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Somalia’s fragile hope is linked to Ethiopia

Commentary: Ethiopian democratization is key to stabilizing Somalia
Somalia ethiopia 2012 10 12Enlarge
A soldier of the Kenyan Contingent serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) stands guard on a street in the centre of the southern Somali port city of Kismayo while a combat engineering team inspects the surrounding area following reports of a suspected improvised explosive device (IED) left behind by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated extremist group Al Shabaab. (STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images)

MINNEAPOLIS — No sooner had Somalia's clan-appointed legislators elected a president, the first in more than 42 years in this Horn of Africa nation, than Kenyan troops dislodged the Islamist military group Al-Shabab from its last stronghold, the port town of Kismayo. As important a turnaround as this is, it hardly signals that two decades of anarchy have been overcome.

Although African Union troops have diminished Al-Shabab's capabilities, this translates neither into its defeat nor increased legitimacy of the fledgling Somalian government. More importantly, a viable exit strategy is as elusive now as it has always been.

Moreover, the death in August of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, architect of Somalia policy, presents both opportunities and dangers. Although the first official act of his successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, was to attend the swearing-in of Somali’s new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud, he lacks sufficient footing within the Ethiopia's military, security, and political establishments to wield real power. He also faces a host of mounting internal challenges, not least the growing discontent among Ethiopia’s restive Muslim population.

Somalia has long confounded the world. Numerous attempts to reconstruct a legitimate state have failed. Turning the current glimmer of hope into the dawn of a new beginning requires a departure from the well-travelled road of leaving the region’s interlocking web of insecurity unaddressed.

The unstable nature of the region’s security is a fitting metaphor to describe both the redrawing of Africa’s sacrosanct colonial borders and the birth of liberation movements.

Ethiopia is the geographic, demographic, political, and economic center of the Horn. It shares boundaries with each of the countries of the Horn: Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, Djibouti, Eritrea, and South Sudan. All major ethnic groups living elsewhere also live in Ethiopia. Its religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversity is unrivalled. As such, developments in Ethiopia reverberate throughout the region.

The nature of Ethiopia’s regime fuels Somalia’s instability. While making up a mere 5.8 percent of the population, the predominantly Orthodox Christian Tigreans maintain absolute monopoly over all levers of power. Despite its dominance, the Tigrean oligarchy is possessed by a pervasive sense of paranoia.

This plays out in projecting an aggressive stand against both domestic and foreign threats, real and imagined. The new prime minister, Hailemariam, is from an even smaller ethnic group, the Walayta, which comprises 2 percent of Ethiopia’s population of 94 million. His elevation to the premiership has not altered Ethiopia's power equation.

Somalia’s troubles are far from over. How to fully integrate the south with the autonomous region of Puntland and the de facto independent state of Somaliland is not even broached. Reconstituting Somalia would be a staggering endeavor even in the best of circumstances. More so when that task is entrusted to the deeply insecure Tigrean minority elite that harbor a perennial fear of Somalia becoming a launching pad for Ethiopia’s opponents. This remains the weakest link in the Somalia strategy.

The strategy confronts Somali leaders with a perennial dilemma: On the one hand, to appeal to their compatriots and risk arousing the fear of external powers, mainly Ethiopia or, on the other hand, to gain Ethiopian sponsorship and alienate their base. The lot of Mohamoud is no different. The attempt on his life in September during a meeting in Mogadishu highlights the fragility of the situation.

Al Shabab's defeat is necessary but insufficient for Somalia’s regeneration. Solving Ethiopia's internal insecurities through democratization is also essential. Al-Shabab is a byproduct of Ethiopia's 2006 disastrous intervention in Somalia.

What has Ethiopia’s democratization to do with stabilizing Somalia? Everything. 

To an extent, today’s Ethiopia is analogous to apartheid South Africa of the 1980s. Growing domestic resistance in South Africa plus brutal cross-border operations by the military wing of ANC in Angola, Mozambique and Namibia was a nightmare scenario for the apartheid regime that led to increased domestic repression. Once democratic elections in 1994 ushered in majority rule under Nelson Mandela, the country ceased to be an exporter of instability. 

As was the case with apartheid South Africa, Ethiopia’s stability is a facade bought at a stiff price—repression of domestic dissent and Somalia instability.

Zenawi's death opens a window of opportunity. Unless the nexus between regime insecurity in Ethiopia and Somalia's instability is seized upon, the African Union’s courageous efforts could be easily reversed—Al-Shabab and a plethora of clan militia wait on the wings to fill the vacuum should the effort falter. 

