With many around the world focused on the dangerous military confrontation in Ethiopia, Somalia too is facing a triple security crisis that can jeopardize the country’s halting progress. Ethiopia’s instability and ethnic strife are producing security repercussions in Somalia. Somalia’s upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections are the second component of the emerging security storm. And the Trump administration’s plan to withdraw U.S. special operations forces from Somalia in the next two months will further weaken the various struggling anti-Shabab forces and strengthen the militants.

Here, I spell out the implications of the Ethiopian crisis for Somalia. In a forthcoming post, I’ll deal with the latter two issues.

Anti-Shabab operations

The escalating military confrontation between the federal government of Ethiopia and the political leadership of the Tigray region has produced a worrying humanitarian situation. It also threatens to plunge the Tigray region into prolonged violent strife, ensnarl regional actors, and exacerbate ethnic violence across the country.

In addition, the crisis has potentially grave consequences for stability and security in neighboring Somalia. It hurts counterinsurgency efforts against the potent jihadi terrorist group al-Shabab and exacerbates Somalia’s existing tensions between its capital and regions.

Ethiopian forces, whether operating under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) or independently, are a powerful actor in Somalia. Their military heft significantly surpasses that of the Somali National Army (SNA) or Somali National Police (SPN). Despite years of international training and payments, the SNA and SNP remain predominantly conglomerations of clan-based fractious militias, with little independent capacity even for defensive operations against al-Shabab.

Somali federal forces and AMISOM rely on militias for rare offensive operations against al-Shabab and defense of bases. But although AMISOM has not conducted major offensive operations against al-Shabab since 2016 and remains hunkered down in garrisons, its presence and that of non-AMISOM Ethiopian forces stiffen the militias’ morale.

Wherever Ethiopian troops have withdrawn, al-Shabab attacks against local militias, leaders, and populations ensued; in most cases, the group has eventually taken over those territories.

Somalia’s security has been slowly deteriorating since 2016. Formally, al-Shabab controls less territory than at the height of its power in 2011. But its reach has been expanding, including into Puntland and Somaliland. It regularly mounts terrorist attacks in Mogadishu, levies taxes throughout the country, and enjoys significant freedom of movement, including on major roads. It extorts Somali businesses, some of which hire al-Shabab to eliminate business competition. Al-Shabab also delivers governance, such as by holding shariah courts.

In response to the Tigray revolt, the Ethiopian federal government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed resorted to intense military operations in the Tigray region and to purges of ethnic Tigray from Ethiopia’s military and government offices. Tigray soldiers and commanders in Somalia have been disarmed, confined to barracks, or sent to Ethiopia. These purges weaken the morale, cohesion, and capacity of anti-Shabab forces.

Should the Tigray military confrontation escalate and spill into other Ethiopian regions — and should Ethiopia’s government withdraw more forces from Somalia — AMISOM will be severely weakened. The African Union’s force is dependent on the Ethiopian contingent. Its other members, such as Djibouti, Burundi, and Uganda, may start withdrawing too, not halted even by the inducement of the AMISOM salaries paid for by the European Union (EU).

AMISOM is formally slated to end its mission in Somalia by the end of 2021, but Somalia is unprepared for the security transition.

AMISOM’s end could set off major security and humanitarian challenges beyond al-Shabab’s onslaught in Somalia. Returning Burundian forces, for example, could exacerbate the risk of severe ethnic violence in Burundi, bubbling close to the surface in recent years.

AMISOM is formally slated to end its mission in Somalia by the end of 2021, but Somalia is unprepared for the security transition. The international community will again seek to extend the AMISOM mandate and ask the EU to reauthorize AMISOM payments expiring in December 2020. But the presence of a robust Ethiopian deployment remains a lynchpin of any meaningful AMISOM extension.

Rivalries between the center and periphery

Ethiopia has also provided crucial support to the federal government of Somalia in its rivalry with Somalia’s federal member states.

Like in Ethiopia, center-periphery tensions over economic resources and political power have been at the core of Somalia’s instability since the collapse of the Siad Barre authoritarian regime in 1991. In recent years, stabilization efforts in Somalia have centered on devolving power from Mogadishu to Somalia’s regions and transforming the previously centralized Somalia into a federation. While the formation of the new states and a new constitution are incomplete and halting, Somalia’s current government of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (known as “Farmajo”), which is backed by Ethiopia, wants to recentralize power.

Mohamed has aggressively meddled in the political affairs of Somalia’s new states. In 2018, he prevented the victory of Mukhtar Robow in presidential elections in Somalia’s South West State. Although Mohamed orchestrated Robow’s high-profile defection from al-Shabab and granted him amnesty, he could not sit by while Robow eclipsed Mohamed’s preferred candidate in the state; Mohamed had Robow arrested. Ethiopian forces were essential for Robow’s arrest and were implicated in bloody repression of Robow’s supporters. Yet without Ethiopian forces, al-Shabab’s reach across the South West State, including its capital of Baidoa, would be even more pronounced.

