By Prof. ASGEDE HAGOS
Special to USAfrica The Newspaper, Houston
USAfricaonline.com and NigeriaCentral.com
As we enter the next phase of the war against global terrorism in the year 2002, the United States of America should be careful about making easy choices for short-term gains. Why? Those may lead to difficult, long-term losses. Today, it seems there are many unsavory regimes ready to enlist, not necessarily to combat global terrorism but to use the war and American technological power and prestige for their own purposes. However, it is critically important for the U.S. not to let itself be used this way in order to win the larger, protracted war.
There are at least six nations that are being considered for direct military action&emdash;two in Africa (Somalia and Sudan), two in the Middle East (Iraq and Yemen), and two in Asia (Indonesia and the Philippines). Some political analysts have indicated that Somalia maybe the first target in this new phase of the war. We have also seen many activities&emdash;U.S. aircraft carrier patrolling the shores of Somalia, U.S. reconnaissance flights over Mogadishu, American teams conducting investigations on the ground in collaboration with Ethiopian officers&emdash;that raise the question if indeed the poor Horn of Africa nation is the next target.
Somalia is being targeted primarily on the prodding of the minority regime of Ethiopia, mostly for its own reasons. Since soon after the September 11 attack, the regime has been trying to sell to Washington the idea that neighboring Somalia is a terrorist haven.
However, Ethiopia's assessment of the situation in Somalia must be viewed with a great deal of skepticism, if not rejected outright, because it may have nothing to do with the facts on the ground. An American expert on the Horn of Africa told the Christian Science Monitor that the new U.S. interest in Somalia is being "driven mainly by general perception and exaggerated Ethiopian intelligence." The Tigrayan-dominated Ethiopia regime and the Somali warlords it has created and/or supports have every reason to paint Somalia as a terrorist playground. Explaining their motivation, an expert knowledgeable about the security situation in Somalia, in an interview with Reuters News Agency, put it this way: "The new game in Somalia is to call your enemy a terrorist in the hope that America will destroy him for you."
There are several reasons why aligning with Ethiopia on Somalia would be a bad idea that my even jeopardize the current coalition and undermine the long-term objectives of the war against global terrorism.
First, such partnership with a nation that portrays itself as "a Christian" nation against a Muslim neighbor, which is a member of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Arab League, and based on little and tainted information, would give the war a religious color, thereby undermining President Bush's core message right from the start: that the war is against terrorism, not against Islam. Historically, Ethiopia viewed itself as a "Christian island surrounded by a Muslim sea." As a result, Islam has historically been perceived as a major threat to this country, and Ethiopian Muslims, though they constitute at least half of the population, have had an invisible presence in the country. A former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia wrote: "Islam in Ethiopia has confined itself entirely to the spiritual realm. It has shown no interest in politics, though it is keenly aware that it comprises at least half the population and probably more."
Furthermore, Ethiopia's unshakable image in the eyes of the world is that of a Christian nation. The recent U.S. Department of State classification of all the main Horn of Africa nations in the region, except Ethiopia, as either predominantly Arab or Muslim, also reinforces that image. Apparently, this has nothing to do with being "predominantly Arab or Muslim."
Both Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea have a 50-50 Christian/Muslim makeup.
Second, Ethiopia has been taking every opportunity to benefit from this image. For example, it played the Arab/Islam card for decades in its fight against the Eritrean independence struggle (1961-1991). It used it as a convenient bogeyman to fight its regional and domestic enemies to the north, though Eritrea is no more Arab or Moslem than Ethiopia. During the last half century, Ethiopia's foreign policy strategists milked Arabism to gain Western support in their political and diplomatic effort against the Eritrean movement for independence. The successive Ethiopian regimes sought to piggyback on the Anti-Arab propaganda widespread in the West, especially in the United States and Europe, as a result of years of media portrayal of Arabs as 'terrorists' bent on destroying Western Christian civilization.
Even the current minority regime in Addis Ababa, which started off in l991 promising to be more sensitive to religious and ethnic issues more than its predecessors, has been trying to play the same old song. The first thing the Meles Zenawi regime did when a border war broke out in May 1998 with Eritrea was dust the reliable Arab/Islam card off the shelf of Mengistu Hailemariam. The day the conflict flared up it began to call the Eritrean government "Shaebia," the Arab version of the name of the Eritrea ruling party (The Popular Front for Democracy and Justice), apparently attempting to send messages to the West as well as Israel. As in the past, the current regime drew the specter of Arab support of Eritrea in the border war, because apparently this game plays well to Western audiences.
