September 07, 2007

Ethiopia: Horn of Dilemma

By Alex Perry/ Addis Ababa

Photo: Ethiopian soldiers in Somalia

As you might expect from a place that exports some of the world's finest coffee, Addis Ababa is a city of caf├ęs. It's also a town of spooks. Whether huddled over tiny glasses of Arabica in luxury hotel foyers or the anonymous place with battered tables and a concrete floor on the north end of Meskel Square, quiet men in dusty suits swap intelligence. There you'll overhear mobile-phone conversations that begin like this: "Ambassador! Of course I'll give the document back ... " Or you might meet close-cropped, burly Americans carrying khaki rucksacks labeled "U.S." who mumble about going "someplace in country."

As Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi observes, "The Horn of Africa is a very volatile area. There are many, many intelligence organizations here." On Sept. 11, the spies just might get a night off when Ethiopia, which runs by a modified version of the Julian calendar, will celebrate the new millennium's arrival more than seven years after the rest of the world. But given the speed of recent events, the spies will no doubt be back to their furtive work the very next day.

Most people's idea of Ethiopia is dated circa 1984, when a famine killed around a million of its people. But things have changed. Although its GDP is still a meager $13.3 billion in a country of nearly 77 million, it has been growing by more than 9% a year since 2003. Chinese engineers have found oil in its eastern deserts. Exports of coffee and roses are rising by more than 20% each year.

Today the Horn of Africa also arouses keen strategic interest among world powers. Not far from the Red Sea and thus close to Arabia, Ethiopia is a possible conduit for turmoil from the northeast. As Christianity and Islam flowed south to Ethiopia centuries ago, Meles tells TIME, so today "with all sorts of terrorist activities [in the Middle East], we are susceptible to that influence too." Ethiopia's eastern neighbor Somalia is already home to the oldest jihadi bases in Africa and has been a sanctuary, the U.S. believes, for three senior al-Qaeda planners who blew up the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing more than 200 people. "There's more than one U.S. general who refers to the Horn as the third front in the war on terror," says a Western diplomat based in the region.

There is also Ethiopia's mutual enmity with its immediate northern neighbor Eritrea. After a 30-year struggle for independence, Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993, and the pair fought a border war in 1998-2000 in which tens of thousands died. Wounds from that fight are still fresh, and the border dispute remains unresolved. On occasion, Somalia has served both countries as a battleground for proxy wars. With such a confluence of conflict, the nightmare scenario has long been a regional war that engulfs the Horn, perhaps impeding Suez Canal shipping traffic. According to a Western official in Addis, Ethiopia is "the center of gravity" in this game of African Risk.

Lately, however, the intrigues and conflicts have intensified. First, in December 2006, Ethiopia invaded Somalia and overthrew the fundamentalist Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which had ruled Somalia for six months. Although the ICU brought the first semblance of law and order to the capital Mogadishu in 15 years, its Islamist ideology caused alarm in Ethiopia. With its troops occupying the country, as they still do, Ethiopia organized its own rendition operation with the cooperation of Kenya and the new government in Somalia it had installed, transferring hundreds of suspected jihadis and their families to jails in Addis and interrogating them for months. A July report by the Nairobi-based U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia stated that Eritrea was supplying a gathering Somali insurgency with surface-to-air missiles and suicide vests to fight the Ethiopians. Ethiopia alleges Eritrea is doing the same for the Oromo National Liberation Front (ONLF), an Ethiopian separatist rebel group in the country's eastern Ogaden region, which killed 74 civilians at an oil exploration site there in May.

These increasing tensions are igniting fears that the regional-war fears could become reality. As Ethiopia's rulers see it, their country's army and finances are being stretched ever thinner by two Eritrean-backed insurgencies, so collapsing both by hitting their common backer may make sense. In June, Meles told the Ethiopian parliament he was strengthening the army with a view to countering the threat from Eritrea.

