Welcome to Reflections, a bimonthly series of conversations that invites former senior U.S.-Africa policymakers to discuss difficult issues that they confronted in their careers with the benefit of hindsight.
The third conversation in the series features Jendayi Frazer, who served in several senior roles in the George W. Bush administration. She was the special assistant to the president and senior director for African affairs at the National Security Council from 2001 to 2004, then as the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, and finally as the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 2005 to 2009.
MG: Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me. I’m looking forward to this conversation because I know that one of the things you've reflected on a great deal is how difficult it can be to pursue a specific policy goal in the U.S. interest, while simultaneously working in a collaborative fashion with regional organizations like the African Union, or one of the subregional organizations, or even an ad hoc coalition of African leaders. You're trying to maximize the chances of success and keep everybody on the same page, which makes a lot of sense in many cases – we are usually far more effective when we are not going it alone. But that approach also leaves a lot of variables outside of your control and the control of the United States government. You have given a lot of thought to how this came up as you wrestled with questions related to U.S. policy in Somalia and Somaliland.
Let’s start with Somaliland. Tell us a bit about U.S. policy that you inherited on Somaliland when you came into government.
JF: Yeah, thank you, Michelle. When the George W. Bush came into office in 2001, we basically didn't have a policy on Somaliland. We didn't develop a policy position on Somaliland during the campaign, let me put it that way. I can't speak for the Clinton administration. But I did serve on the transition team, and I don't recall memos or briefings from the Clinton administration on Somaliland or Somalia for that matter. But again, that was a difficult transition. We did try to look for documents but at that time, Somalia and Somaliland were considered the same sovereign state. We didn't really have an independent policy towards Somaliland, other than “it's part of Somalia.” And our policy towards Somalia was effectively containment until we took a closer look after 9/11 2001 when we had the attacks on American soil. So, for the first nine months of the administration under President Bush, Somalia did not feature high on the priority list.
When I really started taking a look at Somaliland, with colleagues in the Bush administration, what was apparent was that they were moving towards greater democracy and security. You had a constitutional referendum that was voted on in 2001, favoring restoring Somaliland’s independence, and in 2003, you had the first elected president of Somaliland. You had these democratic elections, you had greater security. In contrast, in Somalia, you had a transitional federal government that could not get itself together as it continued to struggle with continued conflict and clan rivalry. So, the contrast between Somaliland and Somalia, and the desire for the international community, including the United States, to support Somaliland was growing. I think that's really when we paid attention to Somaliland. It was in that context of dealing with the terrorist threat in Somalia, because prior to the Islamic Courts Union taking over, there was Al Ittihad Al Islamiyah, which was designated as a foreign terrorist organization, but we didn’t consider to be a global threat.
We felt that Al Qaeda in East Africa was basically underground, keeping its head down. We were keeping an eye on Somalia, and we were trying to be supportive—this is now inherited even from the Clinton administration—of the transitional national government, but we weren't looking at Somaliland as independent of Somalia. With greater governance, and the election of the president, that's when it came to our attention.
In principle, the Bush administration had a policy that was based on, from a strategic point of view, dealing with the big countries. The ones who could project power and influence in their subregion. You had South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, and also the small well performing countries that were having democratic elections, their economies were doing better, they were establishing security, like, at the time, Mali, Senegal, Botswana, and Mozambique, although Mozambique is big but still. And even at that time, Rwanda and Uganda.
So really, trying to support good governance and regional stability. Effectively, if you looked at those criteria, it didn't make any sense that Somaliland would not be seen as, from my perspective, as an effective sovereign country versus Somalia, which was just a juridical sovereign country.
MG: Right, that makes sense, both for policy consistency, and in a context of a fairly chaotic situation in Somalia. Identifying a place with a clear source of governing legitimacy and an identifiable vision for providing services and security—that’s pretty compelling.
JF: Exactly, absolutely. And at the same time, now I'm going to go back to Somalia, the Somalia transitional national government and federal government came out of various peace talks in various fora. You had the Djibouti talks, the Kenya talks, so there was a bit of forum shopping that was going on, in the Horn, in the sub-region. We were looking for a broader basis for action in the Horn of Africa. What I mean by that is looking to the African Union to see if it could bring some kind of unifying influence over the competition between Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, and others on what's going to happen in Somalia.
So that was the context. I felt that we should recognize Somaliland’s independence. This is a country that was once recognized as an independent, sovereign country. When it gained its independence in 1960s, it voluntarily joined the union with the Italian Somaliland.
MG: Right, and quickly regretted it.
