It looked like many of the dhows that sail the Gulf of Aden, a nameless boat identifiable only by its registration number – 11S2. This dhow, however, was not carrying fish, or even engaged in the lethal people smuggling trade conducted across these waters.
Tracked by Yemeni intelligence officials, it was laden with a quite different cargo that had been loaded at Hes Bes on Somalia‘s arid coastline.
When it was boarded late last year by Yemeni coastguards, the ship’s captain and his crew of 12 were discovered to be ferrying arms into a country already awash with weapons. About 60 million handguns, at the last count, arm a population of 21 million people in Yemen. The arms traffic is hardly one-way. Indeed, Yemeni ships are more often smuggling arms in the opposite direction, to fuel the terrible conflict in Mogadishu and south central Somalia.
The capture of the ship was a small event in the scheme of things, but an illustrative one. The Horn of Africa retains the potential to be one of the continent’s most explosive regions, having suffered some of Africa’s longest and most bitter conflicts during the past century. “The problem with this region as a whole,” says Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society, “is that you cannot talk about Ethiopia without talking about Eritrea and Somalia. You can’t talk about Sudan without mentioning Egypt.” Dowden is convinced too that a failure to understand the nature of the relationships between the various neighbours by other countries – not least the US and Britain – has contributed to the difficulties in the area. With Yemen, just across the Gulf of Aden, added to the mix, the area’s multi-layered security, economic and political problems appear so interconnected at so many levels as to seem irresolvable at a local one alone.
This region has left its mark on the international consciousness over the past two decades for all the wrong reasons: war, famine and massive displacement of civilian populations.
The most potent images, inevitably, are of disasters that struck westerners rather than the local populations: the Battle of Mogadishu that saw dead US servicemen dragged through the city’s streets; the 2000 attack on the USS Cole by al-Qaida in the Yemeni port of Aden that killed 17 American sailors, and the kidnapping of western ships and tourists by pirates off Somalia’s coast. Then there are the connections to the failed Christmas Day plane-bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is believed to have received training and instruction from al-Qaida in Yemen.
The profundity of the region’s problems has seen it defined as one of the two anchors of the so-called “arc of crisis” – the locus of religious, economic and political faultlines which extends in a broad sweep through the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, terminating in India.
Yet the complexity of the relationships between the states that make up the area remains the least examined and least understood contributor to that arc.
Last week, it was the turn of the prime minister of Somalia’s beleaguered Transitional Federal Government, Omar Sharmarke, to dramatise what many see as the shortcomings of western policy towards the region – a tendency to ignore the potential fallout from and consequences of external intervention.
Responding to the US offer to help Yemen in its fight against al-Qaida – and Gordon Brown’s move to convene a summit on the issue – Sharmarke issued a warning. He said the sudden upsurge of interest after Abdulmutallab was linked to Yemeni-based extremists would only displace Yemen’s problem to Somalia and other parts of Africa.
“Gordon Brown has rushed to call an emergency summit on Yemen,” said Sharmarke, “but it must be understood that the problem will simply displace to Somalia unless there is corresponding support here. We call on Mr Brown to ensure that the summit agreed for the end of this January considers Somalia and Yemen jointly, and that resources are deployed immediately to assist our efforts against this scourge.
“Al-Qaida and their affiliates such as al-Shabaab [the Somali Islamist militia] are simply making sure that whilst Yemen is the subject of increased western attention and Somalia receives only empty gestures, they seize the opportunity to secure new supply routes and movement corridors for a move deeper into Africa.”
Western preoccupations have not only been driven by the alleged links between Abdulmutallab and the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. There are also reports that fighters from Afghanistan have relocated recently to Somalia and Yemen. Yemen is also home to thousands of former mujahideen who fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets.
But while the increased presence of al-Qaida and its proxies in both Yemen and Somalia are the inevitable focus of concern, there are other more worrying dynamics at work – all of them with the potential to cause widespread violence.
Three key externally sponsored peace processes in the region appear to be either in danger of unravelling, or not worth the paper they are written on.
The most dangerous situation for now is in Somalia, where relative stability is confined to the autonomous Puntland and Somaliland regions. There, the feeble stop-start peace process of the past decade which created a Transitional National Government – torpedoed by Ethiopian interference – and then the present Transitional Federal Government, installed by force with the help of the same state, has hardly solved the country’s problems; in fact it appears to have exacerbated them.