Hassen Hussein teaches courses on leadership and decision-making at the Minneapolis campus of Saint Mary's University. He contributes to the website He can be reached at

Steven Akon More than 1 year ago
Exceedingly pessimistic and rubbish, typical of an Ethiopian hater. You are either ignorant of Ethiopia or deliberately distorting realities of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is doing great and stronger than ever before but, you are free to keep dreaming instability in Ethiopia.
Zemen Hizbi More than 1 year ago
there are always journalists and educated people who want to be famed and acknowledged by writing badly researched and simplistic cliche articles like this. this is a rubbish article. Ethiopia is the most peaceful and harmonious and the best developing African nation. Ethiopian economic development is people centered based on the people's and governments sweat, not oil or gas. Ethiopia will be a great nation, an example for African nations.
justineetG More than 1 year ago
What an idiotic article by a fool......maybe he's on the payroll of the Eritrean or Egyptian government! Hassen Hussein sounds like he is Al-Shebaba lover,,,,,,he's already missing his old buddies..........
Carlo More than 1 year ago
I think what you wrote about Ethiopian is what you wish not the reality. Ethiopia is the only hope in that region. You wasted my time to read your mambo jumbo Al Shabab type of gossip.
Jonny More than 1 year ago
What an idiot! Hating Ethiopia won't solve your messy fiefdoms. Ethiopia is a vibrant nation aiming high and moving forward. Keep on blaming everything under the sun before looking yourself in the morror, and before you know it, Somalia will be the greatest nation on earth. With this kind of citizen, no wonder that place is the sh#&t hole it is.
Solomon Theodros More than 1 year ago
This is the most rubbish article I have ever read. Cheap propaganda by Enemies of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is at peace with itself and stabilizing other African countries such as Sudan and Somalia. Its peace keeping work in many African countries is well recorded. Ethiopia is also gradually but surely building home grown and robust democracy. Unless the author is extremely ignorant and blinded by hate, he should have noticed the most peaceful and most successful power transition following the loss of Ethiopia's greatest ever and most visionary leader Meles. The brilliant Meles had left a strong party with energetic young generation leaders. Ethiopia will continue to flourish and play a major role in the horn of Africa and beyond.
Afnan More than 1 year ago
what ignorant wrote this....simply, this man needs therapy
Amha More than 1 year ago
Solomon wrote the absolute truth that seems to be ignored with the ignorants and haters. Ethiopia is galloping to its own home grown democracy and is the most stable country in east africa. at least recognize that the country is on the right path. The key Meles found that his predecessors counldn't figure out is economics and citizen envolvement in the process ! It might fell short on the global standard of democracy and stabiity but one must recognize the culture and history of the country...these days i am convinced that you probably need to live it to understand. Trying to read books about it doesn't cut it. Even some of its own citizens that are professors and phds don't get it since they are in the theory world.
Birmad More than 1 year ago
Please get a life! It is a well know fact that Ethiopia is destabilizing the Horn and has many issues and conflicts with itself. How many fronts are exists in Ethiopia? Not to mention the recent crisis with its Muslim populations. Ethiopia is far from peace and stability; it is the most corrupt & oppressive regime in East Africa and nothing you say can undo the facts. Zenewi supporters have the nerves to say something here!
jordyn balino More than 1 year ago
does any of you guys live in ethiopia or know someone who does?
TsegayeMekuriya More than 1 year ago
Friends of EPRDF, you do not help your beloved party and "great leader" by demonizing any critical look at the record. The truth hurts--I can understand your pain. You want the world to stay ignorant about the real situation. If Ethiopia is so democratic as you allege, why imprison so many journalists? If Ethiopia is as democratic as you stated, how on earth is there only one opposition MP in your parliament? In what democratic country does 90% of its general officers come from a section representing 6% of the pulation? As to the labels you throw at will, no one will be fooled. In your lingo dissenting journalists are "terrorists." An opposition that beats your beloved party in the poll is a genoidal "interhamwe." A peaceful protester who persists in a non-violent meas of protest despite the beatings, arrests, and intimidations is "an extrimist." Be it as it may, minority rule is untenable--however vigoriously you defend it by demonizing your critics.
Shakure More than 1 year ago
The biggest problem of Somalia is not Ethipia but, fake Somalies like you who are cyber heros who wage internet war while sitting in comfortable western countries while the poor Somalies are paying the price for you the elites of war mongers. Ethiopians are our brothers shut up and eat your humberger and chew your illigal kchat.
Olaana Abbaaxiiqi More than 1 year ago
Ethiopia is the problem child of East Africa. Its a well know fact that the Ethiopian government has paid cadres who monitor any negative comment of the web and try to attack the writers. They never comment on the idea or substance but attach the messagner. This is what is done here.
Birmad More than 1 year ago
Please get a life! It is a well know fact that Ethiopia is destabilizing the Horn and has many issues and conflicts with itself. How many fronts are exists in Ethiopia? Not to mention the recent crisis with its Muslim populations. Ethiopia is far from peace and stability; it is the most corrupt & oppressive regime in East Africa and nothing you say can undue the facts. Zenewi supporters have the nerve to say something here!
Molla Belete More than 1 year ago
Maybe you are the cosponsor of this stupid writer. The harshest enemy of Ethiopian and Somalian people. Oh! my God! I wonder how hate stricken person he is! He is aggressively trying to divide Ethiopian Nations and Nationalities. Ethiopian Somalian people, too. But surely, Great Ethiopians always pay deaf ear for such rubbish hatred. Ethiopia is moving forward in the whole sphere of Development. Take for example yesterday’s football celebration! Keep it up Ethiopia! Down with your enemies! Here I would like to mention the very interesting Arabian proverb >