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Success of Ethiopian Pullout Tied to Progress at Djibouti Talks

In Ethiopia’s parliament Thursday, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi reaffirmed plans to pull all of his country’s troops out of neighboring Somalia within the next few weeks. In the face of a growing Islamist insurgency by the extremist al-Shabab wing, which has diminished the influence of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Mr. Meles announced that his forces had fulfilled their main goals of blocking a feared Islamic regime takeover next door to Ethiopia and had given international powers more room to intervene. Political Science Professor Ken Menkhaus of Davidson College says that Addis Ababa’s intentions, whether carried out within weeks or over ensuing months, will bring new challenges to negotiators at ongoing talks in Djibouti who are trying to set up a new unity government.

“This is all taking place in the context of the Djibouti peace process in which a new government of unity which brings together moderate elements of the opposition and moderate elements of the government have formed a new parliament, with the possibility then of forming a new government that might actually replace President (Abdullahi) Yusuf. Were that to happen and were the Ethiopians to withdraw, there are many who would feel that that would take the wind out of the sails of the Shabab, which is the main preoccupation of both the Ethiopians, the United States, and the Somalis,” he noted.

Menkhaus calls Djibouti talks chances of success a “long shot,” that requires the opposition and TFG moderates to establish a new government quickly and generate enough support in the capital, Mogadishu, and in Somalia’s south to block the military advance of al-Shabab. If past disunity is a more likely outcome to the talks, Professor Menkhaus says he thinks all sides will revert to the fractionalized rivalries of the past.

“I think the more likely scenario is that we are going to see Somalia fall back into a status quo ante, which is to say a lot of quarreling fiefdoms controlled by rival Islamist factions, warlords, clans, and others,” he said.

With the TFG barely controlling only the capital and the seat of parliament in Baidoa, hopes for a new unity government that could emerge from the Djibouti talks would lift the immediate threat of an al-Shabab military advance that is well underway. Menkhaus says that the only chance a new government emerging from the talks can establish its legitimacy is if it is accompanied by an Ethiopian troop withdrawal.

“If it survives, it’s going to be reanimated through the Djibouti process. And for that to happen, the Ethiopians have to withdraw. If they don’t, the credibility of the moderates involved in the Djibouti process is going to be undermined because the Djibouti agreement is tied to and calls for an Ethiopian redeployment. What will happen next, again, whether these moderate Somalis will have the means to hold off the Shabab advances remains to be seen. But I’m of the school of thought that believes that the Ethiopian withdrawal will actually help. It will diffuse the insurgency. The Shabab will have to stand for what they are for instead of what they are against,” said Menkhaus.

In parliament, Prime Minister Meles pledged that Ethiopia would provide cover for a withdrawal of African Union peacekeepers who want to leave Somalia. Only two countries, Burundi and Uganda, have contributed peacekeepers to the force for Somalia over the past two years. They make up approximately three thousand soldiers of a force that organizers had envisioned to grow to eight thousand.

A Ugandan official has denied remarks by Mr. Meles the Ugandan and Burundian contingent had sought Ethiopian help for pulling the peace force out of Somalia. In the event the peacekeepers do need to leave as the Ethiopian exodus is occurring, Professor Menkhaus foresees significant consequences.

“The announcement that the African Union forces do want to leave and do not want to stay if Ethiopia withdraws has interesting implications. It means that the seaport in particular will no longer be protected by the AMISON (African Union Mission to Somalia) force. That will almost certainly be the site of fighting among various Somali factions. That will probably lead to a suspension of food shipments into the port because their insurance companies probably will not allow them to go into an area that’s not under the control of a peacekeeping force there. So there are humanitarian implications to this that we’ll have to watch very closely,” he pointed out.

Refuting reports of an African Union pullout, Uganda’s Deputy Foreign Minister Okella Oryem said that the Kampala government has been planning to boost its troop presence in Somalia in the event of an Ethiopian withdrawal. If that’s the case, notes Menkhaus, their protection can only come from the local Somali population in Mogadishu and beyond.

“Otherwise if Shabab and others want to target them, they are really going to be under siege. My guess is that they have forged enough local alliances. They’ve done some good work in some of the neighborhoods, that they’re going to enjoy some protection from Somali populations who don’t want to see them go, who do understand the implications if they were to pull out,” he said.