23 Oct 2006
It is easy to discern the signs; The Union of Islamic Courts that control most of Somalia has vowed to launch a ‘holy war’ against Ethiopia. Ethiopia is reported to have sent in between 6000 to 8000 troops into Somalia to shore up the defenses of the Baidoa-based Somali Transitional government. Eritrea (Ethiopia’s principal foe in the region) has also reportedly ferried in about 2000 troops and armaments into Somalia to help the UIC. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Libya are supplying arms to the UIC while Yemen and Uganda are doing likewise to the transitional government.
In the latest battle that occurred a couple of days ago, the UIC forces were dislodged from the town of Burhakaba. This particular move was significant for the government forces that have been losing territory to the Islamists in the recent past. The UIC is now amassing troops in the neighboring town of Lego to launch an offensive to retake Burhakaba. “If these attacks continue, we will ask other Islamic nations to help us.” Commander Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad of UIC was quoted as telling Reuters. Some of Somalia’s neighbors like Ethiopia and Kenya are wary that a Taliban-style regime may eventually take hold of Somalia with unpredictable consequences for their fragile countries. Somalia is 99% Muslims while Ethiopia has almost equal proportion of Muslims to Christians and Kenya is 76% Christians. While Kenya strives to remain neutral in the region’s conflicts, she usually shoulders a disproportionate burden of refugees fleeing from conflict. These refugees bring along complex social and security problems for Kenya to manage.
To understand the complexity of the problems of this region, one needs to go back a little into history. Eritrea fought a guerilla war with Ethiopia for more than 30 years and gained Independence in 1993. They recently fought a border war and currently have a shaky peace treaty that has been in place for the past six years. In 1954 the British ceded the Ogaden (Somali-speaking) area to Ethiopia. Somalia lays claim to the area and two wars have been fought between Ethiopia and Somalia over the Ogaden. Somalia has not had a functional central government since 1991 and the country has been surviving at the mercy of warlords. The UIC that is trying to take control of Somalia has made it clear that it intends to ask for the Ogaden (pop 4.5million). “The land taken by Ethiopia cannot be forgotten because it is attached to our blood and nationalists”. Said Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys of the UIC in July.
The calculation of Ethiopia is simple: If the UIC prevails in Somalia, a war with that country over the Ogaden is a forgone conclusion. Also, land locked Ethiopia cannot afford a hostile Somalia and a hostile Eritrea to sequester Djibouti (her main access to the sea).
Eritrea’s alliance with the UIC is not because they share similar Islamic ideology. Eritrea (45% Muslim, 40% Christian) actually cracks down on Islamic fundamentalists. Eritrea is certainly guarded by the dictum that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.
Many observers fear that the current proxy war fought between Eritrea and Ethiopia in Somalia may transform into a full-blown war between the two countries. If that were to happen, the whole region may be sucked into the war with dire consequences.
Njei Moses Timah