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by Paul B. Henze

A lack of relevant fact and background information characterizes most reporting on recent developments in Somalia.  Media performance has been shallow: full of hype and repetition, little background, no historical perspective, highlighting of negative comments and predictions.  The Ethiopian operation was not undertaken because the USurged it.  Ethiopia has no desire to occupy or dominate Somalia–only to keep it from being a danger to the region.  Ethiopia was invaded by Somalia in 1977 and invaded by Eritrea in 1998–it did not simply “fight a war” with them.  Meles did not act to divert attention from internal troubles.  Somalia has no historic existence as a state.  It has been a disruptive element in the Horn of Africa since it came into existence in 1960.  It has been in a condition of anarchy since 1991.  The Islamic Courts declared war on Ethiopia and claimed Ethiopian territory.  The AU, the UN, the US and most Western countries recognize Ethiopia’s entitlement to act in its own interests as well as those of the Somali people.



Ethiopia is one of the oldest continually existing states in the world.  In the 7th century BC local rulers in what is today northern Ethiopia and Eritrea were already constructing massive stone buildings, dams and roadways.  Emigrants from South Arabia mixed with native Africans, developed writing and high technology that culminated in the great obelisks atAksum, the largest monolithic monuments in the world of that time.  The Aksumite Empire, based on agriculture and trade, ruled an area stretching from the Nile to the Red Sea and across to Yemen.  It adopted Christianity in the 4th century.  Ethiopian Christianity was influenced by Judaism.  Communities of Jews in Ethiopia survived into the 20th century.  When the country fell under communist rule in the 1970s most of them emigrated to Israel.  Ancient Ethiopia was not hostile to Islam.  When the Prophet Mohammed began his mission in the 7th century, his earliest followers were persecuted by the oligarchs of Mecca.  Tradition relates that Mohammed advised them to go to Ethiopia “for the king there will not tolerate injustice and it is a friendly country.”  The tombs of these first Muslims at the Tigrayan town of Negash remain a pilgrimage site today.

Aksumite influence spread southward into the mountains and gorges that form the Roof of Africa.  The country became known to Europeans as the mysterious Land of Prester John.  Its history was often turbulent, always colorful. Britain mounted a huge expedition against Emperor Theodore in the late 1860s.  Defeated, he committed suicide and Britain withdrew its soldiers, lacking a desire to take on the task of colonizing the mountain kingdom and Ethiopia remained the only independent part of Africa south of the Sahara.  But the scramble forAfricawas on. Italyhad its eyes on Ethiopia and sent a huge expedition through the newly opened Suez Canalto conquer it.  Emperor Menelik dealt a fatal blow to Italy’s ambitions at Adwain 1896 and the world took notice. Menelik set a modernization process in motion and built a new capital atAddis Ababa.  When he died in 1913 the country fell into confusion.  Ras Tafari, eventually crowned Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930, emerged to set it on a path to progress but was cut short by Mussolini.  Seeking to revenge Adwa, his Fascists brutally conquered Ethiopia using poison gas.  Patriot guerrillas mounted steady resistance to Italian occupation.  Haile Selassie came back through Sudan with British Commonwealth forces in 1941. Ethiopia was the first country liberated in World War II.  At the end of the war America became Ethiopia’s major benefactor.  Under Haile Selassie’s vigorous leadership the country prospered and progressed with aid from the US, a dozen European countries and Japan.  A military junta called the Derg deposed Haile Selassie in 1974 and turned the country toward the Soviet Union.  Derg rule was a catastrophe.

Somalia has a briefer and simpler history.  Somalis, perhaps a half million of them, lived as scattered tribes in the lowlands along the Indian Ocean for centuries.  They became lightly Islamized but their way of life as nomads herding camels and goats precluded the formation of governments and states.  The walled city of Harar on the edge of Somali country, which became a great center of Islamic civilization, owes its rise to a Semitic people, the Adare, who speak a language akin to the national language of Ethiopia, Amharic, rather than to the Somalis.  The great Muslim warrior, Ahmed Gragn, who terrorized the Ethiopian highlands in the 16th century and was finally defeated by the Portuguese, is now often claimed as a Somali, but his ethnicity is obscure.  Until recently religion was far more important than nationality in this part of the world.  Three European powers–France, Britain,  and Italy–competed for footholds on the Somali coast in the late 19th century and each acquired territory.    Emperor Menelik, threatened by colonial advances, took over the vast Ogaden desert which was also populated by Somali nomads. Britainadded the southernmost Somali-populated area toKenya.  By the early 20th century, boundaries which still exist today had been drawn by Europeans.

Center for Security Policy

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