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African Conflicts and American Diplomacy: Roles and Choices

Conference Hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the
American Academy of Diplomacy
29 October 2009
Washington, D.C.

Remarks on the Horn of Africa by David H. Shinn
Adjunct Professor, Elliott School of International Affairs
George Washington University

I will begin with a provocative statement. Since the end of World War II, the five
countries of the Horn of Africa (Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti) have
constituted the most conflicted corner of the world—not necessarily in terms of the most
deaths and destruction but in terms of the number of conflicts and their complexity.
There are some other good candidates for this unfortunate distinction. They
include Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in an earlier era; the nexus of Lebanon, Israel,
Syria, Palestine and Jordan; more recently the combination of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan
and Iran; the Great Lakes region of Africa; and even possibly the former Yugoslavia. But
over the past sixty plus years, I would argue that the Horn of Africa holds the record for
the sheer number of separate conflicts. There is not time during this panel to discuss all
of the conflicts that have occurred in the Horn since the end of World War II. I will only
address those that exist today or those that occurred in the past couple of years and have
the potential to return.
Sudan is warily implementing the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that
ended the war between northern and southern Sudan that resumed in 1983. There are
serious concerns whether a resumption of conflict can be avoided. The crisis in Darfur,
which began in 2003, remains unresolved although the level of violence is mercifully
reduced. The eastern Sudan is free of conflict at the moment but there is little confidence
that there has been a permanent solution to the discord there. The Lord’s Resistance
Army has recently resumed attacks in southern Sudan and ethnic conflict in the south has
probably resulted this year in more violent deaths than have occurred in Darfur. Even the
disputed Halaib Triangle on Sudan’s border with Egypt remains unresolved and the
source of potential conflict. Finally, there is sporadic conflict along the Sudan-Chad
border driven in part by the situation in Darfur and in part by long-standing support from
Sudan and Chad for rebel groups across the border. I have four countries to go.
Somalia holds the distinction as the world’s most failed state. The weak
Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Somalia is militarily opposed by al-Shabaab,
an extremist organization allied with al-Qaeda. Al-Shabaab, in turn, has a loose alliance
with another extremist organization known as Hizbul Islam, which claims not to have ties
with al-Qaeda. Significant numbers of Ethiopian troops entered Somalia late in 2006 in
support of the TFG. Although Ethiopian forces left in early 2009, they continue to
conduct periodic cross-border operations. Eritrea supports al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam
as a way to create problems for Ethiopia. As if this is not enough, Somali pirates have
been tying up about twenty-five international naval vessels in the Gulf of Aden and
western Indian Ocean as a result of attacks that expanded exponentially starting in 2007
on commercial shipping and unsuspecting yacht owners.
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Ethiopia has a long history of internal armed dissident movements. One of the
most important organizations today is the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which recently
experienced a split in its leadership and has not decided if it wants an independent
Oromia or greater political power and autonomy within a united Ethiopia. Somalis in
southeastern Ethiopia constitute the other principal threat. The Ogaden National
Liberation Front (ONLF) wants a new independent country known as the Ogaden and has
scaled up attacks in recent months. A much less active group, the Western Somali
Liberation Front, seems to prefer amalgamation with neighboring Somalia should it
overcome its failed state status. Eritrea supports both the OLF and ONLF while Ethiopia
provides refuge to Eritrean dissidents. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that there
is no prospect for resolving the Ethiopia-Eritrea border dispute, which led to the rupture
of relations in 1998 and a major conventional war from 1998 to 2000.
Until recently, tiny Djibouti has been a relative haven of peace. Eritrea
inexplicably sent troops to the Djiboutian border in 2008. This resulted in a military
clash. There has been a standoff along the border ever since. Even the dormant armed
rebel group, the Afar Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy, experienced an
attack by the Djiboutian armed forces in September, raising the question whether there
will be a resumption of conflict between government forces and this organization.
The United States can not possibly solve all of these problems nor should it try.
The Horn offers such panoply of conflicts that it is necessary to engage in the triage that
we talked about earlier today. During the Bush administration, the United States focused
its energy on pushing for the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in Sudan. The
result was the administration’s principal political success in Africa during its eight years
in office. At the same time, it largely ignored the deteriorating situation in Somalia.
When the United States did engage in 2006, it ill-advisedly supported Somali warlords in
Mogadishu against the rising Islamic Courts. The discredited war lords lost and the
Islamic Courts won. The Courts remained in power for half a year until overwhelming
Ethiopian military power forced them out of Mogadishu. One of the two most important
leaders of the Islamic Courts, Sheikh Sherif, is now the President of the TFG and strongly
supported by the United States. On several occasions, the United States used cruise
missiles to take out suspected terrorists in Somalia. While these blunt instruments
removed several bad guys, they also resulted in excessive collateral damage and led to
anti-Americanism among many Somalis.
From the standpoint of triage and American interests in the Horn, ending the
conflict between northern and southern Sudan and efforts aimed at resolving Somalia’s
failed state status were the right choices. The CPA was a huge success; policy in Somalia
was a failure. The United States also found itself deeply engaged in trying to resolve the
conflict in Darfur and to end Somali piracy. It was largely pressured into these conflicts
by domestic political interests. A combination of evangelical groups, human rights
organizations, the Jewish community and the Save Darfur Coalition put pressure on the
administration to do something about Darfur. The media and American shipping interests
led the charge on combating Somali piracy. The atrocities in Darfur deserved US
attention on the merits of the crisis although not to the extent that Darfur almost totally
distracted Washington from doing more in places like the Democratic Republic of the
Congo, where many more people have died. When it comes to triage and American
interests, the Somali piracy issue received more attention than it deserved.
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Finally, there is an issue in the Horn that is rarely discussed in US policy circles
and has the potential ten or fifteen years from now to make many of the conflicts I have
mentioned seem relatively trivial by comparison—Nile water usage and allocation.
There are ten Nile Basin riparian countries. Two (Sudan and Ethiopia) of the four most
important players are in the Horn of Africa. The other two are Egypt and Uganda. Under
current treaty arrangements signed only by Egypt and Sudan, about three-quarters of the
water is allocated to Egypt and one-quarter to Sudan. The other eight riparian states have
no treaty rights to any of the water. This has not been a serious problem so far as the
water used by the other eight countries has not threatened Egyptian or Sudanese
requirements. Since the beginning of record keeping in 1870 on the flow of the Nile, the
trend has been for a slightly diminished volume while the population of the ten riparian
states has risen sharply. As upstream countries conclude that they require major
irrigation projects to grow enough food to feed their nationals, the Nile water question
will become more pressing. It screams for attention sooner rather than later.