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It Is No Easy Task Solving The Somalia Question
The recent rush to solve the crisis in Somalia between the beleaguered transitional Government and the ever-expanding Islamic Courts Union brings to the fore the strategic differences of neighboring countries over the Horn of Africa country.
On one side is Ethiopia and Kenya whose main interests stem from their common borders with Somalia and a history of conflict. This geographical reality has made the two countries incur serious security and resource costs due to the refugee influx since the collapse of government in Mogadishu.
For the Arab countries and Eritrea, the interest in Somalia stems from a common religion, Ethiopia-Somalia relations and membership of the Arab League. Kenya and Ethiopia have a strategic interest in a less menacing Somalia, while the Arab world wants a strong centralized country that can stand up to Ethiopia's age-long imperial interest in the region.
The former group forges diplomatic efforts around Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, while the latter prefers the offices of the Arab League. But there are policy differences even within the two groups. In the IGAD group, Eritrea and Djibouti have been less enthusiastic in lending support to what they suspect to be an Ethiopian-led process.
Kenya and Ethiopia also differ. While the former does not seem to have independently developed any coherent strategy, the latter is engaged in Somalia with the primary objective of maintaining or prolonging the status quo.
Although the transitional Government was cobbled together after a costly process largely defrayed by Kenya, it is an open secret that most of its leaders are Ethiopia Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's "boys".
The main constraint for Kenya is mainly the clannish interests in policy-making structures. Although Ethiopia and Kenya have substantial population of the Ogaden clans of the Somali, they are relatively more represented in government in the latter than they are in former where they are in conflict with Ethiopian forces. The Ogaden, who have clan affiliation with the president of the transitional Government, favor a strong and centralized Somalia.
This is primarily for two reasons and preferably under one of their own. First, there is the significance of filial feelings, which can be effectively used as a bargaining chip in forcing Kenya to address the developmental needs of the neglected region.
The second reason is cultural. The Ogaden, like any other cultural group that has been arbitrarily divided by colonialists, are fixated with the dream of reunification of at least some of their population in a single entity. The Kenyan Ogaden may be comfortable under Kenya, but there is an active support for the Ogaden struggle in Ethiopia.
But Ethiopia's internal conflicts force the current regime to pursue short-term diplomatic goals mainly aimed at perpetuating its tutelage. The rebellion of several ethnic groups such as the Oromo and the Ogaden reduce the policy options available to the Tigrenya minority government.
Also of importance is the entrenched opposition by Ethiopia to the emergence of Islamist groups in the Horn of Africa. Although Ethiopia is ruled by Christians, it has a substantial Muslim population. The fear is that the establishment of an Islamic state in Somalia may endanger the Christian ruling elite.
In an effort to avoid such a scenario, the Zenawi administration has been arming several clans that live on the two sides of the border with the aim of perpetuating the status quo. The Ethiopian military is active in the south and part of the northern regions of Somalia and has publicly threatened war against the Islamic Courts Union.
Ethiopia has started diplomatic initiatives aimed at forestalling efforts by Arab countries and any other aimed at institutionalizing the Islamic movement. While Ethiopia benefits from the status quo, Kenya in fact loses a lot. A chaotic Somalia will not provide strategic support to Ethiopia's internal rebellious groups such as the Ogaden guerrillas or the Oromo who are religiously, linguistically and culturally closer to the Somali.
Kenya's main strategic interest in Somalia primarily touches on its national interest in territorial integrity, national security and economic well-being. The status quo in Somalia does not augur well for these interests. Conflict in Somalia will perpetuate a huge refugee influx, increase small arms crossing into Kenya's urban areas and more pressure on resources.
The presence of Ethiopia in Somalia has forced its bitter regional rival, Eritrea, to pledge support and arms to the Islamic Courts Union. Eritrea follows the old adage - the enemy of my enemy is my friend. If the stand off between the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia and the Islamic Courts Union deteriorate, it will end up as a proxy war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Djibouti is not comfortable with Ethiopia's interference and the possible break up of Somalia. Since Somaliland reclaimed her sovereignty from the union with the south, Djibouti has been losing Ethiopian freight business to Berbera port.
As a city-state, Djibouti heavily depends on France to defray operational costs and income from its port. With France reducing its engagement, loss of port business is extremely grave for Djibouti. This is why it is opposed to the independence of Somaliland. Although the multi-billion investments by Dubai World may help stem Berbera's threats, an independent Somaliland with strong economic interests will be a threat to Djibouti.
The diplomatic tussle between some IGAD members and the Arab League is costly to the two and denies the Somali a chance to reconstitute themselves into a viable state or even states.
IGAD's insistence on peacekeepers will escalate the tussle into a full-blown conflict pitting the transitional Government against the ICU.
- The writer is a commentator on regional issues
Source: The East African Standard (Nairobi)