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Howitzer Culture


new internationalist
issue 238 - December 1992

It was true during the Cold War. It is still true today. But will those who are coming to power listen?
Howitzer culture
The people of the Horn have been drowned in a flood of arms
from both sides of the Cold War. Alex de Waal reveals the frightening
extent to which war and famine are feeding off each other.

In a village near the Somali town of Hargeisa, a two-year-old boy plays outside his parents' house. He is tied to a tree with a length of string which prevents him from wandering outside a ten-metre radius of the tree. The surrounding area has not been cleared of landmines. Born into the 'new world order', the boy is still confined by the Cold War.

The 21-year rule of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre left a huge accumulation of grievances to be settled in Somalia. The currency used is Barre's arsenal, provided by both the USSR and the US over almost three decades.

In Mogadishu today, the contending forces of self-proclaimed Interim President ali Mahdi and his adversary General Mohamed Farah Aidid have armed themselves from the huge stockpile of weaponry' in the city. Second World War-vintage field artillery pieces fire off rounds into residential suburbs; anti-aircraft guns are pointed level and used to demolish buildings.

A list of the armaments available in Somalia reads like an inventory of an arms dealer's warehouse. Nine types of artillery piece are in common use on the streets of Mogadishu - five Soviet-made, three US-made and one French model. The residents of the city refer to the shells they fire as 'to whom it may concern' because they are so inaccurate. In addition, two of the heaviest howitzers (one Soviet model and one US) are not currently in use due to of lack of trained personnel. Perhaps the most unusual weapon seen on the street is an air-to-air rocket launcher taken from a MIG-21 fighter-bomber and mounted on a Toyota pickup.

Perhaps more significant than the heavy weaponry is the ubiquitous AK-47. You can see this hardy and efficient killing machine in the hands of children as young as seven or eight years old, yet its recoil is so fierce that unless you have both strength and training it will throw you off balance and spray bullets wildly.

The sheer quantity of arms available to the contending factions ensures years of conflict. This makes the UN-decreed (but unenforced) arms embargo a largely symbolic gesture. Every market has stalls selling small arms and ammunition. A T-55 tank, including spares and ammunition, retails at $4,000. A child in hospital who had been given food by a visiting reporter showed her thanks by offering a present of three AK-47 cartridges.

For 30 years the superpowers poured weaponry into the Horn. In the 1960s and early 1970s the US provided their ally Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia with more US military aid than the rest of the Africa combined. Meanwhile, successive Somali governments received military assistance from the Soviet Union, in return for allowing use of the strategically placed naval base at Berbera, close to the Red Sea choke point. General Aidid learned his artillery doctrine in Moscow - obliterate whole squares on the map rather than aim at specific targets.

In late 1977, after the Ethiopian Revolution, this situation reversed in one of the most dramatic volte-faces of the Cold War - an episode that revealed the ideological shallowness of both superpowers. In June of that year, seeing the Ethiopian Government weakened by internal dissension, the Somali army invaded Ogaden. In the dying days of 1977 Moscow began an airlift of two billion dollars' worth of military equipment to Ethiopia. Russian advisors who had planned the Somali advance were transferred from Mogadishu to Addis Ababa. Somalia was unceremoniously ditched by its former patron. By March 1978 the Somali army was in full retreat. The Somali Government, enraged at the Soviets' perfidy, invited the US in.

The quantities of arms sent to these two eager clients was staggering. Ethiopia was equipped with 1,400 tanks, over 1,000 artillery pieces, 140 fighter-bombers and 35 helicopter gunships. The cost was over eight billion dollars, bought on credit at low interest rates. The last shipment arrived in March 1991. (Recently Russia asked for continued repayments, and was rebuffed by the Transitional Government - the arms had been bought with the intention of killing precisely those people who now sit in the ministries in Addis Ababa.) About one-quarter of Ethiopia's entire gross national product between 1974 and 1991 was spent on the war effort.

