The battle for preferred proxy status: Ethiopia vs. Kenya – By Jawar Mohammed

November 23rd, 2011 Print Print Email Email

Ethiopia invaded Somalia, in 2006, in part encouraged by the United States, against series of warnings from regional analysts and strong domestic objections. The two years of occupation, despite handing the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) a swift blow, had an unintended and deadly consequence of bolstering a more radical movement, al-Shabab, which has since emerged as the most dominant militant group in the Horn of Africa. The U.S. once again is engaged in a fight against a new enemy – another monster of its creation.

Since its strategic blunder in 2006, the U.S. has acknowledged Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia was highly counterproductive because it fueled Somali nationalism and boosted the support and legitimacy of militants. To circumvent the historical animosity between Ethiopia and Somalia, the Obama administration has chosen an alternative proxy, Kenya, culminating with an invasion a little over a month ago.

Ethiopia does not want to be left out either. It has once again invaded Somalia. For the last two decades, Ethiopia has been the primary accomplice for America’s involvement in the Somali conflict. The controversial and often covert marriage had great financial, military and political benefits for Meles Zenawi.

First, in exchange for services rendered (intelligence gathering, military actions, forming and arming friendly warlords, etc.), Ethiopia was happily compensated by the US and the “international community”. For instance, in addition to funding the 2006 Ethiopian invasion, th U.S secretly lifted arms embargo on North Korea allowing for Ethiopia to purchase spare-parts for its Soviet-made weapons. Second, by choosing to deal with Somalia, Zenawi maintained a “key strategic ally” image in the West – a position that helped him emerge as key African leader, and stifle domestic opposition with little scrutiny.

Ethiopia seemed offended by the United States recent decision to turn to Kenya. Zenawi’s displeasure is motivated by two main concerns.

a) Ethiopia is worried that Kenya might replace it as a key player in East Africa’s military and security affairs. Zenawi doesn’t want to lose the power and prestige the strategic alliance affords him in terms of consolidating power.

b) If Kenya succeeds in crushing al-Shabab, along with its backers, Kenya will have more leverage to influence the resultant political outcome. That of course reduces Ethiopia’s influence and will have a more immediate consequence for Ethiopia’s domestic politics.

The financial and political incentives provided by the U.S have always been a secondary motive for Zenawi’s meddling in Somalia. Ethiopia has been battling Oromo and Ogaden insurgencies, both groups with kinship, historical, and political ties to the people of Somalia. Thus, Meles’ determination to prevent the reemergence of a stable and sovereign government in Somalia is a tacit maneuver to deny these rebels a possible ally.

If Kenya, seen as sympathetic to Ethiopian rebels, dominates the Somali conflict, the resulting political arrangement might not favor Zenawi. To allow that would be a disastrous blow; thus, he secured an endorsement from the African Union by exploiting the Union’s suspicion of western imperialistic ambitions in light of recent events in Libya.

At the moment, both Ethiopia and Kenya are working from two angles in the battle for Somalia’s control. Ethiopia’s decision to throw itself on this conflict is based on a simple strategic calculation that its military strength will tip the outcome in their favor.

The current invasion marks Kenya’s first serious internal or external war since independence. Kenya’s military is too inexperienced and too ill-prepared to wage a successful war outside its territory against a well-orchestrated insurgency. That is why its initial fanfare was easily halted by a ragtag militia, not even al- Shahab’s main brigades. They blamed their fate on bad weather.

In contrast, Ethiopia has an old and battle-tested military institution with a wealth of experience during its various internal and external wars. This military institution has an accumulated experience fighting Somalis – both the state army and various insurgent forces. Besides, the current army is commanded by generals who themselves were once rebels with clear predisposition to counterinsurgency strategies. Hence, there is little doubt that, the Ethiopians are capable of obliterating al-Shabab within days and re-occupy Mogadishu. That will deny Kenya the privilege of exerting more control.

Ethiopian military officials are mockingly-bragging, “while Kenyans send threatening text messages and tweets to al-Shabab from the border, Ethiopia will hand deliver it in Kismayu.”

Ethiopia’s mission is two-fold: to protect its prestige as key regional player by proving more capable than Kenya, the emerging competitor, and to preempt the possible installation of a less friendly Somali government. At the event its mission triumphs, Ethiopia will force the U.S. to reconsider its decision given Kenya’s inefficiency and unreliability.

While these political games are played out behind closed doors, the prolonged suffering of the Somali people continues. And Somalia hangs onto its failed state status.

