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USA/Somalia: Obama's First Africa Test

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Dec 14, 2008 (081214)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

With so many crises calling for attention, it may seem strange to single out any one of them as the "first" test for the Africa policy of the incoming Obama administration. Yet Somalia stands out not only because it represents an international failure to respond (as also in Darfur, the Congo, and Zimbabwe), but also for the fact that in recent years short-sighted United States policy has actively contributed to worsening an already desperate situation. This policy disaster, moreover, has occurred with practically no public debate, and no signals as yet that incoming officials plan to change course.

A recent statement from the Enough Project warns that last-minute Bush administration actions threaten to leave policy land mines for the new administration in Somalia. And a new report from Human Rights Watch denounces not only human rights abuses on all sides of the conflict, but charges the United States, European powers, and Somalia's neighbors with adding fuel to the fire.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains the December 10 statement from the Enough Project, and a press release and extracts from the summary of the report ""So Much to Fear: War Crimes and the Devastation of Somalia."

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Somalia and other resources, visit
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on U.S. Africa policy, see

For a January 2007 op-ed by AfricaFocus editor William Minter, entitled "Don't Replay Iraq in the Horn of Africa," see


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Enough Project Releases Policy Statement on Bush Administration's 'Transition Land Mines' in Somalia

Washington D.C.

December 10, 2008

Media Contact: Eileen White Read, 202-741-6376

As the Bush administration prepares to leave office, it is taking three ill-considered actions that threaten to exacerbate the already catastrophic situation in Somalia and tie the hands of the incoming Obama Administration. The Bush administration is:

  1. urging Ethiopia to keep its armed forces in Somalia until after the administration leaves office;
  2. pushing for authorization of a U.N. peacekeeping mission to protect the fractious and impotent Transitional Federal Government after Ethiopia's departure; and
  3. moving to place Ethiopia's arch-rival Eritrea on the U.S. State Department's State Sponsors of Terrorism list. There is little indication that the Bush Administration has thought through the implications of these major steps that would not only prolong the violence on the ground, but would hijack the incoming Obama Administration's policy prerogatives while leaving it with an even more intractable crisis in the troubled Horn of Africa.

"These eleventh hour shifts in policy will only create more blowback for the United States in the region, and serve as a de facto recruiting tool for the hard-line Islamist militia, or shabaab, that is wrapping itself in a mantle of Somali nationalism fighting foreign forces," said Enough Project adviser, and long-time Somalia expert, Ken Menkhaus, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Davidson College.

Ethiopia is currently scheduled to withdraw its forces from Somalia by the end of 2008 as part of the fragile U.N.-led Djibouti peace process. The two-year Ethiopian occupation of southern Somalia has been a magnet for violence and a growing insurgency in Somalia. By urging Ethiopia to maintain its presence in the capital, Mogadishu, the Bush administration is handing the shabaab a recruitment bonanza while undermining the credibility of moderate Somalis seeking to advance the Djibouti process.

"The Bush administration policy in Somalia has not only been ineffective, it has made the situation on the ground considerably worse," said Enough Project co-Chair John Prendergast. "It is not too much to ask that the Bush team practice the maxim of 'first, do no harm' before they depart. The incoming Obama administration should have the chance to rethink Somalia policy, including its counter-terrorism dimensions, without having to react to a firestorm of bad ideas weeks before the inauguration."

The Bush Administration is also pushing for a U.N. Security Council resolution to authorize a U.N. stabilization force for Somalia to replace departing Ethiopian troops. This is a bad idea on a number of fronts, and there is zero indication that the administration or the U.N. is serious about putting in place a genuinely credible force. There is no thirst among member states to contribute troops in Somalia at the current moment, and whatever U.N. forces could be scraped together would surely become the main target of insurgent attacks. In short, the Administration is pushing the United Nations to authorize a force that is designed to fail. This policy is the worst of both worlds: U.N. forces would be unlikely to create political or military stability in Somalia while giving shabaab militias a new foreign occupying force to attack.

Finally, by placing Eritrea on the U.S. State Department's State Sponsors of Terrorism list, the Bush administration would push Eritrea into a corner precisely at a time when they are willing to demonstrate some flexibility. There may or may not be sufficient evidence to make the case against Eritrea, but such a strategically significant determination should not be made by a lame duck administration. This determination has the potential to spoil U.S. peacemaking efforts in Sudan and Somalia, and could deepen the crisis in the Horn of Africa by fueling already intense antipathies between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Designating Eritrea as a State Sponsor of Terrorism would have no purpose other than to shrink the Obama administration's diplomatic room for maneuver in the region while possibly making the very real counter terrorism imperatives in Somalia more difficult to achieve.

