Mending the Awkward Farmaajo-Ethiopia Relationship

Thursday February 16th 2017

By Zecharias Zelalem

Mohammed Abdullahi “Farmaajo” has been elected as Somalia’s 9th president. The dual American Somali citizen’s electoral triumph ignited an outpouring of joy and celebration among Somalis both in Somalia and in the diaspora around much of the western world. After most of the past decade saw a host of clan backed corrupted elitists squandering resources in an attempt to keep unproductive leaderships afloat, Farmaajo, who appears to be free from any affiliations with the elitist bigwigs or foreign powers, is a breath of fresh air and a source of optimism for many Somalis.

A newcomer of sorts, he only entered the Somali political scene some seven years or so after giving up a comfortable life in Buffalo, USA employed at the New York State Department of Transportation in Buffalo. Despite the turbulent nature of Somalia’s parliamentary wrangling and the massive task at hand faced by that country’s government, Farmaajo’s approach, a track record of getting things done during his stints in political office and his pan Somali rhetoric has seen him strike a chord with fellow politicians and the general Somali population. After his clinching of the Presidential vote last week and the subsequent jubilant reactions of his compatriots, it wouldn’t be farfetched to say that Mohammed Farmaajo, who got his nickname for his love of cheese growing up, is a leader beloved by the people he is slated to serve. This is a status enjoyed by very few leaders, if any on the African continent.

Jubilant Somalis pour onto a street in Mogadishu to celebrate Somalia’s election results (Image: Reuters)

     The likes of neighbouring Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and the unrecognized Republic of Somaliland were keenly following events in Mogadishu, most having invested resources in a candidate they felt would best protect personal interests. The governments of the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, who frequently find themselves at odds which each other as they compete to gain a foothold into a strategically important region, also attempted to influence the results of the election. One couldn’t be blamed for having placed wagers on the election outcome being heavily influenced, even decided by external players. Farmaajo’s winning the presidency is a victory in a sense. The fact that these foreign powers weren’t able to get their way suggests that the Somali electoral process has been able to regain its independence, which it had lost for quite some time now.

The leaderships in Addis Ababa and Nairobi are most probably in a period of self examination as they question what went wrong and worryingly ponder the dip in influence they have over proceedings in Mogadishu. Nevertheless, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn sent a half hearted congratulatory message to the new President this week. Despite the outcome of the situation, diplomatic ties must be maintained if these governments aspire to protect their gains and strategic futures.

What would be the best way to proceed with in regards to the likes of Ethiopia? With what appears to be a promising future on the horizon for Somalia, where do the people of Ethiopia stand? Is there any reason for re-establishing the enmity between the two countries that was fostered in the seventies during the Mengistu Haile Mariam-Siad Barre rivalry and the height of it, the Ogaden war? This article will attempt to articulate why it shouldn’t be so, from an Ethiopian perspective.

A Farmaajo campaign poster on a billboard in Mogadishu (Image: AP/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

       The election of a Pan Somali leader has seen the Somalia’s political right rejoice. The patriotic sector of the population has been figuratively speaking, stung by the presence of thousands of soldiers from foreign countries. Above all the decade long military presence of Ethiopian soldiers, the historical enemy, is a sore point that they haven’t been able to reconcile with. Many feel that now, more than ever, the prospects of the new leadership pursuing the booting out of foreign troops from the country are particularly good. A slight rise in anti Ethiopian rhetoric has been noticed in Somali diaspora social media circles.

