2011: Year of the Horn
Why the Horn of Africa could be the New Big Headache next year.
This is not another end of the year commentary. I would prefer to take a look at the coming year and make a prediction. If I am wrong, everyone will forget. If I am right, I will win a prize or something.
Here it is: this is going to the year when the Horn of Africa makes it page one, repeatedly, and gives the world’s major capitals reason to fret, repeatedly. I cite four interlocking reasons why this should happen.
One is that Somalia is and will continue to be dominated by Al Shabab, the militant Islamicist group that takes inspiration and ideas from Al Qaeda. While it has so far not been declared an official affiliate of the terror network by Al Qaeda, there is some evidence this is more because the latter see some utility in having Al Shabab maintain a certain low profile.
Al Shabab now controls much of Somalia and is quite unequivocal in its support for terrorism against the West, for its support for pretty much anything Osama bin Laden is doing and, finally, its interest in recruiting non-resident Somalis and foreigners interested in jihad.
Its leaders invoke war against the West, but also talk of liberating Kashmir and Palestine. And there has been at least one report in 2010 that an Indian recruit was killed during an Al Shabab bomb training class gone awry. The Somali group bloodied itself last year with a series of bomb explosions in Uganda during the World Cup.
This will also pose a dilemma when it comes to the Somali pirates. Al Shabab has promised to put the pirates out of business if it takes over the areas where they are based. Some have argued that while the pirates are a nuisance, they aren’t training suicide bombers, so perhaps it makes sense to let them continue if only to deprive the militants of control of that part of the coastline.
Two is that southern Sudan will almost certainly declare its support for secession in a referendum on January 9 next year. Since any newly-created nation of South Sudan – itself carved out of a nation that was pretty much put together by British colonial officers several decades ago – will hold 80 per cent of the oil and gas wealth of Sudan it is hard to believe Khartoum will take this all to quietly.
I could be proven wrong, the two have worked out a generous profit-sharing scheme for those natural resources. But it will only take one South Sudanese leader to say, “Why should we give those wretches so much?” – and it will all fall apart.
It is interesting to note how aggressively China has been wooing the leaders in Khartoum as well as the likely leaders of South Sudan in an attempt to protect their oil and gas interests there. Which raises an interesting point: Beijing’s self-interested lobbying and (probably) bribery could well smoothen the partition process in ways the rest of the world does not realize.
Three, across the waters from the Horn is Yemen. Yemen has so many simultaneous problems that it is hard to get a complete fix on them. There’s that Shia tribal rebellion. There’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, almost all of whose active parts are now in Yemen. There’s Yemen’s general dislike for Saudi Arabia. And there’s a few other issues here and there.
However, given that it seems every second jihadi terrorist attempt in the West this past year has had a Yemeni link and, after the AfPak border, it’s the world’s main site for dronespotting, one should expect a lot more fun and games coming out of that country.
Four is the local geopolitics that makes all the anti-terrorism stuff so complicated to carry out. Eritrea, ruled by a slightly nutty dictator, is in lukewarm state of war with its neighbour Ethiopia. The former therefore supports Somali groups and others who are prepared to give the mountain country a hard time. The US, worried that so many Somali groups seem to look to Bin Laden for inspiration, is backing Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and sometimes Rwanda as a sort of containment coalition against the rise of a Somali Taliban state.
A lot of the local governments, notably Eritrea which is otherwise a secular state, are overly concerned about the terrorism business. For them, it is all about straightforward 19th century-style nation-state rivalry and they aren’t overly worried about the collateral damage this may be causing in terms of terror.
Since the Indian government has decided Africa will be one of its three major foreign policy targets this coming year, it will be interesting to see how Indian policies will play with a Horn so full of pointy bits.