attack on Somalia, backed by a nod from George W. Bush, is a clear
sign that the region is high on the U.S. agenda in its “war
on terror.” But Ethiopia and Somalia aren’t new to global
power politics. For decades brutal dictators have received massive
support to play the pawns of the U.S., and previously also the Soviet
Throughout the Cold War Ethiopia and Somalia were used as proxies,
receiving billions of dollars worth of weapons while famines and
wars raged throughout the region. U.S. support of Haile Selassie,
emperor of Ethiopia from World War II until 1974, ensured U.S. access
to the vital spy base at Kagnew, while next door the Soviets backed
Siad Barre’s “Marxist” regime in Somalia.
On the back of U.S. aid, Ethiopia developed one of the largest armies
in Africa, which it used to combat an independence movement in Eritrea
and to attempt to control the region. Selassie’s policies became
increasingly unpopular, however, especially when he ignored the
famine of the early 1970s. (As 100,000 peasants were known to have
died, one of Selassie’s ministers is quoted as saying, “If
we could save the peasants only by confessing our failure to the
world, it is better that they die.”) In 1974 the army overthrew
Selassie’s rule and Major Mengistu took control of the ruling
military committee, known as the Derg.
Ultimately, Mengistu preferred a relationship with the Soviets,
which was more in line with his proclaimed ideology and, he thought,
more likely to provide the weapons he needed to keep himself in
power. Seeing Ethiopia as a far more important prize than Somalia,
the Soviet Union did indeed outbid the U.S., sending $9 billion
in military hardware before Mengistu was ousted in 1991. Soviet
aid allowed Mengistu to unleash terror on political opponents, as
well as many ordinary civilians, and increased the war drive against
the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, massacring thousands
of civilians in Eritrea. Despite some embarrassment, Soviet support
continued throughout the famine of the mid-1980s, which killed at
least 1 million people, even as Mengistu spent $55 million celebrating
the anniversary of his revolution.
To add to the murky politics, Mengistu also received a little help
from Israel, which bribed him to allow the deportation of Ethiopian
Jews needed to bolster the Jewish population of Israel. Shortly
after the deal, Israeli-made cluster bombs started falling on Eritrean
towns. While condemning Soviet aid to Mengistu, the U.S., needless
to say, didn’t mention Israeli aid.
Across the border, the U.S. now supported Barre’s Somalia,
albeit with less fanfare, not wanting to upset a potential future
relationship with Ethiopia. As early as 1977, the U.S. promised
to find allies who would be able to supply Somalia the military
assistance that it would need to attack Ethiopia’s Ogaden region.
Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, and Pakistan all rushed in with the required
In 1980 the U.S. signed an arms deal which allowed it access to
Somali bases. Under Reagan, the U.S. supplied more than $680 million
to Siad Barre, at least $195 million of which was intended for military
use (the figure increases dramatically when related aid is counted),
despite Congressional obstacles. Barre spent around one-fifth of
his country’s income on arms while he faced the lowest literacy
rate in the world (12 percent).
course the U.S. claimed its relationship had a moderating impact
on Somalia. Human Rights Watch disagreed, claiming that 50,000 civilians
were killed and half a million displaced in the late 1980s. Other
organizations detailed Barre’s carpet bombing of urban areas
and the fact that in the month before he was ousted in 1991, 20,000
people were killed. When asked to justify the continued supply of
arms to Somalia during this period, one Defense Department official
said, “What is the sense of having this program if we’re
not going to give them the military support when it counts most?”
While the Cold War wound down, and as Barre was ousted from power,
the U.S. initiated a “humanitarian intervention” to clean
up the mess left in Somalia (with no mention of the role of U.S.
support in creating this situation), which included a raging famine
and rampant warlordism. The result of the 1992/1993 UN-backed “Operation
Restore Hope” was disastrous. It is estimated that between
6,000 and 10,000 Somalis died before President Clinton terminated
the operation after 18 U.S. soldiers were killed. But few questioned
the motives of Bush I’s administration in sending the troops
in the first place.
One of those who did was Stephen Shalom. Writing in the early 1990s,
he detailed how the U.S. military establishment was desperately
searching for a post-Cold War justification for its continued budget
levels and the central position the military played in U.S. policy-making.
