Meles Zenawi's invasion of Somalia: A serious long term foreign policy blunder

By Fekade Shewakena
January 20, 2007

Somalia is Meles Zenawi’s war. It is not ours.
The discussion among Ethiopians on what to make of the invasion of Somalia by Meles Zenawi’s government, although important and inescapable, is anything but dispassionate. A lot of the political discord gets in the way and buries the most important arguments. Some of the most virulent attack on people who questioned the wisdom of this invasion was authored and pioneered by Meles Zenawi himself. Both Meles Zenawi, the media he controls, and his supporters have shut down any useful multi-angular discussion when they began attacking and accusing even loyal parliamentary opponents that were not convinced of the need for military intervention in Somalia. Almost anyone that raised questions before the declaration of war and after is attacked and considered a traitor to Ethiopia’s “national interest”.

The operational word being hit hard by Meles Zenawi and his echo chambers in this accusation and counter accusation is the idea of Ethiopia’s “national interest”. From Machiavelli, who is said to be the first thinker to develop the concept through the era of the popes that led armies to the present, the meaning of the term “national interest” has evolved. Currently the concept is defined by a combination of multiple factors that sometimes require computer programs that do multivariate analysis. The definition covers not only national security and survival but also encompasses the pursuits of goals in economic and socio-cultural wellbeing of nations.

Authoritarian regimes by their very nature conflate national interest and their short term political objectives and calculate their foreign policy based on the maintenance of their political power. History including our own is replete with examples of leaders who presented such misleading definition of the national interest only to drag their countries to the abyss. Dictators see no national interest outside of their greed for power. The national interest is their interest. That is why they often accuse their opponents of treason against the nation. You oppose their policies – they will say you have committed a crime against the nation. It is that simple for them. Isn’t this what is going on in Ethiopia now?

My aim here is not to give you an exhaustive definition of the concept of “national interest”. I will leave that to experts in international relations. I am only interested in alerting discussants to the fact that the idea of national interest is fairly complex and far more than what Meles Zenawi and his minions attempt to tell us. It’s suffice here to say that the concept of national interest has a more dynamic meaning in an increasingly globalizing world and it is not strictly confined to physical security and boundary issues alone.

My objective is to caution everyone to pay attention to the longer term economic and other strategic implications of this war on the multifaceted survival needs of Ethiopia, particularly the economic implications in a predominantly Islamic neighborhood and a large Moslem population in itself. I urge readers to pay particular attention to Ethiopia’s relative geographic location in a part of the world where conflicts are chronic and the West is drawn in heavily to secure its economic interests, particularly oil. We also have to understand that the region provides Ethiopia with both opportunity and challenges. There is a lot of economic complementarily between Ethiopia and the region which needs a well thought out state craft in diplomacy than the feudal warmongering being pursued by Meles Zenawi currently. Some stupid remarks I hear that we are historical enemies with many middle easterners and even Somalia is short sighted naïve and lazy assertion. It is possible to see opportunity in all challenges that we can harness than dismissing every challenge as enmity.

I strongly argue here that strategically speaking Ethiopia’s interests have been significantly undermined by Meles Zenawi’s invasion of Somalia. I will go a little further and call it by its name. The invasion of Somalia is the biggest foreign policy blunder by an Ethiopian administration. I will explain.

As a poor country sitting at the bottom of all indexes of socioeconomic development and a hellhole of poverty on this planet, Ethiopia’s primary variable in the computation of its national interest is its economic wellbeing and the future of its economy. The biggest threat to national security and national unity in my view is the extreme and obscene poverty in the country. As we speak, 10 million people, about the population size of Somalia lives in chronic and perennial food shortage and daily donor handouts. Nearly half the population lives below the poverty line and the army of the destitute and urban unemployment is increasing by the day. We have a mountain of other social problems. In the words of a friend who recently returned from a visit to Ethiopia, more people are eating more statistics and less food. Any pursuit of national interest that does not take into account this very dangerous condition that is destroying us as a nation is simply wrong. If Ethiopia is to be destroyed it will be destroyed by its obscene poverty than by any foreign force.

I know there are a lot of people who keep fooling themselves thinking that the current, by and large aid funded, quantitative increases in some areas of the economy are indications of progress. Any growth in the Ethiopian economy now is like overfeeding a horse with barley hoping that some of the barley could come out with the excreta (fandya) and the birds would get it. That appears to be the idea of development being pursued in Ethiopia now. Call it Melesinomics. If anybody wonders why people are complaining that their lives are deteriorating and the number of the absolute poor is increasing by the day while the government reports tell them they are doing fine, this is the reason. Interestingly, the horse’s digestive system is so good that it does not even seem to let as much barley escape. There is no fundamental economic progress in Ethiopia that is compatible with the country’s bare minimum needs. Unless internal conflicts are resolved and the heavy hand of government in the economy is stopped, it is foolish to expect economic progress in Ethiopia. No country that has resolved its internal conflict to the satisfaction of every party in the contest has made any meaningful progress. Check out the rest of the world. But this is for another discussion. Back to the point I started.

