China has an Africa Problem

The killings of nine Chinese oil workers last month by separatist rebels and the capture of several others in a remote area of eastern Ethiopia has come as a great shock to the Chinese. “Protect our compatriots,” thundered an editorial in the China Daily.

The editorialist would have done better to spend his energies looking up the recent history of the region in which the oil workers were operating. Then he might have asked how Chinese workers were to be protected, and even how China itself had contributed to the endemic instability of that region.

The Chinese were drilling for oil in an area known as the Ogaden. It is not surprising that they want the oil, not just for their own use but as a source of profit for mainland companies. Equally unsurprising is the fact that, as in Ethiopia’s neighbor Sudan, the oil lies in a region traditionally owned by ethnic groups very different from the people who control the government, whether in Khartoum or Addis Ababa.

In the Sudan, Chinese oil interests have been protected by a judicious and so far effective combination of military force and payoffs. The oil-producing area may be alien to its Arab rulers but its population is sparse and lacks ready access to arms.

But the Ogaden is another matter altogether, as officials in Beijing should know. It is just 30 years since it was invaded by Somalia, at that time under the rule of a dictator named Siad Barre, who was a brutal thug but happened to be quite successful in holding Somalia together, a feat which none of his successors has since achieved.

But if Somalia is now everyone’s idea of a failed African state, it also happens to have a distinct ethnic identity. And it is that identity which caused the war of 1977, and the existence today of the Ogaden Liberation Front, which was responsible for killing the oil workers. They were killed because they were there, not because they were Chinese.

Barre had the merit, at least at a time when the world was divided between the into pro and anti-Soviet camps, of being anti-Soviet, not because he was a good Muslim but because his enemy number one, Ethiopia, was in the hands of an even more ruthless thug named Mengistu Haile Mariam. In 1975 Mengistu overthrew the aging emperor Haile Selassie and attempted to turn the ancient kingdom into a Marxist-Leninist “paradise” along the lines of North Korea, which was providing training for his militia.

Siad Barre figured that, suitably armed, he could seize the Ogaden, which was largely populated by Somalis. It was rather like a mini version of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran a few years later. The evil to be attacked was Mengistu, not Khomeini.

Unfortunately for Barre, like Saddam, he over-reached. Not content with occupying the Ogaden, he marched further into Ethiopia. This was too much for the Soviets who not only shipped in new supplies of arms but arranged for “volunteers” from their “progressive” surrogates, Cuba and South Yemen, to go to Mengistu’s aid. The west was reluctant to get further involved in this fringe war and help Barre who was forced to retreat back to his own borders.

The Somalis are a troublesome lot who in the not too distant past have claimed a small chunk of Kenya as well as a large one of Ethiopia. But they have a strong ethnic identity, are Muslims and have friends across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen and to the north in Eritrea, which has been at almost constant war with its former ruler Ethiopia since 1991, when the collapse of the Mengistu regime provided it with an opportunity for independence.

Indeed were Somalia itself not in a state of civil war, its ability to make life difficult for Ethiopia would be rather greater. As it happens, both the US and China are now backing a non-socialist, pro-foreign-capital regime in Addis Ababa, which is just fine except that it was recently persuaded by the Americans to join in a little bit of adventurism in Somalia itself, sending troops to support the supposedly legitimate government against the supposedly Muslim extremist Islamic Courts alliance.

The Americans have gone back to their reprehensible cold-war habit of backing any government, no matter how odious, against those at which they are at odds. That led them to provide aid to kleptocracies across Africa, Asia Latin America that they continue to pay for today in terms of international distrust. That habit reached its apex when the Americans provided aid to the murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s against the Vietnamese.

The result of backing the Ethiopians in Somalia has been the destruction of large parts of Mogadishu and thousands of deaths in the name of combating el-Qaeda. Whatever the problems with the Islamic Courts, it was foolhardy from the beginning to imagine that Somalis would welcome troops, however well-intentioned, from their historical enemy.

China is complicit in this mess, if only indirectly. If, as the China Daily demands, it should give Chinese citizens who go overseas as workers, investors or tourists “appropriate protection,” Beijing should tell its companies and workers to get out of places like the Ogaden and stay out, for their own good as well as the good of a region in which international rivalries have merely added fuel and guns to ethnic animosities and the ambitions of dictators and local warlords.