East Africa: Terror And Conflict

The conflicts in East Africa are a serious concern to the world. Possessing a strategic location and an abundance of natural resources the world can no longer afford to ignore this part of the world. This paper will look at some of the issues that effect this region.

Sadly, East Africa is plagued by chaos and trouble . From the collapse of Somalia, the insurgency in Uganda, refugee camps in Tanzania, simmering relations in Burundi and Rwanda, the entire region is beset with deep problems. How do you demarcate a border and avoid war between Ethiopia and Eritrea? How do you provide a safe environment for refugees who are now in Tanzania to return to their native county of Burundi? How do you stop the violent insurgency of the 'Lord's Resistance Army' in Uganda? Is there anything that can be done to stop the rapid environmental degradation taking place? Sadly the answer to these questions seems to be either 'no' or 'you can't'. This is as long as the international community refuses to tackle some of the problems with the same urgency that it creates tax shelters for the rich and spend billions on new weapons systems.

The crisis in East Africa can be categorized as

Each of these categories often interlock with others. Ethnic and religious differences can often be the cause of intrastate conflict. Environmental problems can exacerbate regional problems and can help fuel insurgencies. The need for resources being driven by globalization can cause outside players to arm groups that may be seen as sympathetic to their aims. There are many dynamics, identifiable and others not so readily identifiable that are working together to wreck havoc in East Africa. This paper will look at a few of these conflicts and problems and deal with what I call the 'twin invasions' of Africa.

Ethiopia Eritrea

After a 30 year armed struggle the EPLF (Eritrean People's Liberation Front) in 1991 established a provisional government in Asmara. The two nations were joined back in 1952 by the UN in order to 'reconcile' both Ethiopia's claim of sovereignty and Eritrea's desire for Independence. Eritrea finally gained its independence in 1991 after a thirty year war. The two nations today are still uneasy neighbors and border clashes are common. Tensions continue despite a peace agreement that was signed in 2000 by both parties.

Ethiopia not long ago had one of the longest running dynasty's on the planet. As described above this is clearly an interstate conflict driven by historical tensions. There are some religious undertones that are at work as well. The two nations are ethnically homogeneous and many familial relatives have fought on opposing sides of the recent war between the two (fought between 1998 and 2000). After the war, the two nations then set up a commission to issue a final and binding decision on exactly where the border lies. Unfortunately when the final report was issued Ethiopia refused to honor its end of the binding arbitration and is doing what it can to abrogate the hard work done to settle the dispute.

"It is no longer about accepting this decision because they have agreed that it will be binding and final" - UN envoy Legwaila Joseph Legwaila

Image Source: Wikipedia/Skilla1st

There has been much talk of war recently, especially from the Ethiopian side. But how much of this is real and how much is simply being used to distract from other domestic concerns is unclear. Tanks and troops have been moved to the border region by both sides.

"We have noticed actions on both sides. It is no longer a secret," said the U.N. source in Eritrea, adding that these actions had involved both troops and tanks. Troops, but apparently not tanks, had also entered the 25-kilometer (16 mile)-wide Temporary Security Zone that acts as a buffer between the two countries and is patrolled by UNMEE, he said.

Each side has criticized the UN and its presence, Ethiopia, by claiming the UN makes 'irresponsible statements' and Eritrea by banning helicopter flights. On December 7th Eritrea expelled US, EU and Canadian staff from the peacekeeping mission there as war concerns continue.

The roots of the conflict can at least to a small degree be found in US foreign policy. When Hailee Selassie was running Ethiopia, the US was given use of a military base which was used against Eritrean 'secessionists 'and Ethiopians alike. US meddling in the region from Sudan to Somalia has not helped matters, though they were ostensibly designed to do so. Western powers are often viewed with suspicion throughout Africa. It was the Western powers that drew many of the artificial borders in Africa that are the cause of wars today. Lines were often drawn in such a way as to keep the nation-states weak and divided (often by deliberately ignoring more natural borders in favor of keeping potentially hostile ethnic groups in one nation to 'divide and conquer' the region later. The dispute between these two cousins is a tragic fallout of the unwillingness of the two nations to respect each other and build a relationship based on more positive foundations such as trade and culture. A petty dispute over the border is probably indicative of other more deeper problems of recognition that lies between the two. Once western nations begin to take sides in this dispute the other knows that it will be demonized and attacked before the world. Fortunately, there are no large deposits of oil in either nation and western nations will probably move at a lethargic pace. Sadly meddling will probably only exacerbate the problems.

