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Somalia and Ethiopia: Caught in a Quagmire

For most residents of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, this has been a catastrophic year. The country’s longstanding crisis has moved into a new, chilling cycle of foreign intervention, relentless insurgency and brutal response. People who survived sixteen years of war, statelessness and ruthless warlords are fleeing. Civilians are daily victims of the violence, including mass arrests, targeted killings, indiscriminate bombardment and attacks similar to those common in Iraq – remote-control explosives and suicide bombings – with even less reporting and international attention.

Somalia’s crisis has been exacerbated by external factors and actors, and the threat now extends far beyond its borders. If the conflict in Mogadishu is not adequately and urgently addressed, it could fracture the brittle stability of the entire Horn of Africa.

A year ago, Ethiopian troops ousted the Islamic Courts Union and helped the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia establish itself in Mogadishu. Since then, intensifying conflict between Ethiopian and government troops on one side and a growing insurgency on the other, has shattered the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians and dashed hopes of short-term political stability.

After the collapse of the last Somali government of Siyad Barre in 1991 and the bitter clan fighting of the 1990s, Mogadishu fell under the control of warlords who terrorised civilians. Early last year the Islamic Courts Union, a coalition of businessmen, Mogadishu clan elders and militant Islamists, mainly drawn from the capital’s dominant Hawiye clan, unexpectedly defeated many of the warlords, some of whom were members of the Transitional Federal Parliament.

Courts Out

Many Mogadishu residents welcomed the security brought by the Courts, but the bellicose, Islamist tendencies of some of its leaders and the threat they posed to the weak Transitional Federal Government alarmed regional and international observers. The United States claimed that some were sheltering suspects responsible for the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, stoking fears that Somalia was fostering Islamic radicalism.

A US-backed Ethiopian offensive swiftly ousted the Courts, but its radical military wing, Al Shabaab, quickly regrouped. Drawing on strong nationalist and traditional anti-Ethiopian feelings, Al-Shabaab and other anti-Ethiopian insurgents managed to recruit many of Mogadishu’s clan-based militiamen. This brought the conflict into the capital’s densely populated neighbourhoods.

Fighting between Ethiopian forces and the Courts escalated in March and April. Following a series of attacks and bombings of their barracks, Ethiopian troops mounted a massive offensive, involving sustained artillery, rocket and mortar bombardment of civilian neighbourhoods suspected, in some cases correctly, of being insurgent strongholds.

Neither the insurgency nor the Ethiopian forces have made any apparent effort to distinguish between civilian and military targets and hundreds of people died or were wounded in indiscriminate attacks by both. Up to four hundred thousand people fled Mogadishu in a matter of weeks. Those too poor to pay for transport flooded the main roads on foot.

Although the insurgency and Ethiopian forces were mainly responsible for the war crimes committed during March and April, the government’s own force, mainly drawn from Puntland militias loyal to President Abdullahi Yussuf, also committed serious abuses, including widespread looting, mass arrests and the mistreatment of detainees.

The government declared victory in Mogadishu in late April, but the insurgents soon launched a new round of attacks, while Court’s leaders, many now based in Asmara, Eritrea, continued to call for Ethiopia’s withdrawal from Somalia.

The insurgents still attack Ethiopian and government targets daily. The relentless ambushes using remote-controlled explosive devices echo tactics used by insurgents in Iraq, but without the accompanying international attention. Western governments, as well as many major media outlets, have failed to address publicly the human rights dimensions of the crisis, while many Somali journalists, who brave shells and shrapnel to continue reporting, have received death threats. Eight of them have been killed this year, raising concerns that this underreported crisis will become even less visible.

Mogadishu was wracked by renewed clashes in September and October, and another ninety-thousand people fled. Humanitarian aid agencies increasingly complain that efforts to reach civilians are regularly hampered by insecurity as well as obstruction from government officials.

The situation could get even worse. Mogadishu has always been the barometer of Somali political tensions, and there are fears that the violence convulsing the city – and the resulting political and clan-based polarisation – could destabilise the whole country, as it did in the early 1990s.

The conflict may already be spreading. In late October, at least seven people were killed in exchanges between government forces and clan militia in Merka, just outside Mogadishu. Militias loyal to former Courts leader, Yussuf Siyad Indha’adde, are reportedly regrouping nearby.

During the past few weeks, clashes between insurgents and government and Ethiopian troops also broke out in Beletweyne, a strategic town on the main road to Ethiopia. Ethiopian troops responding to ambushes by reportedly killing and injuring people with indiscriminate rocket-fire.

Two once stable regions – Somaliland and Puntland – may also be drawn in. In mid October, Somaliland’s forces captured the contested town of Las Anod, and now Puntland is reorganising its militias to recapture the town.

The mayhem in Mogadishu is also fuelling regional instability. Although Ethiopia uses the rhetoric of international terrorism to justify its action in Somalia, its intervention was largely provoked by regional concerns, especially continued tensions with Eritrea, which reportedly provided support to the Courts as well as to armed Ethiopian opposition groups.

Ethiopia’s presence in Somalia is also contributing to conflict in its own eastern Somali region, where a longstanding rebel movement, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, seized the opportunity of the military being stretched next door to increase attacks, including on a Chinese oil site. Ethiopian troops responded with a brutal counter-insurgency campaign against civilians.


In October, Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi resigned amid accusations of corruption and poor working relations with Yussuf. Many Somalis see Yussuf’s choice of a successor as a critical test of the government’s future and ability to bridge the deepening clan tensions, but the west must also do more.

Ethiopia’s primary western allies – the United States, Britain and the European Union – have responded with silent diplomacy and apparent support for Ethiopian policies. This is short-sighted.

Ethiopia faces difficult challenges at home, in Somalia and the region. But human rights abuses and war crimes are the wrong way to deal with them. Such conduct is creating a mounting toll of victims and risks sending more young people into the arms of the radicals.

If western policymakers want to stabilise the Horn, they should apply pressure on Addis Ababa to end its own human rights abuses and ensure accountability. They should support independent human rights investigations into crimes in Somalia and Ethiopia’s Somali region and demand that Ethiopia and the government end attacks on civilians and make it possible to deliver humanitarian aid to displaced people. They must also send the message, privately, publicly and consistently, that Ethiopia and other players will never achieve sustainable peace and security by flouting the rule of law and international human rights.

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