December 28, 2006

The horn of Africa - a region ringing to sound of cross-border conflict

28 December 2006


A peninsula of East Africa that juts into the Arabian Sea. The term also refers to the greater region containing Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. It covers 2 million sq km and has a population of about 86.5 million. Sudan and Kenya are sometimes included.


Somalia’s main religion is Islam (Sunni), with a small Christian minority. About half of Ethiopia’s population are Muslim and half Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. Nearly half of all Eritreans are Coptic Christians and most of the rest are Muslims. There are also Catholic and Protestant minorities.


Eritrea is one of the world’s most aid-dependent nations. Ethiopia receives the lion’s share of European development aid to sub-Saharan Africa and foreign donors finance about one-third of its annual budget. Aid for Somalia has dropped off since a disastrous and bloody international intervention in the 1990s.



The rise of the Islamists, who control much of the south after seizing Mogadishu from United States-backed warlords in June, has threatened the Government’s attempts to reimpose central rule on a country in chaos since the 1991 overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. Before the latest fighting, the interim Government was confined to the provincial town of Baidoa.


The Government arrested thousands of Opposition members and others after two bouts of violence following May 2005 parliamentary elections. At least 82 people were killed in clashes in the capital, Addis Ababa. Some have suggested nearly double that number died. Ethiopia also has active rebel groups, including the Oromo Liberation Front, which represents the country’s largest ethnic group and is fighting for independence for the Oromo region. The Government of Meles Zenawi says Eritrea backs the OLF, which Eritrea denies. The Ogaden National Liberation Front, which wants self-determination for Ethiopia’s ethnically Somali Ogaden region, is also active.


The Government has been holding 21 politicians and journalists for five years without trial following a crackdown on dissidents and independent media. Before the September 2001 crackdown, the media had played a growing role in fostering open dissent in Eritrea, ruled by President Isaias Afwerki since the country gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year struggle.



Ethiopia and Somalia have been rivals throughout history. Ethiopia has sent troops into Somalia to attack radical Islamic movements, wary they could stir trouble in the ethnically Somali regions on its side of the border. Several times from 1992 to 1998, Ethiopian soldiers attacked members of al-Itihaad al-Islaami, a militant Somali group. The Islamist leader in Somalia, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, was head of its military wing during that time. The US has accused Eritrea of shipping arms to Somali Islamists. Eritrea has long denied any involvement in Somalia, but reports to the United Nations Security Council have documented numerous weapons shipments by Eritrea to the Islamists.


In 1998 the town of Badme was the flashpoint for the Ethiopia-Eritrea border war which caused 70,000 deaths and ended with a 2000 peace deal under which both sides agreed to accept an independent ruling on their border. It is heavily guarded by both sides and monitored by a UN mission with 2300 peacekeepers. Ethiopia rejected the border as set out by an independent commission in April 2002 and Eritrea refused to consider any changes. The commission has given Ethiopia and Eritrea a year to demarcate the border according to its proposals.