I came across a quote today that read something like: When I give food to the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why the hungry have no food, they call me a communist.
Call me what you will but I'm wondering if anyone's asking why there's a pirate problem off the coast of Somalia. Could it be that the country has no government? No infastructure? No decent education system? No financial structure? No health and human services to speak of but the goods being shipped in via dangerous waters from rich Westernized countries?Lindsay Beyerstein
gets at half the questions when she says she's had "enough of the dead teen pirate porn" already.
"It's creepy to see so many Americans are exulting over the fact that the United States military managed to shoot three teenagers, albeit three very dangerous teenagers who may have been about to kill an innocent hostage. Even if authorities did the right thing, it was a sad, sordid necessity, not a glorious adventure."
Let's say that you're a 16 year old Somali male with no future. You've got two choices, really. Fight the raging ground wars in your country or go after some booty on the sea. You go where the opportunity is - and Somalia has a lot of coastline and a lot of ship-laden goods coming in. It's not like these kids are turning down job offers or college admissions back home. They're desperate.
And while we can get all moralistic and rant about how "bad is bad and those who do bad are bad," the truth is that business in third world countries has nothing to do with law or ethics. It's about survival, about having a home to live in, about feeding your kids or your parents, about the basic personal pride of taking care of yourself.
Bone up on your basic Somali history
or, with less concision, here is my screed on Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia, written when I was in Addis Ababa in August and September of 2007:
New Year’s eve [Ethiopia's calendar is 7 years behind ours, they were celebrating the Millenium year 2000 when I was visiting], I returned to my room at Debre Damo Hotel and found a group of people in the courtyard around a fire. I sat for a while in a white plastic chair to watch the dancing and struck up a conversation with a gentleman to my right.
Through the course of conversation, I mentioned that I hoped to travel on to Eritrea. Dr. Kidane Leghesse (“I’m a medical doctor”) warned me that now was not the best time to go and that in fact, he sincerely doubted that the Eritrean Embassy in Djibouti (the Eritrean embassy here in Ethiopia has been closed) would issue a visa to me.
He knew what he was talking about. His family was Eritrean and owned the Leghesse Hotel in Asmara, now government controlled and renamed the Asmara Central Hotel (how bland!) He had not visited his family in Asmara for 16 years because of the political unrest there.
I returned to my room disheartened. When Dad was stationed in Asmara in 1966, Eritrea was still part of Ethiopia. When he returned in 1995, it was peaceful enough for him to meet up with an old friend from Eritrea and travel freely around Kagnew Station and Asmara.
His 1960s photos of the famed road from Port Masawa to Asmara are part of family legend; he rode his Matchless motorcycle around the countryside on the weekends and snapped shots of majestic plateaus and falling clouds with a camera he owned until he died. Of course I want to see Asmara and Masawa and Kagnew Station for myself.
I turned on the TV news, Aljazeera, and caught the tail end of a report that mentioned war and Ethiopia and Eritrea and Somalia.
Yesterday I returned to the fancy schmancy Sheraton to find out what exactly the political situation looked like here in the Horn.
Here’s why I’m probably not going to Eritrea this year:
After Italy lost WWII, they were forced to give up their three African possessions: Eritrea, Libya, and Southern Somalia. The British governed Eritrea and part of Somalia (British Somaliland, in the north) until the former was made a protectorate of Ethiopia by the UN in 1952 (basically because the UN didn’t know what to do with it) and the latter was united with the southern Somali territories and declared independent in 1960.
The Eritreans felt that they were now being colonized by Africans and opposed the UN’s decision. In the UN’s defense, they did conduct surveys and attempt to determine the popular opinion among Eritreans.
The name Eritrea didn’t come about until Italian colonization. It means Colonia or Red Sea Colony. The region had no dominant religion, language or ethnic group and while the lowland Muslims wanted to be joined with Sudan and the coastal Muslims, Christians and Italians wanted Italy, the Soviets made a bid and were refused by the UN. The Americans favored Ethiopia and so it was. Self-government within a federal union with Ethiopia was granted.
Independence groups sprang up and “in 1961 a few Eritreans attacked an Ethiopian police station with two stolen pistols – an incident regarded as the starting point of Africa’s longest war in the 20th century.” (Lonely Planet) (This little incident makes me think of Lawrence Durrell’s book on Cyprus, Bitter Lemons.)
In 1962 Haile Selassie annexed Eritrea in defiance of the UN. When Mengistu came to power, he took an unwavering hard line on Eritrea and diplomacy was lost as a way to resolve the conflict.
