Somalia (November 1999)
by Mark Bradbury, Independent Researcher November 1999

In July, international aid agencies in Somalia issued a Donor Alert requesting US$17.5m to support emergency relief activities up to December 1999. Poor and erratic seasonal rains in southern Somalia, as elsewhere in the Horn and East Africa, prompted concern about a fourth successive crop failure and widespread water scarcity. The Donor Alert identified 1.2 million Somalis to be ‘at risk’, with 700,000 considered ‘food insecure’. Although 1999 crop production may prove marginally better than previous years, the condition of livestock in 1999 is considered worse due to poor pasture.

The food security situation has been compounded by a downturn in the economy – a consequence of deteriorating infrastructure, the collapse of the banana trade, and the inflationary impact of the introduction of new Somali banknotes by warlords and businessmen during 1999. Whether the dire predictions of a food and water emergency develop into an acute humanitarian crisis will largely depend on the evolving political and military situation. If resources can be secured from donors, agencies should be capable of responding to the food, water and health needs identified in the Donor Alert. The ability of the system to respond to the impact of a major escalation in fighting is less clear.

When international peacekeeping forces withdrew from Somalia in March 1995 the country did not revert to full-scale war, as was widely predicted. Consequently the recurrence of famine has been avoided. In Somaliland (which declared secession in 1991) and Puntland State in the north (a non-secessionist regional state established in 1998) there has been a gradual political and economic recovery. In the south, a military stalemate has also created the space in some regions for the re-introduction of local administrations and a measure of order. The main exceptions have been the Bay and Bakool regions, which have been occupied by General Mohamed Farah Aideed‘s Somali National Alliance (SNA) since September 1995. In 1998, however, there was a resurgence in political violence and banditry throughout much of southern Somalia. This was followed in 1999 by significant changes in the political and military situation, the immediate cause of which was the financing and arming of Somali factions by Ethiopia and Eritrea and other regional powers such as Egypt and Libya.


Somalia and Ethiopia have a history of hostile relations revolving around disputed territorial claims. Somalia’s collapse in 1991 and a change of Ethiopian government led to a temporary easing of tensions. Ethiopian security concerns resurfaced in 1995 and 1996, following cross-border raids into eastern Ethiopia, assassination attempts and bombings linked to Islamic radicals. In response to this perceived threat from Islamic groups – which had grown in strength following the departure of international peacekeeping forces – Ethiopia attacked Islamic strongholds in Gedo region in southern Somalia in 1996. At the same time, under the umbrella of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Ethiopia took on the challenge of pursuing a resolution to the Somali conflict and sponsored a protracted mediation process aimed at building an alliance of Somali factions. The so-called ‘Sodere process’ failed to elicit the support of the faction led by General Aideed’s son, Hussein Aideed, and was undermined in December 1997 by an Egyptian mediated agreement between Aideed and other southern factions for the establishment of an administration for Benadir region, incorporating Mogadishu. The collapse of the Sodere process led Ethiopia to modify its engagement in Somalia from a political one to a more overt military one.

The foreign military engagement in Somalia escalated in early 1999 following the outbreak of the Ethiopia–Eritrea border war, as both states sought to advance their own war aims through Somali proxies. The fallout was rapid. In March 1999 the six-month old Benadir administration collapsed, leaving a political vacuum again in Mogadishu. In June, the Rahanweyn Resistence Army (RRA), with strong Ethiopian support, routed Aideed’s SNA forces in Baidoa. In Gedo region Ethiopian troops intervened to support one faction of the Somali National Front. Having lost Baidoa, Aideed and allied factions captured the port of Kismayo from General Mohamed Hersi ‘Morgan’, who had held it since 1993. Security in the agriculturally rich Lower Shabelle region deteriorated following the RRA’s threat to ‘liberate’ the region from occupying forces.

Both Ethiopia and Eritrea have denied their involvement in Somalia, and have managed to keep their forces hidden from international scrutiny. Their involvement clearly violates established international principles and the arms embargo on Somalia established by UN Security Council Resolution 733 (1992).

Their engagement also served to exacerbate broader regional tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt that have previously undermined diplomatic efforts in Somalia. Both Ethiopia and Eritrea have denied their involvement in the country, and have managed to keep their forces hidden from international scrutiny. While the UN Security Council, the European Union, the Organisation of African Unity and the League of Arab States have all expressed concern at ‘reports’ of external interference, none have verified the military engagement of regional states, or allegations of new arms flows.

Hopes of an end to the Ethiopia–Eritrea war and of averting further escalation of the Somali conflict are proving premature. Changes in the military balance of power have brought an immediate respite to some vulnerable populations – particularly in Bay and Bakool where international access has improved – and long term positive political change may accrue. However, foreign military engagement in Somalia has also served to revitalise the fortunes of the warlords, and to rearm of their militia.

Since August there have been some positive developments. In a comprehensive report on Somalia in August, the UN Secretary General, while recognising the complexity of the situation, urged UN agencies to do more to re-establish their presence in Somalia. The appointment of a new UN Resident Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia is helping to revitalise a demoralised humanitarian community. There is also renewed optimism about diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict. These are cohering around a process initiated by Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh which envisages a National Rescue Conference on Somalia. This will focus on the participation of representative Somali civil society actors rather than the politico-military leaders (the ‘warlords’).

The initiative is expected to be endorsed by IGAD in November, and will be formally launched after Ramadan with a Somali cultural festival in Djibouti in the new year. In a statement to the UN General Assembly in September President Guelleh argued that if the Somali ‘warlords’ fail to accept the process, or undermine it, then they must be charged with crimes against humanity.