Key Points:

A comfortable Western notion exists that Africa's troubles are those of its own creation, that left to their own devices the medley of tribes and nations that constitute the vast continent will implode in an orgy of self-destruction. This image portrays the West as a passive bystander or generous aid-giver. The truth is different and the latest escalation of conflict in the Horn of Africa is the latest example of inconvenient facts which the news media have, for the most part, failed to expose.

The reality is that African conflicts over the past half-century have in large measure been fuelled, armed and promoted by the West, notably the former colonial powers and their business interests. Rather than "letting go" of their former empires these powers have continued to meddle in their affairs and to influence events on the continent by financing corrupt administrations or supporting one faction or another in their internecine struggles.

Although the Cold War provided an excuse for taking sides with one dictator or another, its end has not seen any let-up in interference. Instead, "Islamists" have now merely replaced communists as the new bogeymen.

Following previous disastrous attempts at direct intervention, the United States had been forced to play an indirect role in Somali affairs, supporting at different times various warlord factions. The brutal reign of these warlords had subjected the unfortunate Somali populace to a reign of terror largely ignored by the mainstream media.

Finally, with considerable popular support, a movement known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) toppled these bullies and put an end to their feudal conflicts. The rump of the former regime, euphemistically titled the "interim Government", was largely run out of the country and confined to one provincial town. By all accounts, the ICU takeover was relatively peaceful and a semblance of law and order returned to a land that had previously known little of either.

Now to the latest chapter: with the encouragement of its Western aid donors and with open American support, Ethiopia has thrown its considerable military muscle into the fray on behalf of the warlords and undertaken what appears to be a full-blown invasion of its neighbour. Other African countries have also been drafted in to this new "coalition of the willing." The enraged ICU has threatened to set the region in flames and the inevitable result may be a protracted guerrilla struggle and more bloodletting. Islamists and the ever-present bugbear, al Qaeda will no doubt be blamed and arms manufacturers will be laughing all the way to the bank.

What of the United Nations, one might ask? Along with the African Union, it has declared its support for the invasion in support of the interim Government. The Ethiopian invasion has been explained on the basis of "preventive self-defence." This is, of course, the same doctrine used by Britain and the US to justify invading Iraq: Saddam might someday threaten us with weapons of mass destruction. Here the ICU might some day threaten Ethiopia (with what one might ask - a model of a peaceful law-abiding society?) so best eliminate it now.

It appears the lessons of Iraq have not been learned, the doctrine of preventive war is very much alive - except it is now to be fought by proxies. In Africa's case, this means untold suffering for millions. The UN is a helpless participant, itself the prisoner of the victors of the Cold War.

Still there remains hope - hope that the media will expose this thuggery for what it is. There is hope that the Somali people will unite in defeating the attempts at foreign manipulation of their country. Finally, there is the hope - and it is a forlorn one - that our Government will have the spine to take a stand at the UN and call not just for a ceasefire but for an immediate total withdrawal of all foreign forces from Somalia.

* Gehan Gunasekara lectures at the University of Auckland.