By Terrence Lyons
Conflict in the Horn of Africa exploded in December 2006 as Ethiopia’s dramatic military intervention in Somalia shook the entire region. After a rapid and surprising advance, the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) supported by Ethiopian troops ousted the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) and their affiliated militias that had controlled Mogadishu since June. It is too early to predict whether the regime now in Mogadishu will be able to consolidate its authority, whether supporters of the Islamic Courts will initiate a guerrilla war or a series of terrorist attacks in Somalia or Ethiopia as some al Qaeda leaders have urged, and whether Ethiopia will be able to withdraw its forces as quickly as planned. But it is clear that these events have transformed the Horn of Africa, thereby creating new and perhaps fleeting opportunities for building a more peaceful region.
The remarkable turn of events in Somalia is one part of a complex network of conflicts in the region. The power struggles within Somalia are embedded within regional rivalries between neighboring states Ethiopia and Eritrea and are complicated further by the connection to Washington’s concerns regarding the global war on terrorism. Stalled processes of political reform in Ethiopia and increased authoritarianism in Eritrea are also part of this regional system of insecurity and conflict. Policy makers in Washington and elsewhere in the international community should recognize that developments in one part of these interdependent conflicts have ripple effects that shape opportunities and risks in other parts.
From the perspective of Addis Ababa, the dangers emanating from Somalia in late 2006 were linked to threats from Eritrea and internal Ethiopian insurgent groups such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). These regional and domestic adversaries had increased their military presence in areas controlled by the UIC. To Ethiopia, the potential that these threats would increase over time – rather than the ideology of the Islamic Courts or their ties to al-Qaeda – compelled a response. Ethiopia acted preemptively by providing the military might to drive the UIC out of Mogadishu, to end the safe havens offered Ethiopia’s enemies, and to bring the TFG to power in the Somali capital. This intervention had both regional motivations and regional consequences.
Ethiopia’s next steps in Somalia will be crucial to regional stability. The new government’s authority in Mogadishu will be challenged if Somalis perceive it as an agent of Ethiopia. The new regime will need to reach out to key constituencies, most notably the powerful Hawiye clan leaders entrenched in Mogadishu as well as many of the moderate leaders within the diverse Islamic Courts’ movement, to build a broad-based coalition capable of administering the state without depending upon external forces for security. The sacking of the speaker of the transitional parliament who had talked to the Islamic Courts, however, is not encouraging. Ethiopia must withdraw its troops quickly as planned, most critically from Mogadishu. Plans by the Africa Union to deploy a peacekeeping force are welcome, but peacekeepers are unlikely to be deployed in sufficient numbers before Addis Ababa withdraws, leaving the potential for a destabilizing power vacuum. Ethiopia needs to apply pressure on its allies in the TFG to jumpstart an inclusive dialogue as quickly as possible in order to provide a political framework that will encourage troop contributing states to step forward. There is a brief window of opportunity to build stability in Somalia that Ethiopia and the broader international community should pursue with creativity and resourcefulness.
Beyond Somalia, regime change in Mogadishu may open up new opportunities to resolve other conflicts in the region. At the moment, Ethiopia is clearly victorious in the regional power struggle and has demonstrated a considerable degree of military capacity and boldness. In particular, it has outmaneuvered its regional rival, Eritrea, which had sought to gain advantage by backing the Islamic Courts in Somalia. A sense of triumph may make Addis Ababa less willing to take actions on other difficult issues. Past patterns of behavior suggest that Ethiopia may seek to consolidate its position rather than seizing opportunities to make progress on conflict resolution issues and political reform at the regional and domestic levels.
It is possible, however, that the reduction of threats from Somalia and a greater sense of security may make Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi more open to steps to end the stalemate over the disputed border with Eritrea. Some in Ethiopia argue that withdrawing from the town of Badme, as required by the Eritrea Ethiopia Border Commission set up by the 2000 Algiers peace agreement, would destabilize the regime by opening it up to questions regarding its commitment to defend Ethiopian interests. Larger threats to the ruling party, however, are likely to arise from opposition in the cities of Ethiopia proper and from the Oromo region. Little is gained by further delay in implementing the Border Commission decision, which affects an area of little intrinsic importance. The regime’s increased security and authority following its success in Somalia creates a propitious moment to move beyond the border stalemate and tackle the broader issues of regional peacebuilding.
The regime in Eritrea is characterized by deeply engrained patterns of obstinacy and may well dig in rather than reassess its regional policies after its setbacks in Somalia. The power shifts in Mogadishu, however, may encourage Asmara to examine new non-military options now that its allies in Somalia are on the run.
By the same token, the failure of Somalia-based military strategies pursued by some of the Ethiopian regime’s domestic opponents may provide opportunities for Meles to reach out to those leaders within the opposition who are willing to engage in electoral competition. The ONLF and OLF both worked with Eritrea and the UIC to increase their capacities to attack from safe havens in Somalia, a strategy that has failed. As a further consequence of the shifts of power in Somalia, talks with political leaders from the OLF may offer particular promise. Key local elections are scheduled later this year in Ethiopia, providing a context for renewed efforts to construct a more open political system.
Regional peacebuilding and democratization in the Horn of Africa face enormous challenges; expectations for progress must be modest. Nevertheless, Washington should test whether opportunities for new approaches are better in this moment of flux and uncertainty than has been the case recently. In particular, Washington and others should reinvigorate and provide substantial support for the beleaguered peace implementation process between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The UN peacekeeping mission and the border demarcation process are dangerously off the rails. If this constraining framework is allowed to collapse, the prospects for renewed war increase substantially. Ethiopia should be pressed to demarcate the border as required by the agreement while Eritrea should be sanctioned if it does not remove arbitrary restrictions it has placed on UN peacekeepers. Washington should furthermore continue to press Addis Ababa to release political prisoners and to restore the political freedoms Ethiopians enjoyed prior to the 2005 electoral crisis.
The dramatic events in Somalia in December should be seen in part within their regional context. In addition to creating an important opportunity to build a new political order in Somalia, the transformation of power in Mogadishu has opened up small windows of opportunity to rescue the faltering peace implementation process between Ethiopia and Eritrea and to press for talks between the ruling party and major opposition movements in Ethiopia. Washington should move quickly to explore these opportunities for peace across the Horn of Africa before distrust and old hostilities make leaders less flexible and conflicts more protracted. In addition to the urgent questions of building a new order in Somalia, promoting peace along the Ethiopia-Eritrea border, and political reform within Ethiopia and Eritrea will contribute to a more favorable climate for the full range of U.S. objectives.
Terrence Lyons is an associate professor on conflict analysis and resolution at George Mason University and the author of a recent Council on Foreign Relations Special Report, Avoiding Conflict in the Horn of Africa: U.S. Policy Toward Ethiopia and Eritrea.