JF: They regretted it immediately. Even the June 1961 referendum, a majority in Somaliland boycotted it because they felt that they were being dominated by the southerners even as early as that. When Siad Barre’s regime fell in 1991, they reclaimed their sovereignty and their independence. So, here we have a government with grassroots support, a country developing democracy, yet we're not recognizing it. I felt that they deserved the recognition. At the same time, the African Union had sent missions to Somaliland, and was moving in that direction to recognize Somaliland as well.
South Africa, for its own reasons, had always been a strong supporter of Somaliland, and at that time, as I recall, both Kenya and Ethiopia, were soft supporters for Somaliland’s independence.
Djibouti and Uganda were strongly opposed, as I recall it. Nigeria had a view that was supportive. I felt that there was a coalition that could be led by the African Union that would support that independence, and then the United States could come on board with support, but it never happened.
MG: As you walk me through it, I'm reminded that it hadn't been that long ago that there had been new recognition of a state in the Horn when Eritrea’s long struggle for people to recognize its independence finally came to fruition and it joined the Organization of African Unity in 1993. So, there was precedent in relatively recent history, also grounded in a place that had a different historical story than the state that had subsumed it. That’s a really interesting contextual backdrop.
So, you and the team in the USG were pulsing these different African capitals and had a sense of where there was support, some full throated, some soft, and where there might be some opposition, and overall it looked like there was sufficient support for Somaliland’s independence. The notion was that the U.S. and the majority of Africa would all be on the same page. What happened? What went wrong?
JF: Even if it wasn't the majority of Africans, it was the ones who had enough influence to pull the others along. Most of them didn't care. It was the ones who care that mattered and the ones who also had that diplomatic muscle to bring people on board.
I thought we were all set to go.
Konare was in the lead. Even when I was asked about it in public, I would say that we were following the AU’s process closely. We were trying to influence it a little bit, but not hard influence, because we felt that it was moving in the right direction in any case.
But I think what happened, I can't say for sure, but I'm pretty sure that what happened is Qaddafi. Qaddafi did things, is the way I would put it. At that time, remember, Qaddafi is pushing for unification of all African states. It was going to be the United States of Africa with him as the president.
MG: Grandiose vision.
JF: Yes, very grandiose vision. So, that was going on at the time and I think that he got in the way and probably used his largesse, as he always did, to change the calculus of some of the players.
I think he just used carrots to persuade some governments to lean differently. The issue never got voted on. It never got taken up, and as a result, it was not rejected. It simply went away silently.
To me, that is the trigger, that Qaddafi asserted his influence. I also think that dynamics in the region became very fluid, particularly as the U.S. government became more involved militarily. I think that scared away some of the supporters, for instance Thabo Mbeki in South Africa. He was aligned with us and then he dropped out. I think that both the dynamics on the ground as well as the influence of a leader in Libya with the diplomatic means to shift decisions and preferences, influenced it.
I always think back to that and wonder, could we have pursued a different path where the United States was more in the lead? The UK was also a soft yes. Could we have asserted more leadership? Like we did later on with the formation of AMISOM, right, we really took a big lead position. Whereas in this case, we followed the AU process. We went along with what the AU said and did, fully expecting that they were going to move towards recognition of Somaliland.
Taking a more assertive position would have been counter to our overall Africa policy, which was very much to support the regional and subregional institutions. We sent an ambassador to the AU, the first non-African country to have a dedicated ambassador to the AU. We worked with the subregional organizations, as well as the strong reforming states and the more powerful influencing states. And so, it would have run counter to that approach for to us to just try to do it on our own. I do think that especially the United States was in a unique position to have done so.
MG: It's intriguing to think about the potential costs and benefits of that. I suppose there's the possibility of being a decision-forcing actor, because by the United States taking action, this comfortable place of silence and ambivalence that some African states were in becomes harder to maintain because you're called on to respond. At the same time, there is always sensitivity about not appearing to be dictating terms, and not being a bully, because our relative power is substantially so much greater from the economic or military perspective than any one African state. It's interesting when you make the point about South African President Mbeki getting cold feet on this issue as the United States became more militarily involved in Somalia. Do you think that there were some states for whom U.S support for Somaliland’s independence would make it harder for them to support it as well?
JF: Not necessarily, except for Eritrea, of course.
I don't think so necessarily, let me put it that way. I actually think it depends on how the policy is perceived. It wasn’t anti-American, it would have been anti-American if the United States is on one side, so automatically they want to be on a different side. I don't feel that we had that dynamic.
