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Lyons: Ethiopia-Eritrea Conflict Fueling Somalia Crisis

Interviewee: Terrence Lyons, Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
August 22, 2007

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Terrence Lyons, author of the Council Special Report Avoiding Conflict in the Horn of Africa: U.S. Policy Toward Ethiopia and Eritrea, says the United States sees the global war on terrorism as a reason for concern in the Horn of Africa. But what is fundamentally driving events on the ground, he says, are “local rivalries and more regionally based conflict dynamics,” primarily the continued bitter animosity between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The Horn of Africa has been in the news since January when U.S. forces got involved in helping Ethiopian troops crush the Islamic Courts Union that was running Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, including U.S. bombing raids that were aimed at al-Qaeda. What’s going on in the Horn of Africa today?

There’s a set of linked conflicts in the Horn of Africa that attract greater attention when U.S. concerns on counterterrorism are connected to these local conflicts. But what is fundamentally driving events on the ground are local rivalries and more regionally based conflict dynamics. Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a brutal border war from 1998 to 2000 and they’ve left considerable unfinished business because the subsequent peace agreements meant to end that conflict have not been implemented. That leads Eritrea to be frustrated and one manifestation of that frustration is that Eritrea began to support anti-Ethiopian groups in Somalia and within Ethiopia. And Ethiopia sends its troops into Somalia, in part, because it sees Somalia as a link to the Eritrean threat. Either way, Eritrea worries about Ethiopia so much that Eritrea will use Somalia to send insurgents into Ethiopia until Ethiopia is able to do something about it.

Ethiopia has this huge problem in the Ogaden region, made up mostly of Somalis, and that’s been a continuing problem for them, right?

Most recently, since the Ethiopian incursion into Somalia in December 2006 to January 2007, the Ogaden region has heated up considerably due to the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which is either a national liberation movement or a terrorist movement depending on where you sit. Ethiopia calls it a terrorist movement. It has become more active in the Ogaden region, engaged in a dramatic escalation of its attacks, like when they attacked an oil exploration facility and killed nine Chinese oil workers [in April 2007]. Ethiopia has in turn responded with a really fierce military campaign. Many civilians have been caught up in this military campaign with its concurrent widespread displacement, and it’s now a real humanitarian emergency. That rapid escalation in the past few months has added to the tension of the region.

And the U.S. policy in this region right now?

The United States regards Ethiopia as a strategic partner, particularly in relation to the so-called global war on terrorism, and it is not hard to understand why. If you look at the region, [the United States] has tremendous problems with Sudan, and it has relations with Eritrea that are about as bad as they can be. Obviously, the United States can’t have a strategic partner with a government in Somalia while Somalia struggles to organize itself. Djibouti, with which the United States has good relations and has built military facilities in, is tiny and is never going to be the pillar around which the United States builds a regional strategy. So Ethiopia is it. In particular, Ethiopia and the United States share a common concern about the Islamic Courts Union [ICU] in Somalia. The United States linked the ICU to al-Qaeda, while Ethiopia saw the ICU as being linked to its rivals in Eritrea. When in late 2006 and early 2007 the Ethiopians moved into Mogadishu, the United States was very pleased and saw that as a victory in the war on terrorism. 

Did Ethiopia invade Somalia because the United States asked it to?

It’s important to note that Ethiopia moved into Somalia not as the puppet or proxy for the United States. Ethiopia had its own very specific national security interest relating to Somalia. Ethiopia saw stepped-up attacks on Ethiopia as originating in Somalia, aided by Eritrea. Ethiopia saw this as a real threat to the Ethiopian state and region. That’s why Ethiopia invaded, I believe, rather than just because the United States said “Go get al-Qaeda.”

The United States characterizes itself as a strategic partner to Ethiopia but then becomes implicated or connected to regional rivalries. When Ethiopia engages in conflicts in Somalia or in the Ogaden right now, it often causes as a consequence an alienation of many of the Somali people, increasing recruitments of anti-American Islamist groups, and in that way complicates Washington’s global war on terrorism.

What is the situation in Mogadishu like right now?

