To understand the current crisis in the Horn of Africa you have to look at the role of the US and its “war on terror” – or the “long war” as US rulers are coming to call it.
This war is no more about terrorism than previous “humanitarian” interventions were about helping local populations.
There are three important things about Africa for the US. Firstly there are natural resources, notably oil.
Secondly there are wider strategic interests and thirdly the global development of an imperial strategy.
African oil is becoming more significant to the US. By 2015 it is estimated that 25 percent of US oil imports will come from Africa. Already 70 percent of the US-European military command’s activity concerns African affairs.
Strategically the US is determined to defend its access to these resources. The main US base in Africa is in Djibouti, a small state on the north coast of Somalia, which guards the entrance to the Red Sea.
It also wants to deny resources to competitors. Specifically this relates to the emergence of China as a major competitor.
This is not an idle worry. China is a central participant in the new scramble for Africa. Like the US, the Chinese government sees Africa as a potential source of both markets and oil.
Africa offers resources that are not already totally controlled by the US and other Western powers. China needs the oil to sustain its rate of economic growth. Africa supplies 25 percent of Chinese oil imports.
This relates directly to the US’s grand strategy. In 1950 the US produced 50 percent of world output. By 2003 this had fallen to 20 percent. However the US is responsible for 50 percent of world arms spending.
By the middle of the 21st century China could overtake the US as the world’s largest economy. As the US becomes relatively economically weaker it is harder to impose its will by economic methods around the world.
So the US is attempting to use its military power to increase its domination.
With certain variations this strategy to dominate is one put forward by the whole US elite, not just the neocons. Stephen Peter Rosen, one of the theorists behind the Project for the New American Century, has written:
“A political unit that has overwhelming superiority in military power, and uses that power to influence the internal behaviour of other states, is called an empire.
“Because the United States does not seek to control territory or govern the overseas citizens of the empire, we are an indirect empire, to be sure, but an empire nonetheless.
“If this is correct, our goal is not combating a rival, but maintaining our imperial position, and maintaining imperial order. Planning for imperial wars is different from planning for conventional international wars...
“The maximum amount of force can and should be used as quickly as possible for psychological impact – to demonstrate that the empire cannot be challenged with impunity.”
How does this practically impact on Africa? There are already US forces stationed in Senegal, Mali, Gabon, Ghana, Namibia and Angola.
It is the US’s strategic interests that decide where there is clamour for Western intervention in Africa. Thus there are constant demands for intervention in Darfur in Sudan and now a second practical intervention in Somalia, while the brutal war in the Democratic Republic of Congo continued with no such demands.
This is why the war in Somalia cannot be understood by looking at the composition of the Union of Islamic Courts or the presence or absence of Al Qaida supporters in Somalia.
Like Israel’s invasion of Lebanon last summer, it only makes sense as a proxy war of the US.
In fact there is no evidence that Al Qaida was involved in the defeat of the US intervention force in Somalia in 1993.
The US invasion of Iraq created support for Al Qaida where there was none. Any support there is for Al Qaida in Somalia can be related to the savage US incursion in 1993.
The long war is well named. It will appear either in terms of direct US intervention or wars led by US proxies, until the project is challenged at a wider level.
Ethiopia exploited by imperialism
By invading Somalia the Ethiopian government of Meles Zenawi has hitched itself to imperialism, acting as George Bush’s proxy in the Horn of Africa.
Yet for 100 years imperialism has brought only bitter poverty and war to Ethiopia’s people.
It will be no different this time.
Ethiopia was the last part of Africa to be seized by the colonisers. It had been the site of one of the great empires, Axum, which was a highpoint of world civilisation in the first to the fifth centuries.
Later it declined as a great power, but remained an advanced state.
As part of the carve-up of Africa in the 1880s, Italy was handed the Eritrean port of Massawa by the British in 1885. The colony of Eritrea was established through military conquest.
It was marked by oppression from the start. Ferdinando Martini, the governor of Eritrea, admitted, “We claim to want to end the fratricidal wars in this country, but every day we sign up local people to our own forces and pay them to butcher other local people.”
In 1889 Italy announced that Ethiopia was now its protectorate.
At the Battle of Adowa in 1896 Menelik II’s troops defeated the Italian forces and forced the colonialists to retreat to Eritrea.
In October 1935 Italy – now a fascist state under Benito Mussolini – invaded again. The fighting was a chance to try out new and barbaric weaponry later to be used in the Second World War.
Ethiopian forces (and civilians) were destroyed with poison gas and flame throwers, which were outlawed by international treaties.
Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie made passionate appeals to the League of Nations (a forerunner of the United Nations) for support. But he was ignored.
Italian rule was brutal, with Mussolini demanding “ten eyes for every eye” as reprisals for guerrilla attacks. A system of racial laws was introduced which prefigured South African apartheid.