It isn’t without merit. Even the Ethiopian government will have trouble justifying their continued military presence in Somalia. Since entering the country to oust the Union of Islamic Courts in 2006, the Ethiopian army has waged massive military operations to liberate specific areas of the country, capturing Mogadishu in 2006 and focusing on the areas surrounding the towns of Baidoa and Beledweyne areas after 2011. In the process they have propped up clan groups and armed insurgents who were willing to do their bidding. The Kenyans entered the fray in 2011 and fought vigorously to liberate the lucrative port city of Kismayo, which they eventually succeeded in doing by 2012. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has deployed thousands of peacekeepers from the likes of Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti into areas liberated by Ethiopian and Kenyan military operations. But since 2012, this massive buildup of troops in Somalia hasn’t resulted in the Al Shabab group’s operating capabilities diminishing significantly. This is in no little part due to the AMISOM foreign armies rarely straying into Al Shabab territory. Despite claiming to maintain a presence hell bent on wiping out the Al Qaeda affiliated jihadist militant group, Al Shabab remain unchallenged in the areas under its control, bar the odd US military drone strike. AMISOM troops roam the areas of the country they control, they will fire back and defend their bases, but since the Kenyans capture of Kismayo in 2012 during the promptly launched Operation Linda Nchi, there has been no sincere concentrated efforts to wipe out Al Shabab from its strongholds, its hideouts, which actually consists of the majority of southern Somalia.

Ethiopian troops in Somalia. Ethiopia has maintained an on and off military presence in the country since 2006
Kenyan soldiers first entered Somalia in 2011

      So if they aren’t hunting Al Shabab, what are the Ethiopians, Djiboutians, Kenyans, Ugandans and Burundians doing in Somalia? They aren’t fighting to “rescue” Somalia, we can safely assume. It is becoming extremely difficult to offer a rebuttal to the average Somalian who accuses the governments of these troops of using them to pursue geopolitical goals. The “war on terrorism” provides a front concealing whatever covert actions these militaries undergo in the name of AMISOM.

Farmaajo himself knows this very well. He elaborated what he felt was the destructive presence of the foreign armies in Somalia in an interview years before his being elected President of Somalia.

“Kenyan, Ethiopian and Djiboutian troops shouldn’t be in Somalia. Some of these countries are our historical enemies and now claim to be defending Somalia. That’s not true! They are not defending Somalia, they don’t care about Somalia. They are destroying humanity.”

While these foreign troops have arguably resorted to no more than eyeballing the Al Shabab militants and only firing back in self defense, many incidents of their shelling of civilian areas and perpetration of war crimes have been documented by the likes of the UN Security Monitoring team. The documented killings committed by Ethiopian troops between 2006 and 2008 are especially heinous. For the price being paid by Somalis (countless dead, a devastated infrastructure and a dagger blow to national pride) the presence of Ethiopian soldiers in the country should have yielded more results.

President Mohammed Abdullahi was nicknamed “Farmaajo” as a child for his love of cheese

 The argument in favour of foreign military presence centers around the fact that without the presence of AMISOM oriented soldiers, the rather meek and underfunded Somali national defense forces would have crumbled under an Al Shabab onslaught. The extremist group and their medieval ways would have turned the clock back centuries in Somalia if they had been able to control the entire south. They have been robbed of a premium source of revenue when they were chased out Kismayo by the Kenyans in 2012 and lost control of that city’s port. This has proven beneficial in the efforts to pacify Mogadishu and its surrounding areas.

But then what is the argument for the near idleness of the Kenyan army since that coup in capturing Kismayo nearly five years ago? Why haven’t they actively pursued the fleeing militants who fled Kismayo? A lack of answers to these questions further solidifies the above mentioned argument that Al Shabab’s disintegration isn’t a priority for the Kenyan army.

2017 has the potential to be the dawn of a new chapter in Somalia’s history. After the last four years in which Somalia has seen steady development in areas under the control of the federal government, President Farmaajo stresses the importance of continuing on this trajectory. He promises that his leadership will oversee Somalia putting it into gear and precipitating the transformation of the capital city into a business hub open to the Somali diaspora’s investments. Free of the clan affiliations that have ravaged the governing system, he has the best shot at lobbying even the most ardent of political players to get behind him. Reports have emerged that long time Ethiopian funded Sufi militant group Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a (ASWJ), are considering merging their group into the national army at the command of the new President.

