Ethiopia’s prime minister discusses how the U.S. helped his country oust the Islamists from Mogadishu.
By Jason McLure
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is easily Washington’s most important African ally in its war on terrorism. In 2006, the United States quietly helped Zenawi’s forces invade neighboring Somalia after a U.S.-financed coalition of warlords lost the capital of Mogadishu to an Islamist alliance known as the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). The Ethiopian forces ousted the UIC but have been bogged down since then fighting an Iraq-style insurgency by Somali Islamist and clan militias. The current round of violence has driven 750,000 from their homes, and Ethiopia’s allies in the United Nations-backed transitional federal government [TFG] have been unable to control Mogadishu, much less the rest of the country.
Only a quarter of the 8,000 peacekeeping troops promised by the African Union last year have shown up to relieve the Ethiopians. Meanwhile Zenawi has resuscitated Ethiopia’s economy, but he faces criticism over his government’s record on democracy and human rights. Following disputed elections in 2005, security forces killed at least 193 civilians and jailed most of the major opposition leaders (though they were later pardoned). This week the Ethiopian prime minister spoke to
NEWSWEEK’s Jason McLure about Ethiopia’s archenemy, Eritrea; its exit plan from Somalia, and its alliance with the United States. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: What is Ethiopia’s plan to withdraw from Somalia?
Meles Zenawi: There are two issues here. First is the threat that was posed by the Shabaab [the radical wing of the Union of Islamic Courts] to Ethiopia, when they threatened to take control of the whole of Somalia and at the same time declared jihad against Ethiopia. That threat had to be neutralized and we believe we did that the first weeks of our intervention We were told by the African Union [AU] and others that in our withdrawal we shouldn’t create a vacuum, at which point we indicated we could wait a bit longer so long as the African Union was in a position to replace our troops. That has taken an inordinate amount of time.
So withdrawing unilaterally without AU peacekeepers is an option that you’re looking at now?
Well that’s an option. It’s an option we will not take lightly. But it’s an option.
How long will you wait for the African Union or the United Nations or outside peacekeepers to intervene?
We are most certainly not going to wait another year. It’s my hope that a number of things will happen that will make it possible for us to withdraw. First is the full deployment of African Union troops. Second is the continued consolidation of the TFG security forces. Thirdly we hope that the local process of reconciliation that is going on, particularly in Mogadishu but also some other places in Somalia, will make progress.
Does Ethiopia have a contingency plan should the TFG collapse or be unable to extend its power over Mogadishu?
As I said earlier on, we could have withdrawn weeks after our intervention. But that would not create a stable situation in Somalia. And creating a stable situation in Somalia is in the long-term interest of everybody. I have no reason to believe the TFG will fail. It may not make spectacular progress, but I have no reason to believe that it will simply collapse.
A number of analysts believe Ethiopian troops have had a positive effect short term on the TFG by providing security assistance, but in the long term are undermining the TFG by fomenting nationalist and Islamist sentiments in Somalia.
An oversupply of national sentiment is not the problem in Somalia. The problem in Somalia is a lack of it. The problem in Somalia is an oversupply of sub-sub-clannish attitude. Our efforts together with the TFG have been focused on bridging the gaps of the sub-sub-sub-clans of Somalia. As far as Islamist fervor is concerned. Ethiopia was not in Somalia when the Shabaab took control of Mogadishu and threatened to take control of the whole of Somalia. Ethiopia was not in Somalia when the Shabaab declared jihad on Ethiopia. What Ethiopia did through its intervention is take the bubble out of this Shabaab phenomenon.