Somalia: War Crimes Devastate Population

Human Rights Watch

The combatants in Somalia have inflicted more harm on civilians than on each other. - Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch

Outside Powers Exacerbate Crisis Through Failed Policies

December 8, 2008

(Nairobi) - All parties in the escalating conflict in Somalia have regularly committed war crimes and other serious abuses during the past year that have contributed to the country's humanitarian catastrophe, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Human Rights Watch urged the United States, the European Union, and other major international actors to rethink their flawed approaches to the crisis and support efforts to ensure accountability.

The 104-page report, "So Much to Fear: War Crimes and the Devastation of Somalia," describes how the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the Ethiopian forces that intervened in Somalia to support it and insurgent forces have committed widespread and serious violations of the laws of war. Frequent violations include indiscriminate attacks, killings, rape, use of civilians as human shields, and looting. Since early 2007, the escalating conflict has claimed thousands of civilian lives, displaced more than a million people, and driven out most of the population of Mogadishu, the capital. Increasing attacks on aid workers in the past year have severely limited relief operations and contributed to an emerging humanitarian crisis.

"The combatants in Somalia have inflicted more harm on civilians than on each other," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "There are no quick fixes in Somalia, but foreign governments need to stop adding fuel to the fire with misguided policies that empower human rights abusers."

Somalia has been without a functioning government since 1991, and a UN peacekeeping operation withdrew in failure in 1995. The years since have been violent and chaotic. In December 2006, Ethiopian military forces intervened to back Somalia's weak TFG against a coalition of Islamic courts that had won control of Mogadishu. In the past two years, the conflict has escalated dramatically, and internationally backed peace talks have failed to make any impact on the ground.

The report draws on interviews with more than 80 witnesses and victims of abuses, who described attacks by all the warring parties in stark detail.

Each party to the conflict has indiscriminately fired on civilian neighborhoods in Mogadishu on an almost daily basis, leveling homes without warning and killing civilians in the streets. Insurgent forces have regularly carried out ambushes and roadside bombings in markets and residential areas, and launched mortars from within densely populated neighborhoods. Ethiopian forces have reacted to insurgent attacks with indiscriminate heavy rocket and artillery fire, with devastating impact on civilians.

TFG security forces and allied militia have tortured detainees, and killed and raped civilians and looted their homes, sometimes in the context of house-to-house joint security operations with Ethiopian troops. Ethiopian forces, who were relatively disciplined in 2007, have been more widely implicated in acts of violent criminality this year. Insurgent forces have threatened and murdered civilians they view as unsympathetic to their cause and have forcibly recruited civilians, including children, into their ranks.

The full horror of these abuses can be captured only through the stories of Somalis who have suffered through them. Human Rights Watch interviewed teenage girls raped by TFG security forces, parents whose children were cut to pieces in their own homes by Ethiopian rockets, and people shot in the streets by insurgent fighters for acts as trivial as working as a low-paid messenger for TFG offices. One young man described watching a group of Ethiopian soldiers rape his mother and sisters in their home. "And I was sitting there helpless," he said. "I could not help my mother or help my sisters."

For many, the worst of it is being caught between all three sides at once. One young man was given an ultimatum by radical Islamist Al Shabaab fighters in his neighborhood to join them or face retribution. Days later, he came home from school to find that his mother had been killed and his house destroyed in an unrelated artillery bombardment.

"The world has largely ignored the horrors unfolding in Somalia, but Somali families are still left to confront violence that grows with every passing day," Gagnon said. "Even those who try to flee find that the violent abuses follow them."

Hundreds of thousands of Mogadishu's poorest residents, lacking the money to travel further, have congregated in sprawling displaced persons camps along the Mogadishu-Afgooye road, but the indiscriminate fighting they fled has followed them there.

Tens of thousands of Somali refugees have also fled the country this year. Kenya's Dadaab refugee camps are now the largest concentration of refugees anywhere in the world, with nearly 250,000 inhabitants. But the journey itself is perilous. Human Rights Watch interviewed many refugees who had been robbed, raped, or beaten by freelance militias as they fled Somalia. Kenya's border with Somalia is closed, leaving refugees at the mercy of abusive smugglers and corrupt Kenyan police.