In this situation, Addis Ababa will be forced to answer hard questions. The AMISOM war on terror rendered stagnant since 2012 may be forced to pick up the pace and produce results. Although Farmaajo by no means has an army to force his will, failure of the governments of Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti to answer inquiries over their military activities and a failure to cooperate with the new leadership in an attempt to create a long term solution that could hasten the exit of foreign troops in Somalia, will be justifiably seen as affront to the dignity and sovereignty of Somalia, if it isn’t already. The interests of these countries should no longer come at the expense of the security and wellbeing of millions of Somalians. An outright refusal to give the people of Somalia and their democratically elected leader the chance at grabbing their own destiny by the horns will serve to solidify the claims that these neighbouring countries are a part of the problem and not the solution. To avoid creating a hostile, cold war-esque atmosphere in the Horn of Africa as there was in 1977, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, Uganda and Burundi must accept that under Farmaajo, compromising on decade long set ideals will be of the utmost importance to fostering peace and understanding among the millions of people inhabiting East Africa. It would be in the interests of everyone involved. Ethiopia for instance, could start by immediately repatriating a certain General Gebre Heard, who is widely loathed by the Somali public.

AMISOM convoy in Somalia
Djiboutian soldiers were first deployed to Somalia in 2011
The widely loathed Ethiopian General Gebre Heard has made a reputation for himself using threats and intimidation to force the hands of Somali lawmakers. He also accused of overseeing massacres of civilians in Somalia between 2006-2008

     Meanwhile, Farmaajo and his yet to be sworn in cabinet should go about the business of regaining control of the country’s destiny as diplomatically as possible. It isn’t as if he had much of a choice. As much as he is deemed to be a well meaning man of good nature, he is still a fish in a shark infested sea. The Somali political world is fraught with corrupt officials one can describe as “agents” catering to the whims of powers from Africa, the Middle East and beyond.

One cannot blame Farmaajo for his staunch opposition to the foreign military presence on his soil. However, the calls for swift action to kick them out of the country coming from an extremely hyperactive Somali political far right are irrational and destructive. The cries coming from some of the Siad Barre era ideologues of yesteryear are for an emotion fueled course of action, which would see every armed soldier of non Somalian nationality leave the country within 24 hours, diplomatic relations halted and embassies shut down. Rome wasn’t built in a day and rebuilding a reliable Somali security sector won’t be completed overnight either. It isn’t as difficult to gamble with the livelihoods of millions of people when one lives overseas in the Somali diaspora. But for the sake of Somalis who actually live in Somalia and would be most affected, Farmaajo should filter out these destructive voices, many which emanate from abroad and remain cool and calculating in his movements.

The country may boast of a democratic process which is the envy of other democracy starved East African nations. But Somalia’s national army, which Farmaajo has just assumed the role of as its commander and chief,  actively patrols less than 10% of what is internationally recognized as Somalia. And this is done in tandem with AMISOM troop movements. Unfortunately for Farmaajo, he isn’t in a position to call the shots and he knows this well. The new government will need to be shrewd yet engaging if he wants to see a significant increase in the national army’s overall influence and strength. This isn’t going to be achieved by being a hard headed patriot. So it would be for the good of Somalia that the minority far right who still harbour ambitions of expansion into Ethiopia and the establishment of “Greater Somalia” remain far from the country’s sphere of influence.

Farmaajo is set to preside over the fledgling national army
This BBC map of Somalia highlights the army’s shortcomings. The orange streaks which stand for government controlled areas are surrounded by a sea of Al Shabab blue. From November 2016

