This article first appeared as “Massacre in Somalia: Ethiopian occupiers carry out US policy in the Horn of Africa,” in the May-June 2007 issue of the International Socialist Review.
In a four-day assault beginning in late March, the Ethiopian force occupying Somalia killed at least 400 and as many as 1,000 members of two Somali subclans that oppose the occupation. Backed by the Somali government they installed in January, the Ethiopian invaders used tanks, helicopter gunships, and artillery to demolish whole neighborhoods in the capital, Mogadishu, from March 29 to April 1.
Corpses of civilians still lay decaying in the streets in the second week of April, and tens of thousands fled the city — in addition to some 100,000 who had already left since February. Observers said the violence in the city was the most intense since 1993, when U.S.-led UN forces, according to the New York Times, killed and wounded 10,000 Somalis in a three-month period.
U.S. fingerprints are all over this latest crime of murder and ethnic cleansing — and on the broader crime of bringing clan warfare back to a country that had been struggling its way out of it.
The U.S. began by giving a green light to Ethiopia’s December invasion when it pushed last fall for UN Security Council authorization of an armed African Union (AU) force to protect the Somali “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG). Ethiopia’s president Meles Zenawi took this as a signal that AU troops would be available to relieve Ethiopian troops if they invaded to install the TFG on their own.
The U.S. and Meles were united in the goal of ousting the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which had ruled the south of Somalia from the middle of 2006. Using Somali variants of Islamic law, the UIC ended the rule of clan-based warlords — establishing relative peace in Mogadishu for the first time since the fall of the U.S.-backed dictator Siad Barre in 1991.
Officials confirmed that U.S. special forces troops covertly accompanied the Ethiopian invasion force, and the U.S. Navy openly blocked the UIC’s escape by sea. In early January, U.S. warplanes attempted an aerial assassination of “al-Qaeda suspects” outside Mogadishu. According to the aid agency Oxfam, the attack resulted in the death of 70 Somali herdsman.
These efforts were coordinated from U.S. Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, a tiny Somali-speaking former French colony that borders both Ethiopia and Somalia. The Pentagon’s Djibouti task force, which numbers just 1,500, also trained the Kenyan border security forces that scooped up hundreds who were fleeing Somalia during the first weeks of the invasion.
According to reports in early April from Human Rights Watch and the Associated Press (AP), the Kenyans then handed over hundreds of “terror suspects” of fourteen nationalities to the TFG in early 2007. Still held without charge, many of them ended up in Ethiopian jails. When the U.S. later confirmed that the FBI had interrogated several of the detainees, the Meles government was forced to admit the detainees’ presence. A few soon started to be set free. One Swedish teenage detainee told the AP after her release that uniformed U.S. troops oversaw the operation from her initial seizure in Kenya.
Ethiopia’s service of “extraordinary rendition” for the U.S. “war on terror” is no surprise. For one thing, Ethiopia is the second largest African recipient of U.S. aid after Egypt, recently receiving up to $500 million yearly. For another, the government keeps hundreds of its own political opponents locked up, especially since Meles’ 2005 reelection, when security forces killed 200 demonstrators who were protesting vote rigging.
U.S. collaboration with its proxy Ethiopian force reached bizarre depths when officials approved the import of what it understood to be North Korean spare parts for Ethiopian tanks — tanks that were then in the process of flattening Somali civilian neighborhoods. Such arms transfers are forbidden under UN sanctions that the U.S. pressed on North Korea last fall.
The African Union force, now limited to just 1,200 Ugandan troops, would be unable to function without logistical and other support from the U.S. contractor Dyncorp. This jack-of-all-trades paramilitary outfit, peppered with CIA and ex-military employees, also provides housing and transport for the AU force in Darfur, plus military training for former rebels in southern Sudan. Dyncorp’s Virginia headquarters are located just down the street from Langley, the home of the CIA.
The Ugandan force itself is also a product of American funds, training, and “vision.” The AU’s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, arose out of anticolonial struggles and explicitly foreswore military intervention in member countries. But when the AU was formed in 2002, its main supporter and guide — the U.S. — saw the new grouping as an instrument for spreading neoliberal economics throughout Africa and for creating a continental police force. Member states that lacked the means or the motivation to contribute troops to the AU found that they could gain favored status with the world’s only superpower if they accepted U.S. training and funding.
Nigeria and South Africa, which have the continent’s strongest economies, signed on to be lieutenants for U.S. policy in Africa. Poorer countries such as Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, and Rwanda signed on because they needed a patron. Uganda’s force in Somalia trained for a year, with U.S. help, for its current duty.
The Pentagon’s obsession with “urban warfare,” which dates back to its last retreat from Mogadishu in 1993, has “spinoff” benefits to states that have rebellious slum populations of their own. U.S. training offers poor states the world’s most advanced weapons and tactics for repressing urban rebels — while building proxy forces for the U.S. in places where its own troops might become special targets. Even if the Ugandan mission “fails,” President Yoweri Musveni’s troops are gaining experience that will be useful to him when they get home.
In addition to military assistance, projects of construction and aid delivery by the Pentagon’s Djibouti task force cement the ties of African clients to their imperial patron. As New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof gushed in a column titled “Aid Workers with Guns” — written after chatting with the counterinsurgency specialists at Camp Lemonier — these “good works” are also calculated to send the message that the U.S. government is helping Africa’s poor instead of helping to repress them.
