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Ethiopia Leaves Somalia With Many Questions Unanswered

By Joe DeCapua
Washington D.C
05 January 2009

As Ethiopian troops withdraw from Somalia, the Ethiopian government has released a statement saying its mission in Somalia has been accomplished. It says Ethiopian forces, during their two year occupation, have eliminated a clear and present danger. However, Ethiopia leaves behind a country in turmoil and one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.George Washington University Professor David Shinn, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia, spoke to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about whether Ethiopia can declare “mission accomplished.”

“I think this is…a practical decision by Ethiopia to end an intervention that has not gone like they had hoped it would go from the beginning. And it’s making the best of a difficult situation. In other words, you do what you have to do to declare victory and leave. But in fact you leave behind far more questions than you have answers to,” he says.

Did Ethiopia accomplish anything significant during its occupation? Shinn says, “At the very beginning, it probably prevented or at least reduced some pretty horrible killings and a situation of chaos in Mogadishu. You may recall that the Islamic Courts (Union) pretty much evacuated the city very unexpectedly and left it in the hands of elements of warlords and basically hooligans, who were carrying out a lot of acts just against the general populace. Ethiopian troops did go in those early days, reestablished order pretty quickly and very well may have prevented some death and destruction,” he says.

However, the Ethiopians soon faced problems. “As soon as that was accomplished, the situation started to deteriorate and has pretty much I think deteriorated ever since simply because most Somalis find it untenable to have an Ethiopian occupying force, particularly in Mogadishu,” Shinn says.

Asked whether Ethiopia expected to be in Somalia for two years, the former ambassador says, “I think initially they didn’t even expect to go into Mogadishu. They certainly wanted to defeat the Islamic Courts militia, which they did fairly quickly and handily. And I think their hope was they could do that and then leave Somalia and somehow or other the Transitional Federal Government would take control of the situation. Well, that never happened. The Ethiopians ended up having to remain and when they were presented with the…unexpected opportunity of walking unopposed into Mogadishu, they did so. But that also was to some extent was their undoing because they simply became bogged down there.”

The Transitional Federal Government now faces its militia opponents without Ethiopian military assistance.

“I think the Transitional Federal Government is so weakened at this point and in such disarray that it’s almost difficult to refer to it as any sort of governing unit. I think that it is possible, with the departure of the Ethiopians, that clan leaders, civil society representatives, moderate Somalis, who just want a return to some sort of stability in the country, could theoretically come together and agree upon some kind of new leadership, which would involve a variety of different people…and agree to effectively put their guns down and try and reconstitute some kind of viable regime. That’s a very optimistic scenario and that is not the one most likely to happen, certainly not in the short term. But it is possible,” he says.

Shinn says moderate Somalis may not be strong enough to take on the hard-line Shabaab militia. He says al Shabaab is in the best position to take advantage of the Ethiopian withdrawal because they are well armed and well organized.

But he adds, “The departure of the Ethiopians does undercut the main argument of the extremist al Shabaab group that the Ethiopians must go so that there can be a Somali government. The Shabaab doesn’t really have much of an argument beyond that,” he says.

Shinn also says that al Shabaab could lose much of its support if it begins to mistreat average Somalis.

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