Heady melodrama damped by doubt in the Horn of Africa freaks out foreigners who dare meddle in the domestic affairs of pirates and Islamist politicos, contends Gamal Nkrumah
A poor hand misplayed? Or is it an anatomy of a diplomatic failure? Ethiopia is the undisputed regional power. Somalia is a pariah nation, struggling for an identity all of its own. Kenya is labouring under controlled chaos. And, tiny Djibouti has metamorphosed into a catalyst for the entire Horn of Africa.
The Americans, in much the same fashion as the French before them, have familiarised with the region. United States Secretary of State for African Affairs John Carson hailed the region as one of vital strategic interest to Washington and its Western allies.
It is a familiar sounding tale. "The kind of action we must take against spoilers ranges from visa sanctions to travel sanctions to asset freezes," Carson explained to reporters in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
Far from being at the heart of a happening continent, for much of contemporary times the Horn of Africa stagnated on the periphery trailing behind in development statistics, child mortality rates, low life expectancy and civil wars galore. The wars that have ravaged the region are redrawing the Horn of Africa, though. North-south links are reshaping the region which may someday knit the African continent together -- reaching out to the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula and South Asia. It is an attractive prospect, but not at present, a realistic one.
The Horn of Africa meets the Arab awakening. Hesitancy and incoherence have combined with inexhaustible endeavours to mitigate the Islamist threat and assuage the fears of secularists in the countries of the Horn of Africa. The war-torn region has not covered itself in glory since the Arab Spring.
A greater danger still lies in the Horn of Africa's domestic politics, especially in Somalia where recent bloodshed hardly inspires confidence. The secular strongmen of the region are apprehensive about the social instability that the spread of militant Islamist movements might incur.
Bloodstained Somalia, for one, has become a bastion of militant political Islam. Religious conflict stifles economic growth and prosperity. The recent mass demonstrations of the Muslims of Ethiopia who comprise more than half of the 85 million-strong population of the country are determined to have a bigger say in the decision-making process in Addis Ababa. Some of the more militant Muslims of Ethiopia are on the warpath.
Somalia's gloom is not universally shared, it should be conceded. The sophisticated view around Addis Ababa is that the Somali crisis must be resolved. Politicians in neighbouring Kenya concur. This reasoning is buttressed by clever arguments. Somalia, it is said, may have looked isolated as a failed state, but the country's semi-detached state is deceptive.
Ethiopia, thus, is not as stable as it purports to be. Regional, ethnic and religious rivalries threaten to tear the country apart. Ethiopia has always been keen on regulating political matters in the Horn of Africa. Successive Ethiopian governments have treated Somali warlords' politicking as flawed.
Whatever Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zennawi and his advisors and policymakers murmur, the politics of the Somali crisis are moving into new territory inching closer into Ethiopian domains. The sophisticates of the Addis Ababa political establishment are exceedingly concerned not least because they would have to run the gauntlet of militant Islamists whose blood is up.
But Ethiopia ought to put its own house in order as well. Far from reaping its demographic dividend, Ethiopia is now obliged to cater for an ever-growing population. Indeed, Africa as a whole is the only continent in the world where the population is predicted to double in the next 20 years, and the Horn of Africa has one of the highest population growth rates on the continent.
Everyone in the Horn of Africa needs to start thinking differently. Economic planners and policymakers are arguing feverishly over the real significance of the demographic explosion, and the attendant tribal, religious and political implications. Huge swathes of Ethiopia continue to be as inhospitable places as Somalia.
The abject poverty of the people, the unpaved roads, and the lack of infrastructure inhibit economic development. At this point, a problem familiar to many impoverished peoples living is rural backwaters and urban shantytowns reared its ugly head. The militant Islamists are fast gaining ground in Ethiopia. However, it is crucial to keep in mind that the life of a miserably poor Christian peasant in Ethiopia's remote highlands is no less grim than his or her Muslim compatriot in the scorched plains of the eastern reaches of the country called Ogaden. It is a land inhabited predominantly by ethnic Somalis.
The West's traditional approach was to pioritise the policy of containing militant Islamists. The Portuguese, the first modern Europeans to set foot in Ethiopia pursued a policy of championing the fictitious Christian potentate Prester John, presumably one of the Coptic Orthodox Christian emperors of mediaeval Ethiopia. Other Western powers followed suit until the Italians were booted out of the country after World War II.