Hundreds of Somalis have drowned trying to cross the Gulf of Aden to Yemen, often after being forced overboard or abandoned at sea by traffickers.

The United States, the European Union, and governments in the region have taken few positive steps to address the worsening situation in Somalia, and have too often taken actions that have made it worse.

Ethiopia is a party to the conflict, but has done nothing to ensure accountability for abuses by its soldiers. The United States, treating Somalia primarily as a battlefield in the "global war on terror," has pursued a policy of uncritical support for transitional government and Ethiopian actions, and the resulting lack of accountability has fueled the worst abuses. The European Commission has advocated direct support for the transitional government's police force without insisting on any meaningful action to improve the force and combat abuses.

In recent months, the conflict has increasingly spread into neighboring regions and countries in the form of bombings and other attacks - precisely what Ethiopia's military intervention in 2006 sought to prevent. During the latter half of 2008, there have been suicide bombings in the previously more stable semi-autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland, as well as rampant piracy on the high seas, and kidnappings across the border in Kenya.

"The Somali crisis is not just a nightmare for its people, it is a regional threat and a global problem," Gagnon said. "The world cannot afford to wait any longer to find more effective ways of addressing it."

Human Rights Watch called for a fundamental review of policy toward Somalia and the entire Horn of Africa in Washington, where the Obama administration will have an opportunity to break with the failed policies of its predecessor, and in European capitals. It also called for the establishment of a UN-sponsored Commission of Inquiry to investigate violations of international law, map the worst abuses, and lay the groundwork for accountability.

"So Much to Fear"

Summary (excerpts only. For full summary, full report, translations into Somali and Italian, as well as multimedia resources, see

December 8, 2008

Somalia is a nation in ruins, mired in one of the world's most brutal armed conflicts of recent years. Two long years of escalating bloodshed and destruction have devastated the country's people and laid waste to its capital Mogadishu. Ethiopian, Somali transitional government, and insurgent forces have all violated the laws of war with impunity, forcing ordinary Somalis to bear the brunt of their armed struggle.

Beyond its own borders Somalia has had a reputation for violent chaos since the collapse of its last central government in 1991. When Ethiopian military forces intervened there in late 2006 the country already bore the scars of 16 conflict-ridden years without a government.

But the last two years are not just another typical chapter in Somalia's troubled history. The human rights and humanitarian catastrophe facing Somalia today threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions of Somalis on a scale not witnessed since the early 1990s.

In December 2006 Ethiopian military forces, acting at the invitation of the internationally recognized but wholly ineffectual Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), intervened in Somalia against the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The ICU was a coalition of shari'a (Islamic law) courts that had taken control of Mogadishu in June 2006 after ousting the various warlords who controlled most of the city. At the time the ICU had begun what might have been a dramatic rise to power across much of south-central Somalia. ...

Ethiopia's ally the TFG was corrupt and feeble and it welcomed the Ethiopian military support. In 2006 it had a physical presence in only two towns, provided no useful services to Somalis, and with the ICU's ascendancy was becoming increasingly irrelevant. The United States, which denounced ICU leaders for harboring wanted terrorists, supported Ethiopia's actions with political backing and military assistance.

The Ethiopian military easily routed the ICU's militias. For a few days it appeared that they had won an easy victory and that the TFG had ridden Ethiopia's coattails into power in Mogadishu. But the first insurgent attacks against Ethiopian and TFG forces began almost immediately and rapidly built towards a protracted conflict that has since grown worse with every passing month. ...

During the past two years life in Mogadishu has settled into a horrifying daily rhythm with Ethiopian, TFG, and insurgent forces conducting urban firefights and pounding one another with artillery fire with no regard for the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in the city. ... Fighting regularly breaks out between insurgents and Ethiopian or TFG forces and all too often civilians are caught in the crossfire.

The warring parties in Somalia have been responsible for numerous serious human rights abuses. TFG security forces and militias have terrorized the population by subjecting citizens to murder, rape, assault, and looting. Insurgent fighters subject perceived critics or TFG collaborators-including people who took menial jobs in TFG offices or sold water to Ethiopian soldiers-to death threats and targeted killings. The discipline of Ethiopian soldiers in Somalia has broken down to the point where they increasingly are responsible for violent criminality. ...