Some of this does not sit well with Washington. The U.S. considers Ethiopia its "biggest partner" in Africa, according to the Addis-based official. That relationship allowed U.S. Special Forces to piggyback on Ethiopia's operations in Somalia to launch two air strikes in January against one or more of the three fugitive al-Qaeda leaders believed to be on the Kenya-Somalia border. But, as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer has said, Washington opposed the invasion of Somalia. "We urged the Ethiopian military not to go into Somalia," said Frazer last month. "They did so because of their own national-security interests." This version of events, contrary to a common perception that the invasion was backed or even initiated by the U.S., is supported by accounts of a November 2006 meeting in Addis between Meles and the then head of U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid. Sources from both sides relate that Abizaid told Meles he was "not allowed" to invade Somalia, adding Somalia would become "Ethiopia's Iraq." (An official in Washington disputes the precise language, but confirms the essence of the discussion.)

Whatever Washington's misgivings, there is little doubt that once Ethiopia committed to an invasion, the U.S. provided intelligence, military targeting and logistical support to Ethiopian forces in Somalia — support which continues to this day. Despite this cooperation, further differences between the U.S. and Ethiopia surfaced earlier this year when Ethiopian soldiers detained for 24 hours four unidentified U.S. personnel close to a U.S. Special Forces base at Gode in the Ogaden, an incident confirmed both by a U.S. diplomat in the region and Meles. The men were held on suspicion of trying to open contacts with the ONLF. U.S. officials say the mission was unauthorized, with one adding: "Those guys don't work around here anymore." Acknowledging the incident, Meles says: "The U.S. is focused on international terrorism. The ONLF does not have an international dimension. So there is a slight divergence of perspective."

International criticism of Ethiopia often centers on human rights. Meles, 52, is a former rebel leader who helped overthrow dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991 and whose Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front has held power since. While the European Union deemed the 2005 general election not credible, the African Union and the Carter Institute declared it free and fair. But when the opposition objected to Meles' victory with mass protests, Ethiopia's security forces cracked down, killing dozens of people and jailing thousands. This month, the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is probing allegations that the security forces are waging a scorched-earth war against the ONLF in the Ogaden, burning villages and displacing residents. Meles denies this, saying, "No credible international or intelligence organization has come up with a shred of evidence" to support the allegations.

The Bush Administration, which condemned the 2005 crackdown, has been largely silent on the accusations of human-rights violations in Ogaden. The Western diplomat believes Ethiopia "bought itself a free pass on human rights" by cooperating in the hunt for the three al-Qaeda operatives. True or not, Frazer has made it clear where U.S. support lies. Last month, after Eritrea closed the American consulate in Asmara, she announced Washington was doing the same to the Eritrean consulate in Oakland, Calif., and considering adding the Eritrean government to its list of state sponsors of terrorism. "Eritrea has played a key role in financing, funding and arming the terror and insurgency activities ... in Somalia," said Frazer in an August briefing. "If they continue their behavior and we put together the file that's necessary, I think it would be fairly convincing." U.S. diplomats in the region, meanwhile, push the view that Meles is a reformed rebel turned aspirant democrat, whereas Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki is an unreconstructed guerrilla leader.

War is not certain, of course. Despite Meles' saber-rattling speech to parliament in June, in an interview with Time he described times in the past when his party forced him to adopt a more aggressive line with Eritrea than he would have preferred. "There were a number of times when I found myself in a minority and implementing decisions I was uncomfortable with." Asked what is his prime motivation, he answers: "It has always been fear." During the years of famine, it was "fear that this nation, which was great 1,000 years ago ... may be on the verge of total collapse." Today it's "fear that the light which is beginning to flicker, this Ethiopian renaissance, might be dimmed by some bloody mistake by someone, somewhere." Considering the region's history, fearing a bloody mistake seems a wise policy.

With reporting by Adam Zagorin/Washington


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What the American administration has done is Somalia could only be described as very harsh and crude.

The international community has forgotten about Somalia and has left the Somali people at the hands of callous warlords that care nothing whatsoever about law and order and peace in Somalia.

Therefore the Somali people took it upon themselves to put their house in order, they formed the union of Islamic courts to bring back the rule of law so that children can go back to schools and people can have normal lives.

