Somalia: Ethiopia Rides The Tiger

As Israel had to withdraw from Lebanon, and as the United States is going to have to do in Iraq, so Ethiopia will have to pull back soon from Somalia. The situation within Somalia will not have been improved because of its preventive attack. Preventive attacks are always a potential boomerang. Either one wins
overwhelmingly or one loses badly.


The Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, must have been studying the magnificent successes of the U.S. preemptive invasion of Iraq and Israel’s recent foray into Lebanon.

He has clearly decided to emulate them. His argument is exactly that which was given by George W. Bush and Ehud Olmert. We must attack our neighbor because we have to keep Islamic terrorists from pursuing their jihad and attacking us.

In each case, the invader was sure of his military superiority and of the fact that the majority of the population would hail the attackers as liberators. Zenawi asserts he is cooperating in the U.S. worldwide struggle against terrorism. And indeed, the United States has offered not only its intelligence support but has sent in both its air force and units of special troops to assist the Ethiopians.

Still, each local situation is a bit different. And it is worth reviewing the recent history of what is called the Horn of Africa, in which countries have switched geopolitical sides with some ease in the last forty years. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Ethiopia was a symbol of African resistance to European imperialism. The Ethiopians defeated the Italian colonial troops at Adowa in 1896 and the country remained independent. When Italy tried again in 1935, Emperor Haile Selassie went to the League of Nations and pleaded for collective security against the invasion. He received no help.

Ethiopia then became the symbol of Africa throughout the Black world. The colors of its flag became the colors of Africa. And at the end of the Second World War, Ethiopian independence was restored. In the difficult genesis of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, Haile Selassie used his prestige to play a key role as intermediary between differing African states. The OAU established its headquarters in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. But if Ethiopia served this symbolic role throughout Africa, it also had an oppressive and aristocratic state machinery. And when acute famines began to plague the country in the 1970s, internal discontent
mounted rapidly.

In 1974, an army officer, Mengistu Haile Mariam, led a revolution against the “feudal” monarchy and established a military government which soon proclaimed itself Marxist-Leninist. Before Mengistu, relations between the United States and Ethiopia had been warm. Ethiopia’s neighbor, Somalia, had strained relations with the United States. It also had a military government under Siad Barre. However, it called itself “scientific socialist” and had fairly close relations with the Soviet Union, offering it a naval base.

After the 1974 coup, when Mengistu proclaimed his government Marxist-Leninist, the Soviet Union dumped Somalia and embraced the larger and more important Ethiopia. So the United States embraced Somalia in turn, and took over the naval base. To understand what happened next, a few words of ethnic analysis of the two countries is needed. Ethiopia is an ancient Christian kingdom, long dominated by Amhara aristocrats. There is another large Christian group, the Tigre, who speak a different language. There are two other quite large groups — the Oromo (half of whom are Muslim) and the Muslim Somalis. In addition, at the end of the Second World War, Ethiopia absorbed the coastal Italian colony of Eritrea. Under Haile Selassie, only the Amhara counted, and Eritrea was waging a war for its independence. Without Eritrea, Ethiopia is landlocked.

Somalia was quite different. There had been two colonies — Italian Somaliland and British Somaliland. Italian Somaliland became independent in 1960 in the course of liquidating Italian colonies, and British Somaliland was added onto it. In the 1960s, when ethnic conflicts began to plague many African states, it was commonly said that the one African country that would never know ethnic conflict was Somalia, since almost everyone in the country was ethnically Somali, spoke Somali, and was a Moslem.

People in both countries chafed under the respective dictatorships. And when the Cold War ended, neither government could survive. Both Mengistu and Barre were overthrown in 1991. What replaced Mengistu was a Tigre liberation movement, which at first spoke a “Maoist” nationalist language. As a way of distinguishing itself from the Mengistu regime, it acceded to Eritrea’s independence, only to regret this later. Christian, if not Amhara, dominance soon became the major theme and Oromo and Somali uprisings began. Human rights activists do not consider Zenawi’s government much better than Mengistu’s. 

In Somalia, the “perfect” ethnic state fell apart, as Somali clans began to fight each other for power. After 1991, the United States began to embrace the new leader of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, who abandoned his “Maoism” altogether. Somalia was left out in the cold.

When the United States sent in troops on a “humanitarian” mission to quell disorders the United States got the brutal drubbing we now call “Blackhawk down,” and it withdrew its troops. A long multi-sided civil war continued. In 2006, a group called the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) took over the capital, Mogadishu, and expelled the feuding clan leaders, restoring relative peace for the first time in more than a decade.

The United States saw the UIC as a replica of the Taliban and allied to Al-Qaeda. So did Zenawi. So Ethiopia decided to invade, oust the UIC, and prop up the powerless central government that had existed on paper since 2004 but had been unable even to enter the capital city.
There we went again. Of course, Ethiopia (with the United States) has won the first round. The UIC has abandoned Mogadishu. But the Somalis aren’t welcoming the Ethiopians as liberators. The clan leaders are fighting each other again, and Mogadishu is again in turmoil. The Ethiopia government is facing troubles not only in Somalia but now increasingly at home as well.

As Israel had to withdraw from Lebanon, and as the United States is going to have to do in Iraq, so Ethiopia will have to pull back soon from Somalia. The situation within Somalia will not have been improved because of its preventive attack. Preventive attacks are always a potential boomerang. Either one wins overwhelmingly or one loses badly.

Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the author of The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (New Press).  Copyright ©2007 Immanuel Wallerstein


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