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Regional Outlook : No Relief for Africa's Troubled Horn : Cursed by man and nature, the region hosts three of the continent's seven civil wars. Famine, poverty and repression add to the misery.

June 18, 1991|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The haul of weapons this country's new rulers collected from its former government officials last month was impressive in its diversity.

The guns lay in a pile at the collecting station, where a youthful rebel soldier, now part of a regular army, issued receipts: Soviet-made carbines and AK-47 automatic rifles predominated, but there were also Belgian rifles, Israeli Uzis and even a lonely American Winchester.

The pile of armaments is an emblem of one of the great problems of the region known as the Horn of Africa. Collectively, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti constitute one of the most heavily militarized corners of the world.

It is also one of the most cursed, by man and nature.

The Horn hosts three of Africa's seven civil wars and a area wide famine--possibly the worst since the Ethiopian disaster of 1984-85--afflicting nearly 20 million people. There has not been a peaceful change of government in more than 25 years (with the exception of some political maneuvers in Djibouti, which gained its independence from France in 1977).

The longstanding former leaders of Ethiopia and Somalia, Mengistu Haile Mariam and Mohamed Siad Barre, both left their domains at gunpoint in recent months: Mengistu taking flight in a small plane and heading for exile in Zimbabwe; Siad Barre leaving his palace in a tank and holing up in his home district in an isolated corner of southern Somalia.

All four countries of the Horn rank among the 42 classified by the United Nations as Least Developed Nations; Ethiopia holds the unfortunate distinction of being one of the world's poorest nations based on per capita income.

War, famine, poverty, repression--the Horn of Africa is, in the words of a Western diplomat who recently served in Ethiopia, "a theme park for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."

Moreover, there is no guarantee that the recent revolutions in Somalia and Ethiopia will make things any better--at least, not anytime soon. And as always, the greatest toll is among the innocent.

The final collapse in January of Siad Barre's Somali government came as troops representing a number of rebel groups entered the capital, Mogadishu, and laid waste to what was left of public order.

Since then, Somalia has been so chaotic--seven clan-based insurgent groups are still fighting each other--that the United Nations and private relief agencies dare not re-enter the country to restore relief programs for its 8.4 million people. Last month, the Somali National Movement, a rebel group, declared the independence of northern Somalia, marking the first African secession since the bloody episode of Biafra in 1969.

In Ethiopia, Mengistu sat out the endgame of two civil wars, one lasting 30 years and the other 16, then fled too late, leaving a government and army in collapse and a capital undefended against a rebel assault.

That was followed by a second breakaway--that of the province of Eritrea from the rest of Ethiopia. The newly victorious Eritrean People's Liberation Front says it will submit the question of Eritrea's independence to a public, internationally supervised referendum, but for now the province is functioning as a sovereign state in all but name.

Whether the region's relief needs--estimated at more than a million tons each this year for Ethiopia and Sudan alone--will decline depends on more than the wars' end. Ethiopia needs new, non-socialist agricultural policies to realize its considerable, and overlooked, potential.

Meanwhile, the final burst of fighting in Ethiopia and Somalia sent hundreds of thousands of new refugees over their borders into neighboring countries. Djibouti, a tiny entrepot on the Red Sea once known as French Somaliland, might have been spared the worst of the regional plight except for the overflow from its neighbors: It now has close to 100,000 refugees from the Somali and Ethiopian civil wars within its borders, at least 30,000 of whom have arrived in the last month.

Many other fleeing Somalis had nowhere to go but Ethiopia, where they have fallen prey to bandits and drought. Relief officials believe the end of the Ethiopian conflict will make it easier to move emergency food into the country--but the breakdown of security in the rural areas where the grain must end up has created a surge in brigandage.

Among the targets of bandits and hostile insurgents was the population of 300,000 Sudanese refugees encamped around the western Ethiopian town of Gambela, including as many as 100,000 orphaned boys below the age of 16. Staff of the Office of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which ran the camps, had already pulled out, and the camps had not had deliveries of food in nearly a month.

Reports suggest that all 300,000 are on the move again, this time back into southern Sudan, where there is little to eat but grass and stalks. And they are again at the mercy of the Arab militias that drove them out of their homes years ago.

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