Home | Comment & Analysis    Sunday 24 December 2006

Zenawi’s hubris, risks & high stakes in the Somalia’s war


By Apee Ojulu

Dec 24, 2006 — There has been a sort of unanimity among various advisors in Prime Minister Meles Zenawi government that in an all-out-war they will defeat the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) within few days. Zenawi’s Foreign Ministry warning to the UIC that his administration “will not tolerate an Islamist regime in neighboring Somalia” is an indication of that confidence (see MCT, /22, 2006). But hubris is not a military strategy to win a war. It is a risking scheme. Having mechanized forces, countless warplanes, weapons, backing of the international and capacities to destroy every house in Somalia do not prove to win the war. Recent war between Israeli mechanized army forces against a lesser tech wired Iranian and Syrian backed Hezbollah forces have proven this, that technology is not the only mean to win wars. American involvement in Iraq is the other. Both conflicts have proven public support is the key to military success in guerilla wars, not traditional military power alone.

But neither Zenawi’s Tigrai People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) nor the government of his Somali colleague’s Transitional Somali Federal Government (TSFG) has a public support to sustain a long and drawn out conflict between them and the UIC. The UIC has continued to attract young Somali fighters and foreign fighters to defend their causes from what they considered to a puppet TSFG and Zenawi’s adventure there. But since the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the United Nations (UN) created the TSFG in 2004 to restore security to Somalia, three years later it has remains an elitist organization. It only has maintained high profile meetings with foreign diplomats from UN, European Union (EU), African Union, IGAD, Arab League, Zenawi’s group and other international bodies. As a result, a majority of Somali people have saw TSFG as essentially a foreign-created entity embraces to impose foreign interests on them. Both President Abdullahi Yusuf of TSFG and his Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Ghedi have been seen as allies of Zenawi who intended to maintain his hands in Somali affairs.

TSFG lack of public support has not been without a precedent in Zenawi’s Ethiopia. Zenawi own organization, TPLF lacks a public backing. While the public support for the UIC is growing, the public support for TPLF it gained when it grew out of the Derg tyrannical rule in the last half of the last century is plummeting. TPLF was created in 1974 to respond to a dictatorial rule and restore people rights to Tigrai region. Accordingly, a sizable majority of people in Tigrai region supported it. With the fall of Derg regime in 1991, when Somali government was disintegrating, TPLF worked with other opponents of Derg regime. It assembled a coalition party, Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), with most notably parties such the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), Afar Liberation Front (ALF), Gambella People Liberation Movement (GPLM) and other parties to govern the country.

But by 1996, each of these political parties have left the coalition and returned to armed struggle because of Zenawi authoritarian rule. Support for the TPLF regime began to deflate as a result of these developments. The May 15, 2005 parliamentary elections confirmed this when his regime lost even in Addis Ababa, the site of his government. Meanwhile, political ambitions among various individuals, infightings and reliance on foreign supports have reduced TSFG support among Somali people dramatically. Having lost public support, Yusuf and Zenawi have turned to the army and the international community to prolog their regimes. In particular, Zenawi have used those who have joined army forces to defend the country from external threats in executing his ethnic cleansing policies in Gambella, Oromyia, Sidama, Ogaden, Amhara region and other corners of the country. The other crucial issue has been the reluctance of neighboring states, most notably Sudan, to support opposition by providing military bases. Sudan reluctance to support rivals of Zenawi has been based on their share concern about Eritrean role in their domestic affairs. Eritrea supports Sudan’s regime rivals such the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and various factions from Darfur and East Sudan; and it also Ethiopia’s regime rivals such OLF and other opposition parties.

