In mid-March 2013, Ethiopian troops deployed in the strategic town of Xudur in Bakool region withdrew its forces with little warning to residents or allied forces.
Somali National Army (SNA) troops, who left alongside the Ethiopians, could not hold the town from al-Shabaab without external support partly due to insufficient weapons and ammunition.
At least 2,500 civilians fled to areas near the town of Ceel Barde 90km north as a result.
Unsurprisingly, al-Shabaab immediately swooped in and reclaimed Xudur after surrendering it in February 2012.
The withdrawal gave a strategic and moral victory to al-Shabaab militants under the command of Mukhtar Robow (aka Abu Mansur)—presumably hurting Ethiopia’s efforts to create a “buffer zone” on Somalia’s western borders.
After laying low in recent months, Robow resurfaced to stamp his authority on the town and to intimidate local residents from further cooperating with anyone else but al-Shabaab.
This was done, shockingly, by beheading a well-respected elderly religious figure who also worked with the government as a local judge.
But there are several other ways to look at Ethiopia’s current posture in Somalia—especially in light of its failed attempt to oust the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) from 2006-2009.
Ethiopia’s Increasingly Contested Influence by Mogadishu
Since President Mohamud took office in September 2012, his administration slowly has been trying to replace regional administrators. Several of these leaders are closely tied to or supported by Ethiopia, and the changes have been contested publicly and privately.
In February 2013, Mogadishu controversially replaced Bay governor Abdifatah Ibrahim Geesey with Abdi Adan Hooshow, and fighting broke out between troops loyal to both militias. Ethiopian troops reportedly acted on behalf of Geesey, who was on very good terms with Ethiopia.
In Hiiraan region, Ethiopia has strongly resisted Mogadishu’s attempt to replace governor Abdifatah Hasan Afrah, originally appointed by ex-President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed in March 2012.
Afrah is leader of the Shabelle Valley Administration (SVA)—one of the key militia groups that helped to liberate Beledweyne (capital of Hiiraan) from al-Shabaab in late 2011 with the help from Somali government and Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama’a (ASWJ) troops.
To date, the SVA and ASWJ have received significant support from Ethiopia.
Lastly, there are increasing signs that Mogadishu is trying to incentivize ASWJ to cut its ties with Ethiopia by signing a security agreement and encouraging its forces to enter under the command of the SNA.
Though the Somali government’s courtship of ASWJ is not new (and has failed before), the ongoing efforts to remove Ethiopian influence from the group is one of many examples of competition between the historical rivals.
The effort to introduce new leaders in Somalia’s western regions with less ties to Ethiopia is a strategic blow to the latter’s influence in the country but easily could exacerbate bilateral tensions.
Given these dynamics, discussions must have been intense in a meeting between Somali Speaker of Parliament Osman Jawaari and Ethiopian officials in the February 2013 visit to Addis Ababa. Talks were intended to discuss “parliamentary cooperation” but likely involved security discussions as well.
Ethiopia’s Evolving Somalia Policy
While most other countries in Somalia operate under the 17,731 troops within AMISOM contingents, Ethiopia has bucked the trend.
By not joining AMISOM, Ethiopia has been free to independently pursue its interests, plans, and goals in Somalia.
However, given Ethiopia’s contested local influence—and equally important—the death of its enigmatic and controversial leader Meles Zenawi announced in August 2012, it is unclear what direction its foreign policy will take.
Historically, the Ethiopian government has seen Somalia mostly as a source of extremism that must be contained and as a general threat due to the “Greater Somalia” movement. Ethiopia’s strategy has worked toward a Somalia that is not too weak and not too strong.
Few believe that Zenawi’s successor—former Deputy Prime Minister and current PM Hailemariam Desalegn—is as influential as his new role implies.
Rather, top political and military officials within the ruling TPLF are expected to be jockeying for power behind the scenes while managing the strategic direction of Ethiopia.
It is less clear how this power struggle is affecting Ethiopia’s actions in Somalia, but it is something to watch in the short-term.
To be clear, Ethiopia has stated on repeated occasions in the past year that it desired AMISOM troops to take its place in Somalia. Thus, the nature of Ethiopia’s withdrawal from Xudur is more surprising than its intention to do so.
During the buildup to Ethiopia’s last major pullout of Somali in late 2008, it made very public efforts to ensure “AMISOM is not put in danger” during the withdrawal.
While the Ethiopians’ uncoordinated exit of Hudur didn’t directly hurt AMISOM troops, it most certainly negatively affected thousands of civilians who had little time to flee or to prepare to endure al-Shabaab’s return.
Whether AMISOM can now maintain the territory taken from al-Shabaab with its current level of troops is an open question. AMISOM’s spokesperson guaranteed to RFI journalist Daniel Finnan that is has the requisite capacity to do so.
As for Ethiopia, a diminishing ability to influence events in Somalia through local allies could mean that will rely more on AMISOM to keep al-Shabaab at bay while it focuses more on countering potential threats inside its own borders.