Sundered by Civil War, Nations on Horn of Africa Melt Away : Africa: Sovereignty in the post-colonial era could be a thing of the past; countries dissolve into warring regions as an area disintegrates.

<i> Edward A. Gargan, who was the West Africa Bureau chief for the New York Times, is now the Edward R. Murrow Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations</i>

“Out! Get out of the car,” the man with the Kalashnikov commanded, waving a black hand-grenade with his left hand. “Walk into the town.” Soft thumps of mortars being fired rolled down the valley toward us. Sembete was being shelled. A jalopy of a bus stuffed with travelers clattered up behind our Land Cruiser. The armed man ordered them out of the bus and told them to walk into town. From time to time he shouted to colleagues hidden above us somewhere on the escarpment. It was just another day in Ethiopia.

Here, and in the neighboring countries of Somalia and Sudan, war has become a way of life, tearing apart the last remnants of the social fabric. With these wars have come the dislocation of huge populations, the collapse of agriculture and rural economies and famine. And amid this wreckage, it is becoming increasingly difficult--for the first time in the history of post-colonial Africa--to detect the presence of sovereign states. The countries of the Horn of Africa have begun to cease to exist.

There are, of course, governments in Addis Abbaba, Mogadishu and Khartoum, presidents who claim to speak for nations, ministries that pretend to administer services to the people, airlines bearing the flags of these states so rapidly vanishing.

Before Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Moscow and Washington jousted in the Horn, maneuvering for a perceived strategic upper hand, control of vital sea lanes and air space. The ideologies of capitalism and communism were embraced by local tyrants in Somalia and Ethiopia at varying times, depending primarily on whose largess was available. With the dissipation of tension between the two superpowers and Gorbachev’s preoccupation with both the economic collapse and fragmentation of the Soviet Union, the countries of the Horn of Africa have melted from view. Today, rare are the papers on the desks of either George Bush or Gorbachev that contain the words “Ethiopia,” “Somalia” or “Sudan.”


Ethiopia is perhaps in the most advanced stage of disintegration in the region--although a U.S. diplomat in the capital said last month that he regards Ethiopia as “the most stable country in the Horn.” Its president, Mengistu Haile Mariam, has relied for more than a decade on extraordinary amounts of Soviet weaponry and East European technical support to battle Eritrean and Tigrean rebels and impose a brutal Leninist political order. Vast areas are controlled by rebel armies, and fighters of the Tigre People’s Liberation Front are active just a few hours drive from the capital. Agricultural activity has either stopped or been severely disrupted in much of the country, and only relief-food shipments are forestalling a famine of the dimensions of the 1984-85 disaster that so gripped international attention.

Mengistu, whose reign of terror and bloodshed has survived nine coup attempts, has watched as rebel movements relentlessly expand the regions under their control. In Eritrea, only the city of Asmara and the town of Karen remain in government hands--and both are surrounded by Eritrean rebels. Government troops have been driven from all of Tigre Province, and Tigre rebels are methodically pushing south. They are now in Shoa Province, where the capital is.

As his military position crumbles, and with Moscow’s declaration that it intends to cut off his arms supply (replaced by advisers and cluster bombs from Israel), Mengistu has decided he needs to put a new face on his regime: In March, he announced the end of communism, the creation of a multiparty democracy and a free-market economic system. But when an adviser to the president discussed this apparent change of heart, he evinced no sign that there was more at work than a rhetoric of convenience. As for the rebels, the war, this adviser said, would go on. “You cannot agree to a cease-fire unless you are in a strong position,” he said. “This government is not in a strong position.”

Across the border, in Somalia, another president, Mohammed Siad Barre--as ruthless as Mengistu--mouthes the fashionable political vocabulary of multiparty democracy and capitalism as rebels of the Somali National Movement move through the north and the Somali Patriotic Movement ambush government troops in the south--his regime’s territory ends about 140 miles from the outskirts of Mogadishu. Last July, in the wake of days of anti-government demonstrations, members of the president’s personal security force rounded up 47 protesters, marched them to Geresa beach at the edge of town and machine-gunned them, burying their bodies in the sand. The president told me in late April that he is awaiting the results of the investigation. Many people in Mogadishu say it will be a long wait: After all, they say, it was Siad Barre’s son who ordered the massacre.


One of Siad Barre’s leading critics, the human-rights lawyer Ismail Jimalo Osoble, was skeptical of the sudden call for a democratic government, a move he sees as little more than an effort to regain U.S. support. “Nobody is taking the government’s word seriously,” Osoble said. “Siad wants two or three parties, but they will all be controlled by his party.”

Sudan, the largest country in the Horn, is also being sundered by civil war. In Khartoum, a government controlled by the fundamentalist National Islamic Front is seeking to impose rigid Islamic law, even though much of the country’s south is Christian or animist. A rebel movement there, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, is fighting to prevent that and now controls a vast swathe of southern Sudan. There is little ideological substance to the rebel’s call for separatism, as the regional commander of the Torit district said during an interview in his headquarters. “We do not know what will be the future of Sudan,” Kwal Manyang, the commander, said. “Our objective is to fight until we control our area. It is our right also to liberate those who are repressed. If Khartoum is strong, then definitely, we will have two administrations.”

There is no economy in southern Sudan in the areas controlled by Manyang’s forces. There are no markets. There is no money. There is no agriculture. Many of the people are completely naked, their clothing worn away by years of warfare and living on the run.

What there is, clearly, is a determination that Sudan as it once was--a single, sovereign state--cannot endure. The Khartoum government, headed by Prime Minister Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, a man widely viewed as a figurehead for the well-organized, fervent fundamentalists of the Islamic front, has turned to the Arab world, to Libya and Iraq, to press its war against the south. It is a war, a recent trip through the south revealed, the government is losing.


Relief agencies and the United Nations attempt to mitigate the most profound human suffering, but in many ways the food they bring only prolongs the conflicts: armies, rebel and government, march on the food shipped by relief agencies.

So impoverished is the region, so torn by political, religious, ethnic and regional conflict is the Horn, that confident contemplation of the future is not possible. It does, however, seem possible to foresee, for the first time since the wave of independence spilled across this continent in the early 1960s, a breakdown of sovereignty. Here in Ethiopia, there seems little doubt that Eritrea will sever itself from the national body.

National unity seems not just impossible, it is increasingly irrelevant. In Somalia, the country has ceased to exist, for all practical purposes. Nomadic life, never concerned with national boundaries, persists, and rebels driven by clan concerns move freely. In the Sudan, the Islamic zeal of an Arabized north ensures an equally fervent separatism in the south; Sudan is no longer one.

For Africa, the implications of national collapse are profound. The premise of nation-states in post-colonial Africa, a respect for boundaries etched not by regional or ethnic or religious homogeneity but by the sword of colonialism, is under assault. If it can happen in the Horn, why not in Nigeria, a country riven by religious and ethnic discord? Or Zaire? Or Uganda?


What is different is the disinterest of the developed world. More rivetting, more accessible are the German unification talks, the turn to democracy in Eastern Europe. Africa fades from view.

The man with the hand grenade ordered a busload of passengers to walk with him into Sembete. We watched him herd the crowd toward the town, then got into our car and sped back the way we had come, back to Addis Abbaba, just five hours south of here. The Tigre rebels assassinated a few government officials here before returning to the hills. But they are closer to Addis Abbaba than ever before, closer to the collapse of Ethiopia.