Ethiopia and Somalia
Back into the abyss?
Jan 8th 2009 | NAIROBI
From The Economist print edition
Scary possibilities for the future of Africa’s most utterly failed state
EXACTLY two years after it invaded Somalia with American encouragement, Ethiopia has begun to withdraw its remaining 3,000 troops. It will keep its spy network in place and will patrol its borders aggressively against incursions by jihadists. But it will no longer take responsibility for keeping order in what is probably the most violent, hungry and smashed-up country in the world.
Ethiopia is trying to portray its withdrawal as a success. Maybe so, if judged by the narrow criteria of securing Ethiopia from a full-scale attack by Somali Islamists and irredentists determined to “recover” the eastern bits of Ethiopia inhabited by ethnic Somalis and then to draw them into a Greater Somalia caliphate. But the biggest question about the withdrawal concerns Somalia’s own future.
Optimists say the resignation on December 29th of Somalia’s president, Abdullahi Yusuf, is a hopeful sign that a UN-brokered peace deal between the feeble transitional government and moderate Islamists may be taking hold. Mr Yusuf favoured warlordism over reconciliation, goes this argument, so the chances of peace should improve markedly with his departure. There is talk of electing a new president within weeks.
But the pessimists have the stronger case. A mission of 1,600 Ugandan and 1,300 Burundian peacekeepers still in Mogadishu under an African Union (AU) mandate will also pull out within weeks unless they get extra support. That seems unlikely. Nigeria, Malawi and Ghana have shown no sign of honouring their pledges to send troops, nor is it clear that any other AU country has the logistical back-up the Ugandans and Burundians are asking for. American and European governments, whose navies are patrolling Somalia’s waters against pirates, together with Chinese, Indian and other ships, have ruled out military intervention inside Somalia itself. So Ethiopia’s withdrawal may simply leave a power vacuum, to be filled in short order by Islamist militias that are now even more dangerous than those crushed by the original invasion at the end of 2006.
Mr Yusuf’s gunmen may return north to their more or less autonomous homeland in Puntland, perhaps to profit from piracy. Various armed groups would then fight for control of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, and of central Somalia. These include a patchwork of militias loyal to rival clan elders and warlords, along with moderate Islamists, radical Islamists and private security groups hired by businessmen.
The radical Islamists known as the Shabab (Youth) are the best-organised and most ruthless. If the moderate Islamists find more in common with the Shabab than with the warlords and what is left of the transitional government, the fighting could be as bad as at any time since Somalia imploded in 1992. The outcome will depend partly on who has most cash to keep paying the gunmen. That is why all sides will battle for ports, markets, slaughterhouses, banana plantations-and anything else that earns a bit of money.