Nairobi, Kenya — The United States may have picke d up a hot potato when it reached its recent accord with Somalia on the acquisition of the former Soviet naval base at Berbera.
The feeling in eastern Africa, which is extremely sensitive to any trouble in the stormy Horn of Africa, is that the United States, in its hurry to take over Berbera, has promised more to Somalia than it can afford to give -- namely, the risk of involvement in the continuing-regional conflicts in the Horn area.
[An Iraqi Foreign ministry spokesman on Sept. 2 said the US-Somali agreement would intensify big- power conflict in the region and was an act hostile to the independence of the Arab nation, according to a Reuter story from Baghdad, Iraq. ]
Why, for example, did Somalia put out the report that it had been invaded by Ethiopia? Diplomats in eastern Africa believe that the Somali report was intended to hasten the flow of arms from the US by gaining American sympathy.
It also could give the Somalis an excuse to counterattack against Ethiopia.
Moreover, if Somalia presses ahead with its national desire to conquer the Ethiopian Ogaden Desert region, the Ethiopians (backed by their Soviet friends) can reasonably say the Somalis are being encouraged by the US.
Diplomats contacted in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, and here in Nairobi believe that the Americans have no guarantee that the arms promised to Somalia, when they arrive, will not be filtered through the vast empty wastes of the Somali deserts to arm Somali guerrillas in the sporadic Ogaden conflict.
The guerrillas reportedly are fast running out of arms and ammunition. The Somali Army itself still is using out-of-date Soviet equipment left behind when the Russians were kicked out of Somalia three years ago. (The Berbera base is strategically located near the mouth of the Red Sea and close to the Gulf oil routes.)
There also is evidence that Kenya government, which rightly or wrongly feels threatened, warned Washington not to sell arms to Somalia. Kenya for some time has been the victim of Somali shiftas (bandits) who have been raiding over the border into northeastern Kenya.
Yet as part of the Berbera deal, the US is providing Somalia with millions in arms credits, support for this almost bankrupt country's balance of payments, and for economic development. This is in addition to a large sum to help Somalia support a flood of Somali refugees from warfare in the Ogaden Desert area.
The Washington negotiations were barely completed when Somalia reported that the Ethiopians had invaded a large area of northwest Somalia.
A minor border clash had occurred, it was found, but nothing on the scale of an invasion. The Ethiopians promptly and categorically denied that they had invaded Somalia.
When the Berbera base agreement was concluded, Somalia had just been defeated in a push into the Ogaden area with West Somalia Liberation Force guerrillas reportedly supported by regular Somali troops. The Ethiopians said they repulsed this attack, inflicting heavy losses.
The Somalis took a beating in 1977 when they made a push into the Ogaden and fought Ethiopians, Soviet tanks and aircraft, and Cuban mercenaries.
Somalia claims the largely ethnic Somali Ogaden as its territory under the "greater Somalia" policy, which is in the Somali Constitution. It also claim portions of northeastern Kenya and Djibouti.
Significantly, when the Ethiopians brought their case to the Good Offices Committee of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) trying to solve the Ethiopia- Somali dispute, it declared that the Ogaden was an integral part of Ethiopia.
It also reiterated the principle in the OAU charter that calls on African countries to respect the territorial integrity of their neighbors. (Enshrined in the charter is the understanding that borders and frontiers of African states are those they were left with when independence was granted.)