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‘Under The Circumstances, Somaliland Has Done Surprisingly Well And Deserves A Lot Of Credit’
JT Interview: Former US Ambassador To Ethiopia, David Shinn
Washington , November 6, 2007 – Jimma Times spoke this week with former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Dr. David H. Shinn. He discussed about the 1998-2000 Ethio-Eritrean war and current events in the region, including Egypt’s Nuclear power program, ONLF, opposition groups from Oromia, challenges facing the TFG and Somaliland.
Jimma Times : Your position as U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia ended in 1999, in the middle of the Ethiopia-Eritrea war. Your country asked for severe sanctions on both Ethiopia and Eritrea even though the claims commission concluded Eritrea started the war by invading Ethiopia. Was the U.S. unaware of who began the aggression and, if there will be another war, which side do you think will initiate it?
Dr. Shinn : I would first make one correction to your question. You noted that the U.S. asked for “severe sanctions” on both Ethiopia and Eritrea. The U.S. only ended the supply of military assistance, which was very modest in any event, and cut back on some development assistance to both countries. I am not sure that qualifies as “severe sanctions.” The Peace Corps left later due primarily to terrorist threat information.
The main point of your question, however, is why the U.S. was so even handed towards both Ethiopia and Eritrea when Eritrea invaded Ethiopia. There is one issue that has never been, to my mind, satisfactorily resolved. There was on 6 May 1998 a minor incident on the Ethiopia-Eritrea border whose details are still murky. It is not clear who was at fault in that incident. In any event, the May 6 incident, irrespective of who was at fault, did not justify an invasion of Badme by significant numbers of Eritrean forces on May 12. Although there was confusion in Washington during the first several days after May 12 as to what happened in Badme, it soon became apparent to the U.S. that Eritrea invaded territory that Ethiopia previously administered. As you note, the claims commission came to the same conclusion.
It is important to remember that in May 1998 the U.S. had close relations with both Ethiopia and Eritrea. In such cases, there seems to be a bias in the American policy process to treat both parties equally. The U.S. also hoped to use its good offices to end the dispute and feared that if it condemned Eritrea, it would not be able to use its good offices. One can, of course, question whether this was the right approach by the U.S.
As for either side initiating an attack in the near future, I don’t believe it will happen. There are important reasons in both Ethiopia and Eritrea why it is not in their interest to resume war. In addition, the international community would condemn and, I suspect, strongly sanction whichever country initiated the attack.
Jimma Times : Is the claim that American favoritism towards Ethiopia is adding fuel to the current border impasse credible?
Dr. Shinn : Eritrea obviously believes that the U.S. is adding fuel to the current border impasse. I don’t believe this charge is credible. If I thought that Ethiopia intended to attack Eritrea, I might have a different opinion. But I don’t believe this is Ethiopia’s intention.
Jimma Times : What are the chances that HR 2003 will pass the Senate and then be signed by President Bush?
Dr. Shinn : I would guess that a different version of HR 2003 will pass the Senate. That bill must then go to conference with the House of Representatives to resolve the differences. The final result is likely to look quite different than the current HR 2003.
If Congress passes a law that continues to be strongly critical of Ethiopia, it would not surprise me that the President will veto it. If it becomes more balanced as it goes through the Senate and conference committee, he might be inclined to sign it.
Jimma Times : Some say the no peace/no war situation has harmed progress to democracy in both countries. In such a tense atmosphere and with instability in Sudan and Somalia, the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments are said to view empowerment of the opposition as contributing to their vulnerability in case another war begins. Do Americans perceive the setbacks to democracy in these two countries in this manner or have most American officials concluded both leaderships as being pure dictatorships like the Derg?
