For the Somalian disaster, plenty of blame to spread

Felix A. Igwemadu

March 22, 1993|By Felix A. Igwemadu

THE images haunt us. Dull and ghostly eyes, sunk into the skull by hunger, stare at us hopelessly, accusing the world of indifference to a vanishing generation. Ballooned stomachs hang on skeletons that can barely carry them. The children are the most piteous; they tug at our hearts.

Welcome to Somalia. Welcome to Ethiopia and Biafra revisited!

And it is not all drought-related. To Africans, the Somalian crisis and those that preceded it in other nations have their roots in European colonialism and in the arms race between the superpowers.

The whole of Africa was divided among the European nations at the Berlin Conference of 1884 and 1885. From this partition came French Somaliland, British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland. In July 1960, Somalia, made up of British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland, became the Somalia Democratic Republic.

The post-colonial era should have ushered in real independence. But instead, Africa found itself beset by myriad problems, not the least a crisis of identity. Seventy-five years of colonization was not enough to assimilate properly the cultures of the colonizers. But it was sufficient to alienate from their authentic culture those Africans born into colonization. One regrettable consequence is that the formerly colonized Africans are neither Europeans nor real Africans.

Somalia is a textbook case.

Its strategic position in the Horn of Africa, like Africa's natural resources, is both a bane and a blessing. Occupying 246,200 square miles, Somalia is about 20 times the size of Maryland and Delaware put together. Its position was of strategic significance to both the former Soviet Union and the U.S. And this is at the very core of the current crisis.

The carving up of the African continent by colonial masters and lumping together people of different cultures laid the foundations of the future internecine and interstate wars -- the Nigerian civil war, for example, and the civil war in Sudan. In Angola, the Jonas Savimbi-led American-backed army fought unsuccessfully to topple the Russian-backed central government. The list goes on.

In Somalia's case, the genesis of the crisis is buried in the dispute between Ethiopia and Somalia over territorial boundaries

Britain, after World War II, had ceded Somalia's western territory to Ethiopia. This dispute was the pretext for the Soviet Union to intervene and establish a foothold on the eastern soil of Africa. In exchange, the Soviet Union built in Somalia Africa's most modern naval base and the continent's largest military airport.

The goal was to spread communism in the Middle East, Indian Ocean countries and East Africa, using Somalia as a launching pad.

But the changing of the guard in Ethiopia in 1974 changed Russia's policy toward Somalia. Emperor Haile Selassie was dethroned in 1974, and Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam took the reins of government in March of that year, embraced socialism and kicked out the United States. Russia abandoned Somalia for a bigger stake in Ethiopia, and the United States moved over to Somalia.

For the next decade, the American government poured hundreds of millions of dollars worth of arms into Somalia under dictator Siad Barre. The purpose was to irritate the Soviet Union and check its influence in the Horn of Africa.

The two superpowers waged wars by proxy, using Africa both as battlefield and armament laboratory. (Somalia has more than 300 tanks, more than the apartheid government in South Africa, as many as all the West African countries combined.)

While American administrations, from Jimmy Carter's to George Bush's, were busy consolidating the U.S. position in Somalia, General Barre's excesses were benignly overlooked. Those excesses led to civil war. When the general could no longer stem the mounting tide of opposition, he fled the country. The government collapsed, and Mother Nature contributed a six-year drought.

The nightmare in Somalia is the result.

Who is to blame?

Should we blame the Somalians, for living in the most coveted position in the Horn of Africa? The vainglorious British, who created the conditions that led to the Ethiopian-Somalian war? The former Soviet Union, so obsessed with spreading communism at any cost? The capitalist countries of the West, especially the United States, so determined to check the spread of communism?

In the midst of all this, it is the innocent, the weak, the meek, who suffer. When two elephants fight, an African saying goes, it is the grass that pays the price. The grass here is the starving children and their heartbroken mothers.

As for Africans, when will they muster the strength to stand up and tell the rest of the world, "Enough is enough! The rape is enough! Leave us alone!"? Until then, there will be more Somalias, more Ethiopias, more Sudans, more Mozambiques and more Biafras.

Felix A. Igwemadu, a historian, is president of the African Heritage Education & Research Institute in Baltimore.

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