Horn of Africa
“Yemen’s conflict is getting so bad that some Yemenis are fleeing to Somalia,” read a recent headline at the Vice News website. The article mentions that 32 Yemenis, mainly women and children, made the trip to Berbera, a port town in Somaliland (and not Somalia). Hundreds of thousands of Somalis have crossed the Gulf of Aden since the outbreak of the Somali civil war in 1991. But now the tide seems to have turned.
China and Africa grosso modo are often seen as standing at two ends of the spectrum of developing countries, the former having acquired enormous industrial capacity in short order, and the latter not. In this view, a great potential for exchange exists between the two: manufactures and infrastructure in exchange for raw materials. Certainly the two do not exist in a vacuum; to think about how this potential may be realized in the coming decades, it is useful to think about them in the larger international arena.
The penultimate scene in the recently released film Captain Phillips, about the 2009 seizure of the US-flagged cargo ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates, depicts the methodical precision with which a Navy SEAL Team 6 unit identified and then captured or killed the pirates during their doomed attempt to ferry their hostage to the Somali mainland.
Last week, soldiers in one of Africa’s most closed and repressive nations — Eritrea — occupied the country’s Ministry of Information and issued demands. The pattern was a familiar one. News spread quickly that a coup was underway.
But feisty little Eritrea, which got its independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after defeating successive US- and Soviet-backed armies in a 30-year war, has never fit the mold of post-colonial African states, and it was not doing so now.
Said Ibrahim, 21, orphaned and blind, was making a living as a singer in Adi Quala bars when a member of Eritrea’s national security force claimed one of his songs had “political” content and detained him at the Adi Abieto prison. After a month Said was released, but he was stripped of his monthly disability payments for two years when he refused to identify the lyricist. “I went back to my village and reflected about it,” he told me over tea at an open-air café in the Adi Harush camp in northern Ethiopia. “If the system could do this to a blind orphan, something was very wrong.” After appealing to his neighbors for help, two boys, aged 10 and 11, sneaked him into Ethiopia and all three asked for asylum.
Not far from Fort Jesus, the sixteenth-century fort erected by the Portuguese to mark their violent entry into the world of Indian Ocean commerce, is a small office near the old port of Mombasa. Scattered inside are copies of Seatrade and other maritime trade magazines. An old desktop computer displays the Baltic Dry Index, which tracks international shipping prices for dry bulk cargo, as well as the shipping movements list from Lloyd’s of London highlighting the movement of commodities on ships registered with the insurance company.
Until the resurgence of naval predation in the late 2000s, pirates were confined to the realm of the fantastic — novels, films and stage productions. Since Western states last worried about pirates in the eighteenth century, the intrinsic, man-bites-dog interest of contemporary pirates for the popular press is easy to understand. The reemergence of piracy as a political problem, however, has in no way banished the fantastic from current understandings of the phenomenon, nor of Somalia, whence the most famous of today’s maritime bandits come. The fantasy is evident in media coverage, but in policy discourse as well. Once upon a time, begins the tale, there was a state called Somalia and now there is not. Pirates flourish where the writ of government has entirely lost its sway.
On July 6, the impish economic historian Niall Ferguson took the podium at the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual seminar series for the rich and powerful on how to remain rich and powerful. Ferguson, as is his wont, began by tweaking the perpetual American reluctance to admit that the United States is an empire. “You’re the redcoats now,” the Oxford-trained Scot said in a stage whisper.
Michela Wrong, I Didn’t Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation (New York: Harper Collins, 2005).
When I first encountered Eritrea in 1976, I was deeply impressed with the movement heading up the former Italian colony’s 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia. During those years, most foreign visitors to Eritrea were.
Dan Connell, Against All Odds: A Chronicle of the Eritrean Revolution (Red Sea, 1994).
Gayle Smith coordinates the Africa program at the Washington-based Development Group for Alternative Policies. In the past ten years she has worked extensively in the Horn of Africa on relief and development issues. Her most recent trip to Ethiopia and Sudan was in June 1990. She spoke with Joe Stork in Washington.
Compared to the famine of 1984-1985, what is the scope of the problem in the Horn today?
In terms of numbers, the famine is somewhat less severe than it was five years ago. There are an estimated 5 million in need as opposed to 7-9 million in 1984-1985. Just over 1 million of these people are in Eritrea; another 2.2 million live in Tigray. The rest live elsewhere in the north of Ethiopia, areas now also affected by the war.
Famine takes root when farmers lose their means of production. In Africa, drought and war have forced huge numbers of peasants to sell off their animals and tools and abandon the land on which they depend, thus bringing local economies to a standstill. Grain yields in Africa declined by one-third per hectare over the last decade; food production is down by 15 percent since 1981. One out of every five Africans now depends on food aid. Interest payments on international loans now consume $15 billion per year. The continent’s industrial base is functioning at only one-third of capacity. The incidence of famine among Africa’s rural producers has in turn brought national economies to a halt.
A decade ago, the Horn of Africa was the scene of one of the most spectacular geopolitical realignments in Cold War history. A devastating famine helped trigger the ouster of Ethiopia’s strongly pro-US emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. A military junta seized power in Addis Ababa and pledged to place the strife-torn empire on the road to “socialism.” Three years later, the US and the Soviet Union switched positions in Ethiopia and Somalia and the entire region rippled with the aftershocks.
While I was extremely glad to see a wealth of factual information in your recent issue "Horn of Africa: The Coming Storm" (MER 106), I was bothered by the fact that Halliday, Molyneux and, to a much lesser extent, Gilkes see Ethiopia continuing to move in a revolutionary direction “toward socialism.” But I don’t see that happening, for some fundamental reasons. The point, to me, is that the revolution in Ethiopia is long over.
Bereket Habte Selassie, Conflict and Intervention in the Horn of Africa (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1980).
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.
Khartoum, May 1980: Hundreds of Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalis were rounded up and put in prison in nearby Omdurman when Ethiopian leader Menguistu Hailemariam visited here May 25 to help celebrate the eleventh anniversary of Sudanese President Jaafar al-Numayri’s seizure of power. The purpose of the visit was to consolidate and formalize newly improved relations between the two countries. Sudan and Ethiopia have been at loggerheads since the 1960s, when Sudan provided assistance and haven for the Eritrean liberation movement and Ethiopian dissidents, and Ethiopia became the base for southern Sudanese opposition.