Factors that make the Horn of Africa the “hottest conflict zone in the world”

Developing Just Leadership

M.A. Shaikh

Rabi' al-Awwal 13, 1428 2007-04-01

Special Reports

by M.A. Shaikh (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 2, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1428)

To assess whether the Horn of Africa is the "hottest conflict zone in the world" – as some analysts have called it – it is enough to list the countries that constitute it and examine their relations with the US, which has a huge and disruptive influence in the region. Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Kenya are generally known as the components of the Horn, but neighboring Sudan and Uganda are so closely linked to them and embroiled in their conflicts that they are now also widely regarded as Horn countries. Most of these countries have both internal and external conflicts, mostly at the same time. Recently, the US interventions designed to prevent Islamic groups from taking power in the region – notably in Somalia – have intensified both types of conflict.

Ethiopia and Somalia have had tense relations, including three wars between 1960 and 1978. When the former Italian colony ofSouthern Somalia (officially known as Somalia) and the former British protectorate of Somaliland became independent in 1960, they united to form the Somali Republic, informally known as Somalia. This encouraged the Somali inhabitants (all Muslim) of the Ogaden region to intensify their struggle for independence from Ethiopia to join Somalia, which naturally supported their efforts to break away. But when military dictator Siad Barre was removed in 1991 and warlords and clan-chiefs replaced him, Somalilandbroke away to form its own separate government. However, no other country has so far recognised it, although the government is in full control and peace prevails throughout the territory.

This explains why the main concern of Ethiopia and the US is Somalia (not Somaliland), where the chaos and manipulations of the corrupt and disruptive warlords and clan-leaders have brought about the total breakdown of peace and public services, threatening the lives and economic interests of the entire population, which therefore turned to the Islamic groups for rescue. It was not surprising that when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) took control in 2006 as a result of public support (not of acts of terrorism, as claimed by Washington and Addis Ababa) they swiftly restored peace and public services, thereby earning the full support and respect of their people.

But Ethiopia and the US were horrified by the ascendance of the ICU and acted immediately to end it. Ethiopia despatched a large military force to engage the ICU and its supporters, while the US government unleashed attacks by military planes and took a military base in neighbouring Djibouti – a former French colony whose entire population is Somali and Muslim. The US military action and the invasion by Ethiopia led to the eviction of the ICU in December and the establishment of the transitional government (TG) in its place. The members of the TG are warlords and clan-leaders who are financed by the US and backed by Ethiopia; the TG has therefore forfeited all public support. The violence that erupted recently in Mogadishu and continues to this day shows thatSomalia is doomed to be engulfed in violence and disruption for some time.

Both Djibouti and Eritrea, which have territorial disputes with Ethiopia, also face the threat of disruption and instability. Eritrea, which until recently was a federal province of Ethiopia, has fought a war with Ethiopia over border-disputes that threaten to rekindle the armed conflict. Moreover, both Ethiopia and the US accuse Eritrea of sending arms to the ICU and its supporters to overthrow the TG. Because the Ethiopian army in Somalia protects the TG and comes under heavy attack by the ICU and its militias, the accusation is effectively a charge that Eritrea is waging war against the Ethiopian forces in Somalia, and is therefore at war withEthiopia. The charge is bound to raise the already very high level of tension between the two neighbours and may well lead to yet another armed confrontation.

One of the main obstacles to peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia is that it is not only their governments that are at loggerheads: their peoples also feel great resentment against each other. In the early 1990s, when Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopiaafter three decades of fighting, Ethiopia became a landlocked state, and its people resented – and continue to resent – the loss of access to the Red Sea. And when the two neighbours signed a peace-deal in 2000 – after a savage war in the late 1990s – and agreed to submit their border-dispute to "final and binding" resolution by an independent international commission, it was Ethiopiathat subsequently refused to implement the resulting ruling, which turned out to be favourable to Eritrea. One of the reasons why Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's ruler, refused to implement it was that his own people were already blaming him for their loss of access to the Red Sea, and would have reacted even more strongly had he signed a resolution that would make that loss permanent.

Eritrea is hostile not only to Ethiopia but also to another neighbour, Sudan, to the extent of maintaining close ties with rebels inDarfur and Eastern Sudan. It accuses Khartoum of spreading its Islamic influence throughout the region and of supporting the Eritrean Islamic Jihad Movement in the 1990s. Sudan hardly needs any trouble from Eritrea, as it is engulfed in widespread civil unrest and confrontation with its neighbours – mainly Uganda. Uganda accuses Sudan of backing the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel-group based in northern Uganda that has had a large part in the country's long civil war and continuing instability. Interestingly, Uganda accuses Khartoum of supporting a Christian group while at the same time blaming it for adopting ‘political Islam' and of spreading ‘Islamic terrorism' throughout the region. Equally interestingly, Uganda, which lacks stability, has sent a military force to Somalia, ostensibly to restore peace but in reality to protect the transitional federal government at the behest of theUS government, which is determined to destroy the ICU completely.

Kenya has its own share of internal instability and contributes to the destabilisation of its neighbours, mainly Somalia. Ethnic tension has always been a part of the country's political life, while the largely Somali northern region has exerted pressure onNairobi to respect its right to self-determination, and possibly let it unite with Somalia. Now Kenya, which strongly supports the US's ‘war on terrorism', is firmly hostile to the ICU. And while, unlike Uganda and Ethiopia, it has not sent a military force to Somalia, it cooperates closely with the US navy to arrest any Somalis who are sympathetic to the ICU who are leaving the country, handing them over to the TG or warlords in Mogadishu.

In these circumstances, it is hardly an exaggeration to call the Horn of Africa the hottest conflict-zone in the world. Nor is this picture likely to change much any time soon.

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