This war is being portrayed and perceived by many in the Moslem world as Western anti Islamism. Whether this is true or not is not the point. Perceptions are as good as real. Whether we like it or not it is perceived that way by many Moslems in Ethiopia’s neighborhood and even among Ethiopian Moslems. It is now common knowledge that the invasion of Somalia is heavily coordinated with the United States and people can now legitimately see us as doing America’s bidding in the region.

The conflict in Somalia is far from over and it is hard to assess the outcomes yet. It is even doubtful if the so called Transitional Government which is mostly led by tribal warlords can sustain its hold on power. Somalia is back to its pre ICU days. The Abdulahi Yusufs are undermined from the start by being carried to Mogadishu on the back of Ethiopian soldiers who may have killed a lot of innocent Somalis on their way. This has doomed them for failure before they even start. (And wow, has anybody seen the first order of business of the Transitional Government? They tried to ban the local media, an advice apparently given by Meles Zenawi, an expert on anti free expression. Someone tell Meles that Somali’s do use text messaging, and have more cell phone per capita too.) I am not sure if the TG can survive the hostility and rivalry in Somalia without a baby sitter. Is it the president or the Prime Minister who expressed support and said Americans have a right to bomb his country? It appears the good warlord has taken too many lessons on how to love of country and patriotism from Meles Zenawi.

When I argue this war has undermined Ethiopia’s national interest, I want you to pay attention to the following crucial variables carefully and look what we have gained and lost and what we are going to likely loose in the long term. Ask these serious questions.

  • The Middle East provides the nearest rich market for Ethiopia’s agricultural and other metallic and none metallic mineral products. More importantly most of our Moslem neighbors are food importers and relatively wealthy consumers. The fact that we are located very near means less cost in transportation and competitive advantage to sell our products. There are agricultural products and minerals that Ethiopia is capable of producing in abundance and selling in the region. Currently a large Ethiopian labor force is in the Middle East. Our economic interests, which include the export of trained and untrained labor force to the Middle East, can best be served by developing and intelligently crafting a foreign policy with most of the Middle East. Have we done ourselves a favor by allying ourselves and engaging in a war that is perceived as anti- Moslem in most of the Middle East? I seriously doubt that.
  • In this war Ethiopia is perceived as doing America’s war against Islam. By giving the impression to our Moslem neighbors, Meles Zenawi has bought us enemies who have various tools to do us harm. Somalia is a member of the Arab League for nearly three decades. I have seen comments written by many Arab columnists on Arab news papers that look like a gnashing of teeth against Ethiopia. Is this a good thing for Ethiopia?
  • Ethiopia has a large Moslem population. It is one of top five or six countries housing large number of Moslems in the world. I know Ethiopian Moslems are no less nationalist as compared to Christian or Jew or none believer Ethiopians. But I am sure many feel uncomfortable by the idea of their country invading a Moslem country in a war that many in the Islamic world, and I am sure many in Ethiopia too, perceive as anti Islam. How can they not feel uncomfortable? God forbid, but if terrorist activities spread in Ethiopia, I am sure Meles Zenawi will begin profiling Moslems and knocking at their doors just like it does to Oromos today. Look at what is being done to millions of Oromo young people. Because of the OLF, Oromos are being profiled as potential OLF members when they dare to present any dissenting view. If Ethiopian Moslems fear a similar backlash, I would not call them unreasonable. I fear that Meles Zenawi has jeopardized the religious harmony that we Ethiopians enjoyed over the years.
  • Ethiopia’s image in its foreign relations as the home and creator of the OAU, a long standing member of the None Aligned Movement and its respected place in contributing to global détente, by being a founding member of the League of Nations and the UN is tarnished. We have now given ourselves the name of a client state that goes to war with whistles from rich donors, as many believe is the case in Somalia now. A Middle Eastern paper called it something to the effect that the war in Somalia is Meles’s Christmas gift to Bush. This has undermined Ethiopia’s image and the character of our nation internationally.
  • I have met people who argue that it is good for Ethiopia to allay itself with the richest and powerful country in the world, the United States. I too want Ethiopia’s friendship with the United States. Personally both counties are home to me and I love such a relationship. But here is the problem. Many Americans are now complaining that their country’s standing in the world has hit rock bottom because of current policies and are demanding a change in foreign policy. Many of their leaders, particularly those in Congress, share this view. The election last November is viewed as a confirmation of the need for that kind of shift. I have a feeling that after the Bush administration the US is likely to makes a fundamental change in its approach to foreign policy. It would likely resort to intensive diplomacy and mending fences. I am afraid Ethiopia may be left out in the open to dry by then. Meles Zenawi may have finished his shelf-life in a few years, but our children are going to pay the “bills” for the enemies that he has helped build around us. The West has a famous dictum that they have no permanent friends as they have interests. I am not sure, for example, if the United States would side with Ethiopia if it gets into conflict with powerful Moslem neighbors in the Middle East.
  • Thanks to Meles Zenawi, we have totally lost control of our direct control on parts of the Red Sea, a strategic lifeline for Ethiopia, through which the bulk of our export and import is done. The sea is now mostly controlled by Moslem people and states who may not wish us well when they increasingly perceive us as pursuing interests that are anathema to Islam and doing a mercenary job to what they think is an imperialist aggression.
  • Meles Zenawi has now made Ethiopia a legitimate target for attack by international terrorists. Ethiopia has long and porous boundaries. Unlike the United States, it is not protected by mighty oceans and seas. Neither does it have the resources to fund a department of homeland security that uses high tech detection equipment to watch for possible terrorists. God forbid, what are we going to do if terrorists begin inflicting suicidal damage on our country’s infrastructure and our people? I know Meles Zenawi can redouble the concentric ring of guards he already has and may even shut down the entire city as he sometimes does when moves outside of the palace.
  • Ethiopia is a country valued by the prophet Mohammad as a country of peaceful people that should not be attacked. The story of the First Hegira, one that we Ethiopians proudly raise when talking to our Moslem brothers around the world was a huge deterrent against fanatics who are pushed by their religious beliefs to suicidal attacks. Shouldn’t that serve a basis of a policy with our Moslem neighbors?

