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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Ethiopia and Somalia: The Rumbling Rumour of War

Only the onset of floods seems, for the moment, to have put off all-out fighting


FIGHTERS loyal to Somalia's Islamic courts last week took positions along the border with Ethiopia; this week they pushed further north than ever before, consolidating their grip on Bandiradley (see map). Tinny loudspeakers in Somali towns under Islamist control blared out holy war against Ethiopia. Those on the front line professed themselves ready to die fighting the “forces of the devil”—Ethiopia, that is. Businessmen in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, were told to hand over their weapons for the cause; many did. Intelligence sources say the Islamists are still getting more arms from their allies, especially Eritrea, which may now have 2,000 of its own soldiers inside Somalia.
Meanwhile, 6,000-plus Ethiopian troops continue to mass on their own side of the border, with some commando, infantry and air force units already inside Somalia. A convoy of around 130 Ethiopian military lorries got past Islamist positions last week to reach the central Somali town of Baidoa, seat of Somalia's internationally recognised but powerless transitional government. Locals said the many Ethiopian troops in the town were busy digging trenches. Skirmishes, mostly won by Islamists, are taking place across the country every day. Ethiopia would probably overrun the Islamist positions in a conventional war. The question is whether Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, will order his army to attack Mogadishu.

He may not yet have decided. The situation is fluid. As many as ten countries have already broken the UN's arms embargo by running guns into Somalia, each with its own interests. Some back the transitional government because it is secular. Others prefer the Islamic courts' theocratic agenda. Still others base their calculations on the politics of the Nile and its waters.

Ethiopia still denies it has troops in Somalia, though it now admits it has “military trainers” there. Mr Zenawi says Ethiopia does not need a green light from anybody to fight the Islamists, but promises war only if all peace talks fail. But those look unlikely to succeed. A UN Security Council resolution, tabled by the Americans, this week called for peacekeepers to be sent to Somalia. Ethiopia endorsed the idea. But nobody knows how UN troops would get there, where they would come from, or what they would do.

The Americans seem to hope against hope that the longer the present fragile peace holds, albeit punctuated by fighting here and there, the weaker and more divided the Islamists will become. So far, on the contrary, they have continued to gain ground. A measure of the Islamists' burgeoning authority is that they have even managed to ban the chewing of qat, a local stimulant, whose price has consequently risen sixfold. The semi-autonomous northern region of Puntland, which had hitherto co-operated with the transitional government, is apparently close to adopting sharia law: a sign that it is loth to resist the approaching Islamists.

Ethiopia is understandably rattled by the rise of the Islamists next door. Unchecked, they could break Ethiopia apart. They could sponsor terrorist attacks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, and other towns, support Ethiopia's various armed separatist groups and poison relations between Ethiopia's Muslims and Christians.

A small grouping of jihadists in Mogadishu is bent on obeying Osama bin Laden, who has lauded them in taped messages this year, and on turning the Horn of Africa into a third jihadist front, after Iraq and Afghanistan. Somalia's Islamist leaders deny this but still claim a slice of Ethiopia. Their agenda calls for an Islamist emirate of greater Somalia, taking in eastern Ethiopia's vast Ogaden region as well as north-eastern bits of Kenya.

The spectre of a hostile Christian Ethiopia bearing down on Somalia has rallied Somalis behind the Islamists. Somalia's Islamists have spread a similar fear among Ethiopians, giving succour to Mr Zenawi's unpopular and isolated government.

Though he has alleviated poverty a tad and improved the country's infrastructure, Mr Zenawi has turned Ethiopia into a police state. Many of the opposition are in prison on trumped-up charges carrying the death penalty. Tens of thousands of young Ethiopians were sent to prison camps after last year's poll. A few still languish there; others have fled abroad. Several judges have defected, fearing for their safety.

The press has been crushed, foreign correspondents expelled and many journalists and editors put in jail. The government has hired foreign specialists to help it shut down dissident websites, tap telephones and track e-mails. Among foreign governments, China has become an ally.

Most tellingly, morale in Ethiopia's army is low. Several generals, along with their men, have hiked over the mountains into neighbouring Eritrea to join the Oromo Liberation Front, a southern separatist group that wants to bring down Mr Zenawi's lot.

Remember the last intervention

The United States, mindful of its disastrous experience of peacemaking in the region in 1993, has mixed feelings. Congress has excoriated Mr Zenawi's human-rights record. But others in Washington have backed him, despite his abuses, in the name of the war on terror—ie, against the Somali Islamists. American military intelligence now works closely with Ethiopia, sometimes taking up whole floors of hotels in Addis Ababa. But experts in the region question the reliability of American intelligence.

The European Union is against America's plan to send UN peacekeepers to the region and, by the by, is sceptical of recent American warnings that Somali jihadists have been planning suicide attacks on Kenya's capital, Nairobi. America's reluctance to encourage negotiation with the Somali Islamists suggests it may want to provoke, isolate and defeat them by force, with Ethiopia providing the muscle.

So war is in the offing—but is unlikely to break out immediately. Unusually heavy rains have turned the roads to mud. The two sides are bogged down in and around the strategic Somali town of Burhakaba. The UN reckons that 1.8m people in all countries of the Horn of Africa have been hit by floods, with no foreign agencies able to distribute food and medicine; nearly all aid workers left months ago after a rash of killings, including that of an Italian nun.

While the rains persist, all-out fighting should be put off. But that may provide only a brief hiatus for foreign peacemakers to stop the two countries going to war.

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