During the 1950s those Eritreans who opposed union with Ethiopia fled the country. Both Sudan and Egypt sympathized with Eritrea’s liberation movements, although Ethiopia’s support of Egypt during the Suez crisis ended the latter alliance.
In the late 1960s rebels who had been trained in Beirut, Damascus, Cairo and Bagdad and were operating from Sudan began assassinations of Ethiopian officials in Eritrea. They were the first to engage in air hijackings (Ethiopian Airways) and it is believed that they were under the tutelage of the Cubans.
Cuba, China and Syria all recruited young Eritrean men for guerrilla training. Qaddafy of Libya (who came to power in 1969) began to support Eritrean liberation movements with money and arms.
A young Eritrean rebel named Isaias Afwerke killed two judges in 1970 and was selected by the Chinese for training. In 1972, fresh back from China, he formed the socialist Eritrean Popular Liberation Front (EPLF).
In the late 70s, Mengistu made plans to form a great peasant army in Ethiopia that would march into Eritrea with orders to kill every Eritrean encountered (essentially commit genocide) but Kissenger got word and threatened sanctions. The West never heard of Mengistu’s plans until after his overthrow in ‘91. So perhaps Kissenger did have a heart!?
By 1977, Afwerke, in an attempt to garner Russian support, announced a “National Democratic Program” that made the Derg look gentle. Libya, S. Yemen and even the PLO shifted their support to the Derg.
With such strong backing and in the face of increased infighting among the EPLF (200 members were arrested for not agreeing with all the points of the Program), the Derg were able to recapture large amounts of territory.
By the early 1980s the Arabs were scared away from the EPLF by all the communist talk, many Muslims moved to Sudan and everyone feared the destabilizing effect of a liberated Eritrea in the region.
“The Egyptians and Saudis made clear in discussions with the US that they preferred a non-communist Ethiopia to a fragmented Ethiopia and a radical Eritrea.” The Derg in Decline
To get back their momentum, the EPLF appealed to Ethiopian and Eritrean diaspora to fund their liberation from the Derg. Journalists, academics and writers were encouraged to expose the horrors of the Derg government and to provide funds for clinics and schools. The Derg were unable to assist Eritrea during the 1980s famine and the EPLF effectively mobilized NGOs and outside assistance.
The May 1985 issue of the EPLF magazine Adulis (printed in France) stated solidarity with Ethiopia’s independence movement. Still the EPLF and the TPLF remained estranged with the latter denying the former support of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and most of the world leery of Eritrean independence and supportive of Ethiopia’s territorial integrity.
In February of 1988 Mengistu went to Eritrea to encourage the Ethiopian troops. When he was challenged by a popular army general on his hard military line, Mengistu had the general shot. The weakened morale of Ethiopia’s troops resulted in a string of ETPF victories and advances.
The Tigrayan Popular Liberation Front (TPLF) in northern Ethiopia and headed by Meles Zenawi and the Eritrean Popular Liberation Front (EPLF) headed by Isaias Afwerke finally began to work together against the Derg army in 1988.
(Ironically, Meles Zenawi is the current Prime Minister of Ethiopia and Afwerke is the current President of Eritrea.)
With EPLF support, the TPLF was able to run the Derg out of the Tigre province. At the same time, Mengistu was warned that Russia would cease funding. He panicked and flew to East Germany to beg for support; in his absence a coup was attempted but failed. When Mengistu returned to Ethiopia, he had 176 senior military officials arrested – 24 of them were generals.
The Ethiopian population watched for a year as trials dragged on. Then on May 19, 1990 Mengistu suddenly announced that the trials were over and that the generals had already been shot, their bodies buried in a mass grave in a prison yard. People cried on the streets of Addis.
Then the Israelis attempted to Rescue Mengistu. HUH? Yes indeed. No one is certain of when the Israeli government made contact with Mengistu but it is clear that communications were under way in 1988 and 89.
“Naïve Israeli hawks believed they could wean Mengistu from communism and exploit the belief that Arabs backed both the EPLF and the TPLF. Ethiopia would thus be transformed into an Israeli ally against the Arabs.” In early 1990 the Israeli foreign minister visited Washington and stayed for six weeks trying to gain support for Mengistu’s government, to no avail.
Finally on March 5, 1990 Mengistu was forced to announce reforms that eased control. But it was too little too late and in May of 1991 the Derg collapsed and Meles Zenawi came to power. In 1995 he was voted to another term as Prime Minister, a position he retains today.
In 1993, two years after the fall of Mengistu’s government, 99.8% of Eritreans voted for independence. A political offshoot of the EPLF gained power, headed by Isais Afwerke.
The border between Eritrea and Ethiopia remained unresolved and tensions arose again in 1998 causing the involvement of a UN peace-keeping force.
