On October 27, 2020, the President of Puntland State in Somalia, Said Abdullahi Deni, visited Addis Ababa where his host, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister (PM), Abiy Ahmed Ali, impressed on him to support President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmaajo” in the 2021 Presidential elections in Somalia. This was part of efforts by Abiy Ahmed and his Eritrean counterpart, President Isayas Afewerki, to ensure that Farmaajo is re-elected (in 2021). However, the meeting did not yield the expected results as reported by the Somali Guardian, which revealed that Deni rebuffed Abiy, and in return, Abiy threatened to unseat him. Subsequent to this visit, Deni sought political support from the United Arabs Emirate (UAE) and worked to consolidate his alliances with regional allies.
Apart from UAE, Deni – whose term in office ends in 2023 – is also supported by the Government of Kenya (GoK), which has been alarmed by the Tripartite Alliance signed by Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia to forge a new regional order that is out of sync with expectations of IGAD and ethos of the African Union. Moreover, this alliance is blamed for soiling Kenya-Ethiopia friendship, with Murithi Mutiga of the International Crisis Group stating that Ethiopia-Kenya “bilateral relations have been frosty based on their approach to Somalia“, and this is consequent to Ethiopia prioritizing this Tripartite Alliance over Ethiopia-Kenya strategic alliance.
Approach to Somalia
Since Abiy Ahmed came to power in April 2018, he has sought to change Ethiopia’s foreign polices, and in the process antagonized Ethiopia’s traditional allies, Kenya included. This divergence of interests between Ethiopia and Kenya is evident in how the 2 nations approach Somalia.
Ethiopian authorities have known well that Deni is an ally of Kenya, and threats too unseat him by GoE would not be welcomed by GoK. To worsen matters, GoE had tried to oust the most important Kenyan ally in Somalia, Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Islaam Madobe, who has been the President of Jubaland since 2013 when he was installed as leader of the region with the support of Kenya and blessings of Ethiopia (Madobe was born in Kebri Dehar in Korahe Zone, Ethiopia).
Professor Peter Kagwanja – a policy analyst and key advisor of GoK on Horn of Africa (HoA) issues – revealed that Ethiopian soldiers with instructions to abduct Ahmed Madobe were airlifted to Kismayo, but Kenyan soldiers foiled their plot to abduct him. This saved Madobe, and allowed him to win the controversial August 2019 Jubaland elections. This ploy of kidnapping or arresting a political candidate so that he does not stand in a regional election had been used by GoE in December 2018 when Ethiopian soldiers worked jointly with Somalia’s police to arrest Mukhtar Robow, a politician that Farmaajo did not want to be elected. Robow’s arrest sparked violent protests that led to 11 Somalis being killed, and AMISOM dissociating itself from the incident, which means that the Ethiopian soldiers acted outside AMISOM’s mandate in pursuance of objectives set by Abiy’s government to help Farmaajo stifle domestic political opposition.
So, why would GoE plot to kidnap Kenya’s most critical ally in Somalia, and then flip Jubaland away from Kenya? One of the reasons given is that Ethiopia wants to gain access to Kismayo port, which has been developed with assistance from Kenya. This in turn raises another question, why would Ethiopia risk its relationship with Kenya by trying to take Kismayo port from Kenya? The answer to this question is Abiy’s push for the Cushitic Alliance which will be covered later, but what will be mentioned now is that this alliance seeks to wither Kenya’s influence in Somalia.
As mentioned, Madobe won the August 2019 regional elections, much to the chagrin of Farmaajo who heads the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS). Farmaajo accused Kenya of rigging the polls in favor of Madobe, and subsequently banned direct flights to Kismayo’s main airport so as to prevent leading Somali politicians from attending Madobe’s inauguration. Nonetheless, the Kenyan Air Force organized for a plane to fly Somali politicians, including Abdikarim Hussein Guled and Sharif Hassan Aden to Kismayo. Farmaajo’s government reacted by accusing KDF of violating its airspace and even reported the matter to the International Civil Aviation Authority (ibid).
GoK managed to have Madobe retain power in Jubaland, and in the process outwitted both FGS and GoE. Even so, FGS used Madobe’s political rivals, principally the Jubbaland Council for Change (JCC) – a coalition of Jubaland politicians that included Abdirashid Hiddig, Sheikh Dahir, and Abdinasir Seraar – to foment political instability, until GoK brokered talks between its ally and JCC in Nairobi. Said Abdullahi Deni helped facilitate these talks, and even tried to reconcile Madobe with Farmaajo.
