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EheElephant.Info: The Sands of the Ogaden Are Blowing Across East Africa.

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Saturday, 05 March 2022

Much like in 1977, all the conditions have come together that could turn conflicting interests into ruinous warfare across the region.   

By A. K. Kaiza 
March 5, 2022
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    Even in a season of bad years, it is a particularly very bad year for the Horn of Africa. War and hunger tearing at Somalia, revolutionary hope in Ethiopia turned into existential crisis, the coming end of Kenyatta’s reign over Kenya with a Kalenjin successor and ethnic tensions in the wings, and in Uganda, the recent suspicious death of an Archbishop amidst a military regime openly massacring the country’s citizens, bring the region to the very edge of catastrophe. 
   
   As always happens for the region, it all starts with failed rains, most likely somewhere between Ethiopia and Somalia, although because the way in which it works is complex, few pause to consider that stopping hunger deaths in the Ogaden could create a more stable East Africa. But the rains have failed for more than three years now, and in time, the impact will be felt as coups and massacres as far afield as Kampala and the Congolese border. 

   In the meantime, as superpower rivalry swoops in, a looming election cycle is setting unease. The elections come. They are stolen. Civil war breaks out in Uganda. In Kenya, tensions between Luo, Kikuyu and Kalenjin politicians push the country to the brink of civil war; in no time, there will be an attempted coup in Nairobi. 

   But for the more alert readers, if the above scenario sounds more like a description of 1977, rather than of 2022, then there is a good reason for it; it is 1977. There have been many turning points in our post-independence history, but if I were pressed hard to pick the one that unites us in our common fate, I would settle for 1977. 

   And then, I would back up a little to 1972. For this was the year in which a general, global drought hit East Africa in a serious way. An indictment of public media discourse in the region is the degree of ignorance it engenders not just in its audience, but also in its reporters and editors, and so it was not until 2012 that, travelling to Kaabong from Kotido in Karamoja, I first heard the words “Loreng Lega”, from a pastoralist-turned farmer, Faustino Odir. He was explaining why he, a Jie man, started farming, saying that his family fled Loreng Lega in Karamoja in 1973 and lived in Masindi in Western Uganda for 36 years. 

   When I inquired further, I was told that Loreng Lega means Red Jewels, in Ateker. At the time, before plastic and glass spread across the pastoralists’ lands as beads, women wore loops of iron wire as neckpieces and kept them fresh with cow butter. In 1973, the cows died. There was no butter. The neckpieces turned rusty and the ever-poetic Ateker found a name for the famine. I might have left it there but there were others. I was told of Lopiar and Loreng Arup, all describing famines — Lopiar in 1980 and Loreng Arup in 1986.

   The 1972 famine — also named the Dimbleby Famine by the international media after the British journalist Jonathan Dimbleby who brought it to Western attention — caused what I came to see as the most important political event in all of Eastern Africa for 50 years. Without that event, it is arguable that Eritrea may never have split from Ethiopia, Somalia might still be stable, Museveni would not be president and the Rwanda genocide of 1994 would not have happened. 

   The fall of Emperor Haile Selassie undid settled but fragile political ties that had kept Somalia, north-eastern Uganda, northern Kenya, parts of South Sudan and all of Ethiopia manageably stable for centuries. The immense legitimacy that comes from a political system widely seen as both righteous and lawful is not a cheap one, and with the great 19th century opening of all the world’s corners to communication and commerce, Ethiopians learnt that the feudal system they had so naturally accepted was in fact a very bad system. Attempts at reforms did not go far enough, and the fact that by 1974 Ethiopia still had actual, rather than metaphoric peasants, who gave up a part of their harvest to the landlord, meant that the country was really asking for it. 

  The fall of Selassie, heart-rending and ruinous as it was, was a foregone conclusion, which is not to say the successor system was deserved nor that those who carried out the coup de grace to an ossified system were angels. The tragedy of Ethiopia has always been that the rules of political dialectics that describe a move to a better system, don’t usually apply. 

   We have been paying the price for Selassie’s fall ever since. 

