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A Proposed U.S. Regional Strategy Towards the Horn of Africa

Paul Williams’ paper has accurately and thoroughly pulled together the webs of conflict in the Horn of Africa. It is not a pretty picture. I would even suggest that the Horn of Africa has been the most conflicted corner of the world since the end of World War II. Other regions have had more death and conflict over briefer periods of time. I don’t know of any region that has had the number and variety of conflicts comparable to those in the Horn. The problem for the United States is what it can do to help mitigate conflict in the region.

Historically, the vast majority of U.S. efforts to resolve or mitigate conflict in the Horn have involved intervention in or attention to individual, discrete disputes, in pursuit of U.S. policy goals prevailing at the time. Through the late 1980s, the Cold War determined U.S. policy in the Horn. Emperor Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia served as the center piece in the region for U.S. economic and military support. Ethiopia was a reliable ally of the United States. When Ethiopia was threatened by Somali irredentism or Eritrean separatism, the United States backed the Haile Selassie government. Even after the left-wing Mengistu Haile Mariam junta seized power in 1974, the United States tried briefly to maintain close economic and military relations with Ethiopia. When it became evident that Ethiopia had slipped into the Soviet camp, the United States switched its support to Somalia, then led by dictator Siad Barre.

Although the United States was not providing military assistance to Somalia when it invaded Ethiopia in 1977, it began military support not long thereafter. It was not until the late 1980s as the Cold War was coming to an end that the United States concluded Siad Barre was no longer a satisfactory ally.

By the early 1980s, Sudanese President Nimeiri had become a Cold War ally of the United States. By the mid-1980s, the largest American economic and military assistance program in all of Africa was in Sudan. Chevron was developing Sudan’s oil reserves. These relationships resulted in reluctance by the United States to support John Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The 1985 overthrow of Nimeiri, as he was en route to the United States for a meeting with President Reagan, led to erosion in relations with Sudan and deep concern following the military takeover in 1989 and the installation of an Islamic government led by President Bashir.

The end of the Cold War coincided with dramatic political developments in the Horn: the new Islamic government in Sudan, the collapse in 1991 of the left-wing Mengistu government in Ethiopia and Siad Barre’s dictatorship in Somalia, the 1991 unilateral declaration of independence by Somaliland and the de facto independence of Eritrea in 1991.

Cold War politics no longer dictated U.S. policy in the region; the 1990s witnessed ad hoc decision making in Washington for the Horn of Africa.

The United States resumed support for Ethiopia, now under Meles Zenawi, and backed soon to be independent Eritrea under Isaias Afewerki. Relations with Sudan’s Islamic government continued to deteriorate as the United States gave rhetorical and humanitarian support to the SPLM. At the end of the George H.W. Bush administration, the United States sent a major military mission to end a horrific famine in the failed state of Somalia. While this international effort ended the famine, it became by 1993 a hunt for the warlord Mohammed Aideed and ended as a failed political mission. The U.S. response was to pull out of Somalia and minimize engagement in Somalia’s continuing crises throughout the 1990s.

U.S. policy towards Khartoum became increasingly hostile as the Bashir government supported terrorist groups and U.S. domestic interests pushed Washington into the arms of the SPLM. The 1990s also saw a personalization of U.S. policy in the region with the anointment of Meles, Isaias, and Museveni in Uganda and Kagame in Rwanda as key new African leaders. To some extent, this policy was designed to create a “front line states” coalition against Bashir in Sudan. The outbreak in 1998 of conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea took the wind out of the sails of U.S. policy. At the beginning of the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict, the Clinton administration tried to follow a balanced approach towards both countries, angering both in the process. The United States struggled to regain its own balance in the region. A period of retrenchment in the Horn was underway at the end of the Clinton administration and beginning of the George W. Bush administration.

After 9/11, the war on terrorism drove U.S. policy in the region. Somalia returned as a concern because of growing activities by al-Qaeda and subsequently by al-Qaeda’s affiliate, al-Shabaab, in the country. In fact, counterterrorism was just about the only U.S. policy in Somalia under the Bush administration. The United States established a military base in Djibouti that had and still has as its primary objective countering terrorism in the region.

A U.S. Marine Corps helicopter landing at Camp Lemmonier, Djibouti. (Joseph Araiza/U.S. Air Force)

Relations with Sudan began to improve modestly because of Khartoum’s cooperation with the United States on counterterrorism. However, the conflict in Darfur and continuing missteps by Khartoum in South Sudan prevented a normalization of U.S.-Sudan relations. The United States was a strong proponent of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that led this year to the independence of South Sudan. The United States continues to be critical of Khartoum’s policies in the region but has been less willing to criticize missteps by South Sudan. In the meantime, there was a sharp deterioration in U.S. relations with Eritrea that can be attributed to Asmara’s support for extremist elements in Somalia and its threats against neighboring Djibouti. Counterterrorism continues to be a major part of U.S. policy in the region, but it has become more nuanced under the Obama administration.

A Regional Approach to U.S. Policy in the Horn

There has rarely been an occasion since the end of World War II when the United States pursued a regional approach to conflict mitigation in the Horn of Africa. One effort to engage in regional conflict resolution in the Horn occurred during the Clinton administration with the Greater Horn of Africa Initiative (GHAI). It had as its focus regional conflict mitigation and donor support for improving regional food security infrastructure. An ambitious initiative, it included the then seven members of the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) in addition to Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. Its principal African partner was IGAD.

Although GHAI had some success in improving food security in the region, it ultimately failed to achieve its goal of mitigating conflict for the following reasons: First, new conflicts in the region, particularly the completely unexpected war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, overwhelmed the ability of the United States to make any progress on existing conflicts. Second, some U.S. personnel, including a number of key individuals in the field, were not committed to a regional approach to conflict mitigation; their focus was the bilateral relationship. Third, although there were regular consultations with other donors, there was not enough involvement by them in the initiative. Fourth, IGAD was (and still is) a weak organization with internal divisions.

