Iraq and Uganda model the two primary narratives that dominate analysis of the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. The action to date has removed the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) from its short-lived control of the national capital, as well as from much of the rest of the country, and replaced it with the, till now, marginalized and ineffective Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

The Iraq model for what happens next predominates among observers and is persuasively argued by author and columnist Gwynne Dyer. In this story line, the Ethiopian invasion and defeat of the UIC are the start of a new round of war. As in the American invasion of Iraq (the Iraq analogy is specifically drawn by a UIC official that Dyer quotes), regime destruction has been swift and efficient, but the Islamists, far from being defeated, have only melted away temporarily to regroup and organize for the struggle to come. Thus Dyer concludes: "this is just the start of a long guerilla war that will sap the strength of the Ethiopian army, a Christian-led force backing unpopular warlords in a Muslim country."[i]

The Uganda model was put forward in the Times of London by Rosemary Righter, citing Tanzania's 1979 invasion of neighboring Uganda which finally ended the brutal regime of Idi Amin and set the stage for Uganda's slow and far from easy emergence out of the special hell that was the Uganda of the 1970s. While the Tanzanians were denounced at the time, Righter insists "they deserved praise and so do the Ethiopians."[ii]

The Iraq analogy definitely has the feel of realism to it, but the fear that Somalia has just been driven to the threshold of another long, drawn-out guerilla war may well be underestimating the potential for the Transitional Federal Government and overestimating the ambitions of the Union of Islamic Courts.

The TFG was formed in October 2004 after a long, difficult, but inclusive negotiating process.[iii] The new Parliament and the new Government it supports could not move to Somalia until mid 2005, and into the capital Mogadishu only now under the wing of the Ethiopian military, but both were and are broadly representative of the country's clans and also include many of the country's surfeit of war lords and militia leaders. While the inclusion of war lords is reminiscent of the unholy alliances that the Kharzei Government in Afghanistan has pursued with war lords there, the hard reality of Somalia is that clan-based war lords excluded from the political process have the means of fighting their way back to attention and contention - hence, having them inside the proverbial tent was considered the prudent option.

Similarly, any Government of Somalia that does not have the support or at least toleration of its key neighbors cannot expect a stable future. Indeed, a major challenge in the peace process that established the TFG was to gain the support of Ethiopia to prevent it from acting as external spoiler right from the start. Ultimately, of course, Eritrea will also have to be brought on board (which should be part of the now essential reconciliation process involving its friends in the UIC).

At the same time, it is not necessarily the case that the mainstream of the UIC has ambitions to fight for central power and to convert Somalia into a fundamentalist Islamic state. The local order brought by the Islamic Courts was welcomed by Somalis desperate for some stability, and the UIC's emergence as a national power also enjoyed wide support. While the US reacted predictably to support the war lords in their failed effort to prevent the rise of the UIC as a national force, Somalia 's neighbors have reason to be wary of the UIC.

In particular, the International Crisis Group reports that elements of the UIC have tolerated the use of Somali territory as "a staging ground and a haven for the perpetrators of Al Qaeda bombings against US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania," as well as other attacks in Kenya.[iv]In addition, some of the less restrained members of the UIC have also given voice to old Somali irredentist ambitions for a greater Somalia[v] - not a comforting notion to Ethiopia with its large community of Ogaden Somalis.

The hope that Uganda of 1979 will yet be the model for the start of a slow Somali recovery from chaos is based at least partly on the fact that the TGF and UIC both enjoy a kind of legitimacy in Somalia. The TGF emerged out of an extensive and participatory consultative process and has the support of the Africa Union and IGAD. But it certainly lacks the legitimacy and confidence that finally comes only from effectiveness - from delivering the public good of human security. The UIC, on the other hand, has the legitimacy born of effectiveness. It delivered stability and improved security where all others have failed. But as a national force it lacks the legitimacy that must ultimately come from public engagement and approval.

Both have their respective backers internationally, but how much support does each enjoy at home? That is what Amb. Bethwell Kiplagat, the Kenyan diplomat who guided the peace process and the formation of the TFG, calls a theoretical question that can only be answered through elections: "The problem of Somalia can only be solved by the people and not by leaders alone. Let the people decide through free and fair elections which leaders and what government they want."[vi]

Amb. Kiplagat does not assume that an election will solve all problems. The challenges are enormous and daunting, but elections are a basic source of governmental legitimacy, which in turn is an essential ingredient in the making of a new Somalia.

The European Union's International Somalia Contact Group has called for a new reconciliation process that involves both the TFG and the UIC,[vii] but the worst case scenario now is that the TGF and UIC will not seek accommodation with each other and that neither will prevail on its own. The presence of Ethiopian forces will not be tolerated indefinitely, and without an alternative international force to provide basic security services, the resulting power vacuum will again be occupied, as it has for the last 15 years, by a potpourri of clan-based war lords whose specialty is primarily the delivery of persistent chaos and insecurity.


[i] Gwynne Dyer, "U.S. prods Ethiopian invasion of Somalia ," The Record, December 30, 2006.

[ii] Rosemay Righter, "At last, a glimmer of hope for Somalia ," The Times, January 4, 2007.

[iii] I happened to attend the first session of the new Parliament, held in Nairobi , as a guest of the Kenyan mediator who managed the peace process on behalf of the regional Horn of Africa organization IGAD - Inter-Governmental Authority on Development.

[iv] John Prendergast and Colin Thomas-Jensen, "Getting it Wrong in Somalia Again," the Boston Globe, November 29, 2006.

[v] " Somalia Conflict Risk Alert," International Crisis Group, November 27, 2006.

[vi] Bethwell Kiplagat, "Somalis must have the last word on who leads them," Sunday Nation ( Nairobi, Kenya ), December 20, 2006.

[vii] " Somalia : EU calls for reconciliation to achieve peace," IRIN, January 4, 2007.

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