The War on Terror Hits Africa

“The president is not going to allow Somalia to become a safe haven for terrorists.”

US spokesperson, May 2006

Once again the Horn of Africa is being drawn into a global power game likely to increase the suffering of its peoples. Ethiopia’s attack on Somalia, backed by a nod from George W Bush, is the clearest sign yet that the region in high on the US’s agenda in its all-consuming “war on terror”.

But Ethiopia and Somalia aren’t new to global power politics. For decades brutal dictators have received massive support to play the pawns of the US, and previously also the Soviet Union.

Cold War

Throughout the Cold War Ethiopia and Somalia were used as proxies, receiving billions of dollars worth of weapons while famines and wars raged throughout the region. US support of Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia from the Second World War until 1974, ensured US access to the vitally important spy base at Kagnew, while next door the Soviet’s backed Siad Barre’s ‘Marxist’ regime in Somalia.

On the back of US aid, Ethiopia developed one of the largest armies in Africa, which it used to devastate Eritrean society in an attempt to maintain control of the region. As Haile Selassie’s policies became increasingly unpopular, most especially when he ignored the famine of the early 1970s (as 100,000 peasants were known to have died, one of his Minister’s is quoted as saying “If we could save the peasants only by confessing our failure to the world, it is better that they die”), this very army overthrew his rule, and Major Mengistu quickly took control of the ruling military committee, known as the Derg.

Ultimately, Mengistu preferred a relationship with the Soviets, more in line with his proclaimed ideology and thought more likely to provide the weapons he needed to keep himself in power. Seeing Ethiopia as a far more important prize than Somalia, the Soviet Union did indeed outbid the US, sending $9 billion in military hardware before Mengistu was ousted in 1991. Soviet aid allowed Mengistu to unleash a terror on political opponents, as well as many ordinary civilians, and increased the war drive against the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, massacring thousands of civilians in Eritrea. Despite some embarrassment, Soviet support even continued throughout the famine of the mid-80s, which killed at least 1 million people, as Mengistu spent $55million celebrating the anniversary of his revolution.

To add to the murky politics, Mengistu also received a little help from Israel, who bribed him to allow the deportation of Ethiopian Jews that it needed to bolster the Jewish population of Israel. Shortly after the deal, Israeli-made cluster bombs started falling on Eritrean towns. While condemning Soviet aid to Mengistu, the US, needless to say, didn’t mention Israeli aid.

Across the border, the US supported Somalia, albeit with less fanfare, not wanting to upset a potential future relationship with Ethiopia. As early as 1977, the US promised to find allies who would be able to supply Somalia the military assistance that it would need to attack Ethiopia’s Ogaden region. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and Pakistan all rushed in with the required aid.

In 1980, the US signed an arms deal which allowed it access to Somali bases. Under Regan, the US supplied more than $680million to Said Barre, at least $195 million of which was intended for military use (the figure increases dramatically when related aid is counted), despite Congressional obstacles. Barre spent around 1/5 of his country’s income on arms, while he faced the lowest literacy rate in the world (12%).

Of course the US claimed its relationship had a moderating impact on Somalia. Human Rights Watch disagreed, claiming that 50,000 of Barre’s own civilians were killed and half a million displaced in the late 1980s. Other organisations detailed his carpet bombing of urban areas and the fact that in the month before he was ousted alone ­ January 1991 ­ 20,000 people were killed.
When asked to justify the continued supply of arms to Somalia during this period, one Defense Department official said “What is the sense of having this program if we’re not going to give them the military support when it counts most?”

For the US and the Soviet Union, local suffering counted for no more than did the proclaimed ideology of their proxy dictators. The important thing was the global edge that arming such countries could bring to their overall game.

Humanitarian Intervention?

While the Cold War wound down, and as Siad Barre was ousted from power, the US initiated a ‘humanitarian intervention’ to clean up the mess left in Somalia (with no mention of the role of US support in creating this situation), which included a raging famine and rampant warlordism. The result of the 1992/3 UN-backed ‘Operation Restore Hope’ was disastrous. It is estimated that between 6,000 and 10,000 Somalis died before President Clinton terminated the operation after 18 American soldiers were killed. But few questioned the pure movies of Bush Senior’s Administration.

One of those who did was Stephen Shalom. Writing in the early 1990s, he detailed how the US military establishment was desperately searching for a post-Cold War justification for its continued budget levels and the central position the military played in US policy-making. Military power was vital to the US’s continued pole position in the world, but how to justify it? The ‘war on drugs’ was tried in Latin America, ‘sovereignty and justice’ in Iraq/ Kuwait, and ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Somalia.

These justifications served for the down times, but ultimately the attack on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 solved the problem. The war on terror has begun.