But in some ways even worse was to come when the British “liberated” the country during the Second World War. The British looted Ethiopia, removing entire factories, port facilities and buildings.
Despite this, Haile Selassie, now returned to the throne, worked with Western imperialism. In 1950 he sent troops to fight alongside the US and Britain in Korea, and opposed any sort of radical reform.
The US set up the giant radio listening station at Kagnew which became a central hub of Cold War spying. In return Ethiopia received 60 percent of US military aid to Africa.
A movement called the Dergue under Mengistu Haile Mariam overthrew Haile Selassie in 1974. It used Marxist language, but for a period continued to allow the US presence. In return the US accelerated the supply of arms.
But even the US began to complain as the Dergue used this weaponry to crush secessionist movements. So Mengistu switched sides in the Cold War, duly collecting a vast new armoury from the Russians.
Despite the firepower, Mengistu could not destroy the national liberation movement in Eritrea. Eventually, in 1991, the combination of the Eritrean resistance and an Ethiopian reform movement under Meles Zenawi drove Mengistu and the Dergue from power.
Ordinary people hoped for a new start free from superpower intervention.
But the hopes were dashed. Meles embraced IMF austerity programmes which meant farmers switched from growing food to growing coffee for export – just as commodity prices slumped.
He hurled hundreds of thousands of soldiers into a war with Eritrea, and brutally repressed dissent at home. Demonstrators were shot down in the streets when they protested against fraud in the May 2005 elections.
Despite this he remained a friend of the West – backing the US invasion of Iraq, serving on Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa and speaking up for neoliberalism across the continent.
Somalia resistance and civil war
The Horn of Africa has been a plaything of the Western powers since the opening of the Suez Canal brought the region to world prominence in 1869. During the imperial scramble for Africa in the 1880s the British claimed the west of modern Somalia and the Italians the south.
Though Somalia was officially incorporated into the Italian and British empires, a war of resistance continued until 1920. The RAF bombed resistance into submission, causing high civilian casualties.
The Italians took British Somaliland early in the Second World War. It was reconquered by the British, along with Ethiopia. It was the British that established the current borders between the two countries.
Somalia became independent in 1960, uniting ethnically Somali regions that had been controlled by Italy in the east and Britain in the west. This made it probably the least ethnically diverse country in sub-Saharan Africa.
However the new borders trapped Somali people in the Ogaden, now part of Ethiopia, and Kenya.
A coup in 1969 brought Major General Mohammed Siad Barre to power. He talked left, promoting equality and opposition to the influence of the clans. The Soviet Union backed his regime in return for the strategically important naval base near the Red Sea.
This was at a time when socialism was equated with state control and seen primarily as the best way to develop.
While the early years of the regime offered economic gains and improvements in literacy it quickly became known for its lack of tolerance to any opposition.
The experience of Somalia and Ethiopia shows the cynicism of the Cold War. Initially the West backed Ethiopia and the Russians Somalia, but as the Dergue regime in Ethiopia became unstable, US aid began flowing into Somalia.
The US encouraged Somalia’s war to annex the ethnically Somali Ogaden region of Ethiopia in 1977. The attack was defeated and the Barre regime became increasingly unpopular at home. Barre maintained power by playing off one clan against another.
The US continued to support Barre right through the 1980s. It was only when he was losing control in 1990 that he was abandoned. The region was no longer seen as so strategically important as the Cold War drew to a close.
Three rebel movements moved against Barre’s government. Perhaps 60,000 people died in the ensuing civil war with a further 400,000 becoming refugees.
Barre was overthrown by the United Somali Congress, which rapidly collapsed into warring factions – one led by Muhammad Farah Aidid, who later became a hate figure for the US.
In late 1992 the US intervened directly in Somalia, in a United Nations sanctioned operation, Restore Hope. It used the excuse of a famine, which had devastated large areas of the country, while the civil war hampered distribution of relief supplies.
Though the famine had largely ended, many Somalis welcomed the arriving US troops. They saw the possibility of an end to the chaos that had engulfed the country and the rule by groups of fractious “warlords”.
The experience of the next year changed the initial welcome to revulsion. On “Bloody Monday” US troops attacked a meeting of Somali elders attending peace talks with helicopter based missiles and cannons.
At least 54 people were killed. Disgust united Somali factions until the US were driven out in 1993.
Aidid gained enormous esteem for having resisted the US and declared himself president. However no central government was established.
The US has moved to work with various warlords as Somalia became more strategically important again in the developing “war on terror” and also a possible source of oil.
The current transitional government, formed in Kenya in 2004, is not the first, but the fifth. Previous attempts, with varying international sponsors, had been made in 1991, 1993, 1997 and 2000. The one thing they had in common was their lack of influence within Somalia itself.
It is striking that the latest intervention from the “international community” has materialised just when a relatively stable internal government has come into being – around the Union of Islamic Courts.