The Battle for Preferred Proxy Status: Ethiopia vs. Kenya

News Opinions
Zenawi's Sacrificial toy soldiers marching for round 2 invasion of Somalia

By Jawar Mohammed,

Ethiopia invaded Somalia, in 2006, in part encouraged by the United States, against series of warnings from regional analysts and strong domestic objections.

The two years of occupation, despite handing the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) a swift blow, had an unintended and deadly consequence of bolstering a more radical movement, al-Shabab, which has since emerged as the most dominant militant group in the Horn of Africa. The U.S. once again is engaged in a fight against a new enemy – another monster of its creation.

Since its strategic blunder in 2006, the U.S. has acknowledged Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia was highly counterproductive because it fueled Somali nationalism and boosted the support and legitimacy of militants. To circumvent the historical animosity between Ethiopia and Somalia, the Obama administration has chosen an alternative proxy, Kenya, culminating with an invasion a little over a month ago.

Ethiopia does not want to be left out either. It has once again invaded Somalia. For the last two decades, Ethiopia has been the primary accomplice for America’s involvement in the Somali conflict. The controversial and often covert marriage had great financial, military and political benefits for Meles Zenawi.

First, in exchange for services rendered (intelligence gathering, military actions, forming and arming friendly warlords, etc.), Ethiopia was happily compensated by the US and the “international community”.  For instance, in addition to funding the 2006 Ethiopian invasion, th U.S secretly lifted arms embargo on North Korea allowing for  Ethiopia to purchase spare-parts for its Soviet-made weapons. Second, by choosing to deal with Somalia, Zenawi maintained a “key strategic ally” image in the West – a position that helped him emerge as key African leader, and stifle domestic opposition with little scrutiny.

Ethiopia seemed offended by the United States recent decision to turn to Kenya. Zenawi’s displeasure is motivated by two main concerns.

a) Ethiopia is worried that Kenya might replace it as a key player in East Africa’s military and security affairs. Zenawi doesn’t want to lose the power and prestige the strategic alliance affords him in terms of consolidating power.

b) If Kenya succeeds in crushing al-Shabab, along with its backers, Kenya will have more leverage to influence the resultant political outcome. That of course reduces Ethiopia’s influence and will have a more immediate consequence for Ethiopia’s domestic politics.

The financial and political incentives provided by the U.S have always been a secondary motive for Zenawi’s meddling in Somalia. Ethiopia has been battling Oromo and Ogaden insurgencies, both groups with kinship, historical, and political ties to the people of Somalia. Thus, Meles’ determination to prevent the reemergence of a stable and sovereign government in Somalia is a tacit maneuver to deny these rebels a possible ally.

If Kenya, seen as sympathetic to Ethiopian rebels, dominates the Somali conflict, the resulting political arrangement might not favor Zenawi. To allow that would be a disastrous blow; thus, he secured an endorsement from the African Union by exploiting the Union’s suspicion of western imperialistic ambitions in light of recent events in Libya.

At the moment, both Ethiopia and Kenya are working from two angles in the battle for Somalia’s control. Ethiopia’s decision to throw itself on this conflict is based on a simple strategic calculation that its military strength will tip the outcome in their favor.

The current invasion marks Kenya’s first serious internal or external war since independence. Kenya’s military is too inexperienced and too ill-prepared to wage a successful war outside its territory against a well-orchestrated insurgency. That is why its initial fanfare was easily halted by a ragtag militia, not even al- Shahab’s main brigades. They blamed their fate on bad weather.

In contrast, Ethiopia has an old and battle-tested military institution with a wealth of experience during its various internal and external wars. This military institution has an accumulated experience fighting Somalis – both the state army and various insurgent forces. Besides, the current army is commanded by generals who themselves were once rebels with clear predisposition to counterinsurgency strategies. Hence, there is little doubt that, the Ethiopians are capable of obliterating al-Shabab within days and re-occupy Mogadishu. That will deny Kenya the privilege of exerting more control.
Ethiopian military officials are mockingly-bragging, “while Kenyans send threatening text messages and tweets to al-Shabab from the border, Ethiopia will hand deliver it in Kismayu.”

Ethiopia’s mission is two-fold: to protect its prestige as key regional player by proving more capable than Kenya, the emerging competitor, and to preempt the possible installation of a less friendly Somali government. At the event its mission triumphs, Ethiopia will force the U.S. to reconsider its decision given Kenya’s inefficiency and unreliability.

While these political games are played out behind closed doors, the prolonged suffering of the Somali people continues. And Somalia hangs onto its failed state status.