   With the fall of Selassie, subject ethnic groups on the empire’s periphery began to question their status — questions unthinkable whilst Menelik’s progeny sat on the throne. For a measure of how recent this is, Somali writer Nurrudin Farrah once told me that he met the Emperor as a child when he came on a tour of the territories and was picked to read a poem to him. 

   The loss of Ethiopia’s sacerdotal myth (aspects of it still exist in what is described as Solomonite society in origin) combined with the ascendency of the Derg to convince the empire’s provinces that the time to leave had come. The most important departure was Eritrea. But in 1977, it looked as if Somalia might be the first. 

    "The tragedy of Ethiopia has always been that the rules of political dialectics that describe a move to a better system, don’t usually apply."

   The Ogaden war that broke out in July 1977 was a tragic event that should have been avoided, if only for the fact that it produced none of the intended goals. When Siad Barre launched his Greater Somalia wars, the irredentist suit for the unification of ethnic Somalia, he may not have foreseen an even greater shrinkage of Somalia. But it was an explicit threat to territorial Kenya as it was to Ethiopia, both countries more important to world powers than Somalia. 

   That Siad Barre chose to launch a revanchist campaign in the deep winter of the Cold War only ratcheted up the stakes. It ensured that his war was very quickly hijacked to become a USSR-USA affair. It is here that one of the most cynical manoeuvres of the Cold War era took place. 

   Since the 1930s, Imperial Ethiopia had aligned with capitalist powers after Haile Selassie petitioned the League of Nations to stop Italian aggression against what was then better known as Abyssinia. American patronage of Ethiopia continued even after the Derg was entrenched, but the openly Marxist Mengistu Haile Mariam could no longer be accommodated. Down in Mogadishu, Siad Barre was in bed with the Soviets. The march down to the Ogaden war happened with cold abject calculations. The Soviets helped Mogadishu draw up a battle plan against Ethiopia. The popular version of the story, as told to me by the late Kenyan cameraman, Mohinder Dhillon who covered the fighting, is that at the 11th hour, the Soviets, doubtless with the battle plans in their breast pockets, switched sides and supported the Ethiopians while the Americans fled Addis Ababa to take sides with Siad Barre. Beyond all belief, the Somalis marched into battle with the same Soviet battle plan. The result was a complete rout of Somali forces, the centre of battle converging at Jijiga. But there are more subtle ways in which it happened, which is beyond the scope of this piece.

    "That Siad Barre chose to launch a revanchist campaign in the deep winter of the Cold War only ratcheted up the stakes."

   The result was that Mengistu got allies he was comfortable with, and the Americans, the port of Barbera and the Eastern Africa Indian Ocean. Which was cold comfort for both the USSR and the USA; scholarly journals make the argument that, by so openly going to war against the Soviets in Africa, Jimmy Carter and his national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, may have precipitated the end of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty — the detente with the Soviet Union — meaning they threw away something bigger for a regional conflict. 

  It was a short war, lasting from June 1977 to May 1978. But it put an end to short regional wars for it put in the hands of non-state actors the means to wage guerrilla warfare. Before that, guns and ammunition had been the preserve of state actors. Both the Americans and the Soviets decanted ship and plane loads of arms into the conflict. They inaugurated a regional small arms market that is nigh impossible to shut down. And this is where the tragedy begins. 

   The first groups to acquire those guns were the pastoralists that straddle the Horn. The testing ground for the destructive power of guns easy to acquire, hide and maintain were the cattle rustlings which had for centuries been little more than sporting, manhood-proving raids. Supercharged with the AK47, they became lethal. 

   The Turkana had hitherto ruled the pastoralist roost, acquiring their first guns from Menelik in 1911, and lording it over the Samburu, Karamojong, Didinga, Tepeth, Pokot, Toposa, and Nyangatom. Now, all these groups had guns. The region’s descent into hell had begun; these gun trails were to feed Joseph Kony’s war, and all still feed conflicts in the region. 