The events of August 2019 fundamentally altered Kenya-Somalia relations. Since 2019, Kenya became committed to have Farmaajo replaced as Somalia’s president, while GoE and Eritrea want Farmaajo to stay in power. Still, GoK sent delegations to Addis Ababa to explain Kenya’s position, with hopes of getting Abiy’s government to back Kenya’s position on Somalia, or at least intervene in the Kenya-Somalia disagreements and mollify the situation by getting Farmaajo’s administration to cooperate with Kenya.
Abiy’s government never gave Kenya the support it needed (or was perceived as non-responsive to Kenyan concerns), and its effects were evident in Kenyan media space. In December 2019, the Kenyan news site, HiviSasa, published an article titled UN blames Ethiopian PM for political chaos in Somalia, which reported that Abiy’s government has been fueling chaos in Somalia and South Sudan. HiviSasa’s post was based on an article published in November 2019 in Daily Nation under the title Abiy Ahmed fanning instability in Somalia, S. Sudan: UN reports, which also reported that Mohamud Sayyid, the Vice President of Jubaland had survived an alleged attempt by ENDF to kidnap him in Gedo. Nonetheless, Ambassador Meles Alem denied the allegations, but Galmudug politicians accused GoE of interfering with the state’s electoral process.
Plane Shot Down
By early 2020, it was clear that the relationship between Nairobi and Addis Ababa had lost its lustre. Moreover, Kenyan diplomatic corps and military-intelligence establishment were at odds regarding how to deal with Mogadishu’s government, as well as Abiy’s government. This would be aggravated by an incident that occurred in May.
At around 1545hrs on May 4, 2020, ENDF troops shot down a Kenyan-registered cargo plane that was delivering aid to Bardale. The Embraer EMB-120RT, registration 5Y AXO, was shot down by fire from ZU-23 anti-aircraft cannon when it was trying to land at Bardale airstrip. This incident was initially classified as a criminal occurrence, and all 6 people onboard, including 2 Kenyans, were killed. ENDF troops barred Kenyan officials from accessing the crash site, but this was downplayed by GoK, which decided to seek answers from FGS.
On May 5, 2020, AMISOM acknowledged the incident, and on the same day, FGS promised to jointly investigate the incident. AMISOM later reported that the implicated ENDF troops were not part of the Ethiopian AMISOM contingent (see report below). Even so, this incident did not greatly impact on Ethiopia-Kenya relations, with credit being given to astute diplomats who provided a more persuasive case as compared to KDF.
The decision to overlook this incident was made within 24 hours after the realization that neither KDF field commanders nor their seniors in the Department of Defence (DoD) had any clear strategic plan, nor strategic foresight, of how to handle situations that can create diplomatic and military turbulence in the region.
Interestingly, this lack of strategic foresight had played a key role in enabling Meles Zenawi to overshadow Kenya in all regional matters pertaining to Somalia. This was due to the incredible military superiority of ENDF in 2006, which Professor Said Samatar aptly captures when he states that “Ethiopia boasts a battle-hardened professional army that can probably defeat in a conventional war the combined forces of Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Kenya“. Zenawi would prudently use this military power to make Ethiopia the regional hegemon, and assert Ethiopia as the anchor state of the whole of Eastern Africa. For Kenya, its military would be relegated to second stature as all nations in the East African Community (EAC) looked up to Ethiopia as the military master of the region.
Under the Shadow of Meles Zenawi
The Mbagathi Peace Process that started in 2002 had managed to formalize the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia in October 2004, with its first parliament sitting in Kenya. TFG replaced the ill-fated Transitional National Government that was formed in 2000 in Djibouti. The first president of TFG was Abdullahi Yusuf, whose electoral victory was credited to Ethiopia; and as expected, Ethiopia played a key role in choosing the Prime Minister of TFG, with President Yusuf settling on Ali Mohamed Gedi as his PM so as to gain acceptance of the Hawiye clan that dominated Mogadishu. PM Gedi selected the TFG cabinet members who were approved in 2005 in Kenya.
However, TFG could not immediately relocate to Mogadishu because of political violence and a new entrant into the political scene of Somalia. This new entrant was the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) whose first signature political activity was noticed in 2000 despite being founded in 1994. In 2000, ICU’s leadership included warlord-entrepreneurs such as Ali Mahdi, and it fought clan warlords (who were themselves warlord-entrepreneurs). By late 2004, it had succeeded in subduing non-Islamist Hawiye warlords in Mogadishu, though it would suffer a spate of assassinations in 2005 that forced it to create a Salafist military force known as Al-Shabaab. By 2006, it had taken control of Mogadishu, and by the last quarter of 2006, it had re-opened Port of Mogadishu and Mogadishu International Airport, besides attempting to clean Mogadishu’s streets after restoring order to the city.
