‘We have no problems with the Ethiopians, they bring peace’

The Times of London
Doolow, Somalia

Ethiopian troops are not supposed to be in this broiling Somali border town, but they are.

The official message from Addis Ababa and Mogadishu is that there are no Ethiopian troops in Somalia, but Doolow tells a different story.

On a narrow, rutted road between stick fences and tin-roofed houses, an army truck carrying soldiers and the distinctive green, yellow and red of the Ethiopian flag on its number plates idles to let our vehicle pass.

At a water point in the town, Ethiopian soldiers stood guard behind sand-filled, wire-mesh Hesco bastions.

Witnesses say that columns of armoured vehicles and artillery from Ethiopia have rolled into several towns inside Somalia’s western border in recent days. It follows a similar thrust by Kenya’s military last month in pursuit of Islamist militants and raises the prospect of a joint offensive aimed at crushing Somalia’s al-Shabaab.

The Ethiopians in Doolow have a long and healthy relationship with the local officials and militias, their support reflecting Ethiopia’s security concerns for its chaotic neighbour.

“The administration in our town is aligned with the Government [in Mogadishu] but co-operates with Ethiopia,” Abdiwahab Mohamed, the coordinator of a local development organisation, told me. Another resident of Doolow thanked the Ethiopian military for helping to evict al-Shabaab from the surrounding countryside in February and for maintaining security since then. “We have no problem with the Ethiopians, they bring peace,” he said.

The border is only 5km away, on the other side of the River Dawa, and this relatively fertile corner of Somalia has long been seen by Ethiopia as its backyard. The Ethiopian military trains and supports the local armed group, a branch of the clan-based Sufi militia Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa (ASWJ) which is opposed to al-Shabaab and aligned with the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu. Analysts describe ASWJ as an Ethiopian proxy.

Ethiopia’s military presence in Doolow was the preface to last weekend when hundreds of troops pushed up to 50 miles into Somalia, witnesses say, putting further pressure on al-Shabaab which faces the Kenyans in the south and African Union peacekeepers in the capital.

People in border towns in the Galgaduud and Hiran regions, where ASWJ is also dominant, reported Ethiopian armoured vehicles entering the country. Unlike the Kenyan military, Ethiopia’s army has experience in Somalia, including a US-backed invasion in 2006 which ousted an Islamist administration. Residents claim al-Shabaab fighters are abandoning their positions ahead of the Ethiopian advance.

“I saw a convoy of Shabaab troops vacating the frontlines. I don’t know where they are headed but they aren’t in the town any longer,” a resident of Ceeldheere, central Somalia, said.

Ethiopia officially withdrew from Somalia in January 2009 after a bloody and unpopular two-year occupation which stoked long-standing animosity between Christian Ethiopia and Muslim Somalia and helped to fuel the rise of al-Shabaab.

Since then, Ethiopia has continued to meddle but has been careful to keep its operations — small, quick and deniable. It has carried out regular cross-border raids and backed militias opposed to al-Shabaab in orderto protect its borders and isolate Ethiopia’s ethnically-Somali Ogaden separatists from support across the frontier.

But the advance of Ethiopian troops inside Somalia’s borders marks a significant change in strategy.and a ratcheting up of the pressure on al-Shabaab which now faces enemies on three fronts.

The three-front offensive comes at a time when al-Shabaab’s strength has been is weaker than in previous years. sapped by famine in some of the areas under its control. It has lost support, taxes and healthy recruits, while pressure from Amisom dislodged it from the lucrative Bakara Market in Mogadishu this summer. The US classes al-Shabaab as a terrorist organisation and has launched attacks against its commanders.

The United Nations says famine has abated in some parts of Somalia thanks to increased rainfall and aid,butthat 250,000 Somalis still face starvation.

In recent weeks, Kenyan officials have been on a diplomatic offensive seeking retrospective support and legitimacy for its unilateral invasion in the US, at the UN, in the Middle East and Europe. The Kenyan operation followed raids on its coastal resorts, blamed on Somali-based gangs, in which tourists were killed and kidnapped. Judith Tebbutt, a Briton, was among those seized, and her husband, David, was shot dead.

A meeting of regional heads of state in Addis Ababa on Friday is set to decide whether Ethiopian troops should be given a mandate to cross the frontier — but it seems that decision has already been taken.