Political developments in Africa have lately slipped out of the headlines, but the confrontations brewing there could dwarf earlier conflicts in both military fury and political complexity. The US-backed regimes in Somalia and Sudan each face the possibility of sudden coups d’etat or civil wars. The Soviet-supported Ethiopian government is losing another in a long sequence of campaigns to stamp out nationalist guerrillas in the former Italian colony of Eritrea. Addis Ababa also faces ongoing revolts by three minority nationalities who are increasingly linking up with one another to topple the military authorities.

There is a dearth of hard information about the actual military and political situation in the area. A brief survey reveals the weakness of analyses that concentrate simply on regional or geopolitical alignments. The more precarious each regime becomes, the more it tends to blame its immediate neighbors for its internal problems, and the more it looks to regional alliances and external aid to compensate for these difficulties. Growing border problems and heightened tensions from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea could easily erupt into a full-scale regional war, potentially involving the US and the Soviet Union in a head-to-head crisis.

One alliance links Ethiopia to Libya and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen), all of which are aligned to some degree with the Soviet Union and are described by Soviet theoreticians as “socialist-oriented” or “non-capitalist.” On the other side, there are ties between Somalia, Sudan and Egypt, each of which loosely fits the Reagan administration’s category of “authoritarian” regimes friendly to Western capital and US policy. Both regional blocs hold their opposite numbers responsible for the unrest within their borders, and these charges are echoed by the world powers which stand behind them.

The US and the Soviets have channeled massive quantities of arms to their respective clients while urging them to consolidate power locally by means of contrasting development models. In both instances, the reliance on military measures far outweighs the emphasis on economic means. Overall arms transfers to the region during the past five years exceed $5 billion, and include a vast array of sophisticated weapons ranging from supersonic jet fighters and helicopter gunships to battle tanks and an assortment of heavy artillery and rocketry. This has not resolved any of the internal crises, but rather set the stage for a “conventional” war between these states of potentially staggering proportions.

A showdown may be fast approaching. Somali president Mohamed Siad Barre visited Washington this March in search of additional aid. Ethiopia charges Somalia and Sudan with aiding guerrilla armies in the southeastern Ogaden region and in Eritrea. Somalia accuses Ethiopia and Libya of arming opposition movements in the northern half of that country. Sudan attacks Ethiopia and Libya for backing southern dissidents and northern religious and political groups seeking to topple the shaky Numayri government. Just days before Anwar al-Sadat’s assassination, the Reagan administration gave Egypt’s then-Vice President Husni Mubarak assurances of a US military “umbrella” for any Egyptian military action against Libya.

There is ample evidence to support all of these claims to varying degrees, with all the ramifications they hold at the geopolitical level. But the troubles each government now faces date back more than two decades. Sudan’s north-south civil war lasted from 1955 to 1972. The Eritrean war for independence from Ethiopia began in 1961, after a decade of political protest. Somalia incorporated clan and regional political divisions from the moment the former Italian and British Somalilands were joined in 1960. Each of these local conflicts has passed through phases of heightened or muted expression, while regional and international alliances have shifted and swerved with dizzying velocity. During the late 1960s, left-leaning military officers overthrew corrupt pro-Western civilian regimes in Libya, Somalia and Sudan, emulating to some extent the prototypical radical nationalist regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. Ethiopia, under Haile Selassie, was then Washington’s strongest African ally. In this period, Israel aided southern Sudan rebels through western Ethiopia. Eritrean nationalists were trained in Cuba, China, Algeria, South Yemen and other progressive states. Ogaden Somalis were helped by North Korea, Iraq and several Palestinian groups.

Charges today by Ethiopia and the Soviet Union that the powerful Marxist-led Eritrean nationalist government is a “pawn of petrodollars” and “Arab reaction” sound as convincing as Sudanese and US claims that “communist subversion” and “Libyan meddling” underlie the problems of the Numayri regime. In both cases, the crises are clearly historical and structural. In the most general sense, they are the legacy of the colonial era, complicated by the combination of economic backwardness and inherited social inequities, and exacerbated by the intrigues of rival neighbors and the opportunism of external forces.

