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.