Somalia: On Scene in Baidoa After Ethiopia's Rout of Al-Shabab

Ethiopian Forces in Somalia
Ethiopian tanks and troops stand guard at the city’s airport. View photos from Somalia. Pete Muller for Newsweek

The previous occupants of the crumbling palace left its interior covered with multicolored chalk drawings and painted graffiti. The childishly rendered pictures give the place a kind of schoolroom look. That is, except for the subject matter: AK-47s and tanks spewing bullets and flames; exploding airplanes; cellphones, complete with painstakingly detailed buttons, the detonators of choice for the roadside bombs that are used by the Islamist radicals of Al-Shabab. Guiding us through Somalia's onetime presidential palace in Baidoa, Capt. Mahamoud Yissak seems almost regretful for the fighters, who mostly fled when the Ethiopian Army captured the city. "They're only teenagers," the Ethiopian officer says. "They think only about jihad."

The building now serves as a command center for the Ethiopians, who insist they have no intention of staying in Somalia. All they want to do, they say, is to eradicate Al-Shabab, the Islamist threat on their eastern border, and enable Somalia to create its first stable central government in more than 20 years. "It's an issue of national security," says an Ethiopian diplomat. "Once we get a responsible government, we leave." The hope is that Baidoa is a big step in that direction. The strategic city, midway between the Ethiopian border and Mogadishu, was under Al-Shabab's control for three years until the Ethiopians finally drove the militants out on Feb. 22. It was the al Qaeda–linked group's biggest loss since it pulled out of the Somali capital last August. This month a reporter and photographer for Newsweek were among the first Western journalists in years to visit Baidoa, embedded with the Ethiopian Army.

Evidence of the militants' hasty retreat from the city is hard to miss. In an overgrown compound just outside the once-lavish entryway of the command center's main building, a collection of captured weaponry is on display: munitions canisters, mortars, and IEDs, together with an abundance of components for assembling more roadside bombs—switches, detonators, wire, and motorcycle batteries. In another compound nearby there's an abandoned fleet of "technicals," the country's emblematic pickup trucks equipped with gun mounts. In case anyone fails to grasp the Islamists' threat, Ethiopian military officials routinely refer to Al-Shabab simply as al Qaeda.

This isn't Ethiopia's first foray into Baidoa. In early 2007, Ethiopian soldiers wrested control of the city from armed factions of the Islamic Courts Union and imposed enough security for Somalia's pro-Western Transitional Federal Government (TFG) to adopt the town as its provisional capital. Mogadishu, the regular capital, was too dangerous back then. But the would-be national leaders never settled into their temporary home, and the interim government's institutions never took hold—Parliament had to convene in a converted grain warehouse. "Throughout much of 2008, when [the Ethiopians] controlled the city, that control was contested, and they were not very competent," says Rashid Abdi, an independent Somalia analyst previously affiliated with the International Crisis Group. "The reality was that they controlled the city without local consent, and many people were happy to see them go."

Most international analysts conclude that Ethiopia's 2006–09 Somalia intervention was a failure. It's true that the Ethiopian Army accomplished the mission it was sent to perform: remove the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) from power in Somalia's southern half. Western governments had worried, the Americans most stridently, that the ICU's hardline Islamists would allow international terrorists to use the country as a training ground and basing area for global jihad. Nevertheless, the Ethiopian presence ultimately backfired: the defunct ICU gave birth to an even more extremist group, Al-Shabab, which used the "occupation" as a rallying issue to mobilize fighters and whip up Somali public opinion with the group's fiercely nationalistic, anti-Western rhetoric.

Many Somalis bought it at first. "There was a feeling that Al-Shabab itself—and the faction of Al-Shabab that controlled [Baidoa]—was more in tune with the local clan feelings, with people's aspirations and interests," says Abdi. In particular he attributes the militants' initial popularity to Sheik Muktar Robow, one of the group's four top leaders. Robow is a native of the region around Baidoa and largely controls it now, and according to Abdi he's "much more pragmatic" than other Al-Shabab leaders in his willingness to form alliances with local clans.

But Somali opinion was swayed by more than what Abdi calls Al-Shabab's "softer face." The Ethiopian soldiers were widely accused of indiscriminate bombardments, rape, and looting. Today that reputation precedes the country's troops. "Given Ethiopia's track record in Somalia, and notably the complete impunity granted to its forces in the past, their formal return on Somali soil raises significant concerns," says Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "We have received allegations of abuses around Beledweyne"—a border town that fell to the Ethiopians in late December—"and are investigating."

Nevertheless, local leaders and civilians say much has changed in Baidoa. "For these three years, there were many things that people saw with their eyes," says Abdifatah Gessey, the former governor of the country's Bay region. (Baidoa is the region's capital.) "There was overtax[ation], and people killing people. The Al-Shabab did not let humanitarian aid operate here. So people had hunger, drought." Gessey, a member of the TFG, was forced to flee the city when it fell to the extremists in January 2009. Now he says he intends to reclaim his former post as governor.