The turbulence in the deserts of the Horn of Africa alerted the European colonists to the pivotal importance of manning the strategic sea routes.
"Better by the sea" became a motto of Western powers. If there are grounds for scepticism, the French in particular had no qualms. The French territory of Afars and Issas was created, later to become the modern tiny nation-state of Djibouti. From the outset, the French like other colonists in Africa adopted a divide-and-rule policy.
When the time came for Djibouti to declare independence, the French deliberately expelled thousands of ethnic Somalis so as to give the impression that the ethnic Afar are the dominant group as they tended to sympathise with the French coloniser in fear of being overwhelmed by the ethnic Somalis. After the departure of the French from Djibouti, they constructed one of their largest naval bases in the Indian Ocean Rim and Africa.
French military presence in the area promptly spurred American interest. Today, Camp Lemonnier is a US Naval Expeditionary Base incorporating the Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport and plays host to the Combined Joint Task Force of the Horn of Africa headquarters.
In numerous respects, Camp Lemonnier presents an obvious target for militant Islamists of the Al-Qaeda variety. US Africa Command (USAFRICOM) uses Djibouti as a staging post for policing the Horn of Africa and the vital shipping routes that transport oil from the Gulf Arab states. In short, Djibouti's Camp Lemonnier is a test of America's strength in the region.
This is where Ethiopia's political and economic predicament comes into play. Economic injustices, income inequalities and underdevelopment inevitably lead to social unrest and political upheavals and cannot be sidelined or discounted indefinitely.
Thousands of Muslims took to the streets sporadically during the past month both inside Ethiopia and overseas to demand social justice and a more equitable redistribution of income in their favour. Even though a considerable number of Ethiopia's wealthiest businessmen are Muslim, the vast majority of Ethiopian Muslims regard themselves as the disfranchised underdog.
If Paris and Washington want to make headway on the fight against terrorism, their allies in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and the transitional government of Somalia must act as trusted allies and in turn targets of militant Islamist groups such as the notorious Al-Shabab (Youth in Arabic). In January earlier this year, the elite US Navy Seals rescued two foreign hostages in Somalia. The American Marines have become the new French Foreign Legions.
France, seldom the speediest of international actors these days and most reluctant to meddle in the domestic affairs of its former colonies -- especially those that are far from being resource-rich, least of all Ethiopia -- is losing ground to America.
This policy proved to be a failure. Six Somali suspected pirates are currently on trial in Paris. It is against this dramatic backdrop that M│ędecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) has recently declared that it is in urgent need of medical staff in its head office in the Kenyan capital Nairobi that caters for Somalia as well as the rest of the Horn of Africa countries.
The Ethiopians can only sigh when Somali is spoken, or rather when the Somali political impasse is spoken of as a project.
African Union Forces (AMISOM) are seen as American lackeys by Al-Shabab and other disgruntled Somali groups. Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is in cahoots with the Western powers, Al-Shabab claims. If the Americans feel safe in Djibouti, they fear a backlash in Somalia itself. "When we believe it is both appropriate and safe, we will consider stationing officials in Somalia," Carson added.
Famine eased and violence ebbed in Somalia, but Al-Shabab remains a power to be reckoned with. AMISOM Force Commander Lieutenant General Andrew Gutti is collaborating closely with the European Anti-Piracy Operation, but the focus of AMISOM is on land rather than the high seas.
The six Somali pirates are currently on trial in Paris over the capture in the Gulf of Aden in 2008 of a luxury sailing cruise ship, Le Ponant. The six Somalis aged between 25 and 50 years old face life imprisonment if found guilty. A French airborne operation saved the hostages and a hefty ransom was paid in order to secure their release.
The French forces crossed over the border into Somalia and the rest as they say is history. The suspected pirates were armed with assault rifles intercepting sports utility vehicle and found and confiscated $200,000 and an unspecified quantity of weapons.
Michel Quimbert, lawyer representing the civil plaintiff in the case such as the crew, is in something of a tizzy. France is holding some 22 Somali suspects in connection with hostage-taking incidents and piracy.
Nonetheless the unprecedented French intervention in Somalia is a start.