Dr. Shinn : I am not in a position to characterize the attitude of most American officials towards Ethiopia and Eritrea. I can only surmise what they might think. The following views are largely my own. First, I don’t believe war between Ethiopia and Eritrea is likely. As a result, this is no argument to delay progress on furthering democracy in either country because it might increase their vulnerability in case of war. Second, the atmosphere in the region is tense, but it is not a result of the flowering of democracy. Arguably, all countries in the region might be less likely to engage in conflict if democracy were stronger throughout the region. Part of the problem is that none of the countries in conflict in the Horn seems ready to move towards greater democracy. Finally, I don’t believe the U.S. government views either Ethiopia or Eritrea as being equivalent to the Derg. On the other hand, there are concerns that the democratic process is moving too slowly throughout the Horn of Africa with the possible exception of Somaliland.
Jimma Times : Is the argument viable that development is more important than democracy and politics for Ethiopia?
Dr. Shinn : This argument is not viable for Ethiopia or any other country. At the same time, development is very important. You may not have democracy without development. The two factors go hand-in-hand. It is important to work towards both.
Jimma Times : Some ethnic Oromo opposition groups resent the fact that the international community is putting pressure on the Ethiopian government only after the crackdown and violence in Addis Ababa in 2005. They claim that repression and brutalities against Oromo dissidents have been going on for many years. Recent discussions with the State Department excluded many opposition organizations struggling for the Oromo cause. Do most American officials perceive Oromo opposition groups as weak?
Dr. Shinn : I can’t speak for most American officials. Based on my involvement with Ethiopia for many years, however, I think it is fair to say that Ethiopian opposition political groups, including those representing Oromos, are generally seen in Washington as being weak. To some extent, this is due to the fact that it is so difficult for opposition parties to function in Ethiopia. Of course, the Oromo Liberation Front is not an opposition political party, but is engaging in armed combat against the government.
The opposition parties did surprisingly well in the 2005 elections for several reasons. Unfortunately, the Oromo Liberation Front chose not to participate in the elections. The EPRDF allowed opposition groups to organize and campaign before the election. Several of the parties collected significant sums of money from the Ethiopian diaspora to support their campaigns. In the final analysis, however, the opposition parties did well because there was so much unhappiness with the policies and activities of the EPRDF.
During my visit to Ethiopia in June/July 2007, I was disappointed to find that the opposition parties had become much weaker following the 2005 elections. Most of their offices seemed to be closed. There was little contact between the leaders and their constituents. Morale among the leadership was generally low. This is not a healthy situation for Ethiopia or even for the EPRDF. A viable opposition will keep the EPRDF more engaged for the benefit of Ethiopians and, if it does not, will open the door for the opposition to take power at the ballot box if given a chance. This is the way that democracy should function.
Jimma Times : What do you think are other misconceptions about Ethiopia that influence American foreign policy?
Dr. Shinn : The ethnic, religious, and regional complexity of Ethiopia is poorly understood in Washington. The fact that Ethiopia has experienced two millennia of autocracy is not fully appreciated. There is a tendency to think that democracy can happen quickly. I happen to believe that it can occur faster than is the case at the moment, but it is still important to factor in historical realities. The overwhelming poverty in Ethiopia is not well understood. Many Americans interact with a well educated and successful Ethiopian diaspora and assume that most Ethiopians living in the country are the same.
Jimma Times : Seven famine stricken countries south of Egypt can’t use their own water resources, historically due to Egyptian threats. Many times, including notably in 1980, Egypt threatened war on Ethiopia if we use the Nile, of which 85 percent happens to flow from Ethiopia. A few years ago Egypt even declared Kenyan use of its share of the Nile as “an act of war.” All these repeated Egyptian war threats can certainly be compared to Iran’s threats against Israel, particularly with rumors of a secret Egyptian uranium program. Yet, America last week offered to help Egypt go nuclear.
Dr. Shinn : First, I am not familiar with any American offer to help Egypt go nuclear, so I won’t comment on that issue. But I have written and lectured extensively on the Nile water question. I have been quite sympathetic to Ethiopia’s concerns. While it is true that the 1959 treaty between Egypt and Sudan restricted use of the Nile water to those two countries, it is equally true that Ethiopia uses Nile water. Ethiopia did not sign the 1959 treaty and never accepted it. In the meantime, Ethiopia is moving forward with its development program that includes a number of dams on its rivers in the Nile Basin and small reservoirs throughout the country. To my knowledge, Egypt has not criticized these projects. The problem may come when Ethiopia undertakes major irrigation projects in the flat lands that border Sudan.