Ethiopian forces have been similarly key in Mohamed’s rivalry with Ahmed Madobe, the president of Jubaland, another federal member state. An early al-Shabab defector and leader of an anti-Shabab militia, Madobe became Jubaland’s president in 2013 after wresting the crucial port of Kismayo and surrounding areas from al-Shabab and rival clans. Ruling Kismayo with an iron fist, Madobe has been at loggerheads with Mohamed for years. Those tensions escalated in 2019, when Mohamed tried to orchestrate Madobe’s electoral defeat and the installation of Mohamed’s proxy as Jubaland president.

After months of economic pressure on Madobe by Mogadishu, and various political maneuvers and countermaneuvers, Mohamed’s ploy failed and Madobe retained Jubaland’s presidency. However, not before Ethiopian troops backing Mohamed almost came to blows in the spring of 2020 with a fellow (reluctant) member of AMISOM, Kenya, that has long backed Madobe. Any intense confrontation between Ethiopian and Kenyan forces could sound the death knell of AMISOM.

With the backing of Ethiopia and Mogadishu, another part of Jubaland, the region of Gedo operates essentially independently of and in opposition to Madobe. Its independence is a thorn in Madobe’s side. Again, the presence of Ethiopian forces is critical for this arrangement.

Regional entanglements

Mohamed has also antagonized the leadership of Puntland, another federal member state, as well as of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) when he sought to prevent the UAE’s investment in Puntland’s port of Bosaso. First, he saw any such initiative to be Mogadishu’s prerogative, and second, he did not want the deal to become another source of Puntland’s economic power and autonomy ambitions.

In April 2018, Mohamed seized $10 million from an Emirati plane, claiming the money was meant as anti-Mogadishu bribes for federal member states. Alleging that Mohamed is on the payroll of rival Qatar, the UAE has actively worked against Mogadishu, indeed supporting Somalia’s federal member states in opposition to Mohamed.

For years, the UAE has also sponsored one of the two most potent militias in Puntland, the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF). Although originally stood up as an anti-piracy force, the PMPF serves as a de facto pretorian guard of Puntland’s presidents and a hedge against Mogadishu and Somali federal forces.

But the regional entanglements are complex. Mohamed has built close relations not just with Abiy, whom he sees as a kindred centralizer disinclined to power devolution, but also with Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki. Federal member states fear that the allegedly hundreds of Somali forces who have been trained in Eritrea will become Mohamed’s personal force. Yet Isaias and Abiy are close with the UAE. In any escalating internal conflict in Somalia in which the UAE sides with the federal member states against Mogadishu, Abiy and Isaias might feel compelled to abandon Mohamed. That would significantly weaken Mogadishu and likely strengthen Somalia’s fissiparous dynamics. These dynamics may intensify even if Mohamed is not reelected Somalia’s president in February 2021.

If violence were to explode between Mogadishu and federal member states, it would also rapidly suck in local militias: clan-based, belonging to powerbrokers, or sponsored by external actors. Madobe could be emboldened to move against Gedo or try to force out Somali federal forces from Jubaland, potentially triggering also military confrontations among Kenya, Mogadishu, and leftover Ethiopian troops. Puntland — which is anti-Mohamed and close to Madobe — could intensify its anti-Mogadishu moves and resurrect provocative measures, such as tightening an alliance with the UAE. (Qatar may be tempted to counter such moves through its proxies in Puntland.) Both al-Shabab and the Islamic State in Somalia, located in Puntland, would take advantage. In the South West State, clans supporting Robow could seek to move against Mohamed’s political allies and federal forces, whether or not Mohamed remains in power next year.

In all these potential layered conflicts, al-Shabab would be the (indirect) winner, with its capacities against a wide set of actors and visible territorial control significantly augmented.

Somalia could easily topple into a complex civil war involving al-Shabab, clans, the federal member states, and Mogadishu. Years of state-building efforts could be rapidly wiped out.

Why de-escalation in Ethiopia is needed to stabilize Somalia

In short, any weakening of the presence of Ethiopian forces in Somalia could set off the explosion of Somalia’s center-periphery tensions into complex violent conflicts. These tensions are already at their highest point in years.

A rapid de-escalation of the violent conflagration in Ethiopia is thus vital not just for stabilizing Ethiopia, but also Somalia. Conversely, a long-term destabilization of Ethiopia will worsen many dangerous security trends in Somalia. If de-escalation in Ethiopia can be achieved through political negotiations leading to equitable power-sharing, Somalia will have a useful model. If the de-escalation emerges as a result of the Ethiopian federal government crushing the Tigray political leadership and subjecting the region to a painful humanitarian crisis and other punishments, both Mogadishu and Somalia’s federal member states will learn the wrong lessons.

Meanwhile, however, the international community should seek to discourage Somalia’s federal member states, as well as Mohamed (and potentially his successor), from taking advantage of the instability in Ethiopia by launching political provocations and trigger-happy maneuvers.