"We paid so much sacrifice to chase the Eritreans from these places, how can anyone hand them over to Eritrea?"

Ethiopia has been noted in the past for false press statements about the border and the results of the committee to resolve the border between the two which as at times added to confusion as who who actually said what when. The wars and sacrifices made by many are an impediment to peaceful resolution to the problem. This serious diplomatic row's root cause, in this authors opinion, is that the real issue appears to be the Ethiopian unwillingness to view Eritrea as an equal partner but rather as a unrepentant break-away region. It must also be kept firmly in ones mind that Eritrea's independence makes Ethiopia a land locked country now dependent on war torn Sudan or Eritrea for access to sea trade.

While Ethiopia's behavior has been irresponsible and dishonorable, the Eritreans have not been any better. Each side has allowed serious religious persecution to exist within their borders. In Eritrea, according to a report by Amnesty International,

At least 26 pastors and priests, and over 1,750 church members, including children and 175 women, and some dozens of Muslims, are detained because of their religious beliefs. Amnesty International considers them to be prisoners of conscience. - Amnesty International

This is part of an ongoing pattern of persecution going on in both countries against Christians and Christian Churches. Though the population of Eritrea is about 40% Orthodox Christian, the elements of persecution are still present. There are four main official religions in Eritrea.

Charges without trials, torture and long imprisonments incommunicado, disappearances are common in Eritrea. These tactics are often used against minority religious groups and those who criticize the government. Isaias Afwerki who has been President since the nations inception has become increasingly repressive falling into a long established pattern of violent 'revolutionaries' who come to power after their hard won victories (in this case independence) which is followed by a deep unwillingness to come to terms with internal opposition and heed criticism, even when it is clearly well meaning and peaceful.

A degree of tolerance existed before in Eritrea with Muslim and Christian learning to get along with one another, however Jehovah's Witness and many evangelicals are looked up on with disdain. Two years after its war with Ethiopia ended the government ordered the closure of all 'unregistered' religions. They were then forced to register with the state. Those who applied received no response from the Government. Church registration is often a prelude to persecution as membership rolls, pastor names and office locations can then be ascertained by authorities making any future repression and 'round up' easier. This is an important development as the vast majority of the population are part of one of the major religious organizations.

Eritrea has a highly religious population, with some 98% of its 3.7 million people belonging to a long established branch of a major world religion. Most Eritreans actively practice their faith, with only a small proportion being merely nominal members of their faith, and even fewer describing themselves as being of no faith at all. The Orthodox Church and Islam have been rooted in the region since the fourth and seventh centuries respectively. These two religions are practised by some 90% of the population, although there are no reliable statistics on which is the larger group. For historical reasons and due to its central position in the former Ethiopian Empire, the Orthodox Church is socially predominant. - Amnesty International

The regime's desire to reign in and control religion almost certainly stems form its Marxist philosophy.

The regime has fallen in the the paranoiac practices of so many who start off with noble causes. Lawyers dare not question the government and trials are held for officials involved in corruption who are not allowed legal defense nor appeal,. This provides a mechanism for the removal of 'disloyal' elements from the machinery of state.

In Ethiopia persecution is mostly noted against Christians, particularly evangelicals. This has as much to do with 'competition' as with any deeper political motives as in Eritrea. However, the growth of Islam has seen an increase in Islamic extremists attacking and burning Churches beating Christians and even having some private homes attacked. But other forms of ethnic violence has occurred there as well as typified by the massacre of the Anuak which occurred in December of 2003.

At 1 p.m. on the afternoon of Dec. 13, more than 200 uniformed soldiers of the Ethiopian army marched into the town of Gambella in remote western Ethiopia, near the border with Sudan. The soldiers spread out through the town and knocked on the doors of the houses and huts made from corrugated steel and straw matting. Some of the soldiers had pieces of paper with addresses and names. If no one answered their knocks, the soldiers broke down the doors and grabbed all the men and boys inside the house, looking under beds for anyone hiding. - McGill Report

This act of mass murder has been largely ignored by the western press. While the international Community has done little, the US has allowed many to Anuak to settle in the US. The region where the Anuak dwell is adjacent to land which is rich with gold and of course oil. The fact that this was carried out by the State and not a tribal enemy, is a testament to the kind of leadership that rules Ethiopia today. The number of deaths that occurred is disputed. Some, as the excellent work of Mr. Mcgill cites press reports that place the number at around 400 while he UK puts the number at about 601. Mr. McGill who has devoted a large portion of his website to this issue has opined that while the world is looking hard at the genocide in Sudan it has largely ignored what has happened in Ethiopia.

