It’s squat and shaped like a rhino horn in a TV wildlife special. It’s the Horn of Africa and it juts into the waters where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden and opens into the Indian Ocean in northeastern Africa.

Slightly less than 100 million people live in the Horn, more than 80 million of them in Ethiopia. Neighboring Somalia (including Somaliland) has 9 million, Eritrea adds another 4 million, and tiny Djibouti fewer than one million.

One of the world’s richest men, in the top 100 on the Forbes list, was born in a small town in central Ethiopia. He still prefers to use Amharic, still spends more time in Addis Ababa than in any of his villas and posh apartments around the world.

Almost everyone else in the Horn tries to survive on its annual per capita GNP of not much above $100. Yet the people in the Horn remain charming, generous, warm, gracious and appealing, except when they are short tempered, explosive, violent and brutal and trying to kill each other.

As recently as 1960 there was only one independent country in the Horn — Ethiopia. The former Italian colony of Eritrea was still unwillingly federated with Ethiopia; its 30-year independence movement had not yet begun. At the beginning of 1960 the rest of the Horn consisted of three Somaliland colonies dating back to the late 19th century “scramble for Africa,” as historians disingenuously call the mugging and capture of African populations and their homelands. From north to south, they were French Somaliland, British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland. The latter two, along the northeast and southeast-facing coasts of the Horn itself, became independent in that year.

British Somaliland went first, followed five days later by Italian Somaliland. They immediately combined as the Somali Republic, an ill-fated attempt at nation-building that soon went bad and collapsed entirely in 1991, leaving anarchy and gang rule in its place. The first war between the Somali Republic and Ethiopia broke out in 1964, but that starting point was a journalistic convenience; cross-border violence had been going on for centuries in the Ogaden — the region in Ethiopia whose population is largely ethnic Somali and in neighboring Somali territory. Still, 1964 was the first time jets were used, but not the last. In the new nation itself Somali clans had been fighting each other since time immemorial over water holes and grazing, paying little attention to unmarked national borders as they followed the often erratic seasonal rainfall that sustained them.

Fighting continues today (March 2009) on both sides of the border between various combinations of combatants. The clans, subclans and sometimes just gangs of criminals, led by bullies dismissively labeled ‘warlords’ by the media, resist the creation of a central government that would reduce their power. Fourteen attempts to form an effective government have failed and the Islamists now control much of the country. In Ethiopia, the Ogaden National Liberation Front harasses the Ethiopian military. It is widely believed that Ethiopia encourages anarchy in Somalia because it has already had several tastes of the alternative: invasion by a unified Somalia.

For the past decade the Horn of Africa has had it all: war, anarchy, insurgencies, drought and HIV/AIDS, Olympic gold medals, repatriation of stolen booty, celebration of Second Millennium on the Julian calendar (September 2007 on our Gregorian calendar) and, lately, the discovery of its music by growing numbers of adventurous fans. Somalia is the “most failed” of all failed states. Ethiopia and Eritrea have hundreds of thousands of troops almost nose to nose along their disputed border, but both countries are still touting their charms to tourists with some success. Djibouti has a big port in a tiny country that hosts thousands of French and US troops, but most of its people still live in another century.

Welcome to the Horn of Africa. It has never been more in the headlines than today, when pirates have attracted ten navies to suppress them, headlines warn of a looming humanitarian disaster, when a soldier with one beer too many could ignite a skirmish that leads to war, where a tug-of-war could pull Somalia as easily toward Islamist moderation as toward Islamist extremism.

I plan to use these first columns to outline the Horn today, after which I intend to take on topics of opportunity.

— Shlomo Bachrach