The other notable external support for both TSFG and TPLF has been from the United States and Britain. The Bush Administration and the Blair government have extended their support to both Zenawi and Yusuf as a way to induce their governments and use, especially Ethiopia, the large military forces against their chief enemy, al-Qaeda. As a former U.S. Department Official, John Pendergast says” We (the United States) are now giving a yellow-slash-green light to Ethiopia’s policy of containment by intervention," (see MTC/Dec. 23, 2006). The two countries have accused leaders of the UIC of supporting al-Qeada. But no evident has been provided to sustain their accusations. Like Iraq, with Zenawi’s forces landing in Somalia there is a real possibility that al-Qaeda will send its forces to battle Zenawi’s forces. Western support is crucial both in preventing the downfall of Zenawi’s regime and supplying the regime with military supplies as well for Yusuf. But the Bush Administration and Blair government supports for Zenawi and Yusuf do not guarantee success in Somali civil war. Both Bush Administration and the Blair government had supported the Somali warlords who had controlled Somali capital, Mogadishu, under code name of Coalition against Terrorism. That coalition soon found itself surrounded by the fighters loyal to UIC and destroyed within few days and most of its now leaders waiting their fates along side President Abdullahi Yusuf of the weak TSFG in Baidoa.

Eritrea has been the only notable country that has been supporting the UIC, TSFG opponent in Somali civil war and a number rivals opposed to Zenawi authroritarian rule. Eritrean support has been every effective for the UIC because of it esay access to the sea and airports. But for Zenawi’s rivals, Eritrean support has been less effective in determining changes in the country. It has a very limited border with Ethiopia that armed oppositions in much of the south where a significant resistance to Zenawi exists are out of that area. Zenawi’s gamble in Somalia civil war is likely to change this status quo political structure.

Unlike both TSFG and TPLF, the rise of the UIC has its roots in autocratic Somali class. UIC was created and continue to be funded by the powerful business Somali class to maintain security for their businesses. UIC has assembled strong fighting forces and extended its mission as well as its control in much of South Somalia. This year alone, the UIC has along the way defeated several U.S. backed warlord leaders and coalitions based in the capital in 2006. These warlord leaders and their militias are now in the government only controlled city of Baidoa.

Of course, there have been some complains among some Somali people here and there about the road in which the UIC is planning to travel. Some have complained about its public executions as an indication of taking the country to the Taliban-style political rule. But in general, in all of territories its controlling, even U.S. officials who are uneasy about the UIC intentions, have admitted that the UIC have restored basic law and order for the people better then any than political organization since former Somali President Siad Barre. Increasingly, the UIC is drawing support from even Somali people who are residing in the West for the fact that its fighters are standing up to Zenawi and restoring basic law and order to their relatives who remained behind them in their homeland.

Another important sign of growing isolation of both Zenawi and Yusuf is neither man controls his country’s capitals in real sense. Zenawi lost the capital to the opposition in the May 15 parliamentary elections and is reportedly spend most of his times out side the capital as a security precaution. Yusuf have avoided even going to his country’s capital to establish his government there after he was selected by the interim parliament convened in Nairobi, another country’s capital. The leaders of the UIC have taken the capital of Somalis, restored the airport, public services, law and order, and other basic services while both Yusuf and Zenawi become isolated from their populations and deeply relying on their army forces and international support to sustain their rules. Such political bases the two leaders are relying are unsustainable and do not last governments in any event for a foreseen future in a bloody conflict they are initialing.

Inside army forces of both Zenawi and Yusuf putting their hopes to protect them, there have been unsustainable morale decline. Zenawi’s actions in the army forces over the last three years have taken their affects on soldiers. His tribalization of promotion within military and ethnic cleaning policies have encouraged regular soldiers and military officers to resign their positions and returned to their civilian lives. Neglect and defections are other crucial elements that have devastated the army forces. Because Zenawi took these actions, in August 2006, Brig. General Kemal Gelchi and a number of soldiers defected to the OLF (AFP, 2006). In September 2006, two other senior military officers, Brig Gen Hailu Gonfa and Col Gemechu Ayana, did the same, in defecting to opposition parties (BBC). Countless other foot soldiers and some middle level officers have already defected to OLF or the ONL.

Without these reckless actions by Zenawi, the Army forces in Ethiopia are experienced fighting forces, more mechanized, and a large number compared to the forces of the Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, spiritual leader of the UIC forces. In normal circumstances, they could have proven formable forces even in a long guerrilla war between them and the UIC.

