- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2007

Horn of Africa

We were well into the second half of a two-hour interview with Ethiopian Ambassador Samuel Assefa when a consultant to the ambassador handed us a four-color map of the Horn of Africa.

The message conveyed by the map was very clear: The word “Jihadists” appeared in bold red type across Somalia with black arrows pointing to red bomb bursts in parts of Somalia and eastern Ethiopia.

Equally large lettering over eastern Ethiopia bore the letters ONLF, referring to the Ogaden National Liberation Front, with more black arrows pointing to bomb bursts in central and southern Ethiopia. A key at the bottom left of the map said the bomb bursts represented “Terrorist attacks/planned attacks.”

Finally, the map showed bright green arrows stretching from Eritrea to Somalia and eastern Ethiopia, with a third, double-pointed arrow, crossing the Somalia-Ethiopia border. These, the key said, represented “Terrorist relationships,” (weapons/money/ support).

With even a superficial understanding of Ethiopia’s strategic situation, it all made perfect sense. Ethiopian troops have been in Somalia since December, propping up a Western-backed interim government against Islamist militants who had briefly seized control of the country and who continue to attack the Ethiopian and government forces.

Ethiopia has also been fighting for years against the ONLF, which is based in the country’s eastern desert near Somalia and is seeking to establish an independent state or, according to the ambassador, annex the area to Somalia.

Ethiopia accuses Eritrea, a one-time ally with which it fought a two-year border war ending in 2000, of funneling money and weapons to the Somali jihadists and the ONLF, who for the most part are ethnic Somalis. The last arrow suggested that the jihadists and Ogaden rebels are cooperating and moving arms back and forth across the border.

Urbane envoy

What was surprising was not the message of the map, but its simplicity, even crudity, compared to the subtlety and sophistication of the ambassador’s discourse.

Mr. Assefa is not one to make blunt accusations; he speaks rather like the academic he is, boasting a high quality U.S. education including a doctorate in political science from Princeton University, and a recent stint as vice-president of Addis Ababa University.

He spoke of the conflict with Eritrea not in anger but in sorrow, recalling that the nations had been allies in overthrowing the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. And he was quick to point out that most of the Islamists who briefly established power in Mogadishu last year were perfectly reasonable and moderate, saving his criticism for a handful of their most senior leaders.

His biggest concern seemed to be that hostility in Congress toward President Bush has led Democrats to take a harsh view of the Ethiopian government because it is cooperating with the U.S. in the war on terrorism. That, he said, explains why African countries have hesitated to contribute troops to help maintain the peace in Mogadishu.

We pointed out that there is a large Ethiopian community in Washington, many of whose members are politically active and remain very angry over the outcome of 2005 parliamentary elections and whose efforts may contribute to the attitude in Congress. Mr. Assefa slapped his forehead in mock dismay. “How could I have forgotten to mention that?” he said.

All in all, it was a fascinating performance, and provided lots of fodder for an article to appear in the coming days. It was part of what makes this job so much fun.

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