In 2006, Somalis had convinced GoK that it was better to have ICU rule Somalia, with DoD and Kenya’s Intelligence Service, then called the National Security and Intelligence Service, giving controversial reasons of why ICU was a good bargain for Kenya, chief among them being that ICU will stabilize Somalia. This assessment was not shared by its (Kenya) neighbors – Uganda and Ethiopia. Moreover, this shows the naivety and gullibility of Kenyans, which makes them prone to being exploited by Islamists.
Zenawi invaded Somalia in December 2006. On December 20, 2006, ENDF had its first major battle with ICU in Baidoa, and the resounding victory set ENDF on a path to total victory in less than 2 weeks. ICU dissolved its leadership 7 days later. On December 31, 2006, ENDF had captured Mogadishu and had advanced as far south as Buro Marer. It is this destruction of ICU that allowed al-Shabaab to rise to prominence as the leading armed Salafist group, and this is considered as a strategic victory in the realm of offensive realism.
In January 2007, Museveni openly defended Zenawi’s decision to invade Somalia, and expressed intent of deploying about 800 Ugandan soldiers as peacekeepers in Somalia. The invasion of Somalia and destruction of ICU was a clever move by Zenawi’s government. It elevated the status of Ethiopia in EAC, while relegating GoK and KDF to ridicule for being cowards and feckless actors, with Museveni even discrediting KDF as a “career army”. This perception of KDF being a weak and cowardly military outfit played some role in KDF entering Somalia in 2011. This deployment received half-hearted support from Meles Zenawi who had confessed that “GoE is not enthusiastic about Kenya’s Jubaland initiative, but is sharing intelligence with Kenya and hoping for success“.
Interestingly, Meles Zenawi and ENDF gained so much respect from senior GoK officials and Kenyan parliamentarians to the extent that KDF had to conceal its intention of entering Somalia in 2011 because most (Kenyan) parliamentarians had little faith in its strategic capabilities and they considered Ethiopia as the master of Somalia. This laudatory respect for Ethiopia by Kenyan politicians was cemented in June 2016 when ENDF destroyed an Al-Shabaab “brigade” that had specialized in raiding AMISOM‘s Forward Operating Bases (FOB), and was suspected to have destroyed KDF’s FOB in el-Adde in January 2016. In their May 2016 report titled, Kenya covers up military massacre, Briana Duggan and Robyn Kriel reported that al-Shabaab had killed 141 Kenyan soldiers in el-Adde, though a report by a Kenyan media, The Star, reported that KDF lost 147 soldiers in the attack. In January 2017, Al-Shabaab would overrun KDF’s FOB in Kulbiyow, and this makes KDF the only military to have lost 2 FOBs to al-Shabaab.
Before 2019, KDF resented ENDF’s superiority, which compounded on the ill-fortunes of the Kenyan military and the bad reputation it had gained among the Kenyan public. This explains why Kenyans have accepted incursions of Ethiopian security personnel into Kenya where they have shot dead Kenyan police as they pursued Ethiopian rebels hiding in Kenya. Remarkably, it is not only Kenyans who doubt the wisdom of KDF’s Operation Linda Nchi, even Americans discouraged GoK from deploying KDF in Somalia.
In his 2012 paper titled, After the Kenyan Intervention in Somalia, Ken Menkhaus correctly assessed that the essential goal of deploying KDF into Somalia by GoK was because it favored the “establishment of a more friendly Somali political order in the remote pastoral areas along Kenyan-Somali border”, even though “some U.S. officials entertained doubts about the Kenyan offensive from the outset”. An ancillary explanation is that KDF was used to advance interests of the Ogaden clan, and Throup states that deployment of KDF into Somalia was tied to the “personal economic and political interests of senior Kenyan politicians and soldiers from Northeastern Province’s Ogadeni Somali community“.
“Elements in the army, led by senior Kenyan Somali officers and politicians, including Minister of State for Defense Yusuf Haji, had long desired to intervene. They were eager to test Kenya’s well-equipped but little-used army in war conditions, to advance the interests of their own Ogadeni sub-clans in Jubaland, to gain personally from the stabilization of trade in cattle and other commodities, to capture the port of Kismayu, and to establish a Kenya-dominated buffer zone south of the River Juba, driving al Shabaab into hostile terrain north of the river. In recent years, Ogadeni interests in Jubaland have been marginalized as al Shabab has established control”.
