Media coverage of Somalia in recent months has often focused on the East African nation’s potential to become a terrorist haven after a growing Islamist movement, backed by a powerful militia, began expanding its power and territorial control. But now it appears the more immediate threat in the Horn of Africa is the possibility that Somalia’s internal power struggle could spill across its borders, sparking a regional conflict. Widespread reports suggest Ethiopian troops are guarding the city of Baidoa, where Somalia’s internationally recognized but ineffective Transitional Federal Government has taken refuge. More recently, Ethiopian soldiers have accompanied government forces on missions to secure territory (AP). In response to what it sees as an invasion, the Union of Islamist Courts (UIC) declared a jihad against Ethiopia (Economist).
Making matters worse, Ethiopia’s longtime rival, Eritrea, moved 1,500 troops into a buffer zone along the nations’ mutual border on October 16. A UN spokesman called the move "a major breach of the ceasefire" that was put in place in 2000 after Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a three-year war along the same border. Additionally, Eritrea stands accused of providing weapons shipments to Somalia’s Islamist militia in direct violation of a UN arms embargo. A Backgrounder looks at the border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Somalia and Ethiopia share a contentious history as well, having fought a war in the late 1970s, and the UIC’s claims of Ethiopian meddling resonates with many Somalis (AllAfrica.com). For its part, Ethiopia is concerned about the reemergence of a Somali irredentism that became dormant when Somalia’s last functioning government collapsed in 1991. As former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn told a recent AEI meeting, both Ethiopia and Kenya have large indigenous Somali populations, which Somalia has made multiple efforts to incorporate since the 1960s. Several UIC leaders have made statements suggesting a renewed desire to do so. An Italian envoy in the region has called for neutral parties to monitor the thousand-mile Somalia-Ethiopia border (Reuters).
At the same time, charges of Ethiopian interference warrant consideration. The current Somali government is the fourteenth in the last fifteen years. Ethiopia had poor relations with the previous government in Somalia and strongly supported then-opposition leader Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, now the nation’s president. Thus, experts say, Ethiopia considers protection of the current Somali regime as in its interest. A BBC timeline tracks the turbulent history of Somalia’s leadership.
The Somali government appears to have few friends at the moment: Ahmed narrowly escaped an assassination attempt (Independent) in front of the parliament building last month. An op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor suggests Ethiopia’s zeal for challenging the Somali Islamists may have more to do with potential U.S. counterterrorism dollars than any real political concern. The United States drew criticism for supporting a group of anti-Islamist warlords last summer who held the capital city of Mogadishu until they were overrun by the Islamist militia. U.S. policy has since shifted, and now appears focused on using Ethiopia and Kenya to contain the UIC’s expansion (Stratfor). But the Washington Post charges the Bush administration with doing little to influence events in Somalia, arguing the United States "cannot afford to neglect this gathering threat."
Other African nations want to see a resolution of the Somali conflict. Sudan hosted two rounds of talks—known as the Khartoum Process—of talks between the government and the UIC. A third round of talks is slated for the end of October. The results of these internationally supported negotiations have been mixed; the last round ended with a truce agreement, though violence has continued. The Transitional Federal Government has requested African Union peacekeepers, though only Uganda has conditionally agreed to send troops. The UIC opposes the prospect of peacekeepers, and last month it captured the port town of Kismayo (PINR), a likely staging point for any prospective peacekeeping mission. The interim government has since requested that the UN lift the arms embargo (IRIN) currently imposed on Somalia, arguing that it needs weaponry to equip and train defensive forces.
Though the UIC is credited with bringing peace and stability to much of the territory it controls, refugees are fleeing to Kenya by the thousands (AllAfrica.com). A UNHCR map charts the flow of people out of Somalia (PDF). Also leaving the country are the UN’s international staff, which began a pullout last week (al-Jazeera). An International Crisis Group report questions whether the Somali conflict can be contained.