Since the elections in mid 2005, the political situation in Ethiopia has deteriorated. Journalists are jailed, protests are broken up, torture, beatings are commonplace and the atmosphere and actions of the government have the whiff of fear about them. Opposition groups are disorganized and are incapable of fomenting a unified opposition. Because political repression is rampant, the democratic legitimacy of the present government is highly questionable.

Since 1992, regional authorities in Oromia have cultivated a climate of fear and repression by using state power to punish political dissent in often brutal fashion. Regional and local authorities have consistently harassed and abused perceived critics of the current government. And in the past year, these authorities have taken drastic new steps to consolidate their control over the region’s large rural population. This backdrop of oppression must be factored into any assessment of the upcoming elections. - Report by Human Rights Watch just before recent 12-05 elections.

Outside influence: The Twin Invasions

Radical and violent Islam as well as China are both extremely active throughout Africa. Each of these forces are viewed with trepidation by the US and to a somewhat lesser degree by the former European Colonial powers.

Invasion #1: Islam

Islam is very prevalent in North Africa in such nations as Egypt, Northern Sudan, Algeria, Libya, etc but its inroads into Sub-Saharan (black) Africa had not been quite as successful until the late 20th Century when large swaths of the population began looking for an alternative to Western influence which has been seen as being uninterested in Africa save for its natural resources. Radical Islamic organizations have tapped into this resentment and made significant inroads into Africa.

Much of the funding comes from criminal proceeds and Islamic 'charities' of which the Saudi's are one of the more prominent.

In East Africa there is deep concern in the US that organizations such as Al Qaeda2 are very much involved in East Africa and terrorist attacks in the past have shown that Islamic terrorism is very much part of East Africa's political landscape. While Organizations such as Al Qaeda have had some nefarious successes, it lacks the ability to recruit large segments of the population. However the more engaged militarily America becomes is in this region the greater the possibility for recruitment. The US has a strategically located military Base in Djibouti, a nation that still houses France's largest foreign military base which has several thousand military personnel. Us personnel on on its new base numbers just under a thousand. The base is widely believed to be used for US special operations, including operations by the CIA.

The base is geographically situated to easily facilitate operations in both East Africa and the middle East including Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The US presence here in this small East African nation has turned out to be a boon to the local economy and have built a road from Djibouti City to a town near the Ethiopian Border. In assisting with infrastructure projects as this it is believed that it will help make these nations less vulnerable to terrorism. US plans to remain in Djibouti for the foreseeable future. In Short, the US presence is in East Africa (ostensibly) to dissuade and militarily prevent the installation of Al Qaeda training camps in East Africa.


Somalia is an area of key concern as the State has collapsed and there is no central government. Rival clans regularly fight and form associations based on mutual protection and plunder. It is in this environment that Islamic Terror cells could set up and operate. More importantly, radical Islam could become the unifying factor in Somalia as it would transcend the clan rivalries that now tear the nation apart. Presently clan loyalties outweigh religious affiliations but the emergence of a powerful personality with state or an international Islamic organizations backing could bring a change to this mentality. The stateless situation is a catalyst driving many into the Radical Islamic school of thought. A more ominous development here is that Islamists control most of the business activity in Somalia. The most famous of which is Al-Ittad Al-Islamiya, a group which controls the 'Security' in Mogadisu and Kismao. The group is largely believed to be responsible for the 2002 attack in the Embassy in Kenya.


Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani is thought to have masterminded the 1998 Bombings of the embassies in Nairobi and Daresalam. Interestingly he appeared to get a sizable portion of his wealth trading in West African Diamonds. This is a source of revenue for many illegal activities which is fueled by the artificial scarcity of the gem. Enormous amounts of money can and have been made by extra-governmental political movements in the past. It is estimated the Jonas Savimbi's UNITA made over 3.7 billion dollars during six years trading in diamonds. Thus Ghailani (or someone like him in the future)could easily fund a few s small cells of terrorists using this source of revenue.

