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A New Regional Conflict Brews In The Horn Of Africa
AS THE crisis in the Middle East dominates the headlines it is easy to forget there are other regions in the world where tensions are close to boiling point that could easily escalate into full-blown war.
With daily updates on the conflict between Israel and Lebanon on our TV screens, you could be forgiven for not knowing that Somalia, a country situated in the Horn of Africa with a long history of internal strife and instability, is on the brink of war with its neighbor Ethiopia.
The route from independence
Somalia , which borders Ethiopia and Kenya , has a population of around 10 million people and has been blighted by years of civil war, famine and drought leading to the death of a million of its inhabitants.
Somalia became independent from British rule in 1960, but has been without an effective government for almost 15 years after the overthrow of President Siyad Barre in 1991. Lawlessness has been rife during that period with rival clans waging war against one another, while in the early 1990s the north-west of the country declared itself the self-proclaimed the state of Somaliland, and has since enjoyed a period of relative stability.
Why could war break out?
The current crisis in the country has been sparked by escalating tensions between Ethiopia and the Union of the Islamic Courts (UIC), the Islamic militants who control the Somali capital Mogadishu.
Ethiopian troops have moved into two towns in south-western Somalia after their government backed Somalia’s interim government, headed by President Abdillahi Yusuf Ahmed. The UIC, which has spread its control to much of the southern part of Somalia, has vowed to wage a ‘Holy War’ and drive out the Ethiopian troops.
Many Western commentators fear the UIC could be offering safe havens for Islamic radicals and allowing al-Qaeda to run training camps in Somalia, although the militia denies it has links with the terrorist group. The UIC say their aim is to restore a system of Sharia law in the city and put an end to brutality and fighting on the streets. To further complicate the situation, a UN report earlier in the year linked the UIC with Ethiopia’s rival and neighbor Eritrea.
The views of British Christian groups
Several British Christian organizations have links with Somalia.
Aid agency Tearfund has partners in Somalia running a major programme in the south of the country helping victims of the tsunami. Keith Etherington, desk officer for Somalia, explained the volatile nature of the country makes it impossible to say what will happen.
He said: “It’s too early to be able to predict what’s going to happen. “The Islamic Courts have created a certain amount of stability and their influence is spreading from Mogadishu. “But they’ve had no dialogue with the transitional government and the outcome of any talks will be critical in what happens. “Somalia is an unpredictable place, but I live in hope. It’s a very complex situation due to the clan system there, and it is by default overshadowed by other conflicts because it’s such an unsafe place and the amount of news coming out of there is limited. “Tearfund will continue to do as much as we can to help those people who need aid in Somalia, and we hope the current process does result in more stability.”
Dr Khataza Gondwe, Advocacy Officer for Sub-Saharan Africa for the Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) Group, is keeping a close eye on the situation in Somalia, and said: “I don’t think Somalia has been forgotten about as there is still the al-Qaeda angle which means it is always on the agenda, but it’s a place people don’t want to get involved in because there is so much lawlessness, and after the failure of the previous American intervention.
“At the moment is it extremely worrying, things are bubbling up and it’s hard to see a solution, as the Islamic Courts have such momentum and object to an EU or UN peace force, while the transitional government is so weak.”
Dr Gondwe also explained the horrific situation for Somalian Christians, many of whom have fled to Kenya because of the high levels of persecution. She said: “The situation for Christians is awful, the one thing Somalians agree on is ‘let’s kill Christians’.
“Any Somalian who claims to be a Christian is an apostate, and Christians face serious persecution or death. “Only recently we heard about three Christians who were shot dead as they came back from an international prayer meeting in Mogadishu. “Meanwhile a Christian family had their house set on fire, with the mother and daughter who survived suffering serious burns.
“Even Somalian Christians who manage to escape to Kenya still suffer persecution from Somali Muslims who have also fled across the border.” CSW is currently lobbying the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to recognize the plight of Somali Christian refugees and their need for special consideration. Open Doors UK, an organization which highlights the plight of persecuted Christians around the world, places Somalia as the fourth worst place for Christians to live on their World Watch List, after North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In their synopsis of the situation, they write: “In Somalia, there is no constitution or any legal provision for the protection of religious freedom. The federal government is very weak as the warlords still have some control in different parts of Somalia. Islam is the official religion and social pressure is strong to respect Islamic tradition, especially in certain rural parts of the country.
“Most regions make use of local forms of conflict resolution, either secular, traditional clan-based arbitration, or Islamic (sharia) law. “Less than one per cent of ethnic Somalis are Christian, practicing their faith in secret. In some parts of Somalia, underground believers from a Muslim background find themselves in a worse situation than in 2005. Five of these believers were killed by fundamentalist Muslims. As a result, many others became afraid and fled to Kenya and other parts of the world.”
What does the future hold?
The interim government is due to hold talks with the Islamic Courts in early August in Khartoum, after previous talks broke down. But given the lack of success in previous attempts to broker peace between the two sides it is hard to be too optimistic about the situation. Last week many Somalis lined the streets demonstrating their antipathy to the Ethiopian troops occupying the two towns in the south.
It’s hard to believe things will improve unless the UN and western superpowers get behind peace talks for the region.
But despite the lack of news on our TV screens and in our papers on Somalia, British Christians need to continue to pray for peace for this beleaguered region.
Source: The Church of England Newspaper