What does all of this have to do with Somalia?
For 20 years Mohammed Abdullah Hassan fought against the colonization of Somalia. He became known as the Mad Mullah to the Brits, Italians and Ethiopians who he successfully kept out of Somalia. After his death in 1920, the Italians occupied the south (Somalia) and the British occupied the north (Somaliland).
After successfully invading Ethiopia in 1935, Mussolini invaded and occupied British Somaliland in 1940. British forces from Kenya drove the Italians out two years later (from both Ethiopia and Somaliland).
In 1949 the UN gave Somalia (the south) back to Italy, the Ogaden region to Ethiopia and the Brits kept Somaliland. (The French kept Djibouti until its independence in 1977).
In the 1960s, as stated above, the north and south were joined and Somalia declared independence.
In 1969 a successful military coup was led by Siad Barre and Prime Minister Abdirashid Ali Shermarke was assassinated. Barre, the last recognized Somali ruler, remained in power until civil war erupted in 1991. The north declared independence as Somaliland but remains unrecognized by any foreign government until this day.
A famine in the south of Somalia, a result of the civil war, caused the UN Security Council to form United Nations Operations in Somalia (UNISOM I) and the US formed United Task Force (UNITAF) to stabilize the area for relief efforts. Operation Restore Hope alleviated the famine somewhat and withdrew in May of 1993.
At this time UNISOM II came in to help restore order but warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid saw it as a threat to his power and attacks by his forces killed many. The UN withdrew in 1995 and Aidid was killed in Mogadishu in 1996.
The story doesn’t get any better. A Transitional Federal Government (TGF) was formed. They have been ravaged by the tsunami in 2004 and extreme flooding in 2006 and the Islamic Courts Union (ICU).
The ICU and TGF have fought back and forth for territory, including the capital of Mogadishu.
In 2006 the ICU accused the US of funding warlords via the CIA and various news sources have corroborated; the US is accused of breaking the UN arms embargo to prevent Islamists from coming to power.
Ethiopia has long supported the TGF and Somali refugees and TGF forces live along the Ethiopian border under protection of Ethiopian troops. TGF has lobbied the African Union for a police force but the ICU opposes foreign troops in Somalia (particularly Ethiopian troops who are suspected of having their own designs on Somali territory).
October 9, 2006 ICU declared war on Ethiopia.
November 1, 2006 peace talks between ICU and (UN supported) TGF broke down.
December 21, 2006 ICU leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys said, “Somalia is in a state of war, and all Somalis should take part in this struggle against Ethiopia.” War erupted.
December 24, 2006 Ethiopia launched air strikes against ICU at Baidoa and Buurhakaba – Ethiopia’s first open admission of involvement in Somalia.
That same day, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced, “Ethiopian defense forces were forced to enter into war to protect the sovereignty of the nation and to blunt repeated attacks by Islamic Courts terrorists and anti-Ethiopian elements they are supporting.” One may guess that the anti-Ethiopian elements they are said to be supporting are Eritrean.
December 28, 2006 Mogadishu was retaken by Ethiopian forces and ICU was pushed south to a small town called Ras Kamboni.
January 9, 2007 the US openly intervened in Somalia and sent gun ships to fire on Ras Kamboni; ICU was defeated. The operation was essentially deemed an extension of the war on terror by the US.
A dusk to dawn curfew has been in place in Mogadishu since June of 2007.
September 11, 2007, the eve of the Ethiopian Millenium, only a few days ago, Somali opposition figures formed a new alliance at a meeting in Asmara, Eritrea. The alliance vows to fight Ethiopian troops supporting Somalia’s government.
September 15, yesterday, the Sudan Tribune’s Hager writes, “Now that the Millennium celebrations are over, Ethiopia appears ready to attack Eritrea with tacit US backing.”
I say again and again that travel is political. If you want an idea of how the “War on Terror” is affecting regions like the Horn of Africa, and how complicated the emotions and politics of this region are you can read the rest of the article here:
Sudan has been an ally of Eritrea for decades. Sudan isn’t high on the US Embassy’s list of safe places to visit; and you must consider that the writer is probably an Eritrean living in the United States (for reasons he doesn’t mention but may include political or economic refuge). The issues presented and the manner of address is telling.
What is particularly interesting is how Hager discusses religion and the war on terror. Ethiopia is a country run by a Christian government (although the Ethiopian Muslim and Christian populations are 50/50). Somalia’s ICU, now somewhat reincarnated in the new coalition, is headed by a sheikh and is expected to support Sharia law.
So there, in a very large nut shell, is why I am probably not going to Eritrea this year. I expect I’ll be home for the holidays.