It is now official: Ethiopian troops have advanced deep into Somalia's territory, reaching Baidoa, the seat of the official but defunct government headed by president Abdullahi Yusuf. These troops have seized airports near the city, 150 miles from Mogadishu, the capital, which has been under the full control of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) since June. Foreign journalists and aid-workers in and near Baidoa, as well as Somalis, testify that Ethiopian troops have indeed invaded the area, to the delight of Abdullahi Yusuf, who invited them to protect him and his government against the advancing ICU militias. Although existing only in name, the so-called interim government (IG) enjoys the support of the "international community", although its head is a former warlord and a longstanding friend of Ethiopia. Accordingly, Addis Ababa, which is sworn to destroy the ICU, did not really need his invitation to invade. But by doing so, it has not only sent him and the IG to oblivion but has also destroyed any prospect of ending Somalia's longstanding conflict, while laying the ground for a wider war in the Horn of Africa.
While denying a deeper invasion, Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister, admits that he has deployed troops in Somalia's southern border areas; he insists that he has done so because "the advance of Islam" threatens his country. Taking advantage of Washington's claim that the conflict has enabled al-Qa‘ida to establish a base in the war-torn country, Zenawi claims that he is invading a thriving base of terrorism. In fact, one of his unstated reasons for sending the troops in is to divert attention from his growing political problems at home, as even western commentators and reporters – who cannot be accused of being friends of "advancing Islam" or al-Qa‘ida – assert.
David Blair, to take only one example, wrote in the Daily Telegraph (London) on August 22 that Zenawi's motives had nothing to do with the war on terror and relates fully to his standing in Ethiopia. "In fact, no hard evidence links Somalia's Islamist movement with al-Qaeda, and Mr Mele's motives have nothing to do with the war on terror and everything to do with his precarious domestic position," he wrote. "One of Britain's favoured African leaders, his administration is dominated by minority Tigrayans and he fears that Ethiopia's 35 million Muslims – a greater number than in any other sub-Saharan country save for Nigeria – would be radicalised by their neighbour and turn against him."
But the ICU is not impressed by the military might of its neighbouring enemy, knowing that most Somalis are opposed to any invasion of their country by their traditional enemy. In fact, a large number of the interim government's members and supporters had defected to the ICU even before the arrival of the Ethiopian troops at Baidoa. When the troops advanced to the interim government's seat and reached the airport in its vicinity, even the militia charged with guarding the IG defected to the ICU.
The clear backing of the majority of the people of Somalia for the Islamic movement is brought about by the conviction that it is not only opposed to Ethiopia and other enemies of their country (like the US) but that it has restored peace to the areas under its control, while the interim government and the warlords previously ‘ruling' those areas failed miserably. It was only last June that the ICU defeated the last of the warlords financed by the US through the CIA, taking full control of Mogadishu and restoring peace and tranquillity to the city. Its first achievement – apart from the introduction of security – was to open Mogadishu's airport, which had been closed some years earlier. Not surprisingly, the people of Mogadishu, and other Somalis, were delighted.
Even more dramatically, the ICU set out to secure control of other towns and cities, such as Hobyo, and got close to the very seat of the interim government. Any doubt that the Islamic movement was, and continues to be, in control not only of the capital but also of most areas of the country was removed by its seizure of ports and provinces throughout August. The height of its dramatic achievements was reached on August 24, when the ICU declared the port of Mogadishu open at a well-publicised ceremony, four weeks after opening the city's airport. The ICU declared the port open after clearing the sand and debris that had accumulated during the eleven years the port had been closed.
There is little doubt that the ICU has restored security to the areas it controls and that most of Somalia is ready – if allowed by foreign powers, such as Kenya, Ethiopia and the US – to resume normal activities, including trade. Kenya, like Ethiopia, has serious territorial disputes with Somalia and is an ally of the US. All three are determined to continue their false propaganda campaign against the ICU, which they claim is a terrorist organisation allied to al-Qa‘ida. Fortunately they were content to engage in propaganda and low-key military campaigns against it to enable the interim government to prevail. But after the obvious failure of this strategy, they now hope that military invasion by Ethiopian troops will succeed instead.
That the military invasion will also fail to bring any public support for the already doomed interim government or for the campaign against the Islamic movement was shown at the ceremony on August 24 to mark the opening of Mogadishu's port. According to international reporters – including the BBC World Service correspondent – "tens of thousands of beaming Somalis" attended it and shouted their support for the Islamic movement.
Unfortunately, the Ethiopian invasion will not allow those happy people and the ICU to benefit from the countrywide backing for the new development to resolve previous animosities and establish peace and security. But although the invasion will ensure that Somalia remains engulfed in its conflict, Ethiopia and Kenya would be well advised remember that the war is bound to spread to their countries, where there are substantial numbers of Somalis and other Muslims who will feel obliged to join the cause of their brethren.