   As it was, the timing could not have been worse. The pastoralists had not fully recovered from the famine of 1972, but the famine was not a singular factor. The fate of pastoralists is one that those living in the capital cities — who are nearly all from agricultural communities — don’t fully appreciate nor care about. What had happened was that colonialism had closed up lands and created administrative units corresponding to ethnicity, in effect, inventing tribes. This did not suit nomadic pastoralism, which not only required open lands, but also did not want national borders. 

    "The region’s descent into hell had begun; these gun trails were to feed Joseph Kony’s war, and all still feed conflicts in the region."

   The worst affected pastoralist groups were those of south-western Uganda and Rwanda, who suddenly found themselves stateless for their forage lands were split between Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Congo. 

   Deep into independence in 1977, pastoralists started to realise that the post-colonial state had left them out and would continue to leave them out. The race to pick up guns was a belated reaction to the knowledge that unless they fought, their way of life was doomed. 

   The death of animals and humans from the 1972 famine broke pastoralism. But now, unbeknownst to all, an even bigger event — Lopiar — was coming in 1980 to effectively bury it. Before that, another fateful event occurred. The fall of Idi Amin in 1979 left tens of thousands of guns floating in Uganda. Just think of what it means that, when the Ugandan army under Amin fled in 1979, all of Uganda government’s guns fell into private hands. A lot of the suddenly unemployed Ugandan soldiers found that the Ogaden war had already created a market for the guns in their hands. In Moroto, the story is still told of how people carried guns like so many bunches of firewood on their heads. 

   Hence, when 1980 came, pastoralists were armed to the teeth. The famine of that year is hard to outdo. It is estimated that up 21 per cent of pastoralist lives were lost in that year, first to the drought and the loss of animals, but the bulk of it to the cholera outbreak that followed. They called it Lopiar, The Sweep, in Ateker languages. (On a minor note, this was the event that gave birth to Kakuma Camp, for the relief agencies that arrived found the Turkana assembled in this high, cooler and moist valley. Henceforth, arriving refugees from Somalia, Sudan and Uganda would go there, because it was a feeding centre.) 

   But the biggest impact was still in the future. In Uganda, 1980 is thought of narrowly as the year that Museveni launched a bush war in response to a lost election. What is rarely thought of is that Museveni, himself a pastoralist, was merely doing what pastoralists all over The Horn of Africa were doing. He was playing the part of kraal boss, and like all kraal bosses, he was leading a group of young pastoralists to fight to keep their way of life viable, for it falls upon young men in pastoralist societies to go out and fight for animals when the herd is either dead or rustled. This time, they were going to rustle the entire Uganda. 

   Museveni not only led Ugandan pastoralists to battle, but combined those with pastoralist refugees from Rwanda as well. The mass of guns floating all over the region found eager takers. 

   Overall, the decision could not have been worse. The gun turned against pastoralists, and for the next two decades, hundreds of thousands would perish in ensuing conflicts. The shadow of the Rwanda genocide of 1994 obscures the fact that the 1990s was the worst decade for pastoralism. The drawing up of colonial borders had kettled in nomadic lifestyles. The attack on Rwanda in 1990 by Paul Kagame and the late Fred Rwigyema was not too different from the Somali attack on Ethiopia in 1977; the aim was the same, to pry loose the 1884 Berlin conference borders and let the herds roam free. It was not too different from the armed gunfights by the Turkana, Pokot, and Karamojong against the Kenyan and Ugandan armies. The Toposa of Southern Sudan were caught in a much more complex battle, for they were caught between the Khartoum forces and the SPLA, who both supplied them with guns, and although they were better off with the SPLA, whom they chose in the end, they were still part of the “Karamoja” cluster, their fate still impacted by the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie. 

    "The shadow of the Rwanda genocide of 1994 obscures the fact that the 1990s was the worst decade for pastoralism." 

   Grimly, the killings in Rwanda in 1994 were not too distant in form from the gun deaths that happened with such casual repetitiveness between Ugandan, Kenyan, Ethiopian and Sudanese pastoralists at the same time that they were rarely reported. But hundreds of thousands perished in the decades between 1977 and 2006. 

