December 25, 2006

Eritrea-Ethiopia tension fuelling Somalia’s crisis

Special Correspondent

The derailed Ethiopia-Eritrea peace process is the key factor fuelling the growing threat of war inside Somalia, according to a new report issued on December 14 by the Council on Foreign Relations, an influential think-tank based in New York.

Fighting in Somalia between the Transitional Federal Government, (TFG) supported by Ethiopia, and the Union of Islamic Courts, backed by Eritrea would in turn involve not only Ethiopia and Eritrea, warns the report titled, Avoiding Conflict in the Horn of Africa: US Policy Towards Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Such a conflict “has the potential to spread across borders into Kenya and Djibouti,” says the report’s author, Professor Terrence Lyons of George Mason University in the US state of Virginia.

The US should apply stronger diplomatic pressure on all parties to help avert that outcome, Lyons suggests. Washington’s close identification with Ethiopia is dangerous for the US and not beneficial to either Ethiopia or the TFG, he adds.

The Bush administration has recently been aligning the US in strong opposition to the Islamist forces in Somalia.

US Ambassador John Bolton persuaded the UN Security Council earlier this month to adopt a resolution allowing weapons to be shipped to the transitional authorities in Somalia. An international monitoring group warned that the UN action could cause the Islamists to launch pre-emptive strikes against the federal forces, which are confined to the town of Baidoa.

The Bush administration has simultaneously been portraying the Union of Islamic Courts as a terrorist organisation with links to Osama bin Laden.

“The Council of Islamic Courts is now controlled by East Africa/al Qaeda cell individuals,” US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer told reporters last week. “The top layer of the courts are extremists to the core. And they are in control and that is a problem.”

Professor Lyons takes a different view. “The Islamic Courts movement is very diverse, has many elements in it,” he said in a conference call with reporters on December 15. “The hardline Islamists, whom the Americans often point to, are indeed one element of the Islamic courts, but they’re not the only one.”

Some factions within the Islamic Courts do want to provoke a war with Ethiopia, Lyons adds. Eritrea is meanwhile trying to provoke Ethiopia into launching armed strikes on rebel groups in the Ogaden region.

Eritrea, consistent with a deeply ingrained pattern of supporting the enemy of one’s enemy, has been providing arms and training to a range of anti-Ethiopian forces operating from Somalia,” Lyons says. He cites insurgent movements inside Ethiopia such as the Oromo Liberation Front and the Ogaden National Liberation Front.

“It’s my sense that what Addis Ababa is most worried about is not Islamic law in Mogadishu or what the Islamic Courts are doing within Somalia, but rather how these larger conflicts — the conflict with Eritrea and the conflict within Ethiopia with insurgent groups like the Oromo and Ogadeni — are fed by political developments within Somalia.”

The governments of both Ethiopia and Eritrea are also using the threat of war to squelch their respective oppositions, Lyons says.

“Eritrea in particular is ruled by an increasingly repressive, isolated, and unpredictable regime,” the Council of Foreign Relations report says. “Ethiopia closed down an unprecedented political opening in 2005 with arrests of major opposition politicians, civil society leaders, and journalists, effectively criminalising dissent.”

The crisis in Somalia could be eased, Professor Lyons adds, if the US, the European Union and the African Union acted to revive the peace-implementation process focused on the disputed border between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Efforts to resolve the standoff between the two countries have “gone dangerously off the rails” in the past year, Lyons observes.

“A key driver behind the Somali crisis of today is this Ethiopian-Eritrean proxy war, this conflict between those two states that has been frozen at the border and has now been displaced into Somalia,” Lyons says,

It is also important that the Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Commission not go forward unilaterally with plans to demarcate the boundary between the two countries on the basis of aerial maps, Lyons adds.

Rather than emphasising that we have to finish this process and get the border demarcated, I would argue what is more important is we need to maintain multilateral arenas for Ethiopia and Eritrea to develop their relationships in a non-violent way,” he says.

An outside peacekeeping force is unlikely to materialise as a brake against all-out fighting inside Somalia, Lyons adds.

The UN resolution lifting the arms embargo against Somalia’s TFG also calls for deployment of a peacekeeping force inside Somalia. Troops are to be supplied by the seven-nation Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (Igad), although the countries bordering Somalia — Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti — will not be asked to contribute soldiers. Only Uganda has indicated a willingness to take part in the mission.

But Lyons says there is “very little prospect Uganda’s going to send a meaningful force into Baidoa in the kind of time scale that is necessary to avert a crisis.”

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