Cucumbers or mortar shells; at the market in Makele you can buy both. This cultural violence will be hard to shake off.

In Somalia, arms expenditure amounted to about ten per cent of gross national product; by the end of the decade its army possessed nearly 300 tanks and about 700 artillery pieces and mortars.

Over one million men and boys passed through military service in the Ethiopian Army, while perhaps one-third of that number fought at one time or another in the rebel movements. The Government forcibly conscripted its soldiers in 'sweeping up' operations, surrounding schools, market places or villages and taking away all eligible men and boys at gunpoint. The Somali Army was much smaller than the Ethiopian, at about 60,000, but a similar number of people were trained in militias and many refugees were conscripted to fight for the Government.

A generation of Ethiopians were trained in the techniques of modern warfare. These included counter-insurgency strategies developed from, amongst others, the Soviet experience in Afghanistan - forcible relocation of people, for example, so as to ensure strict surveillance and cut off civilian support for guerrillas. These strategies were instrumental in halting the internal grain trade and labour migration in northern Ethiopia, a major factor in the famine of 1983-85.

At the other end of the scale, well over one million men and boys have been trained in the use of modern weapons, such as the AK-47 and small anti-personnel landmines Even those who were not soldiers have come to know military technology with great intimacy; war has become almost a way of life. After the victorious Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front demobilized Mengistu's 500,000-strong army in 1991, many of the former conscripts turned to banditry as a means of earning a livelihood.

After defeat in the Ogaden, the Siad Barre regime was faced with mounting unrest and a series of coup attempts and regional insurrections. These culminated in 1988, when rebels launched all-out attacks on the towns of northern Somalia and the Government responded with one of the most vicious scorched-earth policies witnessed in Africa. Fighter-bombers took off from Hargeisa airport, circled round, and bombed and strafed the town itself. Field artillery was used to flatten whole blocks.

Perhaps most deadly of all, anti-personnel landmines were planted throughout the area. They were not laid in regular formations for military purposes, but were used to encircle waterpoints and villages, were scattered randomly on roads and pastures, and were carefully wired up to booby-trap houses so as to kill the residents should they try to return. Five types of anti-tank mine, one type of anti-vehicle mine, and eight makes of anti-personnel mine were provided by almost every major manufacturer in the world. The Pakistani-manufactured P4 Mk2 boasts in its sales literature that 'the quantity of explosive has been calculated to have a blast effect... to make the man disabled and incapacitate him permanently'. Retailing at $6.75 each, these and other pocket-size mines are deliberately manufactured to be undetectable and to maim rather than kill - because a wounded soldier needs assistance from colleagues who are then also taken out of combat.

Now, four years later, the landmines are still killing and maiming civilians and rendering whole areas of northern Somalia uninhabitable. The local people are faced with the choice of avoiding their homes and fields, and having no way to make a living, or risking death or disablement in pursuit of the necessities of life. The Cold War will still be killing Somalis well into the next century.

The Horn of Africa is now locked into a cycle of war and famine. The means whereby war creates famines are now well known - destruction, restriction of population, diversion of resources. Less well understood are the means whereby famine creates war.

Where resources are scarce and becoming scarcer, access to weaponry is the easiest way to earn a living. This might be through small-scale plunder and asset-stripping - looting electrical goods or factory machinery and selling it abroad, for instance. Or it might be via clan warfare over pasture and wells, which are the very fundamentals of rural subsistence. If a community loses its well, famine is almost inevitable and this makes the fighting even fiercer - it is a fight for survival. So no group can afford to relinquish its arms for fear of facing starvation. But unless the chronic conflict can be stopped, starvation for all is the inevitable outcome.

Somalia represents the current extreme of a famine war, but there are ominous signs of similar developments in parts of Ethiopia. The legacy of the Cold War for the Horn could be a constant state of predatory chaos.

Alex de Waal works for in London for the human rights group Africa Watch.

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