Countries in the Horn of Africa were very much in the news in 2009. For example, the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Somalia, an arms embargo against Eritrea and a recent court case in Ethiopia resulting in death sentences for five people.
David Shinn, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, is following developments in the Horn. Shinn is an adjunct professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.
“Many of us thought that 2009 would be a decisive year for Somalia politically. That something would happen that would pretty much determine its future for the next year or two. And that really didn’t happen. It was sort of anti-climatic,” he says.
Neither the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), nor its major opponent, the al-Shabaab militia, has total control of the country.
Shinn says internal divisions within al-Shabaab became clear in 2009, “very much disputing among itself and…far from being in a position to take control of all of Somalia. However, he says the TFG remains very fragile.
“So, in effect, 2009 has just been pushed [into] 2010,” he says.
The former ambassador says time could now be on the side of the TFG. In early 2009, al Shabaab appeared to have the advantage.
“If the TFG can train up loyal security forces on a timely basis, so that they can confront al-Shabaab with trained Somali forces, not foreign forces, then I think it will have a chance of establishing itself in greater parts of the country,” he says.
Shinn believes al Qaida does have influence in Somalia, but it’s unclear just how much.
“It’s very hard to know how many members of Shabaab actually pay attention to al Qaida and how many are doing essentially their own thing. But there are enough foreigners, foreign jihadis, working on behalf of al Shabaab, that almost certainly are linked to al Qaida, that to suggest it has no influence I think is simply wrong,” he says.
He says even several hundred “committed jihadis” can have a major impact.
However, he adds, “There are some who are suggesting that there is now a growing schism between the foreign jihadis with al Shabaab and the Somalis, who constitute the far larger component of al Shabaab.”
The situation, he says, will be closely watched by the Obama administration.
The United Nations recently imposed an arms embargo and targeted sanctions against Eritrea for its alleged support of militant groups in Somalia.
Shinn says he would like to see the United Nations, African Union or the United States release more information on Eritrea’s involvement, “so that it would be clearer to the general public as to what exactly Eritrea’s doing.”
He says such information on Eritrea has been released in previous years. But he says no detailed update has been given since December of 2008.
“I don’t doubt Eritrea is providing support to groups in Somalia, but it’s important to know more about exactly what that support is,” he says.
The sanctions also stem from Eritrea keeping troops near Djibouti’s border.
“This is certainly an embarrassment to Eritrea,” he says. “The bigger question is what will the real impact of it be other than the embarrassment? In this part of the world, it’s so easy to move arms in and out of a country that it may not have much practical impact.”
In December, an Ethiopian court sentenced five people to death and more than 30 to life in prison for allegedly plotting to assassinate government officials.
Shinn says he has not followed the trial closely enough to render an opinion on the sentences, adding he would not “second guess” the prosecution or the defense in the case.
“I would point out of the five persons sentenced to death, four of these are in absentia. There is only one who is still in the country. But far more important than that is there is an appeals process. And the lawyers for the defense say they will pursue the appeals and there may still be a different outcome to this than the one we see today,” he says.
The George Washington University professor says, however, the situation is still “troubling.”
“It comes in an environment and a court process that historically has had political prisoners, and it raises real questions as to whether this is another one of those kinds of cases or not. But I withhold judgment on this specific case,” he says.