For now, there is a division of labor between the Ethiopian occupiers, which carry on offensive operations, and the Uganda “peacekeepers,” which defend the TFG. But this could change, since the insurgent militias have vowed to treat the AU force as part of a hostile invasion force. Other AU countries that have pledged peacekeeping troops are holding back to see whether they’d become targets in a more generalized war of Somali resistance.
A war of resistance
Such a war is possible. The TFG, which was weak and poorly rooted to begin with, has become even more isolated as resistance grows and key figures defect. The TFG is the product of a 2004 conference in Kenya that was dominated by Ethiopia. Its leadership is skewed to favor the north’s Darod clan, with which Ethiopia’s Meles has cultivated close ties. TFG President Abdullahi Yusuf, a career army officer from the northern Puntland region, spent most of the past two decades in Ethiopia.
The resistance is centered in the Hawiye clan, which predominates in Mogadishu and formed the original base of the Islamic courts movement. Courts militias, reconstituted since their initial rout in the invasion, are prominent in fighting the Ethiopians and the TFG. But now, warlords of two Hawiye subclans have joined the fight. What’s more, some businessmen of disfavored subclans have thrown their own militias into battle — forces that have, until now, never picked fights except to defend the businesses themselves.
For those that remain in Mogadishu, conditions are getting worse. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) reports 800 cases of cholera since March 19, the largest outbreak since MSF set up shop in the city fifteen years ago. A spokesman said that the outbreak is probably much bigger, but the fighting has prevented residents from seeking care. Meanwhile, food prices have jumped 50 percent because of the return of warlord “taxation” of street traffic, a practice that ended under UIC rule.
The TFG’s clan-based outlook has framed its view of a future national government, as Yusuf seeks to convene 3,000 clan representatives in Mogadishu for a constitutional conference. European Union officials, Somalia specialists, and even some American officials see this as a recipe for a return to perpetual warlordism. But Yusuf, backed by his Ethiopian friends, has refused to include non-clan political forces and religious forces such as the non-jihadist wing of the UIC.
The Islamic courts were clan-based themselves but possessed a unity in religion that allowed them to transcend clan divisions. Each had a jurisdiction within a specific subclan, starting with the Hawiye. But this structure started last year to be cloned into other clans and stitched together as the UIC, the umbrella force that governed the south in the second half of last year.
The courts movement first rose in the chaos of clan warfare that the U.S. left behind in the early 1990s. The courts received support from Mogadishu businessmen who wanted to be able to enforce commercial contracts and sought protection from thieves and warlord extortion.
The decentralized structure of the movement allowed significant diversity in the severity of court judgments, based on different political-religious tendencies, from traditional Sufi mysticism to Salafist concepts of militant jihad.
According to the International Crisis Group, the Salafists gained in influence as the movement turned to military organization. This began in 2005 when courts activists perceived a threat of U.S. intervention through its backing of the TFG. Militarization accelerated at the beginning of 2006 when the CIA cobbled together a warlord force in hopes of destroying the courts and clearing the way for the TFG.
After four months of fighting, the better-disciplined courts militias — centered around a unique multi-clan unit of 400 fighters — defeated the warlords in June. In the vacuum left by the retreat of the warlords, the UIC began to exert control as a political force for the first time.
The Ethiopian invasion broke up the courts themselves and sent many of the moderate leaders into exile — who are now presented as the “political wing” of the movement — while others, particularly the Salafists, dug in for a fight in Somalia. Despite the distinctions, both wings are united against the presence of Ethiopian troops and the pretensions of the TFG to legitimacy. And most residents residents of Mogadishu seem to agree with them.
While the occupation is drawing the resistance together, it’s dividing the TFG itself. Early in the year, Yusuf ousted the speaker of the parliament for favoring talks with UIC moderates, and now the former speaker has turned against the Ethiopian occupation. In April, Hussein Aidid, the deputy prime minister, also turned against the Ethiopian presence. Aidid is the U.S.-educated son of Muhammad Farah Aidid, the warlord bogeyman of the U.S. occupation of the early 1990s. Hussein actually re-entered the Somalia as a U.S. Marine in the 1990s and has since posed himself as a U.S.-friendly powerbroker within the country. The Aidid family is from the Habr-Gedir subclan of the Hawiye, which took the brunt of attacks during the U.S. occupation and today is the main target of the Ethiopians.
Given his clan roots, Aidid had to renounce the connection to the Ethiopians. But that’s something the TFG’s Yusuf can’t do, since they keep him in power.
Most of these outcomes were foreseeable — slaughter by the invading force, a flood of refugees, the resurgence of clan warfare and the splintering of a rootless stooge government. It’s hard to avoid the thought that Ethiopian and U.S. officials did foresee these outcomes and concluded that they would be just fine. Maybe these results wouldn’t be as good as stabilizing a puppet government in Somalia — a long-shot bet they could still hope to win — but the disaster of failure would be much better than allowing the stabilization of a UIC regime that would be hostile to both the U.S. and Ethiopia.
In other words, it’s better to wreck a place than to permit the growth of an order that disrupts the grand U.S. scheme for a string of pliant states.