 Despite being the biggest shareholder in the Ethiopian and Kenyan armies, the citizens of these countries are not responsible for the actions of their militaries. They have no say in what goes on in Somalia. The hostile rhetoric towards Ethiopians and the Ethiopian state some of the triumphant Farmaajo voters have exhibited is incredulous when one remembers that Ethiopia was the scene of massive anti government uprisings throughout 2016. The emotion is misplaced. It can be used for something much more constructive. With hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees in camps located in Ethiopia and Kenya, the brotherly bond between the masses mustn’t be overlooked. Ethiopians and Somalians tend to flock together when fleeing the region as refugees through the Middle East and North Africa, where in desolate areas, they face risks of exploitation, kidnapping rape and torture at the hands of traffickers and terrorists. How many tragic incidents of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean have seen the lives of young Ethiopians, Eritreans and Somalis cut down in their prime? During the chaos that occured in the immediate aftermath of the US government’s executive order to ban Somalis from entering the US, many Somalis were left stranded in Addis Ababa, while others who were deported from the US, allegedly chose Ethiopia as a destination. In the midst of the broader problems faced by both peoples, fostering division and hate is pointless and imbecilic. It would be serving the common good if Farmaajo’s leadership censored the warmongering hype.

After the passing of US President Donald Trump’s controversial executive order dubbed a “Muslim ban” by critics, Hundreds of Somalis, Sudanese and Yemeni nationals were either left stranded in or deported to Ethiopia. This image is of Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport teeming with Somali, Yemeni and Sudanese passengers left in legal limbo

   The new President should actively lobby to push for the independence of his national army and the accelerating or annulling of the AMISOM “mission.” He also has the right to know what it is! But Mohammed Abdullahi “Farmaajo” would best opt for a joint regional discussion forum that will have Somali interests at the top of the pile. Regional cooperation is a must.

Ethiopia has apparently not taken the strategic loss well. Unconfirmed reports from Somali media outlets are emerging saying that the Ethiopian government may still try to recover by influencing the cabinet selection process. Whatever the case, the likes of Ethiopia and Kenya must realize that Somalia’s people appear willing to go the extra mile, throw everything plus the kitchen sink in a bid to wrestle back control of their country’s fate.

A vote today for a better tomorrow
Arms held aloft, Farmaajo celebrates his electoral victory

    For the sake of preserving a degree of dignity ahead of the future eventuality, we’d best support the cause, with some sincerity this time.

My name is Zecharias Zelalem.

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24 thoughts on “Mending the Awkward Farmaajo-Ethiopia Relationship

  1. Your thoughts are absolutely beneficial to somali people and it’s new goverement. You are honesty writer. I’m of the people who are against Ethiopian troops as well as Kenyan troops and I have the feeling that they are taking over our country. But I would not agree very harsh actions to oust them, I want them to leave peacefully and we appreciate what they did for us and we forgive them what harms to cause to our people and our country. If they don’t leave and try to stop our new president from serving his country. I will be ready to die for my country and defend Ethiopian aggression.. Ethiopia should not intervene our internal affairs. It is very shameful for African brother to push his fellow brother down to the ground. Somalia needs help from our African brothers not interversion!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading my article and for the wonderful comments. I’m Ethiopian and I agree to that Somalia deserves to shape her own destiny. As both of our peoples tend to agree on this issue, we should work towards jointly calling for cooperation that leads to foreign troops being replaced by local troops. It’s a new era, I’m somewhat optimistic though.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks you for your cute article
        I really like that way you already discovered, i hope one day both countries will have Best relationship that neighborin countries ever had. Look what is happening in Western they ended their problems and they leading the world. We need each other. Let start friendly respect

        Like

  2. As a student of Ethio-Somali inseparable multifaceted relationships, I do sincerely believe that there are still Ethiopian political and security establishment elites that still hang on, though inadvertenty, to the old school of Ethiopian monarch that taught that Ethiopia is a seiged and encircled country by Muslim nations. In this context, these Ethiopian professional elites automatically assume that Somalia is an Arab pawn in the equation against Ethiopia. That might be true in the past, but no longer holds water. Somalia is now integrated more with Ethiopia and Kenya than the case with Arabs. These new regional relationships require new thinking and approach.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Just as there are some far right Somalis who are asking for another Ogaden war, there are also some Ethiopians with the 16th century mentality that Ethiopia is a “Christian Island” as they call it in Amharic. In 2017, the people with this old mentality are nearly filtered out and gone. We need joint effort to rescue the Horn, Ismail.