Volunteers and aid organizations who operate here have been been warned to dress modestly lest they be harassed by local Islamics. The entire political situation in Tanzania is tense, especially after January 2001 killings in Zanzibar. Add to this the lingering effects of the conflicts in Rwanda and Burundi and you have a precarious internal situation. Tanzania still hosts over 300,000 refugees. Internal tension has been fueled by increasing tension between Christians and Muslims. Muslim demagogues have deliberately misrepresented historical facts to incite hatred of the Christian population ans some politicians have seized on this fact to garner support.


Uganda's main concern with terrorism comes from a group known as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Concern for terror led the the 2002 Anti-terrorism act. This allows for the use of so called safe houses to detain people longer than the law allows. The widespread use of torture is believed to be employed. Those who engage in terrorism can be put to death. The law also gives broad authority to spy on its citizens and close down newspapers and errant web sites. But Uganda's course of action has caused a great deal of consternation by 'donor countries' who provide Uganda with almost half of its revenue. It's approach to its war on terrorism is very much akin to that of the United States and it is likely to have the same ineffective result and will likely fuel rather than abate violent dissent.

Poverty in Uganda is rife as one missionary in Uganda has observed

Lake Victoria has lost water, the water level has dropped drastically and now the Government has initiated Electricity Blackouts to reduce water consumption at the Dams in generating electricity. If the water level continues to drop, this will affect Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia causing a massive drought along the Nile Basin. The West Media is underreporting the grave famine situation here in Africa. I have traveled to the village (countryside) to preach and all you see is dryness and a severe drought and dust, no food. It always reminds me of the dream God showed me of a severe drought in Africa. - Ugandan Missionary Kato Mivule

The specter of terrorism and Islam are real in East Africa. The threat is a growing one. In light of the rampant poverty, political corruption and repression, Islam is turning into a catalyst for many to bring 'harmony'. Sadly this part of the world is ripe for radical Islam and as conditions worsen as the are likely to, especially on the Horn, look for more and more disaffected to turn to the more radical side of Islam.

America's interest in th region is often correctly painted as being a catalyst for terror in the region. Its oil interests which have had a stranglehold on US foreign policy for the past 50 years are seen by many observers as much of a problem as the terrorism it engenders. If the west wants to stop terrorism here and in other parts of Africa it must encourage real investment rather than just foreign aid and economic 'band-aids'.

Invasion #2: China

China has set its sights on the African continent for geo-strategic and natural resource purposes. Beijing has invested millions in Africa in key industries such as Mining, Oil and its concomitant infrastructure. In fact China has invested in Satellite technology in Nigeria to better facilitate the growing relationship between Beijing and Africa. However the most important resource strategically to China and the world is oil. Other areas of concern deal with trade, manufacturing and the broader field of security. China has lend support to 'liberation' movements in the past and this has weighed quite favorably in its favor even to this day. Just as importantly, China is generally viewed favorably by developing nations and is often viewed as the protector of these Africa by virtue of its seat on the UN security Council. China has worked tirelessly since the early 1950's to build cultural, economic and diplomatic ties with African states. The emphasis throughout the 1950's though the early 1980's was one of 'revolutionary struggle'. Today it is more about trade and economic investment with an eye to Africa's rich natural resources. This has lead many to conclude that this is one of the reasons China's economy is so strong today and it has such strong ties to this key strategic region.

The amount of trade between the two cannot be dismissed lightly. In 2005 trade was estimated at 37 billion dollars increasing 39% year over year. China has been very accommodating to those nations who run trade deficits by granting certain commodities tariff free. Over the past 50 years, it has done what many in the west should have been doing when it was installing reprobates such as Mobutu. Instead, China it has invested in foreign aid projects such as roads, dams and building ties in education. One key organization is the China Africa Cooperation Forum which bills itself as being a proponent for ties on the basis of “equal negotiation, enhancing understanding, increasing consensus, strengthening friendship and promoting cooperation”.

Uganda, Tanzania have good relations with China and each receives aid and support from China. Lacking large amounts of critical natural resources the Chinese probably feel it is better to concentrate on more strategic areas such as Sudan and those states that border this oil rich nation. One such nation is Ethiopia which borders Sudan. China refused to become a major arms supplier to Ethiopia during its civil war. A role later filled by the Soviets. However during its war with Eritrea it was a major arms supplier to the Ethiopian Government. China has done much to build good will with Ethiopia through many public works projects. There are dozens of Chinese businesses and enterprises in Ethiopia the largest of which is the construction of the hydro-electric dam. Trade Between the two exceeded $200 Million in 2004.

