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9-08-2015, 23:38

WAR AND FAMINE IN THE HORN OF AFRICA

Much of the land is desert, and rainfall is uncertain, so that surviving even at subsistence level is difficult. Famine has stalked the region and claimed more than a million lives. Five million remained in danger in the early 1990s. Only Libya has reaped untold riches from below this desert, in the form of oil, but it fell under the maverick rule of Colonel Gaddafi, who properly used a part of these riches to benefit the Libyans but also fanned conflict among his neighbours and elsewhere in the world. Gaddafi remained unpredictable. Libya’s wealth did not help the whole region; indeed, its neighbours Chad and Somalia are among the poorest in Africa. Authoritarian regimes in Ethiopia and Somalia, characterised by corruption and economic mismanagement, added to the misery. But it was, above all, the tribal and civil wars of the region that were responsible for the sufferings of millions of helpless people. Precious resources and aid were used to pay for weapons to fight these wars. The West and East, when their priorities were dictated by the Cold War, supplied them. Yet these were the countries ‘liberated’ by the United Nations from European colonial rule, their independence intended to signal a new era for the suppressed peoples of the world. What went so dreadfully wrong? The first African nation rescued from colonial dependency was Ethiopia (then called Abyssinia), thanks to the internecine Second World War between the European colonial powers. In 1941 it was liberated from Italian occupation, which had begun in 1936, and Haile Selassie was restored as feudal emperor. Ethiopia alone had successfully resisted by force of arms European colonial partition in the nineteenth century as the Italian army, advancing inland from the colony of Eritrea on the Red Sea, was defeated in 1896. When Haile Selassie returned in 1941 he benefited from the modernisation and centralisation of the Italian occupation and launched an Ethiopian drive to try to bring his backward kingdom into the twentieth century. Progress was impressive in education, and a small start was made in setting up some factories and in industrialising. With the assistance of the US a properly equipped and trained army was created. These developments, however, undermined the old structures of the monarchial state. By the early 1970s new shocks resulted in government and society falling apart. The year 1973 proved disastrous. The rise in oil prices hit the poorest countries especially hard. This coincided with a calamitous drought. There was famine in the Tigray province and the royal army was defeated by Eritrean freedom fighters. The rising, which turned into revolution, began in the spring of 1974. Behind it was a group of officers, army mutineers, who were joined by students and teachers in the capital, Addis Ababa. Gradually the revolution became more radical. The 83-year-old emperor was deposed in September 1974 and imprisoned; later he and his family were murdered. Strife within the military and among the radical groups followed until in February 1977 Colonel Haile Mengistu eventually emerged as the victor and unleashed a reign of terror; opponents were rounded up and summarily executed. Assuming the red star and the trappings of a Marxist people’s republic, he wielded absolute power over the political and economic life of the country and crushed his opponents as enemies of the revolution. The Soviet Union saw here an opportunity to advance its influence in a region of Africa bordering on the Red Sea, which was of obvious strategic significance. Moscow cynically hailed Mengistu’s seizure of power as a truly ‘Bolshevik’ revolution and provided arms and aid. Meanwhile the internal divisions in the country and Mengistu’s dictatorship had one other result: the resumption of fierce fighting between the central Politburo in Addis Ababa and outlying Eritrea, a province attached to Ethiopia after the Second World War. Faced with Eritreans in the north and with Somalis in the south-east, Mengistu depended on Soviet weapons and military training. The demands of the military, the devastation of the endless warfare over a disputed frontier with Somalia, and the Eritrean war of liberation condemned the Ethiopian people to one of the lowest standards of living in Africa. Periodic famines killed hundreds of thousands and threatened the lives of millions more. Television cameras revealed the terrible scenes of hunger to the horrified West in 1984 and 1985. But spectacular public responses, such as Band Aid organised by a pop singer, to provide cash for the starving could not attack the roots of the problem – the corruption and mismanagement of Mengistu’s dictatorial regime added to the continuous warfare in the Tigray and with Eritrea and Somalia. It was already too late when on 5 March 1990 Mengistu declared that the state would abandon Marxism–Leninism. In May of the following year, the game was up: the rebel forces were closing in. The coalition led by the People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front captured Addis Ababa. By that time Mengistu had fled to safety in Zimbabwe. The guerrillas had overcome a 350,000-strong, seemingly modern army and air force equipped with weapons supplied formerly by the Soviet Union. The old ally had deserted Mengistu and the army was demoralised. After seventeen years Mengistu had lost all credibility. Threatened by the turmoil were a group of black Ethiopians professing as their religion a form of ancient Judaism. The Ethiopians called them ‘strangers’, Falashas. Some 140,000 – that is, most of those who had remained after the first airlift in 1984 – were now rescued, plucked out of Africa and brought to Israel. The Israelis had once