Ethiopian Forces in Somalia
Militant graffiti on a wall at the onetime presidential palace. View photos of Ethiopian soldiers on patrol in Somalia. Pete Muller for Newsweek

Ordinary townspeople seem equally pleased to be rid of Al-Shabab. Mana Hudow Osman, a 40-year-old mother of five, says she's not concerned about why the Ethiopians have returned. "We know that the Ethiopians have come here many times, so they don't want to colonize us," says Osman. And after three years of living under Al-Shabab, the number of people in Baidoa who still support them is "very small," she says. Before the Islamists seized the town, she was a social worker with the Bay Women's Development Network, assisting displaced Somalis and vulnerable women, but the program collapsed when Al-Shabab threw out the U.N. agency that sponsored it. Such highhanded moves cost Al-Shabab much of the popular support it once enjoyed, Osman says. "They banned [external assistance], but they didn't bring another alternative," That's over now, she says: "For the future we have good hope. The Ethiopians came, then the NGOs [will] come, and I hope I will continue my work."

But if security conditions during Newsweek's visit are any indication, peace may be a long way off for the people of Baidoa. Approaching the city's airstrip aboard a faded airliner now owned by the Ethiopian Army, the pilots fly high enough to stay out of mortar range as they circle overhead to warn the troops below of an imminent landing. On the ground after a steep descent, tanks and field artillery flank the ragged runway, and Ethiopian soldiers are scattered around the perimeter, keeping watch. Al-Shabab continues to launch regular attacks on the city's outskirts, and downtown Baidoa appears to be on alert. Although the storefronts look freshly painted in pink, turquoise, and bright blue, and ornate archways and tilework adorn a few of the newer buildings, the shops are padlocked. An Ethiopian soldier says they've been closed ever since he and his unit came to town.

The Somalis on the streets—women in bright, tightly wrapped headscarves, elderly men with canes, small boys in oversize sandals—don't seem bothered by the foreign troops all around them. Locals say most of Al-Shabab's civilian supporters fled with the militants. Still, others almost certainly have gone underground, and the Ethiopians can never ignore the threat of IEDs and suicide bombers. The military's tour of the city for journalists kept strictly to a parade route of sorts, with the main roads mostly cleared of civilians and sentries posted in nearly every alleyway.

The Ethiopian commander in Baidoa, Brig. Gen. Yohannes Woldegiorgis, won't say how many soldiers he has on the ground, offering only that the Army has "the number of forces needed to do the job." Speculation among diplomats in the region suggests that Ethiopia currently has a total of roughly 2,000 troops in Somalia, along with the African Union's 9,600 U.N.-sponsored peacekeepers and an estimated 4,000 Kenyans engaged in the battle against Al-Shabab in Somalia's far south. All in all, these forces constitute the most concerted regional military effort since the fall of Somalia's last central government in 1991.

Some Somalis—and others in the region—nevertheless harbor lingering suspicions that the Ethiopian government is only doing the bidding of its Western backers. A cab driver in Addis Ababa sums up the attitude when he describes the intervention as "something based on Americans." Seeking to counteract that view, Ethiopian military and diplomatic sources emphasize the regional consensus on Somalia. But they have stopped short of joining the African Union's mission. Asked why, the Ethiopian diplomat offers a concise answer: "Efficiency." Better for Ethiopian soldiers to operate under Ethiopian commanders, the diplomat says.

In any case, the region's combined efforts in Somalia are at last managing to roll back Al-Shabab. Local and international observers are starting to wonder if the pragmatic Al-Shabab leader Sheik Muktar Robow might soon break away from his fellow militants in order to position himself for a post-Shabab Somalia. After the atrocities he and his men have committed, would Somalis welcome them? "We like the Al-Shabab fighters who are Somalis. Let them come back," says Maalim Ali Barre, an elderly Baidoa resident, eliciting nods of agreement from the bearded and bespectacled elders around him. "But the foreign [jihadist] fighters—we don't want them to come back."

It just goes to show that Somalia is a far more complicated place than most outsiders understand. "The West sees these people just as terrorists," says Mohamed Haji Mukhtar, a professor at Georgia's Savannah State University. (His elderly parents still live in Baidoa, his hometown.) The country's conflict is driven by something more than jihadist ideology, Mukhtar says: "In Somalia, religion is not really the No. 1 thing. It's clan that counts."

And it's clan that makes diplomats pessimistic about Somalia's future. In the absence of a functioning central government, outsiders have thrown their support behind proxy militias, which are almost always linked to particular clans. "The problem is the post-conflict, or the post-fighting, phase, when these groups will want to be paid back for their efforts," says Abdi. "And the tendency in the past has been to create small fiefdoms and begin competition, which can set off old grievances and lead to armed confrontation."

Big hurdles lie ahead in the war against Al-Shabab. At least some of the group's leaders saw Baidoa as financially expendable, bringing relatively paltry amounts of revenue to the cause for the trouble and expense of holding the city. The same cannot be said for the port city of Kismayo, which generates an estimated $30 million a year for the militants, according to the U.N. group that tracks Al-Shabab's funding. "The port of Kismayo is Al-Shabab's single most important asset," says a U.N. official. "Taxes on charcoal exports and contraband for Kenya represent tens of millions of dollars each year, so the group will put up a fairly spirited defense. The real question is whether local clans decide that Al-Shabab is a liability and withdraw their support."

The Kenyan military, putting the squeeze on Al-Shabab from the south, has had its sights set on Kismayo ever since it entered the fray last October. Ethiopian commanders and officials in Baidoa don't rule out the possibility that their troops too might be needed. A final showdown is looming.