I believe tension was higher between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Nile water question in the 1990s. Since then there has been significant cooperation at the technical level in the context of the Nile Basin Initiative. While there is still an occasional rhetorical outburst on the subject, threats between the two countries seem to have diminished. At some point, however, there needs to be a political understanding among all ten Nile Basin riparian states on an equitable sharing of the water.
Jimma Times : The New York Times recently wrote “ Egypt’s modern pharaoh” referring to President Mubarak, who has been accused of major crackdowns on the opposition since he took power almost three decades ago. Certainly America fears the Islamist opposition winning in a free election in Egypt, the same way in Pakistan as well as in Palestine where Hamas won the election despite being tagged a “terrorist organization” by the U.S. and the EU. Even in Somalia, the ICU might win an election. Just like in Pakistan, Egypt and Palestine, an ICU victory in a democratic election threatens stability due to its irredentism policy and links to al-Qaeda. Is American now less eager to spread democracy around the world?
Dr. Shinn : You raise a tough and legitimate question, especially following the most recent developments in Pakistan. I believe the U.S. will continue to press for democracy around the world, but perhaps with a little less enthusiasm in certain countries. The U.S. has already reduced its pressure on Egypt and it would not surprise me to see a similar approach towards Pakistan. The fact is that the U.S. can not have it both ways. If it pushes for democratic institutions and the result in a free and fair election is an Islamist government or even a government hostile to the U.S., it must be prepared to accept the result.
Jimma Times : Somaliland was governed separately before the founding father of Somalia, President Aden Abdullah Osman, incorporated it into the Somali nation in 1960. Now self-declared independent, Somaliland might actually be the closest to democracy in the region. It is also relatively stable. What is keeping the West from recognizing Somaliland?
Dr. Shinn : Under the circumstances, Somaliland has done surprisingly well and deserves a lot of credit. It is up the African Union or, at least, key African countries to take the first steps in recognizing the independence of Somaliland. It would be inappropriate for non-African countries to do so. Although Somaliland’s legal case for independence is solid, the African Union has obviously made a political decision that it does not wish to complicate its traditional support for acceptance of African colonial boundaries. In addition, there is a dispute between Somaliland and Puntland over control of the Harti-occupied parts of Sool and Sanag regions.
Jimma Times : Do you see the TFG and Ethiopia stabilizing Mogadishu anytime soon?
Dr. Shinn : No.
Jimma Times : In several reports about Somalia that had your inputs, you recommended the TFG to incorporate moderate Islamists. But the TFG said the ICU pulled out the moderate Islamist card, on the one hand, to buy time while advancing militarily on the other. Was the existence of moderate Islamists inside the ICU a myth?
Dr. Shinn : I have argued that two critical opportunities have been missed in Somalia since early 2006 that might have resulted in a return to peace and stability. When the ICU had the upper hand during the last half of 2006, it was not serious about power sharing with the TFG. As a result, the Khartoum peace process failed. This was the first missed opportunity for creating a government of national unity involving the ICU and the TFG. After Ethiopian forces and the TFG removed the ICU from power late in 2006, the TFG was in a position to reach out to moderates in the ICU, to share power, and to create a government of national unity. It failed to do so. Both camps have been more interested in achieving personal or factional power and have shown little interest in doing what is best for Somalia.
Now the situation in Mogadishu is much more complicated. There is a brief window of opportunity, following the resignation of Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi, to revive the idea of power sharing. The TFG should offer to bring into key positions in the government moderate members of the ICU and other Somalis who have been opposing the TFG. If the TFG makes such an offer and is sincere about it, those who now oppose the TFG should agree to join it for the good of Somalia. Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a top official of the ICU, recently expressed no interest in working with the TFG and asserted that the goal of the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia is to force the TFG out of the country. This approach will achieve nothing. It also raises questions whether Sheikh Sharif is still a moderate. The only way out of the mess in Somalia is to create a government with a much broader political base that has widespread support of the Somali people. That development should permit all Ethiopian troops to leave Somalia quickly, another essential ingredient to peace in the country.
