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Africa’s Horn Ready to Blow

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
Updated: April 30, 2007

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Violence in the Horn of Africa is not unusual. Somalia has witnessed almost constant skirmishes between rival warlords in the sixteen years since it last had a functioning government. In neighboring Ethiopia and Eritrea, lingering resentment over a 1990s border dispute has left the two countries perpetually at each other’s throats. Thus, when the United Nations describes the latest eruption of violence in the Somali capital of Mogadishu as the worst in over a decade (Guardian), it gives cause for some alarm. Pitched battles have forced one-fifth of Mogadishu’s 2 million residents to flee the city (AP) and the UN humanitarian chief worries those numbers will climb. In the capital, bodies of those caught in the crossfire lay rotting in the streets, with residents too fearful to retrieve them. For now, the violence has subsided, but the transitional government’s hold on the capital seems tenuous (Garowe).

In a new podcast, Idd Beddel Mohamed, Somalia’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, the current episode pits Somali government forces backed by Ethiopian troops against a band of “ragtag militias” loyal to the warlords who in recent years have been the main power brokers in the country. Experts say the warlords seek to keep the chaotic status quo in which they thrive, but have been joined by a number of Somalis angry with Ethiopia’s intervention (Jamestown). Among these are said to be remnants of the Islamist militias that in 2006 threatened to topple the Somalia’s ineffectual Transitional Federal Government until Ethiopia intervened with U.S. backing. A new report from Britain’s Chatham House looks at trajectory of Somalia’s Islamist movement, arguing that external intervention destroyed relative stability (PDF).  

While Ethiopian tanks rumbled through Mogadishu (Reuters), Somali separatists launched a grisly attack on a Chinese oil installation in Ethiopia, leaving seventy-four dead (CSMonitor). The perpetrators of the attack, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), claimed the raid was retribution for the mistreatment of ethnic Somalis in Ethiopia. Addis Ababa quickly accused Eritrea of starting a proxy war (VOA) by backing both the ONLF and insurgents in Mogadishu. 

The United States appears to stand by Ethiopia, a democracy that professes to share its interests in the war on terror. The relationship recently came under scrutiny when reports revealed U.S. officials had interrogated terror suspects (HRW) in secret Ethiopian prisons, and again when the New York Times revealed U.S. officials looked the other way when Ethiopia violated UN sanctions by purchasing arms from North Korea. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, John Prendergast and Colin Thomas-Jensen of the International Crisis Group argue that Washington’s obsession with counterterrorism in Africa’s Horn is undermining efforts to bring stability to the region. Indeed, Somalia’s National Reconciliation Conference, the process most experts cite as the best hope for the nation, was postponed earlier this month due to the fighting.  

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