Sudan however is the great East African prize for China as it has large oil reserves. However these reserves are located in a part of the nation that the central government must subdue violently. China has an overriding need for oil and the serious human rights violations that occur in Sudan must take a back seat to its voracious appetite for energy. It has invested heavily in pipelines and a refinery near Khartoum with a 2.5 million ton refining capacity. It refines Benzene, Butane, and Gasoline there. Yet the human rights violations are by no means trivial. The Sudanese Civil war has claimed over 2 million lives. The relationship between China and Khartoum is perversely symbiotic; Sudan is China's largest overseas oil project and it is also Sudan's largest arms supplier. If there was ever an example of blood and oil, this is certainly it. China is Sudan's chief diplomatic ally by virtue of its seat on the UN Security Council.

As there is no central government in Somalia and the Chinese presence is not significant. Though the Chinese has provided aid in the past, most recent of which is a 6 million dollar aid package to 'President' Ahmed. Ties do run deep as Chinese and Somali relations actually go back many believe, 600 years.

China and East Africa are indeed fostering ever stronger ties based on trade and at least the semblance of deep cultural ties. Africa needs Chinese investment and to a lesser degree diplomatic support. The Chinese are more than willing to give both in return for Africa's rich cache of natural resources. The relationships being built show no signs of cooling. In fact, Chinese determination to make a good impression with political and business leaders will net it a kings ransom in oil and precious metals in the years to come. The Chinese path has been one of careful, patient cultivation of relationships. It is a path that, contrasted with American threats, bombings, covert military raids and torture, that has born much fruit. In the long run it remains to be seen if China will be a long term benefit to Africa or not. Though it can be confidently argued that Chinese influence, no matter how bad, is still probably better that the type of interference and violent meddling that past and present US administrations are known for. Let us never forget that it was President Clinton that decided to bomb a a critical medicine factory in Sudan in order to detract from his sex scandal. African life is of little value to American Presidential administrations and both parties have shown this to be true.

Conclusions and Observations

While the above describe the man made problems and challenges there are others that are taking a toll on East Africa, most notably climate change. Many analysts blame the famine in Kenya on deforestation the general trend in Africa is one of both human tradgedy and natural climate change. The latter is having a seriously negative effect on the region and at times exacerbates conflicts and creates political tensions. It is a trend that is likely to continue despite the valiant efforts of many. Conflict, ethnic hatred, foreign interference, lust for natural resources, pandemics and climate change are and will continue to decimate Africa's population. The political will is not present in the west to make a serious effort to stem the tide. While China can be expected to step up to the plate in order to foster good trade relations, it's actions in Sudan probably reveals the true face of its foreign policy.

Islam as a whole can be a unifying factor in some nations, but it is one whose intolerance and violent legacy leaves very much to be desired. Let us note the Islamic regime in Iran as a perfect example of repressive and self-destructive nature of Islamic government. The violent regime funds various terrorist organization around the world but thankfully it is on the verge of implosion. Islam is not the way for Africa nor is the Chinese model, which (in this authors opinion) wears a deceptively kind face that hides a dagger in its breast. The West cannot be counted on to do anything that will ultimately benefit Africans. Its history has shown time and time again that violent repression and the forceable extraction of resources without renumeration to the population as a whole is its primary goal. It tends to set up evil dictatorships, call it democracy and then use its power to rape, plunder and pillage Africa. It will cry crocodile tears when there is massacre but the arms and aid continue to flow to the perpetrators of vile acts. All the while Western Leaders will they dry their tears with dollar bills soaked in African blood.

Africa will have to solve its own problems but the need for its resources, the trends in globalization will almost certainly prevent that. I am not optimistic about Africa's prospects for the future. The one ray of hope I see is that if the the west and China become embroiled in a spiraling economic depression, consumption of raw materials will wane accordingly and each will certainly become more introspective. While many will in the future decry the fact that the world is 'ignoring' Africa, it remains to be seen if the effect of this will be negative if taken as a whole.

Time will tell.

Mark S. Watson








2This author does not believe Al Qaeda to be the monolithic organization that policy makers attribute to it. This author firmly believes that while Al Qaeda is very much an active organization, its structure and mode of operation are far more fluid and nebulous than policy makers would have us believe. Al Qaeda has become Washington's 'bogey man' and is used to as a pretext for its imperial policies. Washington's unbalanced focus on Al Qaeda has significanlty attributed to its recruitment successes and its propaganda.