Ethiopian withdrawal poses questions for future of Somalia

In this handout pictured released by the African Union-United Nations Information Support Team, AMISOM Force commander Lt. Gen. Silas Ntigurirwa places an African Union cravert around the neck of an Ethiopian soldier during a ceremony in Baidoa, Somalia, welcoming the Ethiopian National Defense Forces into the African Union peace keeping mission on January 22, 2014. AFP PHOTO / AU UN IST PHOTO / Tobin Jones RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / AU UN IST / TOBIN JONES" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS / AFP PHOTO / AU UN IST / TOBIN JONES

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troops previously assisting the internationally funded African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) were suddenly withdrawn to Ethiopia a few days after the Ethiopian government declared a six-month emergency in early October.

As al-Shabaab retook a number of towns, 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 AMISOM as it battles al-Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia, and within the United Nations peace-keeping system itself. “AMISOM should be able to do its mission with its quota of 21,000 – but it’s not managing it,” says a foreign politico with a multinational political organisation in Addis Ababa, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “AMISOM can’t do anything without those additional Ethiopian troops.”

AMISOM has grown from an initial deployment of 1,500 Ugandan soldiers in 2007 to a multinational 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). Ethiopia’s military, the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF), provides more than 4,000 to that force – the third highest amount – and they are still in Somalia.

The withdrawn Ethiopian soldiers were part of an additional Ethiopian force of around 4,000 that operated outside, but in tandem with, AMISOM, providing crucial assistance.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.

Unsustainable costs

“Ethiopia didn’t need extra troops for the state of emergency, it has more than enough,” says the Ethiopian political analyst (the size of Ethiopia’s army is estimated at between 140,000 and 200,000 troops). “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.”

The international community pays each country in AMISOM $1,028 per month per soldier, 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 as its AMISOM troops for parity’s sake. General Samora Yunis, the ENDF chief of staff, had been saying for months that the army couldn’t sustain the cost. But the international community wasn’t willing to pay – it was already shelling out for AMISOM.

“It wasn’t just the money,” the Ethiopian analyst says. “The Ethiopian government felt it didn’t have the diplomatic support it should have, and that its efforts hadn’t been recognised.” Hence a loss of significant battle-hardened troops. Ethiopia’s modern military forces haven’t had much of a break for the last 50 years, whether fighting internal insurgencies, border skirmishes or full-scale international wars. As a result, they are one of Africa’s largest and most effective armies.

Meanwhile, another increasing problem for AMISOM, says the foreign politico, is that due to its dependence on the United Nations it is increasingly hamstrung by UN peacekeeping processes when it needs be operating as a war fighting force. For there has been little to resemble peacekeeping during AMISOM’s deployment. Precise figures of AMISOM fatalities are unknown due to contributing countries not releasing numbers, but estimates range as high as 2,000.

Taking the fight to al-Shabaab

“Ethiopia’s troops are the only ones that are mobile and taking the fight to al-Shabaab, while the rest of AMISOM stay in Mogadishu or a few major bases,” says the Ethiopian analyst. But there’s another side to the seemingly impressive capabilities of Ethiopia’s decisive troops.

“The ENDF intervention in 2006 was what created al-Shabaab as we know it today,” says Paul Williams, a peace and security expert, and a professor in international affairs at George Washington University in the US. “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.”

During two years of fighting between Ethiopian troops and Somalian insurgent fighters an estimated 10,000 civilians were killed, while the United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that more than a million people, mainly from Mogadishu, were displaced. At the same time, Ethiopian troops were accused by local and international human rights organisations of committing atrocities against civilians and indiscriminate bombardment of built-up residential areas.

Some question the extent of such accusations, but it appears a legacy remains. “ENDF troops are militarily effective against al-Shabaab but potentially politically toxic with the local population, especially the further they move from the Ethiopian border,” Williams says. Further “historical baggage” from major conflicts between the two countries exacerbates the situation, the Ethiopian analyst says, as “no one likes to have their neighbours interfering in their affairs.”

Soft power not an option

“The appetite in the West to spend more money in Somalia is limited,” says an Addis Ababa-based security analyst with an international political organisation, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We are not personally invested like we were with Afghanistan – now it’s other countries’ armies.”

But, at the same time, he notes how Europe has “shouldered a huge amount of the burden with Somalia.” In fiscal terms this amounts to about $1.3bn spent during the last decade. That desire, by the West, to stabilise the often volatile Horn of Africa is also shared, not surprisingly, by governments in the region.

Since Ethiopia’s current ruling party came to power in 1991, a large part of its strategy to safeguard Ethiopia has involved projecting power to ensure its neighbours don’t pose a threat. By the end of the 1990s this typically took a military form. Increasingly of late, however, that approach has been replaced by economic soft power to foster regional peace based on economic integration.

But such a soft power option isn’t possible in strife-torn Somalia – neither for Ethiopia nor for the African Union. Hence AMISOM still has work to do, but without those extra Ethiopian troops, and with further questions about its ability to deliver what Somalia needs.

Such questions also extend to whether the African Union and its African Standby Force – a continental and multidisciplinary peacekeeping force with military, police and civilian contingents (of which AMISOM is a part) – can deliver the military capacity needed to tackle ongoing strife on the continent.

“If at the end of 10 years of international support to AMISOM all we’ve created is another United Nations-type force then we will have failed,” says the foreign politico in Addis Ababa. “The whole point of the African Standby Force is to be able to do what UN peacekeeping can’t do.”

Written by James Jeffrey
After completing a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Texas at Austin in May 2012, James Jeffrey spent a year freelancing in US focusing primarily on business, including writing for the Austin, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas Business Journals. In October 2013 he moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to write about business-related features primarily, while endeavouring to cover other topics of interest in a remarkable country.


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