more demonstrated to the world that they would protect their own, regardless of all other considerations – economic, international, political and social. Black Jews would be integrated into Israel like Jews from all other continents, races and ethnic groups. Service in the army and education of a new generation would do their work. The new leaders in Ethiopia faced a daunting task in their attempts to revive a devastated country. At least they were no longer at war with Eritrea, whose independence was in sight. As if its own problems were not enough to cope with, Ethiopia was also attempting to feed hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from southern Sudan. In the early 1990s, Eritrea had a population of 3.5 million. The country had been forcibly colonised by Abyssinians, by Turks and finally in 1889 by the Italians. Italian colonies were run mainly for the benefit of Italy, so local nationalist feelings were suppressed. ‘Liberated’ by the British in 1941, Eritrea was not granted independence, despite wartime promises. In fact, there were long wrangles after the war between the victors about what to do with the former Italian colonies. The British and the French could not simply take them over as new colonies, as spoils of war. The climate prevailing at the United Nations would not have permitted such blatant colonialism. There was only one thing on which the Western victors were agreed and that was to keep the Soviet Union out. Eventually, in 1951, the former Italian colony of Libya was granted independence. The Eritreans fared the worst. By a UN resolution, they were to be assured respect for ‘their institutions, traditions, religions, and languages, as well as the widest possible measure of selfgovernment’. Instead, they were federated with Ethiopia, so that Ethiopia might have access to the sea. The dominant West at the United Nations believed it had a secure ally in Haile Selassie, and the Red Sea was too important strategically to allow a small Eritrean state independence, and so, decisive influence. The Eritrean Liberation Movement was soon formed, only to be brutally suppressed, and in 1962 Haile Selassie annexed Eritrea. With the assistance of Arab neighbours, the newly founded Eritrean Liberation Front took up the armed struggle against Ethiopia in the 1960s and, despite splits and intrigues, fought the longest war in Africa until Mengistu’s overthrow in 1991. South of Eritrea lies northern Ethiopia, inhabited by the Tigray peoples, some 5 million strong. They too waged a liberation struggle against Mengistu’s rule. Droughts and fighting devastated subsistence agriculture, so that famines decimated the Tigreans. At the same time, the Ethiopians were fighting the Republic of Somalia over the territory known as the Ogaden. The new rulers of Ethiopia brought peace to the country. The regions enjoyed some autonomy; when a referendum was held, Eritrea overwhelmingly chose independence in 1993. All this gave a chance for famine relief to reach starving peoples. Two of the poorest countries in Africa, Ethiopia and Eritrea, wasted their scarce resources fighting each other. War between them seemed least likely at the outset after the overthrow of the Marxist regime in Ethiopia in 1991. The Eritrean president Issajas Afwerki and the Ethiopian new prime minister of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi had been rebel comrades in arms when they ousted the dictator Mengistu. The separation of the two countries in 1993 allowing Eritrea independence had been peaceful. The delimitation of the new frontier, neither country willing to lose authority by compromise over a small area of land, spluttered into war in 1998. War forced hundreds of thousands of the poorest farmers to flee from the fighting zones and face starvation. UN intervention, the despatch of peacekeepers, mediation leading to an agreement to submit the border dispute to an international commission ended fighting in 2000, but when in March 2003 the commission awarded the disputed village and the inhospitable land surrounding it to Eritrea, Meles Zenawi refused to accept the finding. War threatened once more. Pride, nationalism and sheer folly condemned tens of thousands to die. Without substantial food aid another mass famine in Ethiopia and Eritrea threatens thousands of lives. The Republic of Somalia was created in 1960 from the Italian and British colonies of Somaliland. Somalians share language, culture and Islam, and nationalism is a strong force, able to survive the colonial partitions by Italy, Britain and France. The Ogaden had been conquered by the Abyssinians in the 1890s, and after the Second World War it was once more handed back to Ethiopia. Conflict between the two countries arose soon after the establishment of Somali independence. In 1969 there was a military revolution in Somalia, which received Soviet support, but when Somalia and Ethiopia went to war again in 1977 the Soviet Union – forced to choose between two of its clients – eventually backed the stronger Mengistu. The Somali army was defeated in the Ogaden in 1978. The US meanwhile replaced the USSR in Somalia. Thus internal strife in the strategically important Horn of Africa led to a Cold War game of musical chairs. Nothing illustrates better the hollowness of the pretensions of these African military regimes when they claim they are following ‘democratic free world’ principles of government or modelling themselves on the Marxist people’s republics. The politics of Africa reflect African realities: the first requirement of leadership is to stay in power and to maintain the cohesion of the new nation. The Somali Democratic Republic was ruled by a Supreme Revolutionary Council under its president, General Mohammed Barre, until his downfall in 1991. Warfare and internal strife had