Sunday, June 11, 2006

incoming... long post

Recently I bookmarked Eritrea...

I've long been concerned about East Africa. I went to what could be considered the wild heart of the region, the Highlands of Kenya, towards the end of the nineties, and spent perhaps the most deeply impressing few months of my life there- six of them, to be precise.

It was World Cup time when I left for Africa on Air France via Charles De Gaulle, after the previous night watching a French victory mainly achieved by black men, and we had the Euro by the time I returned- or rather, part of the Continent of Europe did. In between times there was the bomb attack on the US Embassy in Nairobi and Bill Clinton's missile attack retaliation against Afghanistan and Sudan.

I remember these events because I listened most evenings to the BBC world service, and I could concentrate on what I was hearing without too much distraction. There was barely enough light even to read, and the evenings were consistently lengthy, with the onset of darkness anytime between 6.45 and 8 O'clock leaving plenty of time for the oil lamps to burn in earnest, and the radio to receive full attention.

No-one I knew then could understand for the life of them why that schmaltzy philanderer Clinton should cause his missiles to penetrate such distant and alien nations as Sudan and Afghanistan. In fact they were rather angry with him, despite the major death toll among Kenyans -many of the 220 plus victims were Kenyan- in the blast. I bet they understand better now, when the perpetrators of the bombing are more widely known and understood.

The backdrop to these events though was also interesting. I became aware, in my fastness of the north-western hills (mountains in actuality, though scarcely comparable with their European cousins), of a steady pressure, a drum beat almost, coming from Islam in the North and heading Southwards. There were reports of conversions taking place of Christians to Islam, of Islamic polygamy; I sensed that Islam was starting to stir in the region.

This sense was confirmed in Nairobi. Among the reasons for the extensive migration from the North East of Kenya was certainly the instability caused by the breakdown of order in Somalia, and this has consistently had an Islamic component, maybe even an Al Qaeda component. Immigrants to Nairobi from the North East and from Somalia filled the slums of the city, but, even among these, those who left the faith of Islam were hunted down by armed gangs of Somali Islamists.

There has been a strong Islamic component to the unrest in Somalia for well over a decade now, so it's not really surprising that a group of Islamists has coordinated itself to 'take over' Mogadishu. But it is alarming and interesting simultaneously.

Somalia is an interesting country, racially and geographically. The appearance of Somalis, with wiry swirling hair, skinny frames and the sharp features of their faces, is quite different from that of the people further to the south.

Geographically Somalia hugs the East Coast of Africa and almost touches the tip of Yemen at its northernmost point, which makes it an ideal through-road for Arab, predominantly Saudi, influence.

I am interested to place the Islamist takeover in a little more context; I can only see it as part of its region, and subject to the regional ambitions of the most vigorous creed in the market at the moment: Islam.

I have heard quite a lot of wailing that the US was supporting warlords in Somalia to fight the rising Islamist camp there. I'd heard it on the BBC, and found a number of liberal media outlets wailing about it. Of much more interest to me though is the question of who is supporting the Islamists.

The most vigorous regional power at the moment, although it is of North Eastern Africa, is Sudan.

I was interested today to learn from the BBC about the President of Chad's version of how the Sudanese were sponsoring armed rebellion against his regime.

The BBC helpfully pointed out that 'in fact, according to the United Nations refugee agency, both countries openly support rebel activities against the other.

Well thanks Aunty, but it might be significant that the Chadian population is estimated at under ten million, while the Sudanese population is over four times that, and Sudan is Africa's largest country. It also has around nine times the military expenditure of Chad. Not sure whether that includes the Jangaweed.

The point is that Sudan's interference is potentially much more consequential than Chad's.

I think what I am getting at is quite simple: there is a strategy to extend Islamic domination across North-East and Eastern Africa (there's one for West Africa too, and that is focussed on Nigeria). It's summarised quite effectively by this post from Jihad Watch. In this schema, Ethiopia is seen as the stumbling block to Islamic ambition, just as it historically has been. It is however a mouldering stumbling block, both due to its poverty and the fact that nowadays upwards of 50% of its population are Muslim.

But if we look to Ethiopia's east we can see that ringing it are a series of smaller nations: Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia. Of these only Eritrea is pluralistic in its religious beliefs; the others are Muslim, although even in Eritrea Muslims are easily the largest single grouping. Significantly, towards the coast Eritrea is mainly Muslim. Coming back to the question of who has backed the Islamist takeover in Somlia, there are any number of candidates, but this corridor of Islamic opportunity down the East Coast is certainly a likely source of support.

I suppose I imagine that one of the goals of the Islamic war on the West is to secure for itself large regions which make good nestbeds for its operatives and schemes, where a civilian population can be a cost-free shield, where the use of conventional weapons would create only pin-pricks in a territory that an invading ground force would find forbidding and vast. The East African Caliphate would represent all of that.

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