   The one pastoralist struggle that made good was the ascension of Museveni to power. He has said it many times — and makes propaganda use of herding his animals for the cameras — but what perhaps explains the seeming paradox of his reformist rhetoric which clashes with his dictatorial practice, is that he was driven to pick the liberation lingua of his time to gain support beyond his clannist instinct, whilst fighting for something closer to his heart. If Museveni does not seem that presidential, it is because his psychological make-up is that of a kraal leader. You have to meet many of them throughout the pastoralist lands in the north to meet his kind: tyrannical, brash, hard-driving, imperative, brooking no argument, but above all uber-clannist. The massive land grabs in the latter days of his presidency have a central pattern — to benefit pastoralists as unreported conflicts in many, many parts Uganda between farmers and pastoralists protected by the army attest. The colonial and postcolonial abuse of pastoralists made its mark. They are called “backward”, which is derogatory, considering that pastoralists today remain the true custodians of African cultures abandoned by agricultural communities, and that many in agricultural communities are only a generation removed from pastoralism. But conflict is conflict, and Museveni used to state that he would not leave power while his people remained backward. He has since turned every government institution into an ethnically monolithic stronghold. 

    "If Museveni does not seem that presidential, it is because his psychological make-up is that of a kraal leader."

  The biggest coming conflict of Museveni’s life, and one which will survive him for the coming decades, will be a rebalancing of the power stakes between pastoralists and agrarians, for in the long term, agriculture always wins, even if by absorbing pastoralists. This means that this coming conflict will once more pit Museveni’s pastoralists against the agricultural communities of southern and south-western Uganda. The break with Buganda and Busoga, hitherto Museveni’s biggest supporters, is only the opening salvo of this coming conflict. Bobi Wine may be the spearhead of this struggle, but it will outlive him and reshape Uganda for generations to come. 

   It is Museveni’s terrible, bad luck that Cold War II is returning when his government has lost all legitimacy, meaning that in the event of another armed rebellion, he will no longer be the good guy. He lost that tag forever when he ordered his goons to shoot to death dozens on 18 November 2020. Even worse, he is now the de facto Haile Selassie of Eastern Africa, meddling in Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, Kenya and Somalia. By positioning his son to succeed him, and now openly saying that Ugandan public offices will be ring-fenced to those with money (effectively his bush war pastoralist compadres), he is creating a feudal monarchy out of Uganda, like Ethiopia in reverse. He is making Selassie’s mistakes. But he is also giving a bad name to pastoralists who are otherwise noble people. 

    That is because, as in 1977, the factors to turn conflicting interests into ruinous warfare are in place, almost comically so in how much the players of 1977 are back in place. In Kenya, another Kenyatta is about to exit office. His vice president happens to be a Kalenjin. In the wings, vying for succession, is another Odinga. You cannot make this stuff up. But unlike 1977, and unlike Moi, Ruto is Museveni’s protégé. The ethnic configurations of Kenya are such that should Ruto become president, he will find himself forced to govern like Moi, albeit a Moi who can count on another Idi Amin in Uganda as his ally. This will mean that the coming political instability in Uganda will also become political instability in Kenya. Ruto is opening the gates for Uganda’s political incompetence to be imported into Kenya. We just hope that among his intimate exchanges with Museveni, military rule in Kenya did not crop up. 

   Like in 1977, Ethiopia is at war. It might be a matter of time before dreams of Greater Somalia are revived, as Mogadishu once more watches Addis Ababa’s discomfiture. Somalia’s options are not that many. After all, the state disintegrated after Siad Barre was beaten on the plains of the Ogaden. It is a matter of time before someone in Mogadishu sees a foreign military adventure as a way to unite the country’s clans. Should this happen, the Ogaden could well be the playing field. But this will not be too much news to Kenya whose biggest threats have so far come from Somalis. 

   Almost beyond belief, Russia, in the place of the Soviet Union, could very well join China and the USA in messing up the politics of the region, which mess is already in high gear. In 2022, there could well be more AK47s poured in, but there might be other weapons as well. 
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