Baidoa.

The taking of Baidoa by the Ethiopians will make it harder for the Shabaab to operate in the area. They will not be able to continue training their fighters in the vicinity of Baidoa as they have been doing, and will probably move their training camps further away from the border into Lower and Middle Shabelle regions. Unless the Ethiopians invade every inch of southern Somalia—something they probably don’t want to do—they cannot entirely eradicate al-Shabaab training camps.

The Shabaab also ceded another major support base in eastern Galgudud region to the Ethiopians on the March 26, a month after the loss of Baidoa. The Shabaab had controlled most of the areas in eastern Galgudud off the main highway, with some areas having been in their hands since 2005, during the group’s infancy (no, al-Shabaab was not “the armed wing of the ICU;" they were one of the factions that made up the armed wing, and they existed before the rise of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in 2006). This is the first time the Ethiopians have managed to capture these remote areas off the paved road.

El-Bur, the city the Ethiopians seemed to have been targeting, is the central Somalia equivalent of Kismayo to the Shabaab, in terms of the number of militants based there. Baidoa was not overly popular with non-local Shabaab fighters, due to the different dialect that they speak (they speak the “Maay” dialect while most Somalis speak the “Maxaa”).

The Ethiopians did not find elders to arrest in El-Bur; these had mostly fled in the face of the advancing soldiers. Scary stories spread fast.

It is worth noting that the ASWJ faction that accompanied the Ethiopians was made up of a rival clan to the clans inhabiting eastern Galgudud. This was a major miscalculation by the Ethiopians, and shows their lack of sensitivity to Somali clan inter-relationships. However, the president of the obscure "Elbuurland" self-declared state was riding with the Ethiopians, and his presence may have partially muted the feeling in El-Bur of being colonized by a rival clan.

Pro-al-Shabaab sites reported that the Shabaab are still in control of villages in eastern Galgudud, from where they plan to continue launching hit-and-run attacks.

Waiting It Out

The Shabaab response to all three major setbacks seems to be a tripartite approach: rally the clans, revert to guerrilla warfare while continuing urban guerrilla attacks, and wait it out.

There have been suicide attacks, assassinations, and Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks on the Ethiopians and their allies in the cities of Baidoa and Beledweyne. The same fate awaits the troops present in eastern Galgudud.

The Ethiopians, who are known for arbitrary killings in Somalia, and whose last invasion caused the deaths of more than 16,000 civilians, supposedly know that they are not popular with Somalis. This may be the reason that they initially announced their intention to withdraw in April of this year.

However, the Ethiopians cannot be trusted to keep to their withdrawal schedules. They promised to withdraw in "weeks" last time they entered Somalia. They ended up staying for 104 weeks (two years)!

The Shabaab strategy of "waiting-it-out" makes them highly resilient and will assure their existence long after the Ethiopians withdraw once more. What is needed is a comprehensive approach to the Shabaab, and an understanding that the group is not homogenous, with many factions joining the organization solely for the purpose of defending their clan territory against other clans who use foreign forces and support to subjugate them. Others are against what they see as Ethiopian imperialism—a product of centuries of war and rivalry between the two countries.

A Better Way

The Ethiopians must withdraw non-local militias from eastern Galgadud as soon as possible, and hand them over to local forces.

In the meantime, they have to reach out to clan elders, whether or not they have worked with the Shabaab in the past. Most influential clan elders may ignore any Ethiopian overtures as long as the latter are accompanied by militias from rival clans. Therefore, the Ethiopians have to cease employing militias imported from other areas, unless they are to be placed under the command of local forces.

The Ethiopian intervention in south and central Somalia will not go down in history as the process that ended the Shabaab. It will be an event that temporarily spiked support for them. This surge in support will most likely persist until the Ethiopians withdraw and are replaced by the somewhat more popular African Union peacekeeping force (AMISOM), a plan that is currently in the works.

Even if that happens, AMISOM can not stay forever. It is time to talk with the local elements of the Shabaab who are open to talks. Only then can there be a lasting solution.