There is no firm evidence, but the signs are that Somalia may be about to invite Ethiopia and Eritrea to send troops into its territory to replace the African Union’s AMISOM forces that are due to depart.
If this is confirmed, then the discussions between Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea in the Ethiopian town of Bahr Dar on 9th of November might be among the most important held in the region in recent years. They could see a re-shaping of the political relations in the Horn of Africa.
The three leaders, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, and President Isaias Afwerki were not in the city to enjoy the tourist sites on Lake Tana and the Blue Nile. At the end of their talks they signed an agreement.
These were the key sentences.
“They noted with satisfaction the tangible and positive outcomes already registered, and agreed to consolidate their mutual solidarity and support in addressing challenges that they face individually and collectively. In this regard, they stressed the importance of respecting the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of Somalia as well as their firm support for the Somalia people and Federal Government of Somalia and all its institution.”
This was hardly transparent, but they may presage an invitation from the Somali government for Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers to be based on its territory.
A brief recap
The African Union Mission in Somalia – AMISOM – is going ahead with plans to withdraw its troops in February next year. By December 2020, all AMISOM combat troops are scheduled to leave all of Somalia’s cities, towns, and villages that they’ve liberated from the al-Shabaab terrorist organization.
Troops from Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya and Burundi, are currently deployed across the country, funded by EU and UN.
They fight alongside the Somali National Army, and continue to take casualties. They protect the Somali government and keep roads connecting the Somali capital to the regions. Their forces have liberated towns from al-Shabaab including Mogadishu, Kisimayo, Beletweyne and Baidoa.
Backed by US air and drone strikes, they have held al-Shabaab at bay. But the Islamists are by no means defeated.
Progress has been slow and difficult. “Somalia is like cleaning a pig,” one Ugandan AMISOM colonel told a reporter Foreign Policy. “You clean it, and it gets dirty.”
Everyone has attempted to train the Somali army. Turkey has a military academy, so too does Qatar. Egypt, Britain and the USA provide training. But what have they achieved? Arms and ammunition supplied to the Somali national army disappear – only to re-appear on the hands of al-Shabaab. The army’s communications systems are tapped by the Islamists.
Without AMISOM can President Farmajo survive?
This is an issue for the whole of the region and beyond. Keeping Islamists at bay has been a critical element in the American war on terrorism.
The US effort has been bolstered by the deployment of one of its most respected and knowledgeable diplomat to the region.
He was joined in Mogadishu by the head of US Africa Command in Mogadishu, General Thomas Waldhauser.
So, will Ethiopia and Eritrea ride to the rescue?
As indicated at the start of this article there is no hard evidence. But with AMISOM winding down its operation, there are suggestions that Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed that his forces establish a military base inside Somali during the talks at Bahir Dar. President Farmajo is said to have agreed to the idea, with the town of Merca as a possible site.
The idea of Ethiopian forces being in Somalia has been around for nearly two decades. It was in November 2000 that the then Somali President, Abdiqassim Salad Hassan visited his opposite number, Meles Zenawi. It was the first visit to Ethiopia by a Somali head of state since 1974.
Since then Ethiopian troops have been in and out of Somalia, attempting to resist Islamist insurgents and – more recently – to bolster the Somali government.
For its part, Eritrea has played a double role in Somalia. There is evidence that it provided training and arms for al-Shabaab until this was uncovered by UN Monitors in 2011.
As their report stated: “While the Eritrean Government acknowledges that it maintains relationships with Somali armed opposition groups, including Al-Shabaab, it denies that it provides any military, material or financial support and says its links are limited to a political, and even humanitarian, nature.” The UN exposure did the trick and the Eritrean backing for al-Shabaab ended.
Now, it appears, President Isaias is considering sending his forces into Somalia to support President Farmajo.
Their forces could be joined by the Ugandans, who are already supplying most of the AMISOM troops. A visit to Kampala in November appears to have cemented these ties.
If all these developments come together it is possible to imagine the following:
- Eritrean and Ethiopian forces replacing AMISOM, with a continuing Ugandan presence.
- Ongoing backing for the Somali government by the various outside powers, including the USA, UK and Turkey.
- The retention of Kenyan forces in Jubaland, which they have controlled since 2011.
Will this be enough to keep President Farmajo in power? Perhaps. It is hard to be more definitive when so much is still up in the air.