It was a peaceful peace conference, which in itself was a kind of miracle.
It was a miracle because the countries represented at the conference – the “Africa Peace Forum” held last Friday at the Hubert Humphrey Institute in Minneapolis – are all in one way or another at war today, either with each other or in a state of civil war.
Filling the auditorium were immigrants from the Horn of Africa including Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti. On the podium, the four main conference speakers – academic experts and human rights activists – painted a picture of crisis that was not only tragic, but practically apocalyptic.
“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.”
In Ethiopia, the government uses genocide and ethnic cleansing to stay in power, according to Obang Metho, the executive director of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia. His own tribe, the Anuak of western Ethiopia, have been targeted for elimination by the Ethiopian government, Metho said, and an even larger-scale massacre, of Somali-speaking Ethiopians in the eastern Ogaden region, is also underway.
In eastern Sudan, a refugee crisis virtually hidden from the world’s view is worsening by the day where thousands of refugees are fleeing from Eritrea into 35 camps in Sudan, according to a documentary film shown at the conference and prepared by the American Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa (ARAHA).
A drought and famine of several years in the making is also now sweeping across the Horn of Africa, massively intensifying the ravages of war and repression.
“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. The constitution was presented in 1997 but was never ratified because the country’s President, Isaias Afwerki, assumed dictatorial power by cancelling national elections, shutting down the national press and jailing his opponents.
The four speakers each offered a different angle on the unfolding holocaust.
Bereket’s key question was “In the Horn of Africa, what is ailing us? How has our region become a kind of metaphor for disaster?” His answer was a lack of democracy. “Our governments have failed us,” he said. “What is democracy if not accountability? We have to have governments that are accountable to the people.”
In Somalia, Samatar suggested, the key problem is not so much an unaccountable or even a corrupt government as the complete lack of a functioning government.
“As we speak there is a vicious war going on between an incompetent and legless transitional federal government, with no capacity and no competence, against a very vicious Islamist project, who social purpose is to force the Somali people to surrender. This is the drama that’s unfolding on the streets of Mogadishu.”
Seyoum Tesfaye, an Atlanta-based journalist and human rights activist from Eritrea, struck a resonant theme for Horn of Africa immigrants now living in the U.S.
What role should the African diaspora play in trying to bring peace to the countries in the Horn?
“Should the diaspora focus on finding ways of becoming part of the grand American experiment?” Tesfaye asked. “Or, should people stay consumed by cascading events from their countries of origin?”
Pouring oneself into helping one’s homeland before assimilating to America, Tesfaye warned, came with a cost, since it would take longer to reach high positions in society, such as elected public office, where immigrants could make a real difference.
“When we choose to engage in noble efforts to bring peace in the Horn of Africa, we do so as American citizens,” Tesfaye said. “In this sense we help America in a profound way. We become immigrants turned into grassroots ambassadors for our nation, which has overriding strategic interests in the region moving forward from 9/11.”
Obang Metho, whose coalition represents the many ethnic groups in Ethiopia, was the Martin Luther King of the conference, speaking to the need for spiritual self-renewal among all the people of the Horn, people on whom “the world has lost all hope.”
The endless intramural wars in the Horn of Africa must be put aside, Metho said, in recognition that the crisis has reached a point that unless they are, only death will rule.
“We need to put our humanity above our ethnicity,” Metho said. “Today in Africa we seem to value our ethnicity above our humanity, our language above our humanity, our religion above humanity. But hatreds will get us nowhere. Something we all have in common is our humanity. We have lost that today in the Horn of Africa.”
Metho swept his arm across the audience of immigrants in the audience from the Horn of Africa – men and women who might be fighting each other if they still lived there.
“It can be done in Minnesota,” Metho said. “Why can’t it be done in Africa?”