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Avoiding Conflict in the Horn of Africa


As Ethiopia and Somalia’s transitional government on the one hand and the Islamist Court in Mogadishu trade charges and counter charges, there is the fear that the conflict in the Horn of Africa may ignite a larger regional war. The United States has accused the Islamists in Somalia of harboring al-Qaeda suspects.

Terrence Lyons is professor of conflict resolution at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University in the U.S. state of Virginia. He is the author of “Avoiding Conflict in the Horn of Africa: U.S. Policy Toward Ethiopia and Eritrea,” a special report published recently by the Council on Foreign Relations. Lyons explains what he thinks should be the focus of U.S. policy in the region.

“I think the United States should try to disentangle some of the regional and external dimensions from the internal Somali dimensions. To the extent that this is a struggle between different groups within Somalia for political power, it’s not particularly threatening to the larger Horn of Africa region. What makes the current situation particularly explosive is that it is linked to the Ethiopia-Eritrea rivalry, and so Ethiopia and Eritrea are now supporting opposite sides within the Somali conflict,” he said.

Lyons said it is not a waste of effort to encourage bilateral talks in the Somali conflict even though Somali interim Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi recently expressed doubt such efforts would be fruitful.

“I don’t think it’s a waste of time. In fact, I think the reason why both some of the leaders within the transitional institutions as well as some of the leaders within the Islamic Courts have made declarations that war is inevitable is because their respective supporters have not said to them that you will not get support from us if you escalate this war. So in other words, the United States and Ethiopia should be saying to the transitional federal government in Baidoa that you have to find a deal with the Islamic Courts. You cannot expect us to fight your battles and to fight the Islamic Courts,” Lyons said.

He described as “ill-timed” U.S. support for a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the deployment of an African peacekeeping force to support the transitional government.

“It is understood by those in the region as being a resolution in opposition to the Islamic Courts and in support of Ethiopia’s position. The resolution is both provocative and largely, I believe, symbolic because I don’t believe in the short term there will be an African force. The immediate neighboring states, most notably Ethiopia are not authorized to intervene under this resolution, and Uganda, the only state that has offered forces so far seems to be quite some way away from sending troops to Baidoa,” he said.

Lyons said the United States should reinvigorate multi-lateral diplomatic peacemaking efforts across the Horn of Africa.

“That includes not only working on the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict, but also working to strengthen the very ineffective arms embargo on Somalia, pushing regional states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt to explain why they’re providing funds to certain parties within Somalia, to pressure both Ethiopia and Eritrea to de-escalate their proxy war within Somalia,” Lyons said.

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