Military power was vital to the U.S.’s continued position in
the world, but how to justify it? The “war on drugs” was
tried in Latin America, “sovereignty and justice” in Iraq/
Kuwait, and “humanitarian intervention” in Somalia.
These justifications served for the down times, but ultimately the
attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 solved the
problem. The “war on terror” had begun.
Like the Cold War, the war on terror is an all-encompassing template
for world affairs—if a situation looks similar, incorporate
it into the bigger game. That’s why the Ethiopian government
has referred to the Somali Islamic Courts—the group that has
until recently been de facto ruling Somalia—as a “terrorist
group.” In a December interview with the
Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s prime minister and former head of
the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, said, “It does
surprise me that intelligent people in the 21st century could claim
that if you respond to the terrorists with force, you spawn terrorism,
but if you appease them, you somehow tame them.”
Meles puts up with no nonsense at home either. When opposition groups
protested at his re-election in November 2005, government forces
opened fire—197 people were killed and thousands were arrested,
including 100 opposition leaders, journalists, and relief workers.
All of this plays extraordinarily well in Washington. The Bush administration
has stated that the Islamic Courts group is “controlled by
Al-Qaeda cell individuals.” To this end the U.S. funded the
very warlords that threw its troops out of Somalia a decade earlier
during Operation Restore Hope. In January 2006, an International
Crisis Group expert reported that between $100,000 and $150,000
was being funneled by the U.S. to warlord proxies in Kenya every
month, effectively breaching the UN embargo on arms to Somalia.
real tragedy is that the situation in Somalia, as in so many other
places, is actually more complex than the U.S. and its Ethiopian
proxy would like to admit. Since 1991 there has been no stable government.
In 2004 Kenya, worried about the impact that a politicized brand
of Islam in Somalia would have on its own Muslim minority, helped
get agreement from various warlords to establish a Transitional
Federal Government (TFG). The TFG, made up of some very unsavory
characters, initially pretended to run Somalia from Kenya and until
very recently actually controlled almost none of the country. Nonetheless,
it has received international backing, as it contains so many warring
factions and tribes.
The Islamic Courts does not have international recognition, but
does have popular support and, until recently, controlled most of
the country. Opinions of the Islamic Courts differ markedly within
Somalia. Many praise the stability that it has brought after so
many years of chaos and violence and believe that religious forms
of justice are widely seen as the only way to rise above warlord
violence. However, the International Crisis Group wrote in 2005
that “Islamist extremism has failed to take a broader hold
in Somalia because of Somali resistance—not foreign counterterrorism
It was in this context that Ethiopia secretly stationed at least
8,000 troops in Somalia from the TFG capital in Baidoa. In October
2006 the Islamic Courts issued a threat to Ethiopia to leave Somalia.
In December Ethiopia, with backing from the U.S., decided it was
time to invade properly, conducting air raids and entering the capital
Mogidishu as the Islamic Courts withdrew. The Ethiopian government
made its intentions clear, “We are going to use any appropriate
means to destabilize the anti-Ethiopian forces in Somalia.”
Ethiopia appears to have won, for now, with the warlords in the
TFG installed as Somalia’s de facto, as well as de jure, government.
Ethiopia claims 1,000-2,000 have been killed with 4,000-5,000 wounded—while
tens of thousands risk being displaced. Martial law has been declared
in an attempt to rein in the chaos that has returned to the streets
of Mogadishu. Even more worrying is what this means for the future
of the region, where the war on terror is now firmly implanted,
with all the international repercussions that entails.
Somalia’s TFG is highly unstable, unpopular, and broke, while
the Islamic Courts is likely to re-start an insurgency. Countries
throughout the Horn of Africa have also been affected. Eritrea (which
gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991) supports the Islamic
Courts while Kenya supports the TFG—both are religiously mixed
countries; religious and ethnic divisions in Sudan are well known.
Both “sides” have been radicalized and are calling on
international support. The
newspaper describes the
dangerous situation aptly: “Washington has viewed Somalia’s
domestic complexities and their intertwined regional repercussions
through the distorting prism of the ‘war on terror’…the
stage is set for a wider, partly proxy conflict, in which a fully
fledged Somali war joins the daily horrors from Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Dearden is an independent activist based in London.