It can thus be concluded that Ethiopia’s refusal to prioritize sectarian Ogaden interests in Jubaland in 2019 has contributed to Kenya-Ethiopia disagreements, though ironically, it has made Abiy’s government to be perceived favorably by senior Kenyan diplomats who want GoK to prioritize the interests of Kenyans rather than peddle to sectarian interests of Somali clans. Still, those who support the strengthening of Kenya-Ethiopia relationship have another hurdle to overcome – the Cushitic Alliance.
In a talk show broadcast on March 4, 2020, by NTV Kenya, Rashid Abdi stated that Kenya faces a low-grade insurgency in its North-Eastern region where Al-Shabaab, which is now an Al-Qaeda affiliate, has focused its attacks on security personnel, with about 80% of casualties of terror attacks being these security officers. He also noted the Al-Shabaab’s targeted messaging now prioritized liberating colonized land. The land in question covers the counties of Mandera, Wajir, and Garissa, which are now occupied predominantly by Somalis who immigrated into the region in the 19th Century and early 20th Century. Government officials have openly accused Somalis of working with Al-Shabaab, and there are serious concerns that Somalis are using al-Shabaab to expel non-Somalis from the 3 counties, and so far Kenya has failed to employ punitive counter-terrorism measures to combat Somali terrorism.
In the same talk show, Peter Kagwanja elaborated more on this insecurity issue by stating that it is characteristic of the Horn of Africa region. Kagwanja explained that Somali secessionism and terrorist insurgency can be traced back to the ruling government in Mogadishu. To drive the point home, he noted that the determinant of a peaceful or violent northeastern region is whether the Somalian government is friendly or hostile to Kenya. From 1963 to 1967, Somalia deliberately incited and financed a rebellion against Kenya in what is popularly known as the Shifta War, which ended in a military ceasefire between Kenya and Somalia that was signed in Arusha, Tanzania, by President Jomo Kenyatta and Prime Minister Muhammad Haji Ibrahim Egal.
Kagwanja stated that Kenya-Somalia relations have been good since 2004 until Abiy Ahmed came to power and formed the Cushitic Alliance, which has encouraged Farmaajo’s administration (with Eritrean backing) to plot to destabilize Kenya – not north-eastern Kenya, but Kenya as a nation. Kagwanja blames this Cushitic Alliance for the low-level insurgency being waged by Somali terrorists in Kenya, as well as Farmaajo’s plot to incite a war with Kenya. He also acknowledged that all senior Somali political officials have properties in Kenya, and take their children to Kenyan schools. This was meant to show that Kenya has leverage over Somali politicians. Even so, what is this Cushitic Alliance?
On December 18, 2009, Eritrea denounced the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for attempting to impose what it described as “ludicrous punitive measures” after it was accused by USG and other UNSC member nations of supplying arms to al-Shabaab. The sanctions resolution was drafted by Uganda, which was then fighting al-Shabaab so as to avert the collapse of TFG that had been installed in power in 2007 by the TPLF-led Ethiopian government. Later in 2011, the Foreign Minister of Kenya, Moses Wetangula, would summon the Eritrean ambassador (to Kenya) to express concerns that “there is a possibility that arms supplies are flowing from his country (Eritrea) to al Shabaab”. Wetangula later stated that Kenya had “a series of options” that can be used “to deal with the alleged” arms suppliers.
Gebregziabher Alemseged, popularly known as General Gabre Heard, oversaw the destruction of ICU and ascendance of Ethiopian influence in Somalia’s affairs, besides coupling GoE strategic security interests with those of EAC members states. This made him the most powerful non-politician in Somalia, and a respected figure that AMISOM consulted regularly. It also made him a target of vociferous criticism by supporters of al-Shabaab.
One of the most vocal critics of General Gabre was Farah Maalim. The Ethiopian ambassador to Kenya in 2012, Shemsudin Roble, accused Farah of peddling “malicious falsehoods” against GoE, and making allegations that “were similar to allegations usually made by (Afwerki’s) Eritrea (against TPLF-led GoE)”. Roble pointed out that “Eritrea uses smear campaign to justify its clandestine activities against other countries in the region, including Kenya“. This is notable because, in 2009, Kenya expelled Eritrean diplomats suspected of facilitating al-Shabaab’s suicide bomb attack on AMISOM troops in Mogadishu, and FM Wetangula accused Farah Maalim (then Kenya’s deputy speaker) of being an al-Shabaab supporter. This information provides context to why GoK was rattled by the formation of the Tripartite Alliance, and subsequent dismissal of General Heard from IGAD by Abiy’s administration.
