Africa Update: Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan This week, Bill Fletcher discusses escalating violence in Somalia, rising political tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the latest on the North-South dispute in Sudan. Fletcher is the senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and former president of TransAfrica Forum.

Africa Update: Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan

Africa Update: Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan

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This week, Bill Fletcher discusses escalating violence in Somalia, rising political tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the latest on the North-South dispute in Sudan. Fletcher is the senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and former president of TransAfrica Forum.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

It's time now for our Africa update. This week, escalating violence in Somalia, plus rising political tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the latest on the north-south dispute in Sudan.

For more, we've got Bill Fletcher, a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and former president of TransAfrica Forum.

Hi, Bill.

Mr. BILL FLETCHER (Senior Scholar, Institute for Policy Studies; Former President, TransAfrica Forum): Hey, glad to be back.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, great to have you on. So, let's talk - we're really talking about the east of the continent and the last week, dozens people have been killed in heavy fighting in and around Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. Tens of thousands of people have fled the area, journalists have been killed, Ethiopian troops were killed as well, and one dead soldier's body was dragged through the streets. What's behind all these violence?

Mr. FLETCHER: The invasion has failed. The Ethiopian invasion, fundamentally, has failed. The transitional government that was put in is attempting to suppress opposition, not just the Islamists, but also trying to suppress the media itself, and so tension is arising.

CHIDEYA: Give us a little bit of background - just briefly, we've talked about this. But on the question of the Ethiopians being in Somalia, give us the backgrounder on that.

Mr. FLETCHER: The Union of Islamic Courts, an Islamist group, which is something along the lines of the Taliban, succeeded in taking over some - a good chunk of Somalia and restricting the ability of the clans to create chaos. The Ethiopian government was deeply worried about the situation there. There has been historical antagonisms between Ethiopia and Somalia. And with the apparent encouragement of the U.S. government, the Bush administration, Ethiopia invaded Somalia, routed the Union of Islamic Courts and everyone thought that that was that - or at least many people thought that was that. The Islamists regrouped and they've been conducting a guerilla war against Ethiopians and the Somali allies.

CHIDEYA: Now, last week, Ethiopia deployed 2,000 more troops to Mogadishu. Some people blame the violence on the resentment towards the Ethiopian troops who monitor the area. What about civilians? How were they caught in this conflict?

Mr. FLETCHER: There has been a humanitarian disaster that's been unfolding in Somalia, massive emigration of people out of Mogadishu - the United Nations is very worried - and in addition, Somalia has not been receiving the sorts of international aid that it needs to deal with the civilian refugees. So the situation is quite dramatic and unfortunately, it's not getting the kind of attention it needs here in the United States.

CHIDEYA: So you have Ethiopia and Somalia, and now you have Ethiopia and Eritrea - neighboring nations. Is this a border war?

Mr. FLETCHER: This is one of the greatest tragedies of the last decade. Here you have two countries that's succeeded in building a - something close to a partnership through the overthrow of the Ethiopian junta that was called the Derg in early '90s. Eritrea achieved independence, and there was collaboration, and there was even talk of some sort of regional alignment that could take place between the two countries.

And then things started to unravel. And it's basically - what seems to be at route is a level of political opportunism that first emerged in Ethiopia, but now, I must say, also in Eretria, where the leadership is trying desperately to hold on to power, and it's fanning the flames of nationalism and war.

CHIDEYA: What territory are they really fighting over?

Mr. FLETCHER: It's an area that's almost a - there's really almost nothing there. It's 25 kilometers round in a town called Badme, B-A-D-M-E. And it's not exactly what you'd call an oasis. And that's why many observers, in looking at the situation, say, no, no, no. This is not about the territory. This is about something else.

And unfortunately, I think that the something else is that it becomes a convenient means for the Ethiopian government, which refuses to implement the border commission resolution of the crisis. It becomes a means for them to rally the troops against the evil bogeymen in Eritrea. It's almost like the beginning of World War I.

CHIDEYA: Are you saying then that this is, in some ways, a fictional conflict -a real conflict with nothing more than mutual animosity fueling it?

Mr. FLETCHER: It's close to a fictional conflict. What's at stake, what's being said that's at stake really does not pass the straight-face test. The Ethiopians are clearly violating the agreement that was established by the border commission. That is true. At the same time, the Eritreans are not permitting peacekeepers to fully observe the territory that's in dispute. So when you have a situation like that, and you have two very well-armed militaries, you have a recipe for a potential disaster.

CHIDEYA: Now, Ethiopia has been considered a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, and Eritrea has been considered as possibly being added to the list of states that sponsor terrorism. What happened there?

Mr. FLETCHER: It was a reckless, reckless move by the Bush administration, describing Eritrea as potentially sponsoring terrorism. There's absolutely no foundation for this. But what it does is that it gives militaristic elements in Ethiopia, the idea that they have the green light to potentially attack Eritrea and have the support of the United States. It was the most idiotic move that anyone could imagine, where you have a situation that could blow up at any moment.

CHIDEYA: Let's turn briefly to Sudan. There is a truce between north and south. Could be unraveling, what is the latest on that?

Mr. FLETCHER: Two years ago, there - a truce was signed. As you know, between the north and the south, ending a civil war that essentially started in the early 1960s. Some would say it started actually in the 1950s. And the northern government based in Khartoum under President al-Bashir was supposed to take several steps, including confirming a border between the north and the south, taking political steps or steps towards political reform, and third, working out agreements around the issue of oil, because oil have been discovered in the southern Sudan, which is what this dispute is really largely about.

The al-Bashir government, by most accounts, has taken very few steps and appears to have been stalling. The southern - the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement, which is the major force in the south, essentially had enough and withdrew its representatives from the government, from the Government of National Unity, said that al-Bashir must follow through or they're no longer going to participate in the Government of National Unity.

CHIDEYA: Again, very briefly, what's the worst-case scenario here if there's no resolution?

Mr. FLETCHER: The worst-case scenario is implosion; that Sudan, basically, unravels by a combination of the southern conflict, the Darfur situation, and the struggle for democracy that's taking place in the north. A less-than-worst-case scenario is that we'll have a long-term stalemate, something along the lines of what's taking place in the Western Sahara, where you have armed camps that are more or less not fighting each other on a regular basis, but with a country that's divided.

CHIDEYA: All right, Bill, thank you so much.

Mr. FLETCHER: Thank you as always.

CHIDEYA: Bill Fletcher is a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and the former president of TransAfrica Forum. He spoke with us from NPR's Washington D.C. headquarters.

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