But discussion of the conflict is confined to bumper stickers and coffee shops
Anyone keen on reading bumper stickers this summer might notice one in the Twin Cities area that reads, “ETHIOPIA OUT OF SOMALIA NOW!” To most residents of the area, this might appear like just another political decal. But to Somali and Ethiopian immigrants, it represents many years of conflict between their countries – a rivalry that has been aggravated by recent events.
In late December 2006, a U.S-backed Ethiopian military invaded Somalia and eventually captured the capital, Mogadishu, driving out the Union of Islamic Courts from power. The invasion solidified the rule of the Transitional Federal Government, which had been internationally recognized but whose support in Somalia was waning. Since then conflict in the Horn of Africa has raged to the fiercest degrees in more than decade. Thousands have died. Nearly a half million people have been driven from their homes.
The bumper sticker is a reminder that the conflict still lingers over the citizens of both countries living in Minnesota. But those discussing the issue haven’t been doing so loudly, says Gandi Mohamed, co-founder of the Somali Institute for Peace and Justice.
“Somalis have a dramatic fear,” Mohamed says. “They feel like if they speak out, they will be snatched up (by U.S. anti-terror agents).”
In the Twin Cities metropolis, which has major populations of Somali and Ethiopian immigrants, citizens of the two countries monitor the daily developments of the conflict. Political talk runs at a fever pitch. But what makes matters more complex is the fact that the Ethiopian-Somali conflict has decades of history, with acts of aggression and violations of human rights committed on both sides.
It doesn’t help that the United States has made the renewed conflict in Somalia part of its war on terror. American and Ethiopian intelligence agencies allege that the Union of Islamic Courts has connections with al-Qaeda. Many Somalis, however, believe that the Courts had brought stability, peace, and progress to the country after 16 years of war and instability without a legitimate government. Such proponents lament that dissent has been limited to bumper stickers and conversations at coffee shops.
“Somali people are talking about it, but they are depressed,” Mohamed says. “They feel helpless due to the fact that the United States is supporting Ethiopia, and that ties anybody’s hands behind the back. They feel that if they say anything against the occupation, they will be labeled a terrorist.”
Mohamed is an American citizen, who served in the U.S. Air Force for four years and was at one time stationed in the Middle East. With the Somali Institute for Peace and Justice, he helped organize two protests against the Ethiopian invasion in late winter and early spring. His efforts to make people aware about the conflict in Somalia, however, go beyond the political. They have become personal.
“My cousin died while praying in a mosque,” he says. “I don’t know whether it was an Ethiopian missile or an American missile, but I bet that it was my tax money that helped pay for it. Taxes are going to fight terrorism, but we don’t know who the terrorists are.”
Mohamed does not deny that there might have been some extremists in the Union of Islamic Courts. He even says that he would have supported the Transitional Federal Government, had it shown any genuine concern for Somali people and efforts to develop and make progress in the East African country. But he says that extremist factions in Somalia are limited, and he doubts whether an American-backed Ethiopian and Transitional Federal Government occupation will lead to anything more than another weak, violent state and a newfound haven for outside terrorists.
The Institute’s other co-founder, Mohamed Hassan, agrees.
“We are not necessarily trying to get the administration to pay attention because we know the administration knows about this,” says Hassan. “We want to reach out to the ordinary American citizens like us. We want them to know what is going on in Somalia and we want them to question our government’s policy toward Somalia.”
Hassan notes that ongoing fighting in Mogadishu has forced his mother and other family members to flee their homes and to live in harsh outdoor conditions for days at a time. An outbreak of violence in late July alone drove more than 10,000 people out of the explosive capital city, according to the United Nations. Despite that, Hassan says the United States continues to ignore the humanitarian crisis.
“The Bush policy toward Somalia is completely misguided and taken advantage of,” says Hassan. “The Ethiopian government really capitalized on our paranoia and fears about Islam.But now Somalia could become a safe haven for extremist individuals. It is in chaos.”
Ethiopian and Somali Solidarity
In Minnesota, Ethiopians and Somalis have displayed a surprising degree of solidarity, regardless of whether they support the presence of Ethiopian troops or not.
Several Somalis, who declined to be named for fear of retribution, say they support for the Transitional Federal Government. Some Ethiopians have also attempted to provide a more in-depth context for the conflict. But like Somalis, their discussion is limited.
“From what I hear from other students, a lot of us have conflicting views about whether or not we should have invaded Somalia,” says Yoftahey Abebe, the treasurer of the Ethiopian Students Union at the University of Minnesota.
Abebe says the group is strictly non-partisan and only tries to explain the basis of Ethiopia’s invasion.
“It is not about peace in Somalia, but the safety of Ethiopia,” he says. “From past experiences, Somalis have invaded Ethiopia whenever they have had power. That is the fear the current government had with the Islamic Courts. Even though they brought peace and stability to Somalia, they were a threat to Ethiopia.”
Abebe says that the current Ethiopian government has made great advances in the country’s economy and, overall, the country is more stable with far less inter-ethnic and clan conflicts. But he says Ethiopia has a poor record when it comes to human rights. In July The New York Times reported that the Ethiopian government and military were blocking the delivery of food aid and medical supplies to the devastated desert region of Ogaden, a rebel region inhabited by Ethiopian Somalis.
Abebe says he also believes that it would be difficult for Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi and Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government to remain in power without support from the United States.
“Without the help of the U.S., [Zenawi] would be crippled,” he says. “The U.S. is funding its war on terror strategy. There is no other powerful ally for the U.S. in the Horn of Africa.”
Somalis and Ethiopians being used?
Daniel Abebe (no relation), the dean of the First College at Metropolitan State University, and a prominent member of the Ethiopian community, says the United States is taking advantage of the historical conflict between Ethiopians and Somalis to advance its war on terror in the Horn of Africa.
“At a time when we should be resolving our differences with Somalis, and uniting to fight global and regional crisis, now we are growing in further conflict and confrontation,” he says. “We are being used by bigger powers like the United States to advance its causes in that region. In this case, they are looking to combat terrorism.”
Daniel Abebe also says that Ethiopians and Somalis in the Twin Cities have a much stronger relationship than many credit them. He adds that the immigrant communities have often been supportive of each other on many levels. Nevertheless, he says that Ethiopians’ views of the invasion are as complex as the political reality in the Horn of Africa itself. Like Somalis, he says, Ethiopians haven’t been vocal about their views on the conflict.
“Overall, Ethiopians in the U.S. are more indifferent about the invasion,” he says. “I think people feel awkward. Obviously if you support the aggression, you are going to offend a lot of people. Supporting it might be in the minds of people, but they do not want to voice it.”
Daniel Abebe says the Horn of Africa is at the will of external powers like the rest of the continent. Ahmed Samatar, a Somali professor and the dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship at Macalester College, agrees.
“The American involvement is ignorant and destructive,” Samatar says. “The Ethiopian involvement is the last thing Somalis want and the last thing they expected. The Transitional Federal Government is illegitimate. But the opposition is not well organized enough to do anything.”
Samatar has lectured about the current crisis between Somalia and Ethiopia in the Twin Cities and played a direct role in working with stakeholders of Somalia’s peace throughout the world. He also recently published a 50-page essay on the current conflict in Bildhaan, the Somali issues and academic journal.
“The Islamic Courts had been a beacon of some hope. But that has been destroyed,” he says.
Samatar says that, at the whim of foreign influences, Ethiopia has sparked another conflict at the worst time.
“Everyone is a loser now, and it may be the worst time since the collapse of Somalia,” Samatar say. “Ethiopia is in trouble itself, and its leadership has run out of any intelligent design.”