AS drought and war have put nearly 20 million residents of the Horn of Africa at risk of starvation, an issue with longer-term implications looms larger every day: the movements for separation and independence from the existing nation-states of this shattered region. Recently, the Somali National Movement (SNM), which controls northern Somalia, declared independence from the south and named its new country the Republic of Somaliland. More recently, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) took the entire disputed territory of Eritrea from the remnants of the post-Mengistu Ethiopian army and formalized its own provisional government in the newly liberated land.
Even in neighboring southern Sudan, strong sentiment for independence exists among segments of the population, although the leadership of the insurgent Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) denies this to be their ambition.
These developments are sending shock waves throughout the rest of Africa. Borders arbitrarily drawn by Western European colonizers have caused political problems for decades. Biafra, Western Sahara, and Namibia have been just a few of the ticking secessionist time bombs.
The roots of the divisions in the Horn of Africa are directly traced to colonial policies. Britain colonized northern Somalia, while Italy controlled the south. The regions were attached at independence in 1960, and the north has been economically and politically marginalized by predominantly southern governments since then.
Italy also colonized Eritrea from 1889 to 1941, while the rest of Ethiopia remained largely free from European occupation. After World War II, the United States pressured the United Nations to create a loose federation between Eritrea and Ethiopia that lasted until 1962, when Emperor Haile Selassie forcibly annexed Eritrea. A war for independence has been waged by various Eritrean groups since then, the most powerful of which has been the EPLF.
Egypt and Britain joined forces to administer Sudan during the first half of the 20th century, and until independence in 1956 the colonizers isolated the south from the rest of the country. Two southern-based civil wars have occurred in the post-independence period. The military junta in Khartoum recently implemented Islamic laws in its quest to create a republic based on Ayatollah Khomeini's Iranian model, making potential reconciliation with the SPLA even more remote.
It is past the time when ideological arguments in favor of unity and national sovereignty at all costs hold meaning. Well-armed, deeply committed liberation movements have fought for years and likely will not negotiate away their hard-fought gains. Independence has become a final option because exclusionary military regimes in Mogadishu, Addis Abbaba, and Khartoum have for decades ruthlessly repressed political and economic freedoms in the disputed territories. As SPLA leader John Garang has said, "Unde r
these circumstances, the marginal cost of rebellion in the south has become very small; that is, it pays to rebel."
Independence is not necessarily a one-way street. Its threat can be a negotiating tool to make governments more representative and responsive to groups and regions heretofore excluded or marginalized. When central government reforms are achieved, proposals for autonomous federations will be taken much more seriously by liberation movements and their supporters.
Extensive negotiations between the Ethiopian government and major opposition and liberation groups will be brokered by the US government during the coming weeks. When dealing with the issue of Eritrea, US officials need to take into account the historical roots of this rebellion, and the inevitability of an EPLF military victory over any future opposition to self-determination.
The EPLF has promised a democratic referendum to determine the fate of its territory. The US should focus on ensuring a fair process for this approach to self-determination and allow the long-suffering Eritrean people to decide for themselves. The wars in the Horn of Africa won't end until people get a say in their own affairs. Even more pressing is the need for an expansion of Western relief and rehabilitation programs for the Horn. The logistical capacity of the US military needs to be employed immedi a
tely to jump-start a larger response to the suffering throughout the region.
It is a time of great danger in the Horn of Africa, but also a time of great opportunity for the US government. New governments, and new nations for that matter, are in great need of reconstruction assistance. If the US makes the effort to get aid directly to the people, permanent friends will be won and future famines can be prevented. After a three-decade legacy of supporting corrupt dictators and militarizing vulnerable societies, the US government is fortunate to have a second chance to help make th i