After ascending to power in April 2018, Abiy Ahmed Ali sought to re-order Ethiopian domestic and foreign policies, and one of the key steps taken was to reach out to Eritrea. In Kenya, Eritrea is described as the nation of 3 outlaws – an outlaw president (Isayas Afwerki), an outlaw constitution, and an outlaw military (the Eritrean Defense Forces [EDF]). However, this outreach to Eritrea occurred at a time when Abiy was making a strange pact that came to be called the Tripartite Alliance, or simply the Cushitic Alliance.
The Tripartite Alliance was formalized as a comprehensive agreement in September 2018 by Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. This alliance allowed Eritrea to join a regional bloc of its choosing after it was expelled from IGAD in 2007. According to Kagwanja, this alliance made Eritrea – the nation that was sanctioned for technically being at war with AMISOM – the biggest strategic power in HoA. Harry Verhoeven considers this alliance as a way for Eritrea to break out of its isolation, and Selam Tadesse Demissie considers this alliance as a way for Eritrea to undermine IGAD so as to gain regional influence. For Kagwanja, this alliance forged an “idea of the New Horn, largely hoisted on a pan-ethnic idea of “Cushitic Alliance” (Oromo and Somalis), (that poses) an existential ideological challenge to IGAD and the regional consensus it represents”.
Eritrea has long desired to dismantle IGAD, and undermine TPLF, Kenya, and Uganda for the role they played in ensuring that UNSC sanctions the rogue regime in Asmara. Additionally, Isaias Afwerki openly complained that Kenya and Uganda should not be in any regional bloc that manages matters related to the Horn of Africa. With the Tripartite Alliance, the rogue regime in Asmara got what it wanted, with even the Eritrean Press proudly proclaiming that the Cushitic Alliance would render IGAD immaterial. In a discomforting turn of events, Abiy Ahmed worked to remove AMISOM’s allies like Gabre Heard, while allowing Eritrea to train Somali soldiers.
As Kagwanja notes, Abiy wants to build a new axis in HoA centered on the “Oromo-Somali Cushitic Alliance“, though “publicity of the Oromo-Somali Cushitic Axis has been kept low and out of the diplomatic purview“. He also explains that it is Eritreans “who are the theorists and prime movers of (this) idea “that strive to create the “us-versus-them Bantu-Cushitic divide (that) is based on the logic that ‘the enemy of my enemy is a potential friend'” (ibid). Additionally, Kagwanja reasoned that Eritrea has sought to weaken “the Ethiopia-Kenya duality of power within IGAD” which had given the 2 nations “a huge influence in the African Union and its Peace and Security Architecture (APSA)…(which has) enabled them to sustain the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) that has waged war against the terrorism in Somalia”.
Equally, Kagwanja states that “prompters of the Oromo-Somali ‘Cushitic Alliance’ are seeking to replace the old geopolitical alliances based on the nation-state, which before April 2018 seemed to rest on a sturdy ‘Bantu-Amhara Alliance'”, and then deduced that the Cushitic Alliance is opposed to AMISOM in Somalia because to them, AMISOM “fighting against the Al-Shabaab is redefined as part of the ‘Bantu-Amhara’ military offensive involving mainly Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti and Ethiopia (before April)“. Kagwanja also notes that this Cushitic Alliance provides an opportunity for the Presidential Monarch of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki to “vanquish and isolate his foes in Ethiopia” (ibid).
Regarding Kenya, Kagwanja considers this alliance as a threat to the region because it has created a “power shift in the Horn (that) has emboldened Somalia in its claim over Kenyan waters in what is unfolding as an existential challenge to the country“.
When the Tigray war erupted in November 2020, and the Ethiopian government invited EDF into Tigray, it was quickly deduced by regional observers that the aim of this Cushitic Alliance is to destroy TPLF before destabilizing the entire region. Human Rights Watch has accused Eritrean troops of raping and killing Tigrayan civilians, as well as plundering and pillaging Tigray; with the State Department blaming EDF for impeding humanitarian access into Tigray.
Also, there are claims that Farmaajo sent Somali soldiers to Tigray via Eritrea, and this has cemented concerns that the Cushitic Alliance bodes ill for regional peace. Consequently, most regional nations outside the Cushitic Alliance rallied jointly with Western governments and started to provide covert support to TPLF. In June 2021, regional geopolitical analysts noted the defeat of ENDF in Tigray after TDF ousted the Federal Government from Mekelle, and African nations became more engaged in calling for a negotiated ceasefire and expulsion of EDF from Ethiopia. Basically, USG and African nations want the Cushitic Alliance shattered.
As is popularly acknowledged in the region, the Cushitic Alliance exists as the death warrant of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. The earlier Ethiopia exits this alliance, the more likely it will survive an impending doom.