Reports are emerging that Ethiopian troops have incurred (again) on Ethiopian territory. If the rumors are true — and I don’t doubt that it’s hard to
know for certain in this ambiguous border area — then it goes without saying that an(other) Ethiopian invasion of Somalia would be even worse for the country’s prospects than a premature UN peacekeeping mission (which, fortunately, still does not seem popular in the Security Council; even the countries that are now willing to actually provide some troops are urging restraint).

I see a number of possibilities here. Ethiopian troops might not actually be in Somalia — or, more likely, at least not invading. Ethiopia, naturally, denies the reports. Under this scenario, either Somali observers would have to have been over-eager to spot Ethiopian soldiers (possible, but a stretch), or the Somali state media has some interest in raising the possibility of Ethiopian invasion. This would be curious, because while practically any Somali political group could attempt to stoke its popularity by calling out the much-disliked Ethiopian military, this kind of scaremongering tactic seems to befit the al-Shabab militants more than it does the Somali government. Not even the presence of foreign peacekeepers would galvanize the extremist al-Shabab cause than a renewed war with Ethiopia.

More probably, however, some Ethiopian troops have flitted across the border into Somalia. Remember — the peace deal under which the Ethiopians withdrew from their two-year occupation stipulated that they could return if they perceived a relevant threat. With al-Shabab forces recently advancing further in Somalia, the point at which Ethiopia deems it necessary to launch another full-scale invasion might be nearing (even an African Union official said he “would not be overly surprised” if this were to happen).

This reading — that Ethiopian movement is in response to a growing al-Shabab threat — probably makes the most sense, but we shouldn’t forget another player in the region: Eritrea. If Eritrea is indeed funneling arms to al-Shabab, Ethiopia could be acting out of agitation with its neighbor’s continued interference. And in this light, the Somali state media attention could be a not-so-subtle message to Eritrea: quit it, or a bigger fish might get involved.

That, or it’s just big news. Check out this Al-Jazeera video for more good questions, interesting analysis, and heated debate from all sides.

It is, of course, hard to get a straightforward report out of Somalia. But if the worst is corroborated, it may amount to this: just two weeks after officially pulling out of the country, Ethiopian troops have re-invaded, bent on attacking the Islamists who seized power in the vacuum precipitated by Ethiopia’s original departure. And, to make matters still worse, African Union peacekeepers in Mogadishu may or may not have fired randomly into a crowd of civilians, killing somewhere between 16 and 40 — though at least some, and possibly all, of these were killed by the insurgent roadside bombing that created the chaos.

Ethiopia has denied the claim of its troops’ incursion, calling it a “wicked” distraction, and the AU has been even more vehement in its defense, branding the allegation of misconduct, rather superlatively, as “a big stupid naked lie.” Even in the “best” case scenario, though, these developments are not good. Either way, an African Union convoy was attacked, and many civilians died. And even if Ethiopia is not preparing a fresh attack into Somalia, it seems pretty clear, from witness testimony and through the nonchalant admission to maintaining high troop levels on this not-exactly-hard-and-fast border, that Ethiopian troops are doing something in Somalia. Whether that is extorting a “tax,” readying an assault, or just causing general mayhem, doesn’t seem as important as their evident ability to move back and forth across the border, even after their much-anticipated withdrawal. For all the problems raised by the Ethiopian occupation, at least everyone knew that they were there; the current shady situation does not bode well for Somalia’s new president, who has pledged to craft a “good relationship” with his country’s erstwhile regional rivals.

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