Jimma Times: Some people say we shouldn’t blame the TFG for the lack of national reconciliation. After all, Ethiopia is the military backbone of the TFG and embracing members of the ICU, which are related to the ONLF, means displeasing Ethiopia. Likewise, the ICU, which received its political support and weapon shipments from Asmara according to UN, must please its ally in Eritrea in order to prevail. So isn’t the lack of progress mainly because all sides in Mogadishu face external pressure?
Dr. Shinn: My position is clear. Both the TFG and the ICU missed important opportunities to achieve peace and national unity. The TFG should not be concerned with pleasing Ethiopia and the ICU should not be beholden to Eritrea. They should both do what is right for the Somali people: create a government of national unity that emphasizes Somali reconciliation and cordial relations with its neighbors. There is a window of opportunity to do that now. Those of us who follow closely events in the Horn of Africa will be deeply disappointed if the Somalis squander another opportunity. This might be the last one.
Jimma Times : What do you think the Ethiopian government should do with the ONLF?
Dr. Shinn : I believe the government should revive discussions with the ONLF, deal responsibly with ONLF grievances, and create an environment that will encourage the ONLF to return to the political process. I do not believe this conflict will be resolved militarily. While it will not be possible to accept all of the ONLF demands, it is in the interest of all parties to sit down and determine which ones are legitimate and can be accepted by the government and the ONLF.
Jimma Times : What if the dozens of oilfield workers killed by the ONLF in April were Americans instead of Chinese?
Dr. Shinn : As the Chinese concluded, the situation is too dangerous to continue operations. In such a situation the remaining Americans would have left as the Chinese have done. Depending on the precise circumstances of the deaths of the Chinese—singled out by the ONLF for killing or caught in the cross fire—there might have been more pressure in the U.S. to label the ONLF a terrorist organization. The circumstances of their deaths are not clear to me. The fact is, however, that Americans were not in the Ogaden in large part because of the perceived danger in operating there.
Jimma Times : You are currently doing a research project about China-Africa relations. Is AFRICOM related to the growing Chinese influence in the continent?
Dr. Shinn : AFRICOM is an old idea that received new attention because of U.S. policy that focuses on counterterrorism in the aftermath of 9/11 and American concerns that there might be threats to African oil reserves, especially in the Gulf of Guinea, that provide much oil for the U.S. I do not believe growing Chinese involvement with Africa was an important consideration in deciding to implement the long-standing AFRICOM proposal.
I think the U.S. made a mistake in trying to sell AFRICOM as an organization that will train African peacekeepers, assist in enhancing good governance, and respond to natural disasters. While these are reasons for establishing AFRICOM, it is disingenuous to argue these are the principal reasons for moving forward now with AFRICOM. All this did was create suspicion about AFRICOM among Africans. I believe AFRICOM is a good idea so long as it does not result in the militarization of U.S. policy towards Africa and so long as it has a very light footprint on the African continent. While the headquarters will be in Stuttgart for the time being, I would urge that the permanent headquarters be located on the east coast of the U.S.
Jimma Times : In general, do you see more instability in this region?
Dr. Shinn : It is hard to imagine that there could be more instability in the Horn of Africa than exists today. Unfortunately, there are additional possibilities. My greatest worry is that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and the government in Khartoum will break down. Should that happen, there will almost certainly be a return to conflict. The situation in eastern Sudan is also worrisome. Even relatively peaceful Somaliland is showing signs of stress. Finally, I could be wrong about my prediction there will not be a return to war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Since the end of World War II, the Horn has arguably been the most conflicted region of the world. Today, only the region around Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan is more troubled.
Jimma Times : Thank you for participating in this interview.
Dr. Shinn : Thank you for seeking my views.
Source: Jimma Times