Ethiopian government spokesperson Getachew Reda hinted that the country’s troops could join AMISOM in Somalia. This comes as the United Nations Security Council is soon expected to vote on a troop increase of 4,000 for the multi-national force currently capped at 17,761 troops.
After re-entering Somalia in November 2011, Ethiopian troops have operated independently. Getachew stated that “operational freedom” was a key issue that prevented Ethiopia from considering AMISOM integration earlier.
If Ethiopia were to join AMISOM, it could shed more light on how many of its forces are operating in Somalia–or at least how many of those would be operating on AMISOM’s payroll. Getachew vaguely described the number of Ethiopian troops in the country as in the “hundreds.”
In an interview with RFI journalist Daniel Finnan, AMISOM spokesperson Colonel Ali Aden Houmed said that he had little information about Ethiopia’s potential integration.
Houmed stated AMISOM’s coordination with Ethiopia had been more “strategic” than “operational,” further reflecting Ethiopia’s operational independence to date and the disconnect among multi-national forces that has at times hampered fighting al-Shabaab.
Lastly, Houmed did not elaborate on the issue of whether joining AMISOM would provide Ethiopia with financial benefits for its military operations.
In recent months, al-Shabaab’s activities in Ethiopia may be considered a more serious threat.
The ability of Somali, Ethiopian, and AMISOM forces to control big cities–but not always major roads and small towns–has enabled al-Shabaab to conduct several operations inside Ethiopia–especially from Somalia’s bordering Hiiraan region.
Additionally, in October 2013, two alleged Somali nationals in Addis Ababa (who were not publicly confirmed yet as al-Shabaab members) unintentionally blew themselves up in what Ethiopian officials thought may have been preparations for an attack during a World Cup qualifying soccer match against Nigeria. See footage of the incident below.
The threat of al-Shabaab in Ethiopia was further reflected in the issue of a “heightened alert” in November 2013.
Financial and Strategic Considerations
Ethiopia’s independence from AMISOM has meant that it has had to rally for financial support for its military operations independently.
Curiously, in consecutive years before major international conferences on Somalia, Ethiopia has threatened to pull out of the country in what some suspect as a move to leverage donor countries to contribute to its military coffers. (See the 2012 pullout threat before the London conference.)
Ethiopia’s hasty pullout from Xuddur in Bakool region in March 2013 allowed al-Shabaab to move back in and caused stress for fleeing residents. This may be the most recent notable example of how Ethiopia has used its military presence in Somalia as a bargaining chip rather than a peacekeeping tool.
If Ethiopia does eventually join AMISOM, it would be following in the footsteps of Kenya–which officially integrated its troops in July 2012 to save money.
Ethiopia may see Kenya’s own controversial “operational freedom” (e.g., its backing of the Jubaland initiative, its support to Sheikh Ahmed Madobe’s Ras Kamboni, and its influence in the lucrative Kismayo port) as a sign that it can maintain de facto operational independence and receive financial support all while joining AMISOM.
Interestingly, in May 2013, a Jubaland technical committee member described the divergent interests of AU forces as between “AMISOM in Mogadishu” (Uganda/Burundi) and “AMISOM in Kismayo” (Kenya).
As a result of the Somali government’s actions and engagement in recent months, Ethiopia lost some influence that it developed through relationships with local Somali politicians and militiamen.
If Ethiopia decides to join AMISOM, it could allow Ethiopia to regain some of its strategic interests inside Somalia and to gain more influence in a key regional body such as AMISOM–even as Ethiopia and Kenya speak of efforts as a “joint operation.”
It also could be seen as the most financially viable route in the short-term to countering the threat of al-Shabaab.