April 10, 2007
By Charles Onyango-Obbo
Given the iron fist with which the Ethiopian army put down the protests in Addis Ababa two years ago following disputed elections, it was perhaps only to be expected that it would be only more vicious in its latest campaign against alleged Islamist extremist strongholds in Mogadishu.
Up to 400 people have died, and over 100,000 have fled Mogadishu in what the International Committee of the Red Cross has described as the worst fighting for 15 years in the Somali capital. . . .
The Ethiopian invasion was justified by both Addis Ababa and the US on the grounds that the Islamic Courts government in Somalia had given sanctuary to Al Qaeda elements and was harbouring terrorists who were behind the terrorist attacks on the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in 1998. That if the Courts hadn't been kicked out of power, the terrorist network would have blossomed and consumed East Africa and the Horn.
IT IS indeed possible that some terrorist found safe haven in Somalia. Lately, though, I have become sceptical about the ability of events in one African country to seriously destabilise an organised neighbour.One suspects that with just an ordinary level of vigilance by the security forces, the threat that a Somalia ruled by Islamic Courts posed, could have been eliminated. Therefore, the need for Ethiopia to invade the country should not have arisen.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is a good example. For many years, there was a terrible war in the DRC, which resulted directly and indirectly in the deaths of four million people. The media were full of stories about the likelihood that the conflict, which had drawn in Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Angola, would result in a "third world war" (this writer too penned a few such worried articles).
In the end, the conflict ended without any extraordinary effect on any country in the Great Lakes region. Most of the damage was confined to the DRC. There were very few, if any, Rwandans or Ugandans who didn't eat dinner or couldn't buy a new shirt or dress because of the DRC war.
ONE REASON for this is that life is still largely primitive in those parts of neighbouring African countries that refugees flee to.
The most damage refugees do is that they hasten the destruction of local environments as they demolish trees for fuel wood, and harvest all the grass for their huts. Otherwise the communities where they seek shelter live much the same way as before.
It isn't as if thousands of Congolese refugees are going to arrive in western Uganda and put new pressure on sewerage systems because they are using flush toilets. They will dig pit latrines and use the bush just like the local folks. Indeed, conflicts between refugees and their host communities have mostly arisen because, after the aid agencies set up water points, clinics and schools for the former, they immediately have a far higher standard of life than the local folks, who have nothing.
ALSO, FEARS of the conflict "spilling over" into neighbouring countries are often overstated. As President Yoweri Museveni observed some years ago, war in tropical Africa is still largely a rudimentary affair with barefoot soldiers in tattered uniforms fighting their way around trees in dense forests or banana plantations.
When they cross the border, they might steal a few chicken and goats, and kill some hapless peasants in their farms. But certainly, they are not going to be wiping out whole towns or trashing international airports with weapons of mass destruction. Besides, a determined militia can always disperse them.
Accepting these facts would help to reduce the hysteria that attended the capture of power by the Courts in Somalia, and encourage more intelligent interventions to solve such crises.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group's managing editor for convergence and new products.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007