Beneath their conflicting regional and international alignments, Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia share to varying degrees the phenomenon of narrowly based military governments which have so far failed to overcome these problems and have slipped into a siege mentality against their own populations. Each regime seized power on the basis of remarkably similar programs and self-descriptions. They promised “socialist revolutions” which would bring an end to ethnic, regional, religious and social injustices. Land reform and widespread nationalizations were at the core of this orientation. They have constructed mass political associations among women, youth and peasants and launched statewide literacy campaigns.

The formation of one-party political systems under military leadership was another longer-term feature. The undemocratic nature of these reform governments is not only a striking feature of all these regimes, but a key to identifying the weaknesses in what are otherwise impressive attempts to tackle the inherited national and social problems. Individual circumstances nurtured significant differences in the application and the consistency of these programs in each country, but these differences make the similarities over time all the more noticeable. Each successive experiment in what could be termed “socialist-oriented development from above” has surpassed its predecessor in scope and intensity. Still, even the sweeping social reforms of Ethiopia’s post-1974 military government have failed to achieve economic and political stability. Instead, the war-torn empire-state has become the storm center of a dangerously escalating regional crisis zone.

The sequence begins with the seizure of state power by a small military grouping, usually based in the middle echelons of the armed forces. In every case, they act in the midst of a generalized political crisis in which the collaboration of the traditional ruling elite with imperialism is clearly perceived by large segments of the population. An alliance of the military and civilian petty bourgeoisie, under strict control by the military wing, steps forward to create political order and economic progress with an eclectic, appealing mix of nationalism and socialism. The regime ruptures its ties with the US and strengthens them with the Soviet Union.

Suppression of local civilian left forces comes at an early stage. The new military leadership shares an interest with the civilian middle class, the working class and the peasantry in dismantling the remnants of pre-capitalist and neocolonial economic and social relations. It plays a forceful and leading role in restructuring the economic base and political superstructure of the country, and reorients the country’s foreign policies in a progressive direction. But democratic structures are not built into the social reform process. This leadership also has class and national interests of its own, and seeks to guard its monopoly on state power for the time when it will come into direct conflict with rival class and national forces. Militarism substitutes for political struggle. Scarce resources are further drained from reconstruction efforts, and external alliances substitute for declining popular bases. Depending on the conjunction of regional alignments, Western links may become more attractive than Eastern bloc ties.

The Nasser period in Egypt, Somalia’s adherence to “scientific socialism,” Ethiopia’s self-described Marxist-Leninist orientation — each experiment has been described as the one to watch. There can be little doubt that each has brought increased benefits to its people in the sphere of social programs, education and health care. None, however, has settled the fundamental issues of national and regional disunity.

This failure to build a mass socialist party that would provide a political arena for the resolution of outstanding internal conflicts is both a cause and a consequence of heightening regional and national contradictions. Initial progress in this area marked the early years of both the Siad Barre and the Numayri regimes. But the measures to consolidate the Somali and Sudanese nations were uneven and incomplete. This is a key factor in the splintering of the Somali and Sudanese leaderships and their accelerating rightward political and ideological momentum. In Ethiopia, the absence of significant progress on the national question has similarly encouraged a steady narrowing of the leadership and effectively prevented the emergence of any political party to date.

More than a decade of experience in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere in the Third World suggest that the two issues — that of nation building and that of party building — are inseparably and dialectically connected. Together with decisive countrywide action in the social and economic spheres, the struggle to achieve unity and equality among unevenly developed regions and nationalities is a critical arena in which a leading party can be developed. External aid, by propping up narrowly based military regimes that claim to represent broader class and national forces, encourages shortcuts to this process. These shortcuts have proved to be politically and socially destructive. One can only hope that it will not take greater and more widespread bloodshed in northeast Africa to bring this lesson home.

How to cite this article:

Dan Connell "War Crisis Escalates," Middle East Report 106 (June 1982).
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