reduced this poorest of African countries, dependent on subsistence agriculture, to near starvation. In 1990 the country descended into chaos, with Barre trying ruthlessly to hold it together by using his elite guards. In January 1991 Barre was driven from power. Even worse was in store for the people of Somalia than Barre’s brutal rule. Although the 6 million Somalis are almost unique in Africa in forming one nation, all speaking one language and following the same religion, a Sunni branch of Islam, clans had fought each other for centuries over ownership of pastures, and Barre’s rule – far from eradicating the clan rivalries – had only suppressed them. Now, like a release of steam from a pressure cooker, clans, local warlords and gangs erupted in an orgy of civil conflict. The country was awash in weapons. The rest of the world was horrified by the television reports sent from the capital, Mogadishu, a ruined city in which over a million were seeking some sort of shelter. The UN and relief agencies sent in food aid to the starving population, but a few hundred ‘blue berets’ – UN troops – were totally inadequate to guard the supplies and to see that emergency supplies reached the people. For hundreds of thousands who had starved to death, it was already too late. Somalia presents a most pitiable face of contemporary Africa. Independence led to dictatorial rule, corruption and the lavishing of scarce resources on armaments. The end of dictatorship was followed not by a transition to democracy but by chaos, anarchy and ruin. A more determined international effort, which got under way in the autumn of 1992, endeavoured to save some 2 million Somalis from starvation. After the illplanned US intervention in October 1993 to impose peace on the warring factions had failed so humiliatingly, Somalia was left to its warlords. If they cannot reach a peace between them, no other nation was willing to risk its soldiers to pacify the Somalian cauldron. The UN, the body of last resort provided some aid. Despite all its efforts Somalia has remained a fractured, broken country. Bordering the Red Sea to the north-west of Ethiopia lies the Sudan, where starving peoples from the Tigray and Eritrea found refuge. In one of the most extraordinary migrations thousands of Ethiopian Jews, the Falashas, also crossed into the Sudan (1983–4) on their secret journey to Israel. The Sudan provides the main route through which aid can be channelled to Eritrea and Tigray, but it is not itself a stable country politically or ethnically. The south is African and vehemently opposes the spread of the Muslim religion and law, which the Arab north of the country seeks to impose. When the Sudan gained independence from Britain in January 1956, paramount British consideration had been to prevent Nasser’s Egypt from dominating it, but it was left to the Sudanese to decide the issue. A rebellion in the south in the summer of 1955, motivated by the fear that all power would in practice be transferred to the north, was repressed and did not delay independence. Britain was in a hurry and failed to insist on safeguards for the south. British Middle Eastern policy required strong, unified nations, not weak political divisions that might be exploited by the Soviet Union. After a short period of multi-party government in the Sudan, the military seized power in 1958 and ruled for the next six years. General Abboud’s regime followed a harsh policy of Arabisation, established Koranic schools in the south and expelled Christian missionaries. In 1962 a civil war began that was to cause destruction and great loss of life among the southern people. After a second brief civilian interlude, another military coup in 1969 brought Colonel Jaafar al-Nimeiri to power. His more conciliatory approach enabled the fighting in the south to be brought to an end in 1972. But a renewed attempt in 1983 to force Muslim law and custom on the south led to a fresh outbreak of fighting. The endemic north–south conflict in the Sudan and its unstable political conditions have added to the immense problems of a country whose vagaries of climate hinder agricultural production, while a rapidly expanding population requires more not less food. Devastating floods in August 1988 made 2 million homeless. In June 1989, after months of turmoil, a military coup overturned the government and General Omar Hasan Ahmed al-Bashir became head of state and commander-in-chief at the head of a Revolutionary Council of National Salvation. Political parties were dissolved and many politicians and professional people were detained. The regime was ruthless in dealing with its opponents and potential enemies. Attempted coups in 1990 and 1991 led to the execution of the army officers involved, but protests continued. Behind the army stood the National Islamic Front of fundamentalist Muslims led by Hasgan Turabi. Islamic criminal law, the sharia, was applied again. Khartoum became filled with some 1.8 million refugees, possessing practically nothing, and half a million more were forcibly settled outside the city. The civil war between north and south continued. The non-Muslim south, African, Christian and Animist (a religion which holds that both living and inanimate objects have souls) was in a desperate condition with widespread famine added to the civil war and preventing relief agencies from reaching the starving. The Sudan was seen as a hotbed of terrorism. Osama bin Laden organised from there the devastating simultaneous car bombing of the US embassies in 1998. The frontiers have remained porous for terrorists. But the expulsion of Osama bin Laden who then went to Afghanistan was an early indication of change. As the Sudan entered the new millennium Islamist extremism softened. Turabi fell from grace and was placed under house arrest. The