The union of Islamic courts had the support of the majority of Somali people; they have proven to take the issue of the rule of law seriously.

Yes I know that many of u might think that the Islamic courts were just too restrictive in their ideas, but the vast majority were moderates.
The Somali people just wanted peace; they did not care about freedom to drink alcohol etc.

Now the United States government has helped the most hated warlords back to power in Somalia, the same warlords that killed 18 Americans.Plus they have made the vast majority of moderate Somalis now fundamentalist, the same ones that fight the Ethiopian invaders day and night in the city of Mogadishu.

Somalia has had six months of blessed peace with the UIC and now they are back to the killings, rape, and robbery thanks to bad American intervention and now there are 400, 000 Somalis that have left their homes without food and clean water, and 3,000 Somalis have died so far.

Tell me people who are the real terrorist, i would say that the bush administration are the biggest terrorist.

The west yells about the so call ‘’genocide’’ that is being committed in Darfur but they are so silent about the genocide taking place in Somalia, which they are definitely behind.

The US government does not respect international law, infact it does not even care bat upholding its own UN security resolution, where it stated that Ethiopian troops should not invade Somalia.In all this mess why is the UN so silent, they have not even said a word about Ethiopian troops invading Somalia, what happened to respecting a countries boundary?

It seems that the world follows the rule of the jungle.

Like i said the UIC gave the Somali people what many others could not, and that’s peace, law, unity.

Now since the UIC government has been replaced by the US sponsored Warlord Government (the same guys that killed 18 marines which was well documented in that film Black Hawk down) there have been 400, 000 Somalis that fled their homes in Mogadishu and into the countryside without clean water, food, and basic needs.Plus 3,000 Somalis have died.

The Ethiopian military seems to make things worse in Somalia, they are committing crimes against humanity, committing genocide.Most Americans sit in your comfortable home, drinking your coffee and u speak about a people and a situation that u have very little knowledge of.

Please go and do some research, read some articles, don't just watch Fox, CNN etc news.As an African who have the people of Somali at heart, you people don't understand what the actions of the Bush Administration has resulted in Somalia and the Horn of Africa.I just wish that u guys were better informed.

Nowadays there are very few independent Journalist that tell the Truth, the mainstream media seems to be controlled and they all spit out the same liesThere is so much information that is being hidden, especially what happened in SomaliaPlease people, watch this documentary about life under the Islamic courts.

Compare the rule of the Islamic courts with the rule of the warlord US sponsored warlord Government.

This US administration seems hell bent of causing Havoc in the Horn of Africa, Infact as a write this now the United States Government is encouraging the dictator meles of Ethiopia to attack Eritrea, which would be very bad for the people of the Horn.Where there were no terrorist sympathizers in the Horn, now there are so many, thanks to misguided US policy, If Iraq was not enough they had to move on to somalia.

I just wish the American people really knew what their government was up to in Africa, instead of fostering peace, they foster warlords to kill Somalis, instead of encouraging dictators such as the one in Ethiopia to respect the rule of law, they advise him to break it and invade Somalia.

Even in ethiopia the situation is very bad, you have one tribe in ethiopia who the dictator of Ethiopia hails from ruling countless other tribes with brute force, Executives and human right violations in the norm of the day in Ethiopia.

Infact Mr meles is committing a genocide against the people of Ogaden whos rebels killed 9 chinese oil workers around 3 months ago.

I wish the few reasonable people of America that stand for peace and justice can hold to account the Bush administration's Human rights abuses.America stands for terror, corruption i.e. by supporting and funding dictators like the presidents of Egypt and Pakistan and the prime minister of Ethiopia.

By the way if for whatever reason that the US government refused to accept the UIC government of Somalia, they should have put in place another institution that can compete with the UIC goverment to win the hearts and minds of the Somali people.

The fact that the US government choose to side with the coalition of warlords that were armed and financed by Ethiopia to continue the instability in Somalia, is extremely worrying to the Somali people and does not serve the interest of Somalia.