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By James Jeffrey
2016 saw the EU cutting back funding to the AMISOM mission fighting jihadists in Somalia. Ethiopia has pulled back some 4,000 troops the country considered unnecessary.
Ethiopian troops previously assisting the internationally-funded African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) were suddenly withdrawn to Ethiopia a few days after the Ethiopian government declared a six-month emergency on October 9.
As Islamist al-Shabab militants, who have links to al Qaeda, retook a number of towns in their absence, many commentators were quick to diagnose the redeployment as a reaction to help Ethiopian security services subdue internal protests rocking the country since November 2015.
But to settle for that explanation risks missing a more nuanced picture that reveals problems within the United Nations peacekeeping system and AMISOM itself as it battles al-Shabab in Somalia.
“The withdrawal of Ethiopian troops certainly gives al-Shabab an opportunity to regain control of settlements it had previously lost,” said Paul Williams, a peace and security expert. “[And] it will be a major boon for its forces and its propaganda machine.”
AMISOM has grown from an initial deployment of 1,500 Ugandan soldiers in 2007 to a multi-national African force of over 21,000 soldiers, with troops from Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Uganda. Sierra Leone withdrew its battalion of troops in early 2015.
Financial burden caused by unrest
Ethiopia’s military, the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF), provides more than 4,000 to that AMISOM force. They make up the third largest contingent and they are all still in Somalia.
The Ethiopian soldiers who were withdrawn were part of an additional Ethiopian force of about another 4,000 that operated outside of but in tandem with AMISOM, providing crucial assistance.
“Ethiopian troops know the land, they’re used to the temperatures, they are the only ones who have fought both guerrilla and conventional warfare,” says an Ethiopian Horn of Africa political analyst in Addis Ababa, who asked to remain anonymous.
“Ethiopia didn’t need extra troops for the state of emergency, it’s has more than enough,” the analyst said. Estimates of the size of Ethiopian army range from 140,000 to 200,000. “But the unrest was making it more expensive for Ethiopia to have its non-AMISOM troops in Somalia, as its foreign direct investment has been hit and its foreign exchange reserves are decreasing.”
Troops confront protestors in Bishoftu in the Oromia region of Ethiopia in October 2016
Ethiopia declared the state of emergency after weeks of anti-government protests and riots during which at least 50 people were killed in a stampede and more than 2,000 demonstrators were temporarily detained.
The demonstrations were initially triggered by anger over a development scheme for the capital Addis Ababa but then broadened into demonstrations against political restrictions.
Steep soldiers’ bill
The international community pays each country in AMISOM $1,028 (990 Euros) per month for each soldier. Countries are free to choose how much of that each soldier receives, while the United Nations Support Office for AMISOM (UNSOA) covers all logistics and associated costs.
Ethiopian troops outside of AMISOM, however, qualify for none of that, while the Ethiopian army pays them the same amount that its AMISOM troops receive for parity’s sake.
General Samora Yunis, the ENDF Chief of Staff, had been saying for months the army couldn’t sustain the cost.
“It wasn’t just the money,” the analyst said. “The Ethiopian government felt it didn’t have the diplomatic support it should have and that its efforts hadn’t been recognized. Ethiopia’s troops are the only ones that are mobile and taking the fight to al-Shabab.”
But there’s another side to Ethiopia military role in Somalia.
“The ENDF intervention in 2006 was what created al-Shabab as we know it today,” Williams said. “It moved them from a fringe element of the Union of Islamic Courts to the dominant force whose ranks were swelled by anti-Ethiopian vitriol.”
Ethiopian troops on their way to Mogadishu in December 2006