Gwynne Dyer: The U.S. and Ethiopia's blunder in Somalia

Statesmen ought to have a special prize just for themselves, like fools have the Darwin Awards. The Darwin Awards commemorate very stupid people who did a service to human evolution by accidentally removing themselves from the gene pool. The statesman’s equivalent could be called something like the Cheney-Zenawi Award.

I mention this because the shining stupidity of the U.S. vice president and the Ethiopian prime minister is on special display this week as the Ethiopian army prepares to withdraw from Somalia two years after its foredoomed invasion, leaving the country in the hands of precisely the people whom they wanted to eliminate. We need negative role models too, and you couldn’t ask for worse than this pair.

I can’t actually prove that getting Ethiopia to invade Somalia was Cheney’s brainchild, but it smells exactly like a Cheney idea: crude, violent, and barking up entirely the wrong tree. Just like invading Iraq, in fact.

As for Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi, he had already distinguished himself by becoming obsessed with the stupidest border war in modern African history. It wasn’t his fault to start with: Ethiopia was attacked out of the blue in 1998 by the insanely aggressive regime in Eritrea, but Ethiopian troops drove the Eritreans back. By the ceasefire in mid-2000, Ethiopia had recovered all the ground it lost at the start.

An international commission found Eritrea guilty of aggression, and another one arbitrated all the disputed stretches of border, granting Ethiopia most of its claims. Both sides said they would accept the rulings—and then Zenawi walked away from the deal. He has been getting ready for another war with Eritrea ever since.

Going to war with Eritrea again would mean defying the United Nations ruling, so Zenawi needed the backing of some great power that could protect him from the UN’s censure. Who better than the United States, which has assiduously ignored and belittled the UN under the Bush administration? Now what could Ethiopia do for the Bush administration in return?

Well, it could invade Somalia. Washington didn’t want to put American troops into Somalia again, having had its nose bloodied in 1993, but it did want to overthrow the civilian regime that was restoring peace in southern Somalia and put its favourite warlord in power instead. Ethiopian troops would do the job just as well.

I think I can see the self-satisfied smirk on Cheney’s face as he closed the deal: another triumph for the subtle master of geopolitics. I can’t make out the look on Zenawi’s face, but maybe he was smiling too. Too clever by half, as the saying goes.

The job was to overthrow the Union of Islamic Courts, a mass movement funded by local merchants in Mogadishu who wanted to end the constant robberies and kidnappings that made life impossible in the Somali capital. The UIC mobilized the desire of ordinary Somalis for an end to the violence that had ravaged the country for 15 years, and the peace it brought to Mogadishu soon spread over most of southern Somalia.

Unfortunately, the courts were “Islamic” and they wanted to enforce shari’a law, which in Washington’s book made them practically terrorists. They did have a few unsavoury allies, notably an extremist militia called Al-Shebab, but they gave people in Mogadishu their first real hope of security and justice. They should not have been destroyed.

The Ethiopian army invaded Somalia in December 2006, drove the Islamic Courts out of Mogadishu, and installed Abdullahi Yusuf, the president of the “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) of Somalia, in power. Well, not exactly in power, since the citizens and militias of Mogadishu immediately began attacking the hated Ethiopians, who only controlled whatever was in their gunsights. As for Yusuf, he only controlled a suite of rooms and some telephones.

He was originally chosen as president of the TFG, with ample U.S. support, at a conclave of Somali warlords dignified with the name of “parliament” in Kenya in 2004. He would never have made it back to Mogadishu without the help of the Ethiopian army, and accepting that help made him deeply suspect in the eyes of most Somalis.

The resistance has driven the Ethiopian army out of most of southern Somalia in the past two years, and now the Ethiopians are going home. Yusuf will have to leave too, since he has no supporters except the Ethiopians and the Americans. That will leave Mogadishu in the hands not of the Union of Islamic Courts, alas, but of the extremist militias that have pushed the UIC aside during their struggle against the foreign troops.

It’s almost as perverse as the Bush administration’s decision to eliminate Iran’s two great enemies in the Gulf, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Ethiopia and the United States have not only plunged Somalia needlessly back into war, they have made it possible for the nastiest, craziest extremists, people who think it is their duty to kill other Muslims with “un-Islamic” haircuts, to take power in Mogadishu.

The world needs a Cheney-Zenawi Award for Gross Political Stupidity, and I know who the first nominees should be.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book, Climate Wars, has just been published in Canada by Random House.




Dec 18, 2008 at 8:33am

Brilliant analysis! So fitting for sites such as Highly articulate, enlightening & bold commentators such as Gwynne Dyer's are engangered species in the media world. keep it up and keep give it to us straight.

But may I advise the writer to not ever venture into Ethiopia anytime soon for the stupid Meles Zenawi might remove the wrong person (Dyer) from the gene pool!

Buush Mohamed

Dec 18, 2008 at 1:01pm

The Author of this column understands greatly how politics is going on the horn of Africa, how many years was he in Somalia or studying that country, it amazes me that there can be people in the west who understand the real story that is going in somalia currently! great and well thought column..