IGAD is only as strong as the unity of its members. The United States contributed to the disunity within the organization. For a number of years in the mid and late 1990s, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda, with encouragement from the United States, opposed Omar Bashir’s policies in the region generally and South Sudan particularly. The outbreak of conflict in 1998 between Ethiopia and Eritrea ended opposition to Sudan by these countries on the grounds that the enemy of enemy is my friend. It also ended the U.S. “front line states” policy against Sudan. The war terminated the bilateral relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea and strained their ability to cooperate within IGAD.

In 2007, Eritrea suspended its IGAD membership following Ethiopia’s military intervention in Somalia. IGAD eventually imposed sanctions on Eritrea. Eritrea officially asked in July 2011 to rejoin IGAD. The request is under consideration but has already resulted in one kerfuffle when in August the Eritrean representative showed up uninvited at the 40th ordinary session of IGAD in Addis Ababa. He was eventually escorted out of the meeting and no action has been taken on Eritrea’s request to rejoin.

It is tempting to conclude that IGAD is not capable of serving as the principal African partner for mitigating and resolving conflicts in the Horn. This would be a mistake. Any organization will only be as successful as the willingness of its individual members to permit it to function successfully. IGAD is not the problem. Its members must be willing to collaborate for the greater good. This will require the readmission of Eritrea to IGAD on the assumption that Eritrea is prepared to play a positive role. Although this may be wishful thinking, the absence of Eritrea from IGAD will render IGAD unable to play a serious role in conflict mitigation. The international community also has a critical role to play. The United Nations, African Union and Arab League must support the conflict resolution efforts of IGAD.

Even more important, there needs to be strong backing for the organization and its efforts by the United States, European Union and its individual members and other countries that have demonstrated an interest in the Horn such as Norway, Canada, China, Russia, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Iran is also playing a growing role in the Horn. It is time to think outside the box and ascertain, probably through third party interlocutors, if Iran can help serve as a positive agent for change. U.S. and western concerns about Iran’s nuclear program should not preclude this initiative.

While the United States has considerable influence in the Horn, its efforts to mitigate conflict, in isolation, will accomplish little. To achieve any success in mitigating conflict, it must be part of a much larger and ideally diverse coalition. Finally, the effort must be interpreted broadly to include such matters as encouraging IGAD member states to allow free movement of people across borders, minimizing impediments to trade, emphasizing economic integration, improving governance and providing assistance that leads to more integrated regional road, rail, water and electrical networks.

Traditional Methods of Conflict Mitigation

One type of conflict resolution technique that has received inadequate attention by the international donor community is the use of traditional conflict resolution mechanisms. These methods have been successful for centuries in resolving some kinds of local conflict. While they are not able to end the dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea, neutralize al-Shabaab in Somalia or substitute for the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Sudan, by resolving local issues they can contribute to conflict mitigation in broader conflicts.

Traditional conflict resolution practices reflect principles of reconciliation based on long-standing relationships and values. They tend to be effective in addressing intra-community and even inter-community conflict, where relationships and shared values are part of the reconciliation process. Traditional mechanisms are rooted in the culture and history of the African people. They place the interest of the group above that of the individual and assume that all parties are interested in and affected by the conflict. The traditional methods often rely on shaming the guilty parties and paying compensation to the aggrieved person or group. The principal actors in traditional conflict resolution are chiefs, village mediators, tribal elders, community leaders, clan leaders, mobilized women and religious figures. While the authority of many of these groups has diminished in recent decades, they can still play useful roles.

There are numerous examples of traditional conflict resolution throughout the Horn. The Gumuz people of western Ethiopia near the Sudan border invoke the concept of michu or friendship to resolve ethnic conflicts and to create an environment of tolerance and mutual coexistence. Michu continues to play an important role in preventing conflict in the region. The Oromo of western Ethiopia have a similar tradition known as luba basa, which means to set free. As the Oromo migrated into territory occupied by other ethnic groups, they used luba basa as a system to reduce conflict by making the other groups the equal of the Oromo.

In South Sudan the 1994 Akobo Peace Conference brought together 2,000 delegates and observers in an effort to end intra-tribal fighting between the Jikany and Luo members of the Nuer tribe. Ten Luo and twelve Jikany chiefs after four months signed an agreement on sharing water, grazing lands and fishing areas. The Misseriya from northern Sudan and Ngok Dinka from South Sudan traditionally hold annual meetings along the Bahr el Arab/Kiir River during which they discuss all conflicts related to the migration season and try to resolve conflicts, including cases involving homicide and abduction. In 2010, the two groups agreed on a set of measures governing the annual migration of the Misseriya nomads into land inhabited by the Ngok Dinka. The new legal system of South Sudan even recognizes the role played by traditional chiefs in administering local justice and in initiating conflict management mechanisms.

Somalia offers a laboratory for traditional methods of reconciliation. The heads of lineage groups, or akils, have reestablished their mediating authority and stepped into a vacuum left by the collapse of the national government. Somalis have well-established procedures under councils of elders or guurti for dealing with contentious issues. Elders often can arbitrate procedural problems and help formulate a consensus among the clans. Somalis have achieved numerous agreements to end fighting at the local level through these peace conferences. One of the most successful traditional peace conferences took place in Somaliland where Somali elders met at Borama for five months in 1993 and agreed upon a national security framework, an interim constitutional structure and a peaceful change of government.

There is no simple solution for mitigating conflict in the Horn. In some cases, the best efforts of everyone will fail. But many of these conflicts are interlinked and cry out for a regional approach backed by the international community while others are best dealt with at the local level by traditional means.