Third, it is beyond question that Ethiopia's involvement in Somalia has to do more with internal issues than al Qaida threats. Ethiopia has been consistent in its effort to keep its traditional enemy to the east fractured and unable to fight back over the Ogaden, the Somali region in eastern Ethiopia that the two countries fought two major wars over in the last 40 years. American military presence in the subregion with Ethiopian partnership would also help the badly battered Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated regime to deal with the growing threat coming from the country's largest and most oppressed ethnic group, the Oromos, and their armed organization, the Oromo Liberation Front, which is said to receive some international assistance through Somalia. Among the other armed groups fighting against the Ethiopian regime is the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), which is struggling for the rights of Somali Ethiopians.
Somalia and Ethiopia have fought two major wars since the l960s over the Somali region of Ogaden. This and Ethiopia's repeated incursions over the last two years represent an ongoing source of tension between the two countries and is something almost all Somalis feel very bitter about. Explaining the main source of the tension, the renowned Somali novelist Nurrudin Farah, in an interview with the Washington Post earlier this year, said: "Ethiopia occupies nearly a third of Somalia." The award-winning writer also accused Ethiopia of "sabotage[ing] everything that [Somali] interim government tries to do to make the word of peace spread." So, an alliance with Ethiopia would be viewed as a U.S. endorsement not only of Addis Ababa's constant incursions into Somalia, but also of its apparent policy to keep Somalia fragmented and weak.
Fourth, this may also draw the U.S., though unwittingly, into the quagmire of Ethiopia's growing internal conflicts some of which have Somali connections. This is a familiar game for Ethiopian rulers. Ethiopian foreign policy specialists are adept at getting outside forces and governments to fight Ethiopian wars. In 1977, they got the Cubans and Soviets to repel Said Barre's forces from the Ogaden. They were also successful in drawing the two superpowers to come to their side&emdash;with the Soviet Union involved directly&emdash;in Addis Ababa's 30-year attempt to prevent Eritrea's independence. An American who served as advisor to Emperor Haile Selasssie for decades, John Spencer, wrote that Ethiopian crises are "often resolved by foreign dei ex machina." He traced this pattern of Ethiopian behavior from the 16th century when the Portuguese stopped the Gragn invasion in the East, to the 1970s when the Soviets and Cubans fought Ethiopia's wars in the east and the north.
Fifth, such partnership would also further destabilize an already shaky region, thereby creating more fertile ground for terrorism. That is why, unless stopped, Ethiopia's attempt to perpetuate a Somali status quo of fragmentation can only create an environment for al Qaida type of terrorist organizations.
It is also worth noting Ethiopia's stated stand against one alleged al Qaida cell, al-Ittihad al Islamiya, in Somalia, while supporting well-known al Qaida cells in Eritrea, the Eritrean Jihad Movement and the Eritrean Islamic Salvation Movement, in its attempt to destabilize Eritrea. The trial last year of the first group of terrorists that attacked the World Trade Center revealed that the Eritrean al Qaida cells are wholly financed by Osama bin Laden. The cells are part of a coalition of Eritrean groups that Ethiopia has been supporting actively since the outbreak the Ethiopian-Eritrean border conflict in 1998.
There is no need for the U.S. to partner with a nation with so much baggage in a war whose objectives will be scrutinized more closely in this next stage than when the target was Afghanistan, the epicenter of terrorism. Furthermore, the U.S. can clear Somalia of any terrorist cells, if there are any, with a minimal risk, with the help of the Somali interim government and nations that have no ax to grind under the cover of combating global terrorism. On the other hand, endorsing Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia territory, no matter what the cover is, would further destabilize the subregion, undermine Bush's core message and may even risk the existing coalition, especially with the Arab and Islamic nations.
In the end, the price of such partnership would be too high to
accept and too difficult to justify.
Hagos, professor of communications at Delaware State University and president of the Center for Conflict Prevention and Resolution in Africa is a contributing editor of USAfricaonline.com and USAfrica The Newspaper.
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