The War on Terror

Like the Cold War, the war on terror is an all-encompassing analysis of world affairs ­ if a situation looks similar, incorporate it into the bigger game. That’s why the Ethiopian government has referred to the Somali Islamic Courts, the group which has until recently been de facto ruling Somalia, as a “terrorist group” ­ they want to be part of the game. In an interview with the Washington Post, Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister and former head of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front said on 14 December 2006:

“It does surprise me that intelligent people in the 21st century could claim that if you respond to the terrorists with force, you spawn terrorism, but if you appease them, you somehow tame them.”

Bush Junior himself couldn’t have put it better (no, really).

Meles puts up with no nonsense at home either. When opposition groups protested at his re-election in November 2005, government forces opened fire. 197 people, including 6 police officers, were killed, and thousands have been arrested, including 100 opposition leaders, journalists and relief workers. Impeccable credentials for a key player in the war on terror.

All of this plays extraordinarily well in Washington. The US Administration has stated that the Islamic Courts is “controlled by Al-Qaeda cell individuals”. To this end the US funded the very warlords that threw its troops out of Somalia a decade earlier in Operation Restore Hope. In January 2006, an International Crisis Group expert reported that between $100,000 and $150,000 was being funneled by the US to warlord proxies in Kenya every month, effectively breaching the UN embargo on arms to Somalia. The money was sent through a Pentagon force which has been based in Djibouti since shortly after September 11, 2001. In Somalia, this is accompanied by some familiar sights and sounds ­ unidentified surveillance flights and abductions of suspected terrorists.

The real tragedy is that the situation in Somalia, as in so many other places, is actually more complex than the US or its Ethiopian proxy would like to admit. Since 1991 there has been no stable government. In 2004 Kenya, worried by the impact that a politicised brand of Islam in Somalia would have on its own Muslim minority, helped get agreement from various warlords to establish a Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The TRG, itself made up of some very unsavory characters, initially pretended to ‘run’ Somalia from Kenya, and until very recently they actually controlled almost none of the country. Nonetheless it has received international backing, containing as it does so many of the warring factions and tribes.

The Islamic Courts does not have international recognition, but does have popular support and, until recently, controlled most of the country. Verdicts on the Islamic Courts differ markedly within Somalia ­ many praise the stability that it has brought after so many years of chaos and violence, but it also appears to be taking an increasingly hardline position in terms of internal law and order. However, the International Crisis Group wrote in 2005 that “Islamist extremism has failed to take a broader hold in Somalia because of Somali resistance ­ not foreign counter-terrorism efforts.” In fact, religious forms of justice are widely seen as the only way to rise above warlord violence.

It was in this context that Ethiopia had secretly stationed at least 8,000 troops in Somalia from the Transitional Federal Government capital in Baidoa. In October 2006, the Islamic Courts issued a threat to Ethiopia to leave Somalia, and Ethiopia, with backing from the US, decided it was time to invade properly, conducting air raids and most recently entering the capital Mogidishu, as the Islamic Courts withdrew. The Ethiopian government made its intentions clear “we are going to use any appropriate means to destabilise the anti-Ethiopian forces in Somalia”.

Ethiopia appears to have won, for now, with the warlords in the Transitional Federal Government installed as Somalia’s de facto, as well as de jure, government. Ethiopia claims 1-2,000 have been killed with 4-5,000 wounded ­ while tens of thousands risk being displaced. Martial law has been declared to attempt to rein in the chaos that has returned to the streets of Mogadishu. Even more worrying is what this means for the future of the region, where the war on terror is now firmly implanted, with all the international repercussions that entails.

Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government is highly unstable, unpopular and broke, while the Islamic Courts is likely to re-start an insurgency. Countries throughout the Horn of Africa are also effected. Eritrea supports the Islamic Courts while Kenya supports the Transitional Federal Government ­ both are religiously mixed countries. Religious and ethnic divisions in Sudan are well known. Both ‘sides’ have been radicalised and are calling on international support. The Guardian newspaper describes the dangerous situation aptly:

“Washington has viewed Somalia’s domestic complexities and their intertwined regional repercussions through the distorting prism of the “war on terror”. the stage is set for a wider, partly proxy conflict, in which a fully fledged Somali war joins the daily horrors from Iraq and Afghanistan.”

NICK DEARDEN is an independent activist based in London. He can be reached at:


Michela Wrong, ‘I Didn’t Do It for You’, Harper Perennial, 2005

The Guardian, ‘From Bad to Worse’, December 27, 2006

Stephen R Shalom, ‘Gravy Train: Feeding the Pentagon by Feeding Somalia’, November 1993

Washington Post, ‘Interview With Meles Zenawi’, December 14, 2006

Kramer & Hultman, ‘Somalia: Tangled Ties of the Past Shaped U.S.-Somali Relations’

Africa News Service, January 3, 1993

John Prendergast, ‘Our Failure in Somalia’, The Washington Post, June 7, 2006

International Crisis Group, ‘Somalia’s Islamists’, Africa Report N°100, December 12, 2005

Alec Russell & Mike Pflanz, ‘US in secret alliance with Somali war lords fighting Islamic militia’, the Daily Telegraph, May 18, 2005





Nick Dearden is director of the Global Justice Now and former director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign.