Saturday, March 7, 2009

Somalia: Ethiopia withdrawal raises fears

Stephen Matenga, Africa News reporter in Haarlem, The Netherlands 

The fragile and weak Somali transitional government hopes that Ethiopian troops will not leave before the African Union sends in replacement troops to protect it from Islamist insurgents.

The UN backed Transitional Somali government was installed in 2006 by US-backed Ethiopian troops who ousted an Islamist government, the Islamic Courts Union, which practised sharia law and was opposed to the West. However, this government has failed to impose its authority outside the capital Mogadhishu and the city of the parliament, Baido. Infact, the key opposition group, al Shaba, a military wing of the Islamic Courts Union has re-gained control of most parts of south and central Somali including Elasha, 18km from Mogadishu.

The transitional government is therefore is in a state of panic because an Ethiopian troop withdrawal will be a great boost to the Islamic insurgency particularly the Al Shaba, which the USA has listed as a terrorist group.

Uganda, which has about half the number of troops in Somalia under the AU peace-keeping mission AMISOM has said it will not pull out. A military spokesman recently argued that Uganda still has a ‘role to assist the Somali people regain their state and their freedom. So we shall stay there’.

It is not clear why Ethiopia would want to leave at this point in time when Islamist insurgents have captured almost the whole of Somalia. The official reason that it is the position on the peace-keeping agreement is not convincing enough because in the first place, Ethiopia stormed into Somalia without the consent of its own parliament or the Somali people. It was viewed as an occupying force which provoked further violence. Its move has never been popular especially with its US backing. Now it wants to pull out. So what was the wisdom biting what it cant chew?

Recently, the government of Somalia has signed a unity deal with a moderate islamist group, the Alliance for Re-liberation of Somalia but the al Shada has refused to sign and has vowed to fight on. They have control of most parts of the country and hope ‘to close-in on Somalia anytime from now’. Violence is escalating with pirates seizing ships and making tens of millions of dollars in ransom money. Two European journalists who were reporting on the activities of these pirates where kidnapped in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, and are still missing. Some two Italian nuns were also kidnapped in the recent past and pirates are still holding over 200 crew members of a Saudi ship with over $100m of oil hostage.

Somalia has never known peace since 1991 when President Mohamed Siad Barre was toppled in a coup.