In short, Meles Zenawi’s invasion of Somalia may have hurt our relation with our potential and long term economic interest and markets in our neighborhood and may even have made us vulnerable for terrorist attacks. I am not sure how people get comfort in this kind of foreign policy. In my view this is the second most foreign policy blunder of Meles Zenawi next to his decision to make us the biggest landlocked country on the planet.

It may be academic to raise this now but worth considering for whatever it is worth. The biggest opportunity missed through this mess in Somalia is the failure to let the ICU soft land and take power in Somalia through a negotiated approach. In my view the ICU is more dangerous in death to Ethiopia than in life. We could have let it take power and it was easy to force them to take the responsibility that comes with the assumption of political power. They would have needed a lot of foreign aid to rebuild their dilapidated country with 15 years of failure and may even end up at the doors of western powers to beg for aid. Obviously there was no social ground they could hold in Somalia as fundamentalist Muslims. The acceptance the ICU got by the people of Somalia was confused with religious acceptance. Somalis were sick and tired of the lawlessness and the ICU was accepted more for bringing order to the chaos that plagued the country. For that matter quite a handful of the ICU leaders were the only ones who could be considered fanatic but most were interested in solving Somalia’s lawlessness problems. Even in the cloud of the Nazi like propaganda we know that.

It was not difficult for Ethiopia to control some lunatic Sheiks and their army of goat herders at any time with the largest army in Sub Saharan Africa. They could have simply seen that we are incompatible militarily and sought reconciliation. It was possible that the ICU were getting aid from forces hostile to Ethiopia or the regime of Meles Zenawi but all that crap about foreign Jihadistts and army from Eritrea stationed to fight us was pure fabrication as we now have seen. The current leaders of the TG can neither be friends to Ethiopia nor acceptable to Somalis by virtue of the fact that they have been carried by the back of Ethiopian soldiers to Mogadishu. I don’t know the existence of a self respecting Somali who is willing to give legitimacy to individuals who support the bombing of their people by foreigners.

In my view the center of Ethiopia’s national interest is its desire to come out of this grinding and humiliating poverty. You can’t do this by paying hundreds of millions of dollars and the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people and engaging in a perpetual military situation.

Ethiopia’s national interest can best be served by being strong internally. Our strength depends on building democracy and resolving internal conflicts democratically. That is why Ethiopians need to focus on our internal problems. The unconditional release of the democratically elected leaders of Kinijit, all political prisoners, and the reinstatement of the independent press is the most serious things that matter for Ethiopia now. Somalia is Meles Zenawi’s war. It is not ours.

The writer, Fekade Shewakena, Can be reached for comments at