Even with a country where we were having a hard time like Sudan, I think that the relationships were more pragmatic and contingent or contextual even. I don't think they were very ideological. I think as soon as we—and I don't recall the year, but I do believe it was 2006 or 2007—did airstrikes against high value targets, i.e., Al Qaeda East Africa in Somalia, we had lost South Africa. They couldn't be with us on the Horn anymore. We definitely lost them, yet we were still working very closely with them in West Africa, southern Africa, and even in the DRC, where they were also a critical part of the peace process. So, it was just that, we hadn't taken any military action in Africa before that under the Bush administration, as far as I know, especially not any overt actions.
So, I just think that the dynamics on the ground made a difference as well for him. I don't think Mbeki was going to be influenced by Qaddafi. That's not where Qaddafi’s money had an impact. Normally where Qaddafi could pay people off were leaders in the smaller countries and individuals or officials at the AU.
MG: Right, places that didn't really have much of a stake in the decision in general and so why not tilt towards the side that comes with gifts. And so, for President Mbeki, it was a principled rejection of the notion that it was legitimate for the United States to be engaged in this kind of military action.
JF: Yeah, I think so. It's counterinsurgency. I don't think that he felt that any external power should be carrying out military operations in Africa. I'm now speaking of what I believe, I'm not speaking on what he told me. I didn't have a conversation with him about it, but just perceiving his actions over the years. You know, South Africa wants to be the big dog in Africa, and so they did it probably for ideological, philosophical, and historical reasons. They were anti-U.S. in the sense of against all external powers really who were involved militarily on the continent.
MG: It’s interesting to watch how that's evolved, that strain of South African foreign policy thinking, that is inherently deeply suspicious of U.S. motives. I guess that's why I do wonder about the Somaliland piece. I take your point that it wasn't a knee jerk opposition to anything the U.S. supported, we worked together on lots of issues, but something so important and foundational to African institutions as succession or a new state, it's a tough ground for the United States to stake out.
JF: Yeah, I agree with you. I think what you're saying is that basically, it was an easier position for us to hide behind and support the AU because they're in the lead, etc. But if we decided that we were going to be the lead, it would have been a lot harder for Mbeki, or someone like him or, South Africa, to support that.
You have a good point. Because it was so much our philosophy and approach, it was almost always what we did. Even in DRC, trying to end the civil war there and the regional war, we worked closely with Mbeki. Mbeki did not want Bush to take over those talks. When we were at the UN General Assembly meetings, those early years, the first and second years of the Bush administration, we had to make it very clear for Mbeki—which included inviting him into some of the meetings with Kagame, Kabila and others—that we recognized South Africa’s leadership of the peace process. There was a real sensitivity there. Unlike President Moi of Kenya, we didn't have to reassure him every time that we really recognized his leadership on the peace process to end the North-South war in Sudan. But there was definitely a strong sensitivity on Mbeki’s part. I think it's the feeling that this is our continent, and we will decide its destiny. Somehow, we see those interests better than you do, which you know, is arguable. Everyone has their state or national interest, so they're going to see it how they see it. In other words, Angola don't necessarily think that South Africa has a better view of the destiny of southern Africa than the United States.
These are really hard issues.
MG: Incredibly difficult, and I can see why you reflect on it, because the “what if” is tantalizing. Given the progress that Somaliland has made over time —it’s an imperfect place like any other, but relative
to the glacial pace of progress in Somalia, there's a lot to admire. It is tantalizing to think, what if a bold stroke had actually inspired more consensus around this?
JF: Right. We had the president of Somaliland in the United States to meet with the administration, I traveled there as well. We tried to give it the “umph,” but I think we could have done more, maybe there was a different approach we might have taken that might have succeeded.
But, as you said, there can be unintended consequences. I also wonder—for me, the driving force is the sovereign will of the people. To me that’s the driving force, they’ve actually done the work to govern themselves and to get the peace and stability. That's the driving motivation. I don't necessarily think that it would have changed any geopolitics in the Horn. In terms of on the ground, it wasn't going to lead to the disintegration of Somalia, that was already happening, and for a very long time. I don't think that it would have fundamentally changed the Horn, certainly, from a Qaddafi point of view, in the sense of further fragmentation.
To decline to recognize Somaliland’s effective sovereignty that they’ve established, by not recognizing them in any international fora; yet, having a state that was not able to fully and effectively carry out sovereign responsibilities, but we're all recognizing it as if it is doing so—it's too much of a contradiction.
