My friend Sean Coon was kind enough to point to some of my recent Africa posts, noting that “maps really help” one get a sense of complex political situations. As I read a terrific op-ed by my friend Mike Clough – “Dragged Back Into Somalia” – I realized I wanted to understand the regional dynamics of the unfolding conflict better.
So I started making a map, based on a 1992 map of Somalia – had I found this more recent map on the UTexas map server, I wouldn’t have had to draw in Eritrea… My goal was to combine a couple of maps I’d found useful – the territory map the BBC is using to explain the expansion of UIC influence, the Economist map that shows borderland areas and the influence of Somalia in Ethiopia. The goal is a map that helps narrate the forces behind the conflict that may be about to unfold in the Horn of Africa.
I guarantee that this map is inaccurate. It’s not just that I’m a crappy cartographer – it’s also that many borders in this part of the world are in dispute, and that the territory claimed by Somaliland and Puntland appears to vary map to map. Apologies in advance to anyone and everyone I’ve offended.
Somalia only existed as a nation from 1960 to the late 1991, when Siad Barre was ousted and any semblence of statehood collapsed. Before 1960, British Somaliland – roughly corresponding to the pink Somaliland on the map above – and Italian Somaliland were separate colonial possessions. These two territories didn’t encompass all people of Somali heritage – many Somalis live in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, and some over the border in Kenya.
In July 1977, Siad Barre invaded Ethiopia, hoping to capture the Ogaden region and create a “Greater Somaliland”. The invasion had less to do with Somali ethnic nationalism and more to do with opportunism and cold war politics. Ethiopia looked weak – Haile Selaisse had been overthrown by the Derg, and was transitioning to a Marxist-Leninist state, supported by the Soviet Union. Somalia – possibly encouraged by the US – invaded the Ogaden, supporting ethnic Somali rebels in the Ogaden This precipitated a war where socialist nations, including Yemen, Cuba and North Korea, sided with Ethiopia. By early 1978, Barre pulled back his troops, the Somali military largely destroyed by Ethiopia and allies. (More on the Ogaden war here and here.)
The events in Ogaden go a long way towards explaining why Ethiopia has interests in the current situation in Somalia. If the Union of Islamic Courts, which currently controls Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia, has expansionist urges, one could imagine UIC support for rebels in the Ogaden. Ethiopia recently announced that they’d arrested rebels associated with an independence movement in the Ogaden, who had crossed in from Somalia.
Or one could argue that Ethiopia is supporting the transitional government – which has international support, but very little control of the country outside of Baidoa – out of political expediency. Ethiopia needs a port since losing their northern coast when Eritrea broke away in 1991. A stable Somalia might give Ethiopia access to Mogadishu. Or Ethiopia might be backing the transitional government to win points with the US, which is deeply worried about the UIC gaining too much power and providing sanctuary to Al-Qaeda – given recent crackdowns on human rights and shooting of activists in the streets, Ethiopia could use some brownie points.
Ethiopia argues that UIC is backed by Eritrea, and that the Eritrean government is arming the UIC. The logic behind this? The Ethiopian/Eritrean border is still unsettled, even after the 1998-2000 civil war. Eritrea feels that the UN hasn’t done enough to settle final borders, and expelled UN peacekeepers in late 2005. If Ethiopia found itself fighting the UIC on a southern front, perhaps Eritrea could seize some of the disputed territory on its border.
One of the most intriguing recent developments: the UIC is advancing on Galkaayo, a major town in Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in northern Somalia. Unlike Somaliland, which is seeking independence, Puntland has sought to be part of a new, federal Somalia. The interim president of Somalia, Abdullahi Yusuf, is from Galkaayo, and given support for a federal model, Puntland is a natural ally to the Baidoa government.
How does Somaliland lean? That’s a little trickier. Ethiopia is one of the few governments to recognize an independent Somaliland, in part because Ethiopia wants access to the port at Berbera. On the other hand, a strengthened Baidoa government might try to keep Somaliland as part of a united Somalia.
So what’s going to happen? Your guess is as good as mine. But at least now we’ve got a map.