April 27, 2013 (Daily Maverick) — Ethiopia doesn’t really want to keep its troops in Somalia much longer. It’s an expensive business, and they’ve got other engagements to deal with. But who will replace them, and make sure that those hard-won conquests don’t fall back into Al-Shabaab hands? No one’s particularly keen, which is why Ethiopia has had to resort to an empty threat. By SIMON ALLISON.
The problem with being an occupying army, almost by definition, is that at some point you’re going to want to pack up and go home, leaving your hard-won conquests behind. America learned this lesson in Vietnam, where all the enemy really had to do was wait until the GIs were recalled. Vietnam is still communist, let’s not forget. They’re learning it again in Afghanistan, where, in some areas, territory changes hands every day as the Taliban creeps back into villages just as soon as it’s dark and American patrols have gone to sleep.
It’s not just the Americans. In Mali, France is desperate to withdraw its troops, who were only meant to be there for a few short weeks, but they’re stuck until they can figure out a way for either the Malian army or an African peace-keeping force to take over from them.
And in Somalia, where there has been significant progress over the last six months in appointing a new government and starting the immense (and immensely daunting) reform process, it’s obvious that the influence of the government is only as strong as its foreign muscle – the coalition of African armies which ousted the militant group Al-Shabaab from its major strongholds and has the power to enforce the government’s writ.
This is, obviously, a long-term issue. A government that can’t secure its own buildings, never mind cities and borders, is not much of a government at all. And it raises questions of legitimacy: would a truly representative government need foreign soldiers to protect it?
There is, however, a more urgent problem. Ethiopia, one of the countries that did the most to unseat Al-Shabaab and has been integral in securing parts of eastern Somalia, has announced that it is preparing to withdraw its troops from the areas it controls.
Essentially, Ethiopia’s patience has run out – and you can’t really blame it. Unlike the other African forces involved in Somalia, Ethiopia is not part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), the multilateral force sanctioned by the African Union and supported by the international community. In practice, what this means is that no one’s paying for Ethiopia to be in Somalia – and it’s not exactly cheap (it should be noted that Kenya is also bankrolling its own presence in Somalia. Kenya’s case is different, however, because its inclusion in Amisom means it should be at least partially compensated).
So ever since the war against Al-Shabaab swung against the militants, Ethiopia has been waiting for someone – specifically Amisom troops or forces aligned with the Mogadishu government – to take over its duties. This hasn’t happened. “It has taken them a year already and they repeatedly assure us each month but fail to deliver so we pulled out,” said Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, in a speech to his parliament. “The main issue now is to accelerate our completewithdrawal towards our border. This is what we are fulfilling.”
Ethiopia’s motivations for speeding up its withdrawal now may be connected with another military engagement – this time in Sudan. Ethiopia has promised to send troops, under an international mandate, to help secure border crossings between Sudan and South Sudan and in general act as guarantor of the new cooperation agreements signed by the two Sudanese presidents. It’s not clear how large a contingent Ethiopia is sending, but it’s likely to be a significant number of troops.
So what would the impact of an Ethiopian withdrawal be on Somalia? Not good, if this example cited by Reuters is anything to go by: “Last month Ethiopian troops unexpectedly withdrew from Hudur, the capital of Bakool province near the Ethiopian border, enabling Al-Shabaab to retake the dusty town.”
But maybe we shouldn’t panic just yet, and instead ask ourselves why Ethiopia was involved in Somalia in the first place; and whether it can afford to withdraw, destabilising consequences be damned.
The short answer is: not really. Ethiopia’s not part of Amisom for a reason, and that reason is that its incursion into Somalia was unilateral rather than multilateral. As it has done before, Ethiopia was looking to prevent instability spilling over from Somalia into Ethiopia. It was protecting its own self-interest.
To abandon the territory it is occupying now to Al-Shabaab – the region’s destabilisers-in-chief – would essentially nullify all the security gains that Ethiopia has made in the area. It wouldn’t make any sense.
More likely, Ethiopia is using the threat of a sudden withdrawal to spur Amisom and Mogadishu into action. It is a little bit of diplomatic blackmail designed to hasten the replacement of its troops with troops from elsewhere, thereby maintaining the region’s stability without Ethiopia having to actually do the work – or pay the bill.
But with international attention, and funding, shifted for the most part to Mali, it seems unlikely that the replacements Ethiopia is looking for will be on their way anytime soon. And even if they do come, chances are it can only happen if Amisom soldiers are withdrawn from some other part of Somalia – not exactly a win-win situation.