*Jawar Mohammed is a graduate student at Columbia University, New York. He can be reached at

  1. Alex
    | #1

    Such a good gift from USA for Kenyans through Obama who has Kenyan origin in his father.Now Obama is doing his good job for Africa and as an African origin he is paying us back by making such invaluable favors. It is such a golden opportunity for Obama to make favor for we Africans while he is in such ultimate power. He made us(Africans) such a good favor by toppling Gaddafi and bombing Libya that causes such big destruction and then handling power to other mercenaries to installing a client-regime for US and the West in general. One of the intricate objectives of such proxy wars is more than what the writer points out as power rivalry. Its main objective is to create sustainable deep-rooted hostility among Africans so that they will not unite and stand against neo-colonialism. Just look the entire East Africa is full of conflict and rivalry. And such conflicts pave the way for perpetual balkanization of the region. The succession of Eritrea from Ethiopia could not bring peace and stability in the region and the same is true for the succession of South Sudan. Kenya was the only relatively out of the conflict country in the region for the last 20 years. Now its son Obama is paying back tribute by forcing it to plunge in to a proxy war. The very tragic event that Somalia is such a stateless country for the last 20 years is a deliberate heinous move so that there will be such instability and chaos in the region that paves the way for such military adventurism and occupation. The interpretation of the whole event as power rivalry among governments is just only because our African leaders are just power mongers who are sick and short-sighted who are not considerate of their country and its peoples long lasting well being and integrity.

  2. Dawi
    | #2

    The given:

    “Kenya’s military is too inexperienced and too ill-prepared to wage a successful war outside its territory against a well-orchestrated insurgency.”

    “In contrast, Ethiopia has an old and battle-tested military institution with a wealth of experience during its various internal and external wars.”

    The obvious:

    “..while Kenyans send threatening text messages and tweets to al-Shabab from the border, Ethiopia will hand deliver it in Kismayu…”

    Very Funny!

    “..At the event its mission triumphs, Ethiopia will force the U.S. to reconsider its decision given Kenya’s inefficiency and unreliability…”

    As if the US don’t know that already? C’mon man!

    Jawar is making it look like a debate in a political science class where no opinion is too stupid to the professor to consider.

  3. Girum
    | #3

    Dear Dawi why do you feel conceit regarding the militaristic nature of Weyane?
    Do you feel conceit because our country has been trapped in a perpetual hostility and chaos with neighboring countries due to this proxy war? Please be conscious in that Ato Meles has been making such trash and dirty business deal, at the expense of the invaluable life and future wellbeing of our nation, for the sake of his unbridled lust for power and money. Are you proud of this?
    Is this the pride and success we get from TPLF thug as a nation in Ethiopian history, serving as a surrogate and client-regime for other foreign MASTERS’ interests? It is not as such a pride but rather a shame and disgrace for we majority Ethiopians. For the Ato Meles and TPLF thug well then it is a pride.
    We are selling our beloved women as servants for Arabs. Like wise we are selling our soldiers’ beloved life for mercenary purposes, up on which in return Ato Meles pockets the dollars for the service, that is some how irrelevant for our general wellbeing. Dear Dawi this is one of the legacies of the rule of your admired Developmental-State attributed to Ato Meles. Just because Ato Meles is very desperate for attention and admiration by the West, then he is tempted to do whatever even that is very dangerous and destructive for our Nation and its peoples.

  4. Dawi
    | #4

    I don’t know Girum! I was only commenting on Jawar’s “analysis” this time. I found it to be weak.

    Just finished reading “Ethiopia as a model for health care leadership” by Yale U. If you are asking am I positive on things that are working?You are correct. I think we have enough things to be contrary to.

    Talking about pride though – Can we be proud of Ethiopian Air?

    A friend from a neighboring country was telling me yesterday how “You Ethiopians run your institutions” and mentioned Kenyan Air and others are run mostly by East Indians and he attributes “our” success to running our own things.

    “Selling our soldiers” aside, if Woyane military or other institutions are well organized you won’t find me complaining however, in this case, it was Jawar who went out of his way to acknowledge the strength of the Ethiopian Military and I just followed his logic.

  5. hailmichael
    | #5

    its simple logic, a CIA strategy.first kenya had ordered to enter then ethiopia,uganda has already been there.the two dictators,melese and musevini and corruption rampant kenyan officials are fighting american war only to secure their power.that’s all.

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