Why a joint offensive against Al-Shabab could backfire

Bulsha:- A summit last week in the Somali capital of Mogadishu brought together heads of state from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti alongside their Somali counterpart, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.

The defence ministers from these countries were also in attendance to bolster the Somali government’s war effort against Al-Shabab.

Following the four-day summit, a communique was issued stating that each country would take part in joint operations with the Somali national army to eradicate the armed group from Somalia.

But the summit and subsequent statement that followed left many lingering questions about just how entrenched neighbouring states would become in Somalia militarily and why they are deepening their involvement at a time when the Somali army is making significant gains on its own.

Colonial curse

Most Somalis view neighbouring states with disdain and mistrust, in particular Ethiopia and Kenya, a suspicion rooted in the recent history of the Horn of Africa.

Following the Berlin Conference in 1884, European powers colonised the African continent, with Somali-inhabited territories in East Africa occupied by Britain, Italy, and the French empire.

European powers, namely Britain, partitioned the Horn of Africa twice in less than a decade. In 1954, the British gave the Ogaden region – a historical area predominantly ethnic Somali and Muslim – to Ethiopia to bolster their colonial allies as European powers were reshaping the African continent to align with their interests.

Eight years later in 1963, Britain seceded the Somali-inhabited Northern Frontier District (NFD) region to Kenya, despite the Somalis of NFD voting in a referendum overwhelmingly in favour of uniting with their brethren in mainland Somalia.

These events put Somalia in a permanent state of hostilities with its neighbours. The following year in 1964, both Ethiopia and Kenya signed a defence pact to contain Somalia and hamper secessionist claims.

Since then, numerous wars have been fought between Somalia and its neighbours. Consecutive Somali governments up until the collapse of the state in 1991 supported opposition groups and separatist rebel movements in Ethiopian and Kenyan-controlled territories, most notably the Ogaden region.

Civil war

Ethiopia and Kenya’s policies and military endeavours in Somalia intensified following the collapse of the Somali state in 1991, with neighbouring countries viewing the ensuing chaos as an opportunity to interfere with Somalia’s internal affairs according to their national interests.

Ethiopia began backing different Somali warlords and factions during the Somali civil war, which added to the bloodshed and violence. Authorities in Addis Ababa also began hosting summits and conferences for Ethiopian-backed Somali faction leaders aimed at redesigning the Somali state to align with the interests of Addis Ababa.

Kenya, meanwhile, was viewed as capitalising on Somalia’s misery as millions poured in from the aid sector following the mass exodus of Somali refugees fleeing across the border.

Weaponising the war on terror

Following 9/11, Somalia became a focal point of America’s War on Terror. This came as a blessing for Somalia’s antagonistic neighbours and reached its climax in the winter of 2006 when thousands of Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia as part of its intervention in the civil war under the cover of American drones.

The Ethiopian occupation radicalised an entire generation of Somalis and empowered the Al-Shabab group which formed in its wake and subsequently played a role in forcing an Ethiopian withdrawal.

In 2011, Ethiopia invaded Somalia again and occupied large swaths of territory under the pretext of combatting the militant group. They have remained in the country ever since, either independently or as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

That same year, Kenyan forces also entered Somalia, officially to wage war on Al-Shabab, seizing the strategic port of Kismayo from the militant group a year later.

The announcement last week that neighbouring states, particularly Ethiopia and Kenya, would become more militarily involved in Somalia has reopened these old wounds, with many viewing the war against Al-Shabab as a Trojan Horse being used at the expense of Somalia’s sovereignty.

Lingering uncertainty

Many questions remain unanswered on how Ethiopia and Kenya would assist in combating Al-Shabab in these new upcoming joint military operations announced by Somali officials on 3 February.

Both countries have had troops deployed in Somalia for well over a decade and in the past have carried out joint operations with the Somali National Army (SNA), but largely to no avail.

Indeed, they have been unable to subdue the Al-Qaeda-linked armed group, which still controls large swaths of territory in Somalia and even operates Shariah courts on the outskirts of Mogadishu.

Furthermore, deepening Ethiopian and Kenyan military involvement in Somalia is bound to play into the hands of Al-Shabab. Addis Ababa and Nairobi are viewed as historic foes of the Somali nation by many and their role in the war could easily give the group more legitimacy in the eyes of different communities in the country.

Somalis are a fragmented and divided society with many profound grievances stretching back to the civil war, but what unites them is a common enemy or threat. Ethiopia and Kenya would occupy that role if they were to entrench themselves deeper in the country.

In the past several months alone, the Somali government has been able to push Al-Shabab out of dozens of towns and districts across southern and central Somalia on their own, while being under-equipped and out-gunned.

Bringing hostile neighbouring countries into the mix could be a self-inflicted wound that might come back to haunt the government of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.

A concern of the soon-to-be joint military endeavours with Ethiopia and Kenya is a section in the joint statement that emphasises the importance of establishing a joint border security mechanism that intends to eliminate cross-border terrorism activities and ensure the legal passage of trade and movement.

The first question that comes to mind is how Somalia could form any joint border security mechanism when the country has barely functioning institutions, a fragile security apparatus, and is dependent on international support for its survival.

Furthermore, Somalia is the only country on the African continent that doesn’t fully control its borders, airspace, or maritime boundaries. According to analysts, what appears to be playing out is an entrenchment of Ethiopia and Kenya’s influence, with the Somali government’s complicity, using Al-Shabab as a pretext.

Mukhtar Ainashe, a security analyst and former national security advisor to the transitional federal government of Somalia, says that the recent joint statement issued by the government of Somalia in coordination with the governments of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti is a cause for concern.

Somali federal government institutions are, unfortunately, very weak, he says. Hence, Somalis must be sceptical about any agreements made with foreign governments, particularly with neighbouring states. This is especially important as historical border demarcation issues remain unresolved, Ainashe told The New Arab.

Therefore, the notion that Kenya and Ethiopia will form a mechanism to protect the borders between Somalia and themselves is ambiguous. Both countries could instead use that as a pretext to continue conducting military operations indefinitely and at will, Ainashe added.

President Hassan Sheikh’s government has made unprecedented gains in the fight against Al-Shabab thus far, but he risks entering into a self-sabotaging mission.

Giving Kenya and Ethiopia the green light to become more militarily involved in Somalia is bound to get messy for the Somali government, jeopardising not only the war against Al-Shabab but also empowering the al-Qaeda-linked militants as they face off against historic foes.

It could also turn public opinion against the Somali government, as most Somalis deeply resent the Ethiopian and Kenyan military presence in the country.

In the end, Al-Shabab is a Somali issue that should be addressed with a genuine, local grassroots solution, whether that be an armed approach or negotiations. Giving Kenya and Ethiopia a free hand militarily will only complicate this strategy.

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About Bulsha Arrimaha Bulshada

Wabsite kaan waxaa uu idiin soo gudbin dhacdooyinka maalinlaha ah ee la xariira arrimaha bulshada siyaasada cayaaraha, fanka iyo suugaanta iyo in badan oo qarsoon marka ha moogaan inaad soo booqada oo aad ka daalacado waxyaabaha muhiimka ah ee aan idinku diyaariney. Waadna Mahadsan Tihiin. Somaliya hanoolaato
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