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      1. I do agree with you theirs some backwards every side here in som and ethio ass well but what we can agree is This region is volatile we need to come together and have open dialogue and inclusive sort of agenda and make sure how we can work together in terms of security trade cooperations ppl to ppl investment free movements and promote tolerance and respect at the end of the day we are Africans no more fighting and backstabbing we have to move on to promote this region tourism and foreign investments that’s what we need to do

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This article is ignoring the long history between Somalis and Ethiopians, which was before even 1977, Ethiopia’s role in influencing Somali politics is more than Amisom and it’s more than peace keeping, Ethiopia knows that Somalia rising is their sinking in every aspect economically, politically, power,and strategically, specially the Chinese entering Africa, the Turkish, we know that Ethiopia is trying to divide Somali people as small states which work under the mercy of Ethiopia and they want to dictate their lose/win mentality to us, Ethiopia use to army every opposition group from SSDF to (ASWJ), where is the brotherhood you’re claiming?
    Somali people are forgivers and also are strong and powerful despite their destruction and their weak governments, and also you talked more about the importance of AMISOM presence in Somali, don’t you know Somaliland, Puntland which are almost half of Somalia is save by local Somali forces which also defeated Alshabab, and AMISOM just enjoy happy life, very good salary which Somali National Force didn’t get, Finally with Farmaajo or without Farmaajo what you called minority who believe in “great Somalia” they’re not minority, they are majority and we believe it deeper than you think, Somalia will be back whether you like it or hate it.

    Like

  4. Wow! This is sublime stuff. Honest, factual, unapologetic and edutaining. This should be the foreign policy regional briefing for the new prime minister and his cabinet.

    As a Kenyan somali, I don’t only agree with this analysis but endorse it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for this wonderful article. But I don’t think if the ruling elites in Ethiopia will hear this. What we need as the people of this part of Africa is cooperation and non-invasive politics.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Congratulations, Zecharias Zelalem! You are a great human being. We Somalis tend to look at foreigners with suspicion and it’s something we have to overcome in this day and age.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Is A Good Article but i do 100% agree with Bootaan. Let us not ignore the brolonged history between Ethiopia and Somalia. I was really Ashamed to see Ethiopian Troops in the Streets of My Beloved Capital Mogadishu and i wish it was just a science fiction and not true. That is where i stand from this debate.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow Am impressed with this well articulated piece , very rationale devoid of any emotions . I really see as an devise and accurate reading of the Somali current situation. As a Somali I really appreciate your sincere analyses and advises for us of which if we adhere to we can be prosperous and lead to coexistence with our suspicious neighbours. We have to remember that you can’t build a nation with far right mentality but only with Balanced and logical approaches . We should be weary of Somali nationalists who can harm us in a way that they don’t even sense because 99% of our predicament is from us not our neighbors.Thanks Brother once again

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Waw, Zecharias Zelalem, what an article. I was having a discussion with a friend of mine the other day, about Ethiopian intervention, and I complained him about that, he looked at me surprisingly and said to me, are you kidding me?! He added that, he will not blame them, because if he was in their position he will do the same. it’s cruel reality. I Just hope that Ethiopian government understood the message that WE -Somalis- sent to them. We need our country back. Ethiopia should stop this sum-zero game with Somalia, but I am not optimistic that will be the case.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Dear all,
    I had wrote this article targetting my audience which consists mostly of Ethiopians. But the majority of comments, emails, messages I have received have been from Somalis and I couldn’t be happier. You the have all been kind, encouraging and gracious, and to be honest, it just encourages us all when we can find forums on the internet where Ethiopians and Somalians can share their hopes and aspirations like the dignified, adorned, civilized brotherly peoples we are. This article has been shared about 600 times and I’m glad to have gotten the chance to connect with many of my articulate far sighted brothers and sisters of Somali ethnicity. To you, I’d like to say my Ethiopian readers are in full agreement that we as a nation have to change our approach as to create a region of economic trade and partnership instead of enmity and border wars.

