Horn in the side

The Horn of Africa’s volatility is increasingly a cause for concern

Al-Shabaab (the youth in Arabic) are a group of Somali-based militants with close ties to al-Qaeda. They are really starting to infuriate Kenya.

Seven people were wounded when two grenades were thrown into a club in northeastern Kenya on 24 December. One person was killed and 20 injured in a similar attack in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, in October. A Kenyan man has been found guilty of the first deadly act and is serving a life sentence for that crime and for admitting being a member of al-Shabaab. And, also on 24 December, two men, Sylvester Owino Opiyo and Hussein Nderitu Abbas, handed themselves in to the police. Kenyan authorities suspect them of being linked to al-Shabaab.

The group have been carrying out more and more daring attacks in the region and Nairobi has taken a tough line with both its own citizens who have been involved with the gunmen and the militant Somalis themselves.

In October, Kenyan troops deployed to their unruly northern neighbour although they are operating under the African Union (AU) flag. Thousands of soldiers from Burundi and Uganda (along with a mere handful each from a selection of countries from the west of continent)  have been stationed in Somalia for the AU since 2007.  Where the Kenyan mission differs is that it has come in response to attacks on its people and property at beautiful hotspots for foreign tourists.

Somalia’s other border nations, Djibouti and Ethiopia, have ordered military detachments over the frontier to try to counter the growing terrorism amongst al-Shabaab-controlled areas. Djibouti has sent Somali-speaking soldiers in a bid to win hearts and minds.

Having had no functioning Mogadishu-based government for the last twenty years, there are many hands in the Somalia pie. Kenya is the most determined player at the moment, launching air strikes and ground attacks against militants. The other AU troops are holding weakly onto areas of the capital.

In October, the Kenyan government blamed the kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers from Dadaab refugee camp on al-Shabaab. The British PM David Cameron has stated he is willing to lead more concerted international action in Somalia. And Ethiopia has just jailed two Swedish journalists for 11 years. Addis Ababa accused them of supporting terrorism after they travelled with a separatist group to the Ogaden area of country – a region with a restive Somali minority. Moreover, there is the serious issue of piracy in the Gulf of Aden exacerbating the situation.

The dire domestic problems of Somalia have proved hard to resolve. It is worrying that deadly attacks are spreading across local borders and that governments’ appetites for military intervention seem only to be growing stronger.

A universal throne

How monarchies cross religious and political boundaries

All you have to do is glance at the guest list for the British royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton on 29 April.

45 different members of foreign royal families were invited; from 25 different countries. There were representatives from absolute monarchies (Swaziland, Saudi Arabia), constitutional monarchies (Sweden, Spain) and excommunicated monarchies (Yugoslavia, Romania). Different European Christian denominations were on show: Lutheran (Queen Margrethe II of Denmark) and Eastern Orthodox (King Simeon II of Bulgaria). From Africa, there were Muslim (Moroccan Princess Lalla Salma) and Christian (Prince Seeiso of Lesotho) royals. And as for Asia, there were the Muslims from absolutist nations (Emir of Qatar) and Muslims from democracies (the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and Raja Permaisuri Agong of Malaysia), along with the Buddhist Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand and Christian King of Tonga.

Far more countries have scrapped their palaces, tiaras and curtseys. But what can we learn from the ones who haven’t?

They span a broad politico-cultural spectrum, showing us that the monarchical system can be applied to differing extents across separate countries (think of the differences between Malaysia’s take on Islam and the Sunni teachings of Saudi Arabia: both Muslim monarchies, but with very different political agendas).

Monarchies can be a stabilising force for good in restive nations but this stability needs to be tempered by a willingness not to tamper with a country’s politics. Despite this, at times they can be wonderful mediators – think of the steady hand Spain’s King Juan Carlos provided during the rocky transition to democracy following the death of Franco in 1975. But sometimes the stability can become an overriding control and this is where the absolutist regimes suffer to maintain international credibility.

More trustworthiness is vested in those families which have taken a constitutional step-back. One area where they generally succeed is on the global stage. They act as patriotic symbols of their nation and can negotiate interests, discuss deals, or, seeing as many countries are more than ready to don rose-tinted glasses and think back to a former age, simply try to whip up attention for the oft-lampooned idea of a monarchy.

European monarchies have survived in more recent times by branching out from their inter-regal and cross-crown breeding. Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby, a single mother, met Norwegian Prince Haako at a rock concert before marrying him in 2001. In 2004 Australian Mary Donaldson married Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik. And last week’s British royal wedding continued a tradition kicked-off in style by Grace Kelly’s marriage to Monaco’s Prince Rainier III in 1956.

Royal families have shown they can cross international political and religious boundaries. They also seem to have realised that they truly need to modernise and to understand and break down the remaining boundaries that still exist at home.

Snow boots for Islamist terrorists

Sweden was the subject of a recent bomb plot gone wrong and five men were arrested in Denmark on 29 December on suspicion of planning a bombing raid. Has Islamist terrorism come to Scandinavia?

The chilly winds and blizzards of Sweden and Denmark are far-removed from the blasting sun and desert heat of the Middle East but Islam is a powerful and growing presence in Northern Europe. It has overtaken Catholicism to become Norway’s largest minority religion. There are approximately 500,000 Muslims in Sweden. After Lutheranism, Islam is the biggest religion in Denmark.

Mass immigration in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly from the Muslim south-east corner of Europe, Somalia and Pakistan, has prompted the development of Islam as a serious faith in the three Scandinavian countries. National reaction to the growth of Islam has courted controversy.

The Jyllands-Posten cartoons uproar in 2005 was the first major sticking-point to development between this part of Europe and Islam. The men arrested earlier this week in Denmark have been accused of wanting to kill “as many people as possible [at the newspaper’s offices]”, according to Danish officials. The fact that these alleged threats and confirmed arrests have occurred five years after the cartoons were published show that the reach of Islam is growing.

Cartoons were also at the centre of controversy three years ago. Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist, pictured Muhammad as a dog on a roundabout. Mr Vilks has since taken precautions against possible retribution.

Islam has not suffered the same level of inertia and religious apathy which has afflicted the Christian denominations across Europe. Young Muslims are born into a growing faith of potency and totality. Their non-Muslim peers simply do not worry about religion that much at all. And it is this perceived affront to the standard Scandinavian secular-based lifestyle by a popular and powerful minority religion that has caused an upswell in indignation towards Muslims in the region.

The traditional Scandinavian mentality may also be a root cause of the increase in terror plots. By attacking a liberal, less outspoken area of the majority-Christian and Western world, the direct opposite of the US, the UK and Israel, Islamist fundamentalists are demonstrating their capabilities to challenge religious and political ideologies across the globe, no matter how quiet and non-confrontational those countries appear on the surface.