An outsider looks into the turmoil of the Horn of Africa


Editor’s note: The Horn African Americans for Peace conference, held April 13 at Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul, seemed like an event of interest to the community. We asked free-lance writers on our list who would like to cover it. Melissa Slachetka said she was interested. This is her report, along with additional information in sidebars.

Some sources of information about the Horn of Africa

Horn African Americans for Peace
Ogaden National Liberation Front
Oromo Community of Minnesota (OCM) at 612-876-9311
Oromo American Citizen Council (OACC) at 651-917-0430
Condoleezza Rice interview
Senator Russ Feingold’s statement

I’ve never been to Africa, and my impressions about the continent, coming mainly through news shows, National Geographic, and an occasional conversation, are that it’s a big continent with a lot of beauty and culture, but a history of war, starvation, and disease.

When I arrived at the HAAP human rights conference, I instantly was struck by colorful voices of all languages and bright flags I had never seen before. I was in awe.

The Horn of Africa is a peninsula of eastern Africa that juts out into the sea and looks like a rhinoceros horn. Whenever I have looked at a map of Africa, I have seen the Horn region made up of Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, and Eritrea.

Excerpt from Congressional Representative Betty McCollum’s remarks to HAAP conference
Right now in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and Kenya there is so much needless suffering. People willing to speak out for human rights, justice and freedom are beaten, imprisoned and killed.

In Ethiopia, we know that the Meles government uses starvation as a weapon in the Ogaden. We know that Oromo people are not allowed to exercise political freedom.

We know that in Gambela terrible human rights abuses have taken place. We know that the 2005 elections were an assault on democracy and a vicious display of human rights atrocities.

In my opinion, when a leader uses his armed forces and police to kill innocent democracy demonstrators – that government can be no friend of the United States.

The Bush Administration knows all these things about the regime in Addis Ababa, but chooses to embrace Prime Minister Meles anyway. Ethiopia invaded Somalia with the assistance of the Bush Administration. The global war on terrorism means that the Bush Administration first wants a partner fighting terrorists and all too often ignores the rest of the story.

We all know the situation in Sudan. We talk to a dictator in Khartoum about peacekeepers and ending the violence. We send diplomats to talk while people in Darfur are being murdered, women are being raped, children are being orphaned.

Millions of lives have been tragically harmed while genocide is being conducted by President Bashir’s forces and militias.

In Somalia, the entire world watches as one of the greatest humanitarian crises on the planet takes place. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Somalia is now the worst place in the world to be a child. Children are dying endlessly and needlessly from disease, hunger and violence.

Somalia is not an easy situation. It is a failed state. It is in chaos. But the solution to Somalia is not for the U.S. to support an Ethiopian military invasion. Bringing a political solution and peace to Somalia is not to send U.S. helicopter gun ships to fire on villages in the name of the war on terror.

The solution to Somalia is to focus the attention of the world on the problem and invest the necessary diplomatic, economic and peacekeeping resources to end the violence and the human suffering. The U.S. should be a leader to solve the problem, not part of the problem.

Another serious issue is the Ethiopia – Eritrea border dispute. The border dispute needs a diplomatic solution and the U.S. should be working with both governments.
Unfortunately, U.S. relations with Eritrea are at an all time low, in fact they barely exist.

Diplomacy is often about giving carrots and sticks – rewards and punishments. It is impossible to be a positive force to help solve the border dispute when the Meles government gets all the carrots and the Eritreans get all the sticks.

Looking forward, bringing peace, security, stability and opportunity to the Horn of Africa will require political leadership from the United States.

Excerpt from Senator Amy Klobuchar’s video remarks to HAAP conference
I am monitoring the events in East Africa to make sure that the United States is taking every possible step to bring peace and stability to the region.

As many of you know, I met recently with former Somali President Ali Mahdi Mohamed, along with leaders of Minnesota’s Somali community. We discussed the current situation in Somalia, and I reaffirmed my support for a reconciliation process that will bring peace and stability to the country.

In the Senate, I’ve sponsored a resolution calling for a comprehensive U.S. and international commitment to providing humanitarian, peacekeeping and development assistance to help stabilize Somalia, and I’ve worked closely with Senator Russ Feingold to increase American assistance to Somalia and push for an agreement that would result in political reconciliation.

