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17 - 24 January 2007 
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Ethiopian Meles Zenawi: An American Glove?

Many people are probing why Uganda was quick to join the Somali conflict. Speaking to The African Executive, Uganda’s Frederick Golooba Mutebi, Senior Research Fellow in Makerere University’s Institute of Social Research sees this as an attempt for Uganda to not only position itself as an influential actor on the continent, but also prove to be America’s ally in the war against terrorism. He argues that there is no guarantee that a government crafted by a collection of exiles and warlords under the tutelage of foreigners and foisted on the country, will manage to impose order and peace.


AE. Is the war in Somalia justified?


Golooba:  One’s view here, it seems to me, depends on where from they are looking at it. From the transitional federal government’s position, one could argue that it is justified. This is because it is the internationally recognised government in Somalia, and in waging war on Islamists, one could say that it is defending or trying to impose its authority as any government would. To back up this argument, it could be stated that by trying to kick the TFG out of Baidoa in order to take it over, the Islamists were engaged in a coup attempt, and therefore in an illegality.


From the Islamists’ position, one could argue that they were trying to establish and uphold much-needed order, a prerequisite for re-building Somalia’s collapsed state, a task the TFG could not apparently execute. In effect, they could argue that they wanted to get rid of a government that was unable to discharge its functions and install one that could. The fact that within a few months they had established peace and order in the areas they had occupied would give that argument a lot of credibility.


I am not sure that Ethiopia had much immediate justification for waging war on the Islamists. The argument that they were threatening its security seems to me to be flimsy. If they were, it seems to me as if Ethiopia could have easily protected itself by deploying troops near its border with Somalia and sending a clear signal to the Islamists that any attempt at violating its territory would be met with deadly force. I am not sure that the Islamists would have taken such a deterrent posture lightly.


Alternatively, it could have armed and provided other resource to the TFG’s forces and left them to fight their own war against the Islamists. There is, though, the argument that the involvement of Eritrea on the Islamists’ side was a decisive factor in bringing Ethiopia into the fray. As far as I know, though, there is hardly evidence of large-scale Eritrean involvement to justify Ethiopia’s massive invasion. So, it leaves the suspicion (and allegation) that Ethiopia is fighting proxy war for the Americans sounding plausible indeed. The direct involvement by the Americans in bombing parts of Somalia (prosecuting the air component of the war perhaps because they fear putting troops on the ground) does nothing to diminish that plausibility.


As for the Americans, the claim that there are Al-Quaeda elements in Somalia that it must fight as part of its global war on terrorism, even if true, and I am not sure that it is, is undermined by recent history. After 9/11, Saddam Hussein was accused of being in cahoots with Al-Qaeda. We know that they were stretching the truth. He was accused of having weapons of mass destruction. We know that they knew no such weapons existed, or that they had no evidence that they did. You recall the bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan (during Clinton’s reign) which was supposed to be manufacturing bombs? Well, perhaps one could argue that the US is right to pre-empt possible terrorist activity in the Horn of Africa than wait until something akin to the Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam bombings happens. Actions such as they are taking in Somalia, it seems to me, will do nothing to diminish the desire by would-be terrorists to harm American interests wherever they are, and whenever they might get an opportunity to do so.


AE. Is Ethiopia fighting a war it does not understand and may live to regret?


Golooba  It is entirely possible that Ethiopia will regret sending troops into Somalia, that is, if the Islamists manage to put up a guerrilla show that insurgents in Iraq have put up for the last 3-4 years. It is also possible that regrets may ensue from the TFG turning out to be hopelessly incompetent and unable to impose and sustain order, making it possible for warlords and Islamists to unleash a kind of mayhem that Ethiopia’s much-vaunted capacity for war will not be able to handle. Consequently, Ethiopian troops would be forced to beat a hasty and shameful retreat. On whether Ethiopia does not understand the war, I think it does. I suspect they worked hand-in-glove with the Americans to plan it before they went in, and that the Yankees have provided Zenawi with volumes of material and financial assistance. It is possible that Ethiopia saw this as a chance to beat the Islamists into not daring to threaten its security, and to prevent Eritrea from having a hostile ally in the neighbourhood. So it is my view that Ethiopia knew what it was getting into. The question really is whether it will achieve its objectives and those of the Americans. That is highly debatable.


AE. How will the Somali conflict affect the Horn of Africa?


Goloobi: The Horn will remain pretty much as it has been for the last decade or so. Somalia will, in all likelihood, remain unstable, but with an instability that will most likely not spill over its borders, or that might spill over in due course (if all hell breaks loose with Islamists and other warlords fighting alongside or against the TFG and ultimately among themselves), but not immediately. Eritrea will remain at loggerheads with Ethiopia over their border dispute. Djibouti will remain tranquil as it is. It may sound far-fetched now, but in future Ethiopia, because of its actions in Somalia, could find itself with two allied enemies (Somalia and Eritrea) in its neighbourhood in future, the very outcome it sought to prevent when it invaded Somalia.


AE.  What are Uganda’s objectives in the conflict?


Goloobi: President Museveni is desperate to impress the Americans with his ‘anti-terror’ credentials. Also, he wants to boost his influence on the continent and, I suspect, in East Africa. Claims about him secretly nursing ambitions to lead the first East African federation government are, in my opinion, pretty spot-on. Also, there seems to be a plan B, if that fails: change the constitution again and probably remove age limits or presidential elections altogether as rumours have it. That would still allow him to stay president beyond 2011. If that were to be the case, his American allies in the war on terrorism would raise no objection, or so he believes.


AE. What stance should Uganda take in the conflict?


Goloobi: I personally would favour letting the AU and UN take the lead and make specific requests for (peace-keeping) troops from certain countries. Museveni’s rush to Addis Ababa immediately the Ethiopian’s launched their attack smacked of indecent eagerness to jump into the fray. The fact that no other African country (or president) has done so leaves him seriously exposed to suspicion of having ulterior motives.


AE. Is Uganda financially able to deploy peacekeepers?


Goloobi: State Minister for defence, Ruth Nakabirwa, seems to capture the mood: “We are running out of time…we have trained peacekeepers and are ready to deploy.” Unfortunately, when you are poor and weak, there is little you can decide on your own. So Uganda is waiting for someone else’s money to enable it deploy its peacekeepers.


AE. Do you see lasting peace in Somalia?


Goloobi: There is no guarantee that a government crafted by a collection of exiles and warlords under the tutelage of foreigners and foisted on the country will manage to impose order and tranquillity. Even if foreign peace keepers manage to hold it in place for a while, time may come when the wider Somali society decides it is time to be in charge of their own fate again, and hang up against them. Going by most predictions, it will be only a question of time before this happens. Those rushing into Somalia under whatever guise might have to rush out under local pressure.

By Josephat Juma
Mr. Juma is an African Executive Writer

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