Two years of unconstrained warfare and violent rights abuses have helped to generate an ever-worsening humanitarian crisis, without adequate response. Since January 2007 at least 870,000 civilians have fled the chaos in Mogadishu alone-two-thirds of the city's population. Across south-central Somalia, 1.1 million Somalis are displaced from their homes. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people are living in squalid camps along the Mogadishu-Afgooye road that have themselves become theaters of brutal fighting.

Thousands of Somali refugees pour across the country's borders every month fleeing the relentless violence. Freelance militias have robbed, murdered, and raped displaced persons on the roads south towards Kenya. Hundreds of Somalis have drowned this year in desperate attempts to cross the Gulf of Aden by boat to Yemen. In spite of the dangers, thousands make these journeys every month. As a result the Dadaab refugee camps in northeastern Kenya are now the largest in the world with a collective population of more than 220,000.

Somalia's humanitarian needs are enormous. Humanitarian organizations estimate that more than 3.25 million Somalis - over 40 percent of the population of south-central Somalia - will be in urgent need of assistance by the end of 2008. But violence, particularly targeted attacks on aid workers, is preventing the flow of needed aid. ...


No party to the conflict in Somalia has made any significant effort to hold accountable those responsible for war crimes and serious human rights abuses. The grim reality of widespread impunity for serious crimes is compounded by the fact that both TFG and insurgent forces are fragmented into multiple sets of largely autonomous actors. TFG security forces are not regularly paid and often act as freelance militias rather than disciplined security forces.


This report recognizes that there is no "quick fix" to bring about respect for human rights, stability, and peace in Somalia. However this does not justify a lack of political will to engage with problems that past international involvement in Somalia helped create, let alone policies by outside powers that are making the situation worse. Many key foreign governments have played deeply destructive roles in Somalia and bear responsibility for exacerbating the conflict.

The poisonous relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea have greatly contributed to Somalia's crisis. Eritrea has treated Somalia primarily as a useful theater of proxy war against Ethiopian forces in the country, while one of Ethiopia's reasons for intervening was a fear that an ICU-dominated Somalia would align itself with Eritrea and shelter Ethiopian rebel fighters as Eritrea has done.

Ethiopia has legitimate security interests in Somalia, but has not lived up to its responsibility to prevent and respond to war crimes and serious human rights abuses by its forces in the country. Ethiopia's government has failed to even acknowledge, let alone investigate and ensure accountability for the crimes of its force. This only serves to entrench the impunity that encourages more abuses.

United States policy towards Somalia largely revolves around fears of international terrorist networks using the country as a base. The United States directly backed Ethiopia's intervention in Somalia and has provided strong political backing to the TFG. But US officials have refused to meaningfully confront or even publicly acknowledge the extent of Ethiopian military and TFG abuses in the country. The US approach is not only failing to address the rights and suffering of millions of Somalis but is counterproductive in its own terms, breeding the very extremism that it is supposed to defeat.

The European Union and key European governments have also failed to address the human rights dimensions of the crisis, with many officials hoping that somehow unfettered support to abusive TFG forces will improve stability.

Now is the time for fresh thinking and new political will on Somalia. Human Rights Watch calls upon all of the parties to the conflict in Somalia to end the patterns of war crimes and human rights abuses that have harmed countless Somalis and to ensure accountability for past abuses. This can only come to pass with much stronger and more principled engagement by key governments that have hitherto turned a blind eye to the extent and nature of conflict-related abuses in Somalia.

International engagement must take into account the rights and needs of the Somali people. It should include better monitoring of past and ongoing abuses and, as a starting point, a commitment at the UN Security Council to establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate serious crimes in Somalia. Key governments should also use their diplomatic leverage with Ethiopian, TFG, and opposition leaders to insist upon accountability and an end to the daily attacks upon Somalia's beleaguered citizens.


In Washington, the new administration of US President Barack Obama should urgently review US policy in Somalia and the broader Horn of Africa and break with the failed approach of his predecessor. European governments should follow suit, beginning by reversing the harmful actions of European Commission policymakers who have funneled donor money to abusive TFG security forces. The UN Security Council should establish a Commission of Inquiry to map widespread international crimes and pave the way for ending the impunity that has helped create the catastrophic situation that prevails today.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

AfricaFocus Bulletin can be reached at Please write to this address to subscribe or unsubscribe to the bulletin, or to suggest material for inclusion. For more information about reposted material, please contact directly the original source mentioned. For a full archive and other resources, see

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