What Chance for Peace in the Horn of Africa?

By Mohamed Y. Urdoh | 1989-04-01 12:00:00

MOST inhabitants of northern Somalia may either be annihilated or forced to join nearly half a million countrymen in refugee camps in Ethiopia. Somali military dictator General Mohamed Siad Barre has acquired chemical weapons from Libya for use in northern Somalia, where his authority is checked by the embattled Somali National Movement (SNM).

Libya Sends Small Arms, Nerve Gas

PART OF NORTHERN Somalia is held by the SNM, who decimated government troops last May in a swift offensive from their bases in Ethiopia. Since then, government counter-attacks have failed to dislodge them. Barre has been seeking weapons everywhere. Colin Campbell of the Atlanta Journal reported from the Somali capital, Mogadishu, that Libya was believed to have provided Somalia with small arms. New African Magazine, based in London, reported in its January issue that a Libyan airliner had delivered a nerve gas to Mogadishu on October 7. This was basically confirmed by American military intelligence sources.

In the North, a government campaign of genocide has developed for seven years, since the SNM began trying to topple the dictatorship. Indiscriminate use of the deadly weapon in the southern urban centres also seems in the cards, given the tensions in Mogadishu. Barre may save some of his chemical weapons for crushing a possible popular uprising in the capital, whose population is now close to 1.5 million.Thousands marched to the presidential palace last year to protest their desperate living conditions. They were routed by security forces, with an unspecified number of deaths. Inflation makes life impossible in Mogadishu. Somalia's balance of payments has been in the red since Barre took power.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) refugee camps in Somalia closed in January, saying it was "impossible to deal with the Somali government," which was misusing their facilities. In 1981 The UNHCR first challenged Somali's official figures as exaggerating the number of refugees to attract more international aid. The government uses refugee camps as a labor reservoir for its security in the North.

Ethiopia and Somalia have not fought since the 1977-78 Horn of Africa War. Ethiopia is said to have a chemical weapon. Now that Somalia has nerve gas, Kenya (which, like Ethiopia has a territorial dispute with Somalia), as well as Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda, may follow suit. Besides northern Somalia, such places as Eritrea, southern Sudan, and Uganda's trouble spots are all possible victims.

The arms race in East Africa began in 1963, when Somalia bought arms worth $30 million from the USSR after its request for Western arms was rebuffed. A week later, Kenya entered a mutual defence pact with Ethiopia against foreign aggression. Since then, Ethiopia and Somalia have had two military confrontations, adding to the regional arms race.

Somalia has been spending 13.4 percent of its GDP on defence - $26.4 per capita per year. Compare this to Kenya, which is seven times as rich as Somalia and allocates 3.4 percent of its GDP to defence, or $11.82 per capita. The international community has unwittingly subsidized the dictator, paying over half his defence costs for two years.

The Red Sea is strategically important; whoever controls the triangle (see map) connecting Berbera to Djibouti and Aden controls the southern mouth of the Red Sea, the inlet to the Persian Gulf oil fields. The Indian Ocean and the Red Sea teem with forces. France has a naval base in Djibouti, the USSR a military base in Aden, and the USA a similar facility in Diego Garcia in Seychelles. American and Soviet fleets are in the Indian Ocean. Any disturbance in the region threatens these powers and the oil-rich countries, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

In 1977, the Kremlin tried to combine Ethiopia, Somalia, and South Yemen as a socialist federation. The plan was scuttled by Ethiopian-Somali hostilities. When Cuba, the USSR, and South Yemen supported Ethiopia against Somalia in the Horn of Africa War, Barre returned to the Western orbit. Lately, besides normalizing relations with Libya, which once sought his downfall, the octogenarian potentate has been helped by South Africa. Pretoria has trained Somali troops and South African mercenary pilots have been carrying out sorties against civilians in northern Somalia.

Torture and Rape are Common

A Western diplomatic initiative is trying to stop further deterioration in Somalia. But this time Barre is not calling the tune, since the West sees him as a liability. According to Africa Confidential, "Sian (Barre) was offered asylum last July by both Saudi Arabia and the USA."The U.S. Congress has held a hearing on the "indiscriminate massacre" in Somalia of civilians. It was prompted by an Amnesty International report on human rights violations in Somalia which called torture and rape common. The proliferation of chemical weapons in Africa - or anywhere - must stop.

Mohamed Urdoh is a Somali now living in Toronto.

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1989

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1989, page 10. Some rights reserved.

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