The involvement of the US in approving Ethiopia’s disastrous intervention encouraged the rise of the brutal al-Shabaab militia, which has been backed by Ethiopia’s enemy Eritrea, and armed with weapons smuggled from Yemen. It is precisely this competition between Ethiopia and Eritrea that has been one of the most dangerous conflict accelerators in the Horn in the past five years. While the political elites on both sides were once allies in the battle against Ethiopia’s Marxist regime of president Mengistu Haile Mariam – who was toppled in 1991 – the “civil divorce” that subsequently permitted Eritrea’s secession turned into conflict over a border dispute in 1998.
While that war ended in 2000 with the Algiers Agreement – which saw the two countries agree to binding arbitration over the demarcation of the border – the mechanisms of arbitration failed when Ethiopia refused to recognise the new border. The result – driven by a mutual loathing that has seen policy dictated by the credo of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” – has been a proxy conflict in Somalia which has seen Eritrea – a secular state – back the al-Qaida-allied al-Shabaab and Ethiopia, the Transitional Government.
A final area of risk has been produced by the slow corrosion of the US-brokered comprehensive peace agreement which ended the second Sudanese war between the mainly Muslim north and Christian-Animist south. That agreement began unravelling at the end of 2007. Tensions have been exacerbated by plans in the south to hold a referendum next year on full independence – a vote Khartoum has warned could lead to all-out war.
In the past year alone, according to a report released last week by aid groups, 2,500 people have been killed in the south and more than 350,000 have fled amid renewed ethnic clashes. Violence flared again last week when 140 villagers were killed in a cattle raid.
Meanwhile in Yemen, a slow disintegration is taking place of a government faced with insurgencies in the north and south – the latter associated by the government with al-Qaida.
Dowden is worried that the same tactics employed in the past by the west – largely without success – are now being used again without thought for the lessons of history. “I believe that grave mistakes are being repeated right now,” he said. On the question of Ethiopia and Somalia, he believes the west’s tacit approval of Ethiopia’s intervention to counter the rise of the Islamic Courts Union – one of whose militias was al-Shabaab – failed to appreciate the enmity between Somalians and Ethiopians. “It showed an unbelievable lack of knowledge when all anyone had to do was ask the question: how will the neighbours feel?”
The answer to that question has had baleful consequences for Yemen and Somalia. Abdul Ghani al-Aryani, an independent political analyst based in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, is increasingly fearful that the Yemeni state may struggle to survive. “Thousands of Somali refugees have been arriving on Yemen’s coastline,” he said. “It is open to them. No one knows how many are associated with al-Shabaab and al-Qaida, but there is evidence that some of them are. We know too that fighters who were with al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan have returned in recent months to both Somalia and Yemen.”
If there are, as al-Aryani suspects, links between al-Qaida groups and proxies in the two countries, he contends that the mutual destabilisation has been driven in recent years by the Yemeni government – not least from the involvement of powerful figures in the arms trade. The same weapons, it would now appear, that are coming back into Yemen to supply a separatist Shia conflict in the north and a second insurgency tied to al-Qaida-linked tribal leaders in the south. Echoing Dowden’s concerns, al-Aryani is concerned that in a country with strong anti-western feelings, unpopular outside intervention, including US involvement in an airstrike before Christmas, can only inflame the problems.
It is a view endorsed by Roger Middleton, who co-ordinates the Horn of Africa Group at the Chatham House thinktank. Middleton believes that a combination of ignoring endemic problems – as described by prime minister Sharmarke – and ill-considered interventions, have contributed to the dangerous cocktail. “If you look at Somalia, for instance, the lesson to the international community is if you ignore these place you do not know what is going to happen. And a policy of intervention can be dangerous.
“You could argue that the US intervention in the early 1990s fuelled the growth of warlordism and that the Ethiopian intervention fuelled the growth of al-Shabaab.” But if the problems of the Horn and Yemen are marked by their similarities they are also distinguished by crucial differences.
Patrick Smith, editor of Africa Confidential, sees a number of common threads, but warns against “lumping” the region’s states together despite the way in which individual agendas appear to collide. “All the players have very different public personas and agendas, although many of them feed each other. Is there a centre? I am not sure.”
One thing most analysts do agree on, is the risk. Ginny Hill, who runs Chatham House’s Yemen Forum, believes future instability in Yemen could expand a lawless zone from northern Kenya, through Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, to Saudi Arabia. “People are worried about the transit of Islamist radicals, but the real story is arms. If you can find a way of tackling the arms trade you could improve governance in Yemen and reduce the potential for further conflict in Somalia. It also needs to be recognised that the Gulf of Aden itself is a vector for instability.” The Yemeni coastguards who intercepted dhow 11S2, stuffed with guns, would doubtless agree.