Yusuf, in contrast to Zenawi, never have army forces approaching army forces available to Zenawi. Under TSFG, there have no large army forces he can command other then a few militias brought from other warlords. Even when Yusuf led a faction in 1970s to overthrow the government of former President Barre, his army forces did not extend to more than a few men. Facts were the same when ruled Puntland. When ruled he Puntland, which he started ruling in 1980s, he did neither assemble a large number nor a serious following because of his authoritarian nature of rule.

Forces facing Zenawi and his friend Yusuf is multiplying day-by-day. One way or other, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Hezbollah are sending their support to the UIC (see Somalia country profile on bbc.com). Foreign fighters have been reported landing in Kismayo in a large number. Foreign fighters and military supplies from these other Islamic countries have flow in before and are now aiding the fighters of the UIC. These foreign fighters are likely to strengthen further the soldiers of the UIC to withstand any Ethiopia manpower or few militias loyal still to Yusuf. A victory in a guerrilla war like the UIC is embracing is not out an outright victory like an outcome between traditional states. Remember Hezbollah few months ago against Israeli, ten times more powerful then army forces Zenawi is depending on! Few Hezbollah fighters drawn out Israeli support and inflicted an enormous pain on the psyche of the country. Reports are that some of these same fighters are being flown to the UIC to help defeat Zenawi. The victory in guerrilla is to keep the state at its feet all the time as a way to drawn out its population support and expose division among the populace. In Ethiopia, the latter is already there. It does not need to be created anymore. These foreign fighters, be they al Qaeda fighters, have nothing to lose and they have every thing to gain after they have won in being rewarded seventy “virgins” in heaven. Zenawi ’s loyalist few men among many who do not like him for his policies in the army do not have this same habit for martyrdom, a different that has proven determining factor for the Coalition in Iraq war.

Zenawi’s involvement in the Somali civil war may catch him off guard in his relationship with Sudan. The regime in Khartoum publicly is supposedly supporting the isolated TSFG in Baidoa. Its Defense Minister, Maj-Gen. Abdelrahim Mohamed Hussein, says, “We do support the Somali government, interim government” after talks with Zenawi in Addis Ababa. But tactically, the regime is supporting the UIC. One senior in the el-Bashir has told AP that Ethiopian forces must leave Somalia to prevent a other states taking sides. El-Bashir opposes both plans of the IGAD and UN to deploy peacekeepers in Somalia. The split about peacekeepers issue in the IGAD is Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and the Somali government in favor and Djibouti, Eritrea and Sudan oppose. The Khartoum regime knows that without peacekeepers sent to Somalia, the TSFG is a dead horse walking in any firefight with the UIC.

Radical activists in General Omar el-Bashir’s radical party are already biting their figurers about Zenawi’s military support for the isolated TSFG. Their flowing Maj-General Hussein to Addis Ababa is an indication of this. El-Bashir’s colleagues are outraged that Ethiopia is supporting Bush Administration backed regime in Somalia to prevail over the strong Islamic fighters. el-Bashir radical colleagues have proven lethal in cases like these in choosing their political ideology over lives of even their own citizens. They have just channeled needed ten millions from Southern oil where the money is much needed for development to the Hamas led-government in Palestine to thwart Western attempt to prevent Islamists from governing there (sudantribune.com/December 16, 2006). In any outbreak of fighting in Somalia, radical activists in el-Bashir camp would become receptive to providing military bases and arms to any opposition party that is willing to overthrow the Zenawi’s regime.

Sudan switching its position is a determining move for the survival of Zenawi’s regime. In the past, Sudan’s support for opposition parties in Ethiopia has proven one of important agencies of change. In the last half of last century, Sudan’s support for President Mengistu Haile Mariam’s rival forces such the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), GPLM, OLF, TPLF and other weakened the Mariam’s communist regime and made it chronically vulnerable to battlefield defeats. Acknowledging the decisive role of Sudan support for Ethiopia, Mariam strengthened the Sudan’s main opposition, SPLM/A, as a way to balance Sudan’s for his rivals. Both sides used each other rival group to achieve military victories in their own battles. Mariam sent SPLA fighters to places like Kramo to fight his rival forces, while Sudan used Mariam’s rivals such OLF, GPLM, and other liberation fronts to fight SPLM/A fighters in the same area. But the Mariam’s dictatorial regime enjoyed a public support compared to the Zenawi’s isolated regime. Mariam was able to portray the conflict as a conflict to maintain territorial integrity of Ethiopia and people took him at his words. The current regime terror campaigns against peoples of Gambella, Oromyia, Sidama, Ogaden and now the Amhara region have isolated the regime. Hence, it does not have the same domestic political support Mariam had necessary, other than its weapons to force people to fight, to sustain the conflict. But in the end, even Mariam regime that enjoyed enormous public support did not survive the critical political and military support the government of Sudan provided to the opposition.

