FEATURE-Troubled Ethiopia-Somalia history haunts Horn of Africa
Wed Dec 28, 2011 11:38am GMT
By Barry Malone
NAIROBI Dec 28 (Reuters) - Five hundred years ago, an Imam who ruled much of
what is now Somalia, led a daring invasion of Christian Ethiopia, looting
monasteries, burning down churches and slaying all who resisted.
Centuries on, memories of Imam Ahmad Gragn still haunt both countries, and
echoes of that long and bloody history still ripple across the Horn of
Africa region which considers Somalia the greatest threat to its stability.
Back then, the Ethiopians were beleaguered as the invaders occupied some
two-thirds of the country. Help eventually came in the form of 400
Portuguese musketeers, who sailed into Massawa port and embarked on a
six-day march to the front.
Gragn had his backers too. Reinforcements from Arabia soon rolled in
alongside a gift from the Ottoman Empire: 900 of its famously hardened
musket experts. The war lasted over a decade.
Fast forward to the present day, and with Ethiopian troops deploying over
the border again last month to fight Islamist rebels linked to al Qaeda, the
latest chapter of a book with few uplifting passages was written.
Though present-day incursions and clashes are driven by strategic
motivations and regional politicking against the backdrop of the global war
on terror, those centuries-old grudges, raids and musket-battles still shape
"In Ethiopia, the damage which Gragn did has never been forgotten," Ethiopia
expert, Paul Henze, wrote in a book on the country's history, Layers of
"Every Christian highlander still hears tales of Gragn in his childhood. I
have often had villagers in northern Ethiopia point out sites of towns,
forts, churches and monasteries destroyed by Gragn as if these catastrophes
had occurred only yesterday."
Though Gragn's ethnicity is disputed by historians, Ethiopians know his army
was overwhelmingly manned by ethnic Somalis, and that stings.
DELICATE RELATIONS, COMPLEX HISTORY
Somalis, too, are haunted by past Ethiopian invasions.
Ethiopia and Somalia still hand-pick powerful allies keen to win clout in
the Horn of Africa.
Its location on the Gulf of Aden and its potential as a base for militant
Islam make it an ideal arena for proxy wars, influence-peddling and
The two countries - Ethiopia then supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba and
Somalia supported by the United States - fought one of their many wars over
Ethiopia's mainly ethnic-Somali Ogaden region in 1977-1978.
Ethiopia's victory was helped by some crack Cuban troops, a modern day echo
of the foreigners who helped in the sixteenth century. Since then, Western
and Eastern powers have switched allegiances, depending on the politics of
those in power.
These days, Ethiopia, seen as a critical bulwark against the rise of
Islamist militancy in the strategic region next to the world's busiest
shipping lanes, is Washington's main ally.
"An unstable Horn of Africa could have a destabilising effect on the world,"
a Western diplomat in the region told Reuters. "The U.S., Britain, China -
and increasingly Turkey -are all trying to get a foothold here for both
security reasons and economic reasons. Ethiopia makes the best ally right
But despite the leadership changes, and the temporary alliances in a region
that is no stranger to pragmatic politics, that old animosity is playing out
ETHIOPIA. WHO ELSE?
At the centre of the latest episode between the two nations is the Islamist
rebel group, al Shabaab, which has declared holy war on the still
mostly-Christian Ethiopia, and threatened to launch suicide attacks in its
capital, Addis Ababa.
Neighbouring Kenya sent troops across the border in October, unsettled by a
spate of security attacks it blamed on the militants, with the aim of
dismantling the rebels' networks.
Ethiopia watched closely, analysts say, unsure of whether the Kenyan
intervention would work. Finally, a month ago, with the Kenyans stalled, its
troops moved into Somalia to arm and train the pro-government militia Ahlu
Sunna Waljamaca (ASWJ).
Such is the delicacy, that Ethiopia has not admitted publicly to its latest
incursion despite scores of testimony from local witnesses, elders and
"The knowledge of history as well as the unwillingness to hand al Shabaab
the propaganda coup, just when the terrorist group is weakened, probably has
a great deal to do with Ethiopia's reluctance to do more than build up the
capacity of local Somali allies like ASWJ and to try to politically unite
them in a common effort," J. Peter Pham, Africa director with the Atlantic
Council, told Reuters.
Until now, Ethiopia had seemed reluctant to get involved in Somalia again
after a 2006-2009 incursion to overthrow another Islamist group that had
taken over Mogadishu sparked such ire among some Somalis that al Shabaab
rose from its ashes.
This time, the Ethiopians say, their hand was forced.
"Somebody needed to go in and help. Somalia is the world's biggest security
problem and that threatens everybody," an Ethiopian official told Reuters.
"We're aware that, for some Somalis, we are not the best choice and that is
why we are being careful. But, yet again, who else?" (Editing by David
Clarke and Maria Golovnina)
C Thomson Reuters 2011 All rights reserved
------------[ Sent via the dehai-wn mailing list by dehai.org]--------------
Received on Wed Dec 28 2011 - 17:48:00 EST