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Turmoil in the Horn of Africa


Despite signs of progress in resolving some of the Horn of Africa's festering disputes, a range of conflicts extending from Sudan to Somalia and from Eritrea to Uganda threatens to further destabilize the region.

The Horn of Africa encompasses Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Uganda and Kenya. Most of these nations have been struggling with rebellions and regional disputes for decades. The conflict between the Sudanese government and Darfur rebels seeking greater political power and wealth, for example, is in its fifth year. Uganda and Ethiopia have problems with separatist rebels, and Ethiopia's relations with Eritrea have deteriorated since the two nations fought a war over a border dispute less than a decade ago. Neighboring Somalia, which has been plagued by violence for 15 years, is trying to restore normalcy after ousting Islamists from power with Ethiopian military aid.

A Regional Crisis

While these conflicts appear to be separate, Terrence Lyons of George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution says all of the Horn of Africa problems are linked. "It is accurate to think of a region in conflict rather than individual countries in conflict. So an escalation in Somalia has implications for Ethiopia where groups such as the Oromo and the Ogadeni separatist rebels are either emboldened or restricted based on what is happening in Somalia," says Lyons. "For the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict where the stalemate on the border is reflected in the stalemate or escalation in Somalia, and then from spillover effects, there's a large number of Somali refugees flowing into Kenya; a growing polarization in the region between Muslims and Christians that has implications for Ethiopia."

This polarization, some analysts argue, has been aggravated by Ethiopia's recent military intervention in Somalia and could have destabilizing effects beyond the Horn of Africa.

The Heritage Foundation's Brett Shaefer says part of the blame also lies with regional leaders for failing to address festering conflicts, whether in Darfur, northern Uganda, Somalia or along the Ethiopian-Eritrean border.

"The government of Khartoum is obviously not very willing to yield on its stance in Darfur. The Ethiopian government is a repressive regime and so is the one in Eritrea. And both of them seem hell-bent on moving forward and winning this conflict despite the fact that there doesn't seem to be any real positive outcome that would result from that," says Shaefer. "They don't seem to be very focused on trying to resolve the conflict rather than intent on trying to persevere. And there also doesn't seem to be a whole lot of willingness on the part of groups in Somalia - - the various warlords, the Islamist elements or the Transitional Federal Government - - to come to a joint power sharing arrangement that would result in a sustainable government there."

A Proxy War?

While the Somali conflict has remained relatively contained, most analysts say Somalia has become a battleground for Ethiopian-Eritrean rivalries. And many regional experts note that Horn of Africa states typically become involved in cross-border proxy wars to weaken their rivals.

William Zartman of the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies says a country intent on avoiding direct confrontation might use a liberation movement in a neighboring state to weaken that nation's government.

"The Sudanese and the Ethiopians, the Eritreans and the Ethiopians, the Somalis and the Ethiopians, the Eritreans and the Sudanese have been doing this since the 1960s. The ironic thing is that the home governments in each case, hunkering down in their capitals, are trying to ensure their own stability by carrying out proxy wars against their neighbors," says Zartman. "So this reinforces the stability of President Isaias Afwerki in Eritrea and reinforces the stability of President Girma Woldegiorgis's government in Ethiopia and Sudanese President Omar Beshir in Khartoum and the government in Mogadishu."

While slow progress has been made in peace talks in Darfur and northern Uganda, Zartman says long-term stability in the Horn of Africa cannot be achieved while corrupt, autocratic regimes remain in power.

Hope for the Future?

This is why George Washington University's David Shinn sees little room for optimism in the Horn of Africa's short-term future. "There are enough of these negative issues that are still out there - - at least a few of which may even be worsening - - that it's a very mixed picture. And if you look at it a year from now, I would probably come to the same conclusion: it's going to be a very mixed bag," says Shinn. "There will be some conflicts in which there has been either progress or at least no further setbacks, there will be others where there will be just very modest, if any progress, and there will be some where there will actually be setbacks and they maybe worse then than they are today."

Most analysts agree, given the volatile nature of the conflicts in Somalia, Sudan and along the Ethiopian-Eritrean border. George Mason University's Terrence Lyons worries about escalating violence in all of these areas.

"It does not seem that the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia is finding the means to build a broad-based government. The Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict is by no means settled and will continue to spill out and foment proxy wars until it is resolved at its fundamental level. And the conflict in Sudan has the potential for escalation, not only in Darfur, but also in the North-South Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement," says Lyons. "That being said, one of the most remarkable things about the Horn of Africa is the resilience of its people. Despite conflicts for many, many years in many of these countries, people have found ways to persevere, often at a very high cost."

A high cost that has claimed more than 1.5 million lives in Darfur and tens-of-thousands more in Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea. What is needed, most analysts say, is for the regional leaders to find the political will to resolve these conflicts before they spiral out of control.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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