Dec. 11, 2009

The Horn of Africa is Dying. Who Cares?

By Douglas McGill
The McGill Report

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – For all its vivid detail, the picture painted by one after another speaker was almost too abstract and too distant – not to mention too evil -- to fully take in.

Anyway, could such an extreme scenario, of serial societal extinction no less, really be happening in the world today? An apocalypse of nations falling one by one?

If it is, surely it would be news of the highest urgency, worthy of shouting from the streets and rooftops, Paul Revere-style.

Because if it were true, it would warn the world of yet another mode of societal collapse -- distinct yet closely interlinked with the more familiar human health, environmental, and economic modes -- that is stalking the globe today.

It's already happening in the Horn of Africa, was the message persuasively argued last Friday by four experts on the region at the Africa Peace Forum at the Hubert Humphrey Institute in Minneapolis.

Urgent Assistance

The seven countries of the Horn – Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Uganda and Kenya -- are dying from a lethal combination of government corruption, climate change and global inaction, the speakers said

The presentations began with an overview from the American Relief Association of the Horn of Africa (ARAHA). The group showed a documentary film citing a recent United Nations report that about 20 million souls – fully 10 percent of the Horn of Africa’s total population -- need immediate urgent assistance simply to stay alive.

The same UN report describes the Horn of Africa as suffering from interlocking “complex emergencies” originally triggered by government corruption, but which have now been massively accelerated by drought, disease, religious war, and the global financial crisis that has driven food prices to the heavens and humanitarian aid funding into the ground.

Each speaker described the apocalypse from a different nation’s perspective.

“Can Somalis survive their own political death?” asked Ahmed Samatar, a professor of international studies at Macalester College. “I’m not so sure. One never gives up on others who are still alive, but I’m not sure.” Nearly half of Somalis living today in the Horn of Africa are malnourished, Samatar said, adding that Somalia today “is now objectively speaking the worst country in the world.”

Ogaden Crisis

For Obang Metho, another conference speaker and a member of the Anuak tribe of western Ethiopia, the apocalypse of the Horn began on December 13, 2003.

On that one day, uniformed Ethiopian troops massacred 426 Anuak men and boys, dragging them from their homes and shooting them in the streets. That single day set in motion the likely eventual death of his tribe, Metho said, because the Ethiopian soldiers on that day targeted only the educated men to kill in a tribe of only 100,000 or so – decapitating the tribe by killing its educated male leadership.

An audience member from eastern Ethiopia stood up to urgently inform the conference of staggering crimes against humanity being carried out against the country’s five million Somali-speaking Ethiopians.

In the country's eastern Ogaden region, the Ethiopian government is carrying out a “war on terror,” sometimes by wiping out entire villages in mass killings reminiscent of Rwanda and Darfur.

Canceled Elections

In eastern Sudan, a long-running refugee crisis virtually hidden from the world’s view is worsening daily with thousands of refugees fleeing from Eritrea into 35 camps in Sudan, according to Mohamed Idris, executive director of ARAHA.

“It makes you wonder whether life is worth living” to fully absorb all these crises, said Bereket Habte Selassie, the key speaker at the forum and the chief architect of the Eritrean Constitution. Selassie fled Eritrea and the constitution was never ratified after the country’s President, Isaias Afwerki, canceled national elections, shut down the press and jailed his opponents.

Here in the U.S. we are quick to panic, but then are quick to mobilize, upon learning that even a single man or woman in China has contracted a new form of the flu.

Why don’t we respond then with equal alarm – and likewise mobilize to address to the obvious threat -- at the news that entire nations are dying one after another?

Lesson of the Horn

Throughout history, the fall of nations in sequence was usually due to conquests that swept across continents, often as new borders and empires were created.

The lesson of the Horn of Africa today is that a new mass death of nations is possible. But this time it spreads not by imperial conquest but instead more like an epidemic or a plague, as one nation after another succumbs to the "complex emergency."

What will be left behind is not a new empire but a charnel ground.

How long will it take for this virus to reach the United States? Or has it already reached us in the form of a low-grade fever that might one day fatally explode?

The lesson of the forum was simple.

We should care about the Horn of Africa, not just on behalf of those who are already suffering terribly there – but also for ourselves.

Copyright @ 2009 The McGill Report