MG: I wonder what would have happened if the issues in Somaliland had been more directly linked to some of our more direct interests rather than a broad, principled, philosophical approach to our engagement on the continent focused on respecting the will of the people. So, recognizing Somaliland, I think you’ve made the case, would have been clearly aligned with the U.S. approach and belief in government by the will of the people, the belief in democracy of different flavors and forms. But, because there wasn't another piece of it—if there had been a clear security reason why U.S. recognition might have helped – that might have been enough to say, yes, go it alone. Take the risk.
JF: Yes, you're quite right. It's funny, because, as I recall it, and I don't recall everything, but as I recall it,
there wasn't, as you're saying, as compelling of a reason on the ground other than, “it's another buffer,” to what's going on in Somalia. But if there had been a more compelling strategic interest on the ground, I'm not sure we would have been able to get consensus as fast within the USG. If you don't care or have a compelling strategic interest, sometimes you can move things really fast. If everybody cares and have their own equities involved, things can slow down and no decision can ever be taken. It goes at a glacial pace.
It's a two-edged sword. Yes, sometimes, actually having really deep equities or the stakes in the outcome can make for bolder action, but it also can result in slower action.
MG: That rings true to me. So essentially when important support dissipated, particularly South African support, the AU basically just sidelined the issue and declined to deal with it, was the thinking that the United States would wait it out? Hope that this would rise again on the AU agenda, that people would forget about Qaddafi’s largesse and at some point perhaps things could move forward? Was it pretty widely agreed that we shouldn't and couldn't go it alone?
JF: No, there was never a decision taken. I think that we were somewhat slow to recognize what had happened. Assuming that's what happened.
MG: Well, it's not the kind of thing anybody ever tells you, where there's ever that sort of statement. When things fall off the agenda it can take a while to figure out that they're not coming back anytime soon.
JF: Exactly, especially when attending to multiple priority crises. And we continued to engage in our own direct relations with Somaliland, supporting the development of systems to support elections, training, and having an open line of communication with the leadership. Even though we didn't formally recognize them, we respected them in the way we dealt with them. And so, we really never said anything—the last kind of policy statements that I am aware of saying was, the AU is looking at this and we're waiting to see how they deal with it. I think then Johnnie Carson came in as Assistant Secretary and said that we're not recognizing Somaliland as a sovereign state under the Obama administration. And I think that had to do with other autonomous regions that were emerging, so the dynamics on the ground had changed again.
MG: Because we have the question of Somaliland but what about Puntland or even Jubaland?
JF: Yeah, that's it. Exactly. So that's the only other statement at that time on Somaliland independence.
MG: You've been incredibly generous with your time, but would you mind just sharing a little bit about a different instance, a different case, where the United States was able to move in concert with key African leaders in Liberia, and maybe just to share what it brought to the table to approach an issue that way?
JF: Yeah. Now, this is a very good one. On Liberia, we had the support of the region, we had the support of the AU, we had the support of the key states in the region. And now I'm talking about Liberia ending the second civil war. This is now when MODEL and LURD were attacking the capital city. And, of course, in Liberia, there's two things that were in our favor. One is that Liberia is, to put it crudely, seen as part of our sphere of influence in the subregion. In Guinea it’s France, in Sierra Leone it’s Britain, and there's a certain degree to which the United States has played an outsized role in Liberia. So, there's that historical context which means that the Liberian people basically expect the United States to do something, to intervene.
And secondly, you had President Obasanjo as president of Nigeria, which had been intervening with peacekeepers, even from the first Liberian Civil War, when Charles Taylor had an insurgency against Sam Doe. So, the region was already heavily engaged, and the United States was already heavily engaged. So, it didn't seem out of context, it was natural for the United States to be playing a leadership role.
But in the case here, it probably would help to explain some of what happened.
We had an ambassador on the ground, John Blaney, who was very active in trying to stop the attacks against Monrovia, and on our embassy which was also being shelled. Still, people were coming into our embassy trying to take shelter and find sanctuary.
At the same time, independently, and people don't normally link this, the United States and Britain had stopped a Libyan ship—might have even been Liberian flagged—that was carrying materiel from the AQ Khan nuclear proliferation network. So, at the same time, that was going on. And what's interesting here in the way they link. When the United States was putting down the conditions for Qaddafi for what he needed to do to establish better relations with us, Condi Rice, who was national security adviser at the time, decided we should include conditions relating to West Africa, because he was supplying almost all the arms going into Charles Taylor. One of the reasons why Charles Taylor wasn't able to effectively respond to the rebels was because we choked him off with sanctions on his timber remittances and diamonds, and we told Qaddafi when he went to try to get rearmed and re supplied, do not give him weapons. Qaddafi didn't give him weapons. We said, do not give him money. Qaddafi actually didn't give him money. So, whereas he played a spoiler role relative to our policy on Somaliland, on Liberia, we had him over the coals. He actually did what he said he was going to do, and he did not support Charles Taylor at that time.