Sudan switching to the opposition camp increases opposition regional support in both moral and military power. Eritrean moral support and its save haven it has provided to the Zenawi’s rivals have been crucial, but has faces geographical as well as resources limitations. Eritrea has only very limited miles of border with Ethiopia that other significant opposition parties have no access to build bases and receive military supplies. Sudan possible switch offers incomparable advantages to the opposition parties unheard of before. One area is geographical proximity. Most of opposition parties such the OLF, GPLF/M, Binshangul Gumuz’s resistance movement and Southern Nationalities are located on Sudan border. If there is any change in Khartoum, they will benefit greatly.

But any change of heart in Khartoum should not be viewed as materializing easily. It is true on the northern border with Ethiopia Sudan northern government would channel that assistance easily. But in the South where Ethiopia shares a long border it would be extremely hard to channel such assistance. Domestic realities in inside Sudan may limit it effectiveness. SPLM, the main entity governing the South, would not go along easily with any el-Bashir’s colleague’s decision to switch sides in Ethiopian struggle. Zenawi’s chief reasons for his gamble in Somali civil war is to please the United States, win more aid from it and support for his domestic struggle and divert international and domestic attentions from his authoritarian rule. Like Zenawi’s TPLF, SPLM, the main entity governing south, is backs by the United States. Even though, by its nature of oppressed base movement, SPLM would love to support the oppressed population in Ethiopia to free them, U.S. pressures for it to toe the line would be a enormous to resist. Plus, patriot leaders in inside SPLM leadership are already worrying about el-Bashir intentions. His deadly sponsored of militias in Jubia and Malakal is being interpreted with alarming bells. SPLM/A Secretary-General, Pagan Amun, statement that militias in both Juba and Malakal were planned by the el-Bashir colleagues to abrogate the peace pact is a clear indication of this fact. In face of these realties, SPLM does not want to spoil its relationship with Ethiopia because of the role it plays in the IGDA and as a possible host country for a renewed war against Khartoum. SPLM where the U.S. does not have an interest in supporting, it has taken the oppressed side in places such Islamic fanatics slaughter against the people of Darfur. It resisted the el-Bashir’s colleagues to deny the obvious human carnages in Darfur as non-existence. Vice President Salva Siir Mayardit has even tied the outcome in Darfur to the general peace in the country.

Zenawi’s involvement in the Somali civil war may cause citizen support for the regime. In Gambella, Oromyia, Sidama, Amhara region, Binshangul Gumuz, Ogaden and other corners of the country, the support for the regime has been declining. With war looming, whatever the percent of citizens remain backing the regime would start to diminish. Firing of civilian servants in the Foreign Ministry is one instance where the regime is losing the support and is realizing its base is shirking (See AP, 19, 2006). In the past, wars have taught tyrants like Zenawi who have taken their countries into wars as away to divert attentions from their authoritarian policies. Rivals of Zenawi best weapons to gain more advantages in Somali civil war is to report on the ongoing causalities on army forces as accurately as possible and as aggression as possible to make parents of soldiers and the general public decide for them whether a countless causalities to maintain Zenawi’s regime is worthy dying for.

Zenawi might have his envisioned his gamble in Somali civil war as an important strategic decision to extract more monetary from Americans, divert attentions of both domestic and international from his authoritarian rule and prolong his regime. Likely outcome of that conflict may come at a price of losing very elements that has kept alive and embolden the already emboldened opposition parties at his expense.

The writer is the Editor of www.gambelatoday.com, a website which is devoted to publishing news and commentaries on issues concerning Sudan, Ethiopia and Gambella State. He can be reached at api@gambelatoday.com

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