Horn of Africa conflicts worsen humanitarian crisis

July 15th, 2011 | by addis portal |

Famines in Africa are almost always man-made.

Droughts may strip the ground, but it is wars or other communal upheavals that start the death rattles.

That’s what’s happening now on the parched landscape in the Horn of Africa where Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia meet.

Citing an estimated 10 million people in need of food aid and more than 400,000 already in a refugee camp in Kenya designed for 90,000, this is, according to the United Nations, the world’s “worst humanitarian disaster.”

Perhaps so. It is always wise to be cautious about accepting aid agency estimates unless one has seen for oneself. They are given to exaggeration to catch attention and donations.

But whatever the precise details of the situation in Kenya’s northeastern border region, this is the result of conflicts, contests for influence and communal collapse that have been going on throughout the Horn of Africa for more than 30 years.

The immediate cause of the crisis is people, mostly women and children, fleeing civil war in Somalia and arriving at the Kenyan camp at a rate of about 1,500 a day.

There has been no effective government in Somalia for more than 20 years, since the old dictator Siad Barre was ousted by a temporary coalition of clan warlords. Much of the country is now controlled by fundamentalist Islamic militias called al-Shabaab.

A UN-endorsed Transitional Federal Government, backed by several thousand troops from African Union countries, has started to fight its way out of the capital Mogadishu, where it has been bottled up by al-Shabaab fighters for months.

It is in part the shock waves from this latest attempt to bring Somalia under the control of a legitimate central government that has sent people scrambling for safety in Kenya, where there is a very chilly welcome.

The pressure on Kenya illustrates that these days nothing in the world happens in isolation.

Other recent events show that the chaos in Somalia both shapes and is shaped by the politics of the whole of the Horn of Africa.

An example is what happened last week at a meeting of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an organization of six countries of the Horn -Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda -founded in 1996 to try to bring some order to the region.

At the meeting in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, the organization called on the African Union and the UN to intensify sanctions against the seventh country of the region, Eritrea, which has been suspended from IGAD membership since 2007.

Eritrea’s sin, according to IGAD, is to engage in “growing subversive activities,” especially supporting al-Shabaab in Somalia.

Eritrea dismisses the allegations as a fabrication of the Ethiopian government with which the Asmara government still has bitter and volatile relations from their 1998-2000 border war.

It is true that largely Oriental Orthodox Christian Ethiopia has used its superior influence in IGAD and the African Union to put pressure on Eritrea.

It is also true that Eritrea, a Muslim country, has used its links with Muslim Somalia and the Muslim minorities in southern and eastern Ethiopia to create as many problems for the Addis Ababa government as it can.

However, in the last few months Eritrean diplomats have been working hard to try to rebuild relations, especially with the African Union, which the Asmara government has been boycotting for 10 years for siding with Ethiopia over the border war.

But at the same time, there is evidence of Eritrea supporting an ethnic minority militant separatist group in Ethiopia, the Oromo Liberation Front, which has links in Somalia to the Islamic Courts Union, the political cover of the al-Shabaab militias.

Two other developments in the region, both involving isolated Eritrea, are being watched closely for their possible effect on security and thus the spread of the humanitarian crisis.

One is the civil war in Libya, whose leader Moammar Gadhafi was one of Asmara’s few allies. The loss of Gadhafi’s financial support for Eritrea is compounding the problem of African Union economic sanctions.

The other is the creation of the new state of South Sudan, which has good relations with Ethiopia, while Asmara has long ties to the Arab Muslim government in Khartoum.

Ethiopia is sending peacekeeper troops to the contested border between Sudan and South Sudan. Eritrea may well see another opportunity to boost its own cause.

jmanthorpe@vancouversun.com

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