Even more troubling is the horrific and ongoing violence in Darfur. This has gone on far too long, and we cannot stand idly by. In the Senate, I’ve worked on a resolution calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities, comprehensive humanitarian assistance and support for the UN-African Union peacekeeping force, and for all parties to honor the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement – and just last month we passed that resolution.

Finally, because Kenya has been a key player in the region, I have also sponsored a resolution calling for a peaceful resolution to the current electoral crisis in Kenya – and we passed that resolution just a few weeks ago.

But this will not – and cannot – be the end of our work.

A great clergyman once cited a passage in the Bible which says “Do not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.’’

The people of East Africa are our neighbors – we owe them our resolve and our support and our commitment to a stable and just settlement of their hostilities.

This is the CIA World Factbook map of the Horn of Africa.

I learned from the conference that when some people from the area look at the Horn of Africa, they see Djibouti, Somalia, Somaliland, Eritrea, Ogadenia, Oromia, and much more.

This is the map of the Horn of Africa from a brochure distributed at the conference.

About 300 people made up the early afternoon crowd at the conference, almost every single one from Africa.

Some women stood up and started dancing and waving a flag; they wore it on their heads like scarves. This flag wasn’t from a country, but instead was a flag of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). The ONLF is fighting to separate Ogadenia from Ethiopia, making it an independent country. This flag, with bold stripes of red, blue, and green: in the center a large silvery gray star, was worn proudly on buttons, waved on sticks, handed out on bold fliers at the conference.

I looked around and saw a few families dressed in white with colorful beads woven and draped in the hair. These were traditional clothes and beads of Oromia, a similarly unstable region of Ethiopia.

Articles on Horn of Africa from our community media partners
Congressmen Payne and Ellison paid tribute to myriads of political chaos and calm in the Horn of Africa
by Abdulahi Sheekh, African News Journal

Oromia Chief Administrator Forges New Ties with U.S.
by Julia N. Opoti, Mshale

People at the conference said Ogadenia and Oromia have been invaded. If this seems abstract, think of the Civil War in the United States and the fighting that took place.

“The Ethiopian Government has invaded Somalia, Eritrea, Ogadenia, Oromia…” Wolday Gebremichael, Community Outreach Coordinator and a founder of this conference said. Gebremichael seems to be in support of Oromia and Ogadenia gaining freedom. When asked about the importance of the conference to the community, Gebremichael responded, “It is extremely important, because the issue at stake is human lives.”

The ONLF is seen as a liberating force by some and a rebel army by others. ONLF describes itself on its website as “a grassroots social and political movement founded in 1984 by the Somali people of Ogaden who could no longer bear the atrocities committed against them by successive Ethiopian regimes.” On the other hand, when asked if ONLF is a terrorist group during an interview with Ethiopian TV, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice replied, “Well, certainly a — what we’d call a negative force and these organizations need to be dealt with.”

Imagine my confusion when I realized that these dancing women were supporting an alleged terrorist group, and that to them this is a freedom army.

The U.S. government supports the Ethiopian government, but some U.S. political leaders seem more critical. In March, Senator Russ Feingold said in a speech on the Senate floor that he was “seriously concerned about the direction Ethiopia is headed.” He added that, “according to many credible accounts, the political crisis that has been quietly growing and deepening over the past few years may be coming to a head. For years, faced with calls for political or economic reforms, the Ethiopian government has displayed a troubling tendency to react with alarmingly oppressive and disproportionate tactics.”

In spite of the controversy and political elements, the African Americans gathering at the HAAP conference took time to celebrate the place they came from. Between speakers, poetry, song, dance, and celebrations from the Horn were shown on two huge screens flanking the podium. Groups in the audience excitedly watched, applauded and danced to these images. In that short period of time, the the audience of many celebrated peacefully as one. As I walked out into the warm sunshine of a Minnesota spring , I understood my freedom a little better, even if I didn’t understand what vision of the Horn of Africa I should be supporting.

Melissa Slachetka contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.