When Ethiopia first entered Mogadishu to rout the Islamic Courts Union, the forerunner of Al-Shabaab, in 2006, its motivation was to nip in the bud an extremist organisation with transnational ambitions. The ICU had also reawakened age-old territorial claims against Addis Ababa. Although both Ethiopia and Uganda hid behind the veil of the African Union to legitimise their actions, the latter’s entry months later was the culmination of a pact under which Kampala gave the Ethiopians covering fire as they withdrew from an untenable occupation of Mogadishu.
Ethiopia’s brief foray into Somalia, however, triggered a regional race that soon saw Eritrea and Kenya join the fray.
Now, as Amisom packs its bags, these rivalries are back, quietly distracting from the primary objectives of the 12-year intervention. Hedging their bets, Kenya and Ethiopia are backing competing interests and have actively tried to influence the outcome of Somalia’s regional elections.
On the other hand, the respite won by the sacrifices that the troop-contributing countries made has created the perfect conditions for resource-hungry Western and Eastern powers to swoop in.
Ideally, Kenya and Ethiopia should be on the same side. Alongside Uganda and Burundi, which were the first to put boots on the ground in Somalia, both countries got involved in war-torn neighbour to preclude the possibility of an expansionist regime linked to international terrorism taking root there. Also, Al-Shabaab has at one time invoked the latent territorial claims Somalia has made against both countries at different times in the past. But now, their involvement in local politics and interest in resources has set them on a collision course. The divergent interests are evident in the simmering diplomatic battles that have manifested in the race for a seat at the UN Security Council.
The only beneficiary from all this negative movement could be Al-Shabaab. Although the 12-year offensive against it by the UN-backed Amisom has degraded its strength and pushed it out of major urban centres, Al-Shabaab’s ability to mount deadly attacks in the region demonstrates that it remains the primary challenge to peace and security in Somalia and the wider Horn.
A resurgence of Al-Shabaab would probably cost the stakeholders in Somalia a lot more in money and social disruption than the possible gains from the natural resources that are the object of the current contestation.
In the circumstances, focus should be on how to manage the post-Amisom vacuum, especially how to prevent Al-Shabaab from retaking the liberated territories. That requires an honest assessment of the capabilities of the Somalia National Army. The AU and the international community might also want to rope in the troop-contributing countries into a rapid response mechanism to back up the SNA, should the need arise.