And so, the United States was also supporting the peace talks, which were taking place in Accra under President Kufour. Kufour was in the lead of those peace talks, the United States was present, just like every other diplomatic mission that had an interest, but mainly supporting from the sidelines. Those talks were very much an ECOWAS-led process.
At the same time, the United States supported the deployment of Nigerian peacekeepers into Liberia to go into Monrovia. Everyone was calling for the US to intervene to stop the bloodshed. President Bush made a speech that basically said, United States will come in when Charles Taylor goes out. Charles Taylor was indicted by the Sierra Leone Special Court at that time as a war criminal which was made public when the special prosecutor opened that indictment in the middle of the peace talks in Accra. At the time, we didn't think this was a good idea, because we thought it would harden negotiating positions.
But what ended up happening, just to close the story quickly, is that Nigeria took Charles Taylor out of Liberia giving him exile in Nigeria. Charles Taylor resigned in August 2003 through pressure from ECOWAS, the United States, and the African Union represented by Mbeki and Mozambique’s President Chissano. Mbeki had just a month earlier turned over to Chissano the position of chairperson of the African Union. They came to Monrovia together with Ghana’s President Kufour to attend to his resignation and ensure he boarded the plane to Nigeria that Obasanjo sent to take him out of Liberia. So, Charles Taylor was facing a total diplomatic front. The United States was saying you have to go, the AU was saying you have to go, ECOWAS was saying you have to go, and the most powerful state in West Africa, Nigeria, with forces on the ground in Monrovia, was saying you have to go.
So he resigned and he left, and Gyude Bryant came in leading an interim government, and then Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won elections in 2005. It was all well-aligned, which took a lot of diplomatic effort and high-level engagement. There was a lot of discussion and talks. We were on the phone with Mbeki’s people and Kufour’s people the whole time, and with Obasanjo's people as well. So that's where you have the leadership with a clear vision, I'm talking about the regional leadership now, and the capacity to actually make it happen.
MG: It's a remarkable alignment of interests at a critical moment. And what strikes me as I’m listening to you talk about it, is how long it takes to set the table that way, to get everyone on the same page to create and ensure that there's space for these important subregional and regional processes. It's both a lot of time and a lot of diplomatic work. We all often talk about how important it is to move multilaterally, and how much more effective a policy would be this way, how much more legitimate it is, and how it puts us in a better position or trusted position for future endeavors. But it's incredibly hard work.
JF: Yeah, you know Michelle, the way I think about it is that you have to start diplomatic work when you don't have a crisis.
When you're in crisis, you can't now build relationships. Those relationships largely have to be in place—the fact that we respected Mbeki and his peace process in Congo, and that we met with him and called him often. The fact that we had worked with ECOWAS and the UN to get peacekeepers in Sierra Leone when the RUF was running around killing people. And it's not just the Bush administration, right, that engagement on Liberia and Sierra Leone was in the Clinton administration as well. The United States was showing that it cared about this region and was engaging and working in it. And so, I think that you have to build that reputation, you have to build those relationships continuously. So that when things get hard, you already have a history and you can leverage that, you know, that you can leverage all of that goodwill and political capital.
MG: And genuine understanding of the interests of these other parties. A deep understanding of where their interests and sensitivities lie.
JF: Yeah, exactly. They're shaping our perspective, approach, and interests, and we're shaping theirs, of course, as well. So yeah, that's it, diplomacy takes a lot of work.
MG: Absolutely a lot of work and a perfect note to end on. I cannot thank you enough for such an interesting set of reflections and ideas that are definitely relevant to our colleagues who work foreign policy issues far beyond Africa. I'm really grateful for this conversation.
JF: Well, thank you very much and thank you also for framing it in a way that highlights the broader implications, and offers the chance to really look at and discuss these difficult policy challenges and choices with hindsight. So, thank you very much.
 A former British protectorate, Somaliland gained independence as a sovereign state in 1960, but immediately joined in a union with the United Nations Trust territory that had been administered by Italy to its south, forming the Somali Republic. The union was an unhappy one, marred by conflict, and in 1991 Somaliland unilaterally declared its independence.
 Alpha Konare, former President of Mali from 1992 to 2002, was the Chair of the African Union Commission from 2003 to 2008.