About a year ago, I paid a visit to Somalia, the war-torn Horn of African nation which hasn’t seen a functional government since the beginning of the 1990s. I had the privilege of visiting several government offices and had numerous meetings with residents of Mogadishu, the capital. During my visit Somali leaders and elders would, on many occasions, convey their appreciation of the Ethiopian troops. Many officials believe that Ethiopian troops are the only forces who are able to defeat Al-Shabab and that it is precisely the Ethiopian forces that the Al-Shabab fears the most. This view is shared by many foreign observers and diplomats. In May 2014, Alexander Rondos, the EU’s special representative for the Horn of Africa, had reportedly said that ‘’The Ethiopian [troops] scare the hell out of everybody…because they deliver”. His remark was made during a conference organized by the European Security Round Table under the auspices of the Presidency of the EU Council.
From 2010 onwards Al-Shabab has undertaken several attacks in Uganda, Kenya, Somaliland and Djibouti. The group’s attack on 11 July 2010 in Uganda, which left 74 dead and 70 injured, is registered as one of the deadliest in recent years. Al-Shabab also claimed responsibility for the suicide attacks in Djibouti on 27 May 2014 which led to the killing of a Turkish national and wounded several foreign soldiers. The semi-autonomous entity Somaliland has also suffered. On 29 October 2008, six suicide bombers attacked several targets in the capital Hargeisa killings more than 30 civilians.
However, among the neighboring countries of Somalia, Kenya suffered the most. On 22 November and 03 December 2014 alone, Al-Shabab killed 64 civilians in the northern part of Kenya which is mainly inhabited by Kenyan Somalis. The Westgate mall attack in Nairobi, on 21 September 2013, which led to the killings of 67 individuals, is registered as the single deadliest attack in Kenya. Since the launching of Operation Linda Nchi in October 2011, not less than ten major terror attacks have taken place in different parts of Kenya resulting in hundreds of civilian casualties and many more injuries.
Ethiopia – Al-Shabab’s number one enemy – has been under the persistent threat of attacks by the group. But the country has managed to evade potential attacks so far. In 2014, the United Nations Somalia-Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) report revealed that Al-Shabab and the Ethiopian separatist rebel group the Oromo National Liberation front (ONLF) appear to have formed a logistical cooperation. The report further said that Eritrea’s support for ONLF intensified with the ultimate goal of destabilizing Ethiopia, its arch enemy since the bloody border war between 1998 and 2000.
However, Ethiopia argues that Al-Shabab has no capacity to launch attacks within its territory. Speaking to Reporter, a local newspaper, on 3 December 2014, Ambassador Dina Mufti, the Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia, was quoted as saying that “even if Ethiopia was to be targeted by Al-Shabab, the group has no strength or capability to carry out attacks inside the country like the ones it recently carried out in Kenya.”
Yet, on several occasions, Ethiopia announced that it has foiled Al-Shabab’s attempts to launch attack within its territory. On 5 December 2014, the Kenyan daily newspaper The Standard reported that a joint operation involving Ethiopian and Kenyan security forces in the border areas of the two countries led to the arrest of three suspects and the capture of more than 100,000 mobile phone cards from three different countries. The operation also recovered sophisticated telecommunication gadgets – all traced to the Al-Shabab’s terror cell. Back in December 2013 the Federal Police in Ethiopia announced it had arrested five suspects in soccer match bomb plot in Addis Abeba.
On 26 March 2013, Ethiopia’s National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) also announced that it had thwarted Al-Shabab’s attempt to launch an attack in Dollo Ado, a border area where hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees are being sheltered. According to NISS, the group was planning to seize foreign officials and take them across the border into Somalia for ransoms from their institutions and their families.
Credit where it’s due
There might be several explanations on why Al-Shabab has not been successful in attacking inside Ethiopia, at least so far. However, it would be difficult to not give due credit to the efficiency and effectiveness of the Ethiopian military and security apparatus.
The battle hardened military and security apparatus, which has evolved from the armed struggle period and fought several wars with the military Dergue regime, Eritrea, as well as several domestic insurgent groups, is very effective in tackling different kinds of threats from its inception. Its modus operandi is also based on proactive strikes. Further, Ethiopia is among a handful of countries in Africa to have an effective control of peripheral areas. Beyond this, Ethiopia has managed to have the hard-to-govern bordering areas of Somali territories largely tamed. Apart from this, the Kebeles, which are the lowest unit of Ethiopian administration, in peripheral areas of the vast Somali regional state are organized in such a way that they could easily identify and track a threat. The last point to be mentioned is the role of the Leyou police. The Leyou force is a regional police force which was created in 2008 after the ONLF massacred more than 70 Ethiopians and Chinese workers engaged in mineral exploration in the Ogaden region. The Leyou police are composed of ethnic Somalis who know the terrain and the culture of the region. These Somalis have proved themselves successful in thwarting Al-Shabab and the ONLF from having any meaningful operation in the region particularly and the country generally.
The 1998 Eritrean aggression against Ethiopia can be considered as the game changer on the ruling EPRDF’s policy towards boosting the military and security apparatus. Ethiopia, which initially anticipated to live in peace with all of its neighbors and demobilized much of its troops, had paid dearly during the Eritrean aggression in 1998. It took several months and lots of amount of money for the country to revamp the military and repel Eritrea’s attack. Consequently, the country started to modernize its military and security apparatus both in terms of quality and quantity.
Many defense statistics indicate that the country is among the top three militaries in Africa. According to Global Fire Power (GFP), Ethiopia is the third in military strength (following Egypt and Algeria) and 40th in the world. The GFP also estimates that the country acquired over 560 tanks and 780 armored vehicles, 183 multi-launch rocket systems (MLRS), 81 aircrafts and 39 helicopters. But the irony is that the country managed to be in this position while spending less than two percent of its GDP on the military. According to indexmundi.com, Ethiopia is 116th in the world in terms of military spending. The 1.2 per cent military spending by Ethiopia is very low compared with its neighboring and regional countries including Eritrea (6.3 percent and 8th), Djibouti (3.8 percent and 27th), Egypt (3.4 percent and 33rd), Sudan (3.0 and 41st) as well as Kenya (2.8 percent and 47th).
It is also important to note that with a total of 12, 247 troops (4 395 troops in the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and 7, 852 in UN missions, Ethiopia is the biggest troop-contributing country in the world and the third biggest contributor to the UN peacekeeping missions.
Much of the utilities to the peace-keeping mission ranging from bullets to heavy armored vehicles, tanks and helicopters are also produced by the National Defense, which runs the Military Industry’s business called Metals and Engineering Corporation (MeTEC), initially worth US$ 500 million. The long term vision is to enable the military to cover its expenses on its own and generate income to the country. In addition to this, the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, through its university, the Defense University, enrolls thousands of students and members of the army every year to different degrees.
To sum up, the success of the Ethiopian National Defense Force mainly lies on its investment on skill development of its troops as well as its attention to modernize its military hardware based on domestic products. Therefore, it would not be farfetched assumption to consider ENDF as a classic example of developing an efficient military without making it the burden on the national economy.