The so-called Transitional Federal Government [TFG], which is recognized by the United States and the United Nations as the government of Somalia, is currently ensconced in Mogadishu. It is protected by Ethiopian troops and by a small African Union force. But the real military strength that allows the TFG to work is the Ethiopian armed forces. Over the summer the Ethiopians started the National Reconciliation Conference, where the announced goal is to include some of the groups that are not currently included in the government, most notably members of the Hawiye, a major clan in Mogadishu. It’s a large clan and can really be a spoiler if you choose a government that does not recognize their interests. Also, you have to include elements of the Islamic Courts. The Islamic Courts certainly did have some elements that were quite radical and were tied to international Islamic movements like al-Qaeda, but it also had a large number of local leaders and moderate Islamists who simply saw the Islamic Courts as a vehicle to build law and order in their communities.

The question is whether those more moderate elements can be split off from the more violent elements to build a broader-based government. The process of reconciliation has been extremely difficult and very slow to move ahead. It will require a power-sharing agreement, which means the leaders of the current Transitional Federal Government will have to give some of their power to those they regard as their enemies. That’s a very difficult outcome to arrive at. In Eritrea, some of the Transitional Federal Government leaders from Somalia who are anti-Ethiopian have organized themselves in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, opposing this reconciliation process and the Ethiopian role in Somalia. So, you can see how the Ethiopian-Eritrea rivalry complicates the search for a peace in Somalia.

Let’s talk a bit about Eritrea, because U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi E. Frazer had a briefing last week in which she said that the United States is considering adding Eritrea to the list of states sponsoring terrorists. Why does Eritrea not make an effort to win friends with the U.S. government?

U.S.-Eritrea relations are at as low a level as you can imagine. Rhetoric coming out of Asmara and the statements coming from the U.S. State Department are similarly very, very tough. Eritrea’s public statements indicate they hold the United States responsible for Ethiopia not implementing the peace agreement that would award Eritrea the symbolically important town of Badme to its side of the border. The Ethiopia-Eritrea border commission had awarded Eritrea with Badme. Ethiopia has been reluctant to comply with that border agreement. Eritrea thinks the United States, which was a guarantor of this agreement, should compel Ethiopia to adhere to it. It’s difficult to compel Ethiopia for starters and, second of all, the United States has multiple interests with the Ethiopians and is reluctant to do so. So Eritrea is enormously angry with the United States for that reason and has responded with some quite outrageous behavior, such as insisting on opening U.S. diplomatic pouches and arresting U.S. Foreign Service Nationals who work at the embassy in Asmara. Of course, it is extremely difficult for the United States not to respond. Those problems have been around for a couple of years.

The immediate thing that has raised the focus on U.S.-Eritrea relations is the United States has evidence that the Eritreans have been providing military assistance to the Islamic Courts in Somalia, to groups the United States regards as affiliated with al-Qaeda, to groups that are attacking Ethiopia, the U.S. strategic partner in the region. So the United States has ratcheted up the pressure to say “Eritrea, you must stop this assistance you’re providing to these groups that the United States regards as terrorists in the Horn of Africa.”

Did the fighting earlier this year crush al-Qaeda in Somalia?

It shattered the Islamic Courts movement as it existed in late 2006. Within Somalia there remains an even more radicalized hard-core group of Islamists who are intent on continuing to engage in armed conflict against Ethiopia and the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia. These groups regard the United States as an enemy as well. Some of them may well be connected to al-Qaeda. The U.S. government says they have evidence; I don’t have any of my own. There is another Somali group, al-Shabab, composed of youth that are in Somalia. These are people, often young Somali men who have been in the diaspora in such places as the Persian Gulf, who have come down from Afghanistan, some lived in Toronto, and who became very radicalized in the last decade or so and have gone back to Somalia to carry out what they would call jihadist activities in Somalia. There are not that many of them, hundreds perhaps. They are quite violent; they are engaging in roadside bombs. It is very difficult for the government in Mogadishu to expand its own authority beyond a very small area. There are these enemies that are created by the Ethiopian incursion into Somalia and its inability to withdraw.

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