What Somalia stands to gain from Ethiopia’s ongoing Tigray war

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Ethiopia’s Tigray: New frontier for regional interests

By Mohamed Sheikh Nor
Posted on Monday, 11 October 2021 16:48, updated on Thursday, 25 November 2021 18:10

Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, introduces Prime Minister Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed to his ministers in Mogadishu, Somali, 16 June 2018. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

After assuming office in early 2018, Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed embarked on radical reforms that have since led to political realignment in his country, spilling over into the horn region. The charismatic and energetic Abiy was only 42 when he took over in 2018 and immediately reached out to long-time rivals Somalia and Eritrea, thereby forging a tripartite alliance that seems to be shaping into a new regional order. But has the Tigray war helped or held-back Somalia’s ambitions with Ethiopia? We find out in this second part of our series.

This is part 2 of a 5-part series

Historically, Somalia has viewed Ethiopia with suspicion, but Abiy’s diplomatic charm won over President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed ‘Farmaajo’, who at the time was only one year into his presidency.

When the tripartite alliance was created between Abiy, Farmaajo, and Afwerki, analysts believe one of its main, albeit indirect, goals was to oppose federalism. Without that base, Eritrea’s strongman Isaias Afwerki is unlikely to have participated.

For Farmaajo, Ethiopia’s reconciliatory diplomacy provided him with the opportunity to consolidate power in Mogadishu. After its inception, he exploited the alliance to undermine federalism in Somalia and suppress opposition, mainly from the country’s elite.

  • In 2018, Farmaajo with the help of Ethiopian forces, arrested Mukhtar Robow who intended to run for president in South West State. Protests by supporters of Robow – a former al-Shabaab commander and a high profile defector from the militant group – were brutally suppressed with the support of Ethiopian forces serving in Somalia.
  • In the Gedo region in Jubbaland state, it is the presence of Ethiopian troops that has emboldened Farmaajo to deny state president, Madobe, control of Gedo region as a way of centralising power in Mogadishu.
  • The president is also blamed for failing to prepare the country for universal suffrage, though he had adequate time and resources. Throughout 2021, Somalia has experienced a constitutional crisis following the expiry of the presidential and parliamentary terms, a situation that was made worse by delay of the elections.

From Tigray to Somalia, via Eritrea

Somalia has been watching Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict unfold as a test of its semi-autonomous federal state structure. Nearly a year into the Tigray war and the insurgency seems to be unrelenting. Eritrea’s newfound alliance with Ethiopia has also given it an opportunity to settle old scores with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPFL), as it also deployed its army to fight alongside the Ethiopian National Defence Force, further muddling the crisis.

In Somalia, Afwerki’s close relations with Farmaajo have seen hundreds of Somali forces receive military training in Eritrea. These Somali recruits have been reportedly deployed to fight in Tigray, with many still away on mission.

Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki is welcomed by Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed upon his arrival at the airport in Mogadishu, Somalia 13 December 2018. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

However, Farah Maalim – a regional horn observer of Somali origin, former MP and deputy speaker of the Kenya National Assembly – says Somalia-Eritrea relations continue to be driven by mutual interests rather than close individual relationships.

“Eritrea has a debt with Somalia because they were assisted by Somalis to win their independence and they still intend to pay that debt. Eritrea also fears [that] Ethiopia might wage war against it and occupy it once again, so they need a big brother in the region who is going to be there as a guarantor – for its own security – and Somalia fits the bill.”

Good for Somalia on the one hand…

Farah blames the previous TPLF government for the once-strained relations between Somalia and Ethiopia. After Abiy came to power, he systematically dismantled the old TPLF order, a move that he says was against Somalia’s interests. “The destruction of Ethiopia’s previous order is the best thing to have happened to the Somali state.”

He says it is in Somalia’s interests for Abiy to stay in power given that his ideologies seek to preserve the Somali state. To the former MP, Somali-Ethiopia relations have never been better as they are today. “Abiy is not looking at Farmaajo, Abiy is not looking at individuals, and he knows the best thing for him is a stronger Somalia that guarantees  security for all nations within Ethiopia.”

Although they cannot directly assist each other – each is struggling with [its] own internal rebellion…”

Mohamed Haji Ingrisiis, a Somali scholar specialising in Somali studies and a research fellow at African Leadership Centre of King’s College London, says he agrees with the former deputy speaker of the Kenyan parliament.

“Somalia has nothing to lose if Abiy, as an ally, wins the war, but Somalia loses much if the other side of the conflict – remnants of the TPLF – get the upper hand. Somalia only gains if Abiy’s Ethiopia, which is allied with the Farmaajo government, wins the war.”

There are no signs that Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict will de-escalate soon and, according to Ingrisiis, this works in favour of the tripartite alliance. “The war is not altogether bad for [the] Abiy/Afwerki/Farmaajo alliance. Although they cannot directly assist each other – each is struggling with [its] own internal rebellion – the war goes so far to strengthen their close relationship.”

On the other hand…

Nevertheless, it will be against Somalia’s interests if Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict escalates, as Abiy may be forced to withdraw troops from AMISOM to shore-up the fight at home. The withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, who have been an effective stabilisation force, will negatively impact Somalia’s internal and regional security. Though the likeliness of the TPLF returning to power is said to be remote, the spillover from the conflict to other Ethiopian regions is threatening the federal system, as all regions may start pressing for greater autonomy.

Ambassador Ahmed Isse Awad, who once served as Somalia’s envoy to the US and as foreign minister (2018-2020), sees the Ethiopia crisis as detrimental to Somalia’s stabilisation efforts.

“I can’t see any gains for Somalia from the conflict. On the contrary, a conflict in Ethiopia, as the neighbour with the longest borde[r] with Somalia, could contribute to further destabilisation – politically and [of] the security of Somalia. This includes the possibility of getting overwhelmed by [a] large number of refugees escaping the conflict.”

I don’t see any gains Somalia can make from the conflict in Ethiopia. There is a risk of spill-over of the ethnic conflict into Somalia.”

Awad believes the main tenet of the tripartite alliance is thus untenable. “The ostensible close relationship between the political leaders of the three countries has been severely tested and its transience already exposed by the conflict in Ethiopia. The serious crisis [that] the conflict has created politically, economically, and in the social cohesion of Ethiopia and potentially in Eritrea, as well as the unfavourable reaction of the international community, has endangered any beneficial cooperation that could have materialised from whatever relationship the three leaders have had.”

Abdullahi Mohamed Hersi, a peace and conflict expert working in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, also believes [that] Somalia stands to gain nothing from Ethiopia’s conflict, despite the alliance having had noble intentions for the respective country’s interests.

“I don’t see any gains Somalia can make from the conflict in Ethiopia. There is a risk of spill-over of the ethnic conflict into Somalia.”

Bottom line

At the moment, Somalia’s interests and stability are safeguarded if Ethiopia remains stable, and if Abiy remains in power. Together with the Ethiopian PM and Eritrea’s Afwerki, Somalia’s statehood is maintained under a strong central government.

The quick de-escalation of the conflict is crucial for stability and peace in the entire horn region; and for Somalia, the restoration of a peaceful Ethiopian Federal Government will serve as a useful model as it navigates its own federalism.

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