Bashir regime was trying to lose its pariah status. The regime after a decade and a half felt more secure. Oil was discovered and exported and provided badly needed funds for new technology. The European Union now increasingly ‘engaged’ the Sudanese regime but US sanctions imposed in 1997 still remained in place too. The key to better relations is to bring to an end the war in the south with its human-rights violations and loss of life from fighting and starvation. More than a million people have perished. The Sudan has known only eleven years of peace in the five decades that have passed since independence. In the south the main rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, is faced with the stark choice of famine and depopulation or an accommodation with the north. Foreign pressure and mediation secured a ceasefire in February 2003 with hopes for a more durable peace later that year only for a new conflict to break out in the Darfur region of western Sudan. Libya is the richest country in Africa. In 1951 it became the first African state to exchange colonial status for independence. This was not because it was advanced in any way. During the Second World War, the Italian colonial territories of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were conquered by the British Eighth Army. Britain’s main concern was to ensure that the Russians would not secure a foothold by claiming a share in the trusteeship of the Italian colonies. So the provinces were combined on independence with French-administered Fezzan to form Libya, and the head of the most powerful Cyrenaican family, Emir Mohammed Idris, whose conservatism could be trusted, was elevated to become King Idris. It was not an ideal solution from a Western point of view. Britain and Italy would have preferred a long period of trusteeship, but at the UN the Arabs and their allies were able to push independence through. Idris fulfilled Western expectations and permitted the construction of a huge NATO airbase on the outskirts of Tripoli. No one dreamt of the wealth the discovery of oil would bring to the desert kingdom or the trouble it would later cause the West. Libya began exporting oil in 1961. By then Nasser had changed the politics of the Middle East and, after Suez, British and French imperialism was on the retreat. These transformations affected the students and junior officers of Libya, who were drawn to socialist ideas and to a revival of Muslim values, at the same time as they felt increasing antipathy towards Western, especially American, military and commercial domination. In September 1969, a 29-year-old officer, Major Muammar Gaddafi, overthrew the regime of King Idris. He had long planned the coup as a necessary step to freeing Libya from foreign exploitation and raising the Arab peoples to live their lives according to the teachings of the Koran. All the peoples of Libya, those of the oases as well as those of the towns, should share in Libya’s prosperity. Gaddafi expounded his ideology in his Green Book. His ‘Third Universal Theory’ rejected the Western ideologies of capitalism and communism, as well as the concept of the ‘state’. The masses should rule through local people’s committees, and life should be conducted according to Muslim law. In practice Gaddafi was the supreme ruler, though fellow officers in the General People’s Committee may from time to time have exerted some influence on policy. In developing Libya economically, Gaddafi was shrewd. In 1971 he led the oil-rich states in a policy of forcing the Western consumers to pay vastly more for the oil they had hitherto obtained so cheaply. The riches this bestowed on Libya were used for agricultural development and industrial diversification. They also enabled Gaddafi to create an Arab welfare state. Thus the oil income brought considerable benefit to the people. Gaddafi’s relations with the rest of the world were warped by an uncompromising revolutionary zeal. Foreign bases were closed down and the Western military presence expelled. In the 1970s and 1980s Gaddafi intervened in the ethnic civil war in Chad, backing the northerners against the southerners and occupying part of northern Chad. The government in the south was saved only by French intervention. But Gaddafi’s notoriety in the West mainly derived from his support for terrorist groups, ranging from factions of the Palestine Liberation Organisation to the IRA. A terrorist attack on a Berlin nightclub which left American servicemen dead was followed in April 1986 by an American attempt to silence Gaddafi for good by bombing his living quarters and military targets. They missed Gaddafi but caused civilian casualties. The intended ‘surgical’ air strikes, using British bases, were widely condemned, but Gaddafi’s support for terrorism became less overt. Since the 1990s Gaddafi has moderated his radical rhetoric. After many years he delivered to international justice the perpetrators of the downing over Scotland of Pan Am flight 103. Gaddafi is well aware the way the wind is blowing; the enmity of the US and the West can do great harm to the country dependent on exporting oil. In 2003 Gaddafi accepted responsibility for the downing of flight 103 and was ready to pay compensation. Negotiations to lift international sanctions were now initiated by the US and Britain. Supporting terror did not pay. Gaddafi in the new millennium has turned more to Africa, posturing as Africa’s elder statesman, a champion of African unity. The revolutionary fervour subdued, the megalomania of earlier years was replaced by a more realistic appraisal of the world. Gaddafi gave up attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction in 2004 and sanctions were lifted. The West is now reviving her oil industry.

 

 

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