    Of course I’ve noticed one or two have brought up the fact that our countries have been fighting wars for centuries.

    To them I have the same message I had for Ethiopians who shared similar thoughts:

    We can’t change yesterday. What has happened has happened. Are you not sick of war though? Are you not tired of seeing generations of young men learn how to unshackle AK47s before they can even read and write?

    We come from one of the poorest, most downtrodden region on earth. The policy of Ethiopia vs Somalia resulted in centuries of poverty, famines and war dead for both of us. You must be insane if you wouldn’t want to change this cursed fate of ours. It takes both sides making efforts and as it stands, we Ethiopians for the most part accept that we owe Somalia a bigger political compromise today and currently that’s a swift solution to getting our soldiers out of Somalia.

    Even if we transform our nations into economic superpowers, do we really want to become two paranoid enemy countries of the same brotherly people funding our rebels and creating proxy wars? That’s the current situation of Pakistan and India. That’s a bleak future. A future of more hate, more violence, more mothers mourning their children, more of our youth drowning in the Mediterannean. I pray I see the day where I can sit down at a beach side cafe in Mokadisho discussing our bilateral ties of our two countries with my Somali friends, before hosting them all a day later in Addis Ababa. But it’s gonna take two to tango, and the trends say that both populations are more than ready to dance to that beat than to listen to the ratatam beat of bullets and shells that have caused us so much misery and woe.

    Anyways….I’m working on a lengthy article…a full detailed report on Ethiopia’s military activities in Somalia from 2006-2016 and I could use suggestions or advice as I advance with my research. Those who would love to help or even establish networks…. Twitter: @Zekuzelalem Facebook: Zecharias Etyopia

    Thanks and God bless….

    Ethiopia lezelalem tinur!
    Somalia hanoolaato!

    Like

  11. Dear Writer,

    Thank you for your well-prepared and informed article. it is my pleasure seeing an Ethiopian writer who can a neutral narrative and a balanced analysis of the horn situation. as once Martin Luther King said “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools”. – there are challenges and opportunities which can serve for our prosperity or poverty.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. It seems to the article is very nice and we should appreciated the writers views. Let us to open our eyes and think properly before we take action, maybe regretted. Thanks

    Like

  13. I only see this as an advice and truth about the Somali current situation. As a Somali I really appreciate your sincere writting and advices for all of us and if we adhere to we can be prosperous and lead to abetter future for the neighbouring countries with no suspicion,in order to acheive that we somali needs no intervention from the neighbouring countries..

    Like

  14. The article is nice although, it gives Gabre Herald power that he didn’t. In the article, it is stated that he threats and intimidates Somali Lawmakers which is plain false. He can’t intimidate anybody in Mogadishu that days are gone. He is a simple Ethiopian diplomat and nothing more.

    Like

  15. Hi, Zelalem,

    Please talk to etheopian leaders to change gabre , this gay is not good , he is corrupted man, not working as diplomatic way, alshabaab pointing him the fingure showing the somali peaple gabre is there , he is part of the problem, i can undrestand diplomatic representation, but should be clean person , not like gabra

    Like

  16. Dear Zecharias thank you for your insightful article. You sound a professional journalist with a sense of neutrality to understand things from different perspectives. Congratulations for you. You have said that your primary targeted audience were Ethiopians yet the most responses were offered by Somalis. So, I am curious why Ethiopians are so silent while the article was initially meant to them? Conversationally, why Somalis are so expressive to to share their feelings and views while they were not the primary audience? Any explanation!!!

    Like

  17. The article is well written and well thought out but there are minor inaccuracies. For instance, Farmajo is the name of the Somali president’s father who, in the 1980s used to be a high ranking official at Somali Airlines.

    Like

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