Sir Kieran Prendergast opens RUSI conference on Crisis in the Horn of Africa

The former UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Sir Kieran Prendergast, opened the Crisis in the Horn of Africa conference on 23 October 2008. This is a summary of his address.

Sir Kieran Prendergast began his address by outlining the great puzzle of Somalia: how was it that a country with one people, language and religion could fall apart so comprehensively?

There have been waves of foreign involvement: US intervention, UN peacekeepers, and multiple peace initiatives. All have failed. Now, Ethiopia finds itself in a morass in Somalia. The mess has been deepened by the fact that in the UN Secretariat, there are fundamental differences between departments on the correct prescription for the crisis. The Security Council has also publicly disagreed over peacekeeping measures.

The Eritrea/Ethiopian conflict (1998-2000) also dominated much of Sir Kieran’s time with the UN. It was an unnecessary war, symptomatic of deep and unfinished business between the two countries and, in particular, the Tigrayan and Eritrean elites. The war between these states was punishingly costly: a war of attrition fought with modern weapons but antiquated medical care saw an enormously high ratio of dead to wounded.

And today, the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission rulings are still unimplemented on the ground. The Security Council has also washed its hands of the conflict, having wound up the mission with so much still to do with nothing in its place – a highly irresponsible move. There remains an ever-present danger of miscalculation and escalation between the two sides.

In Sudan, multiple conflicts and fault lines create an interesting set of problems. The common factor is poor governance and the domination of other groups by the Arab riverine elite. Darfur is an exceedingly serious problem. But it distracts attention from the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement – which provides the model for solving other problems in Sudan. If this were to unravel, this would exacerbate many other simmering or open conflicts.

So what can be done to solve these multiple conflicts? The major single lesson he drew from dealing with the Horn is that there is too much attention on the individual components and not the connecting components. There is a malaise in the region as a whole going back far into the past. One might suppose that the Great Lakes is the most unstable region in Africa: but actually, the problems are deeper in the Horn. The divorce between Eritrea and Ethiopia might have been more peaceful, but where else has there been such a violation of uti possidetis? It is almost goes against the founding rules of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which held colonial borders as sacrosanct, in order to prevent the entire ball of string unravelling. We see the same dilemmas raised in Somalia.

Since the early 1990s, none of the treatments applied to Horn of Africa have worked. In the Great Lakes, the seemingly endless downward spiral was arrested by the Lusaka Conference. Plainly there is much still to do, but at least that conference did lead to a set of principles agreed by regional leaders, such as non-interference.

There is no equivalent in the Horn. The sense of unfinished business is coupled with a widespread belief that various member states are arming and training extremist or separatist groups as part of a policy of mutual destabilisation. For example, Eritrea and Ethiopia ought to have a clear common interest in working against Islamist groups – but this is not reflected in their behaviour.

It is perhaps too ambitious to mirror the Great Lakes approach and have a similar regional peace conference – relations are too bad between parts of the Horn. The key to turning around the problems of the Horn is to focus on the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea. But this effort has been deadlocked. So how do we find a big picture, ‘win-win’ solution?

For this, there must be a normalisation of relations, including resumption of trade and transport ties. There is much scope for productive co-operation between the two countries. It should, in theory, not be difficult to engineer deals between the two states. But proud, obstinate leaders operate in cultures where honour and face-saving are important. So this will not happen without sustained, high-level diplomacy. Yet this will require deep engagement by the US, the power that matters the most to both Eritrea and Ethiopia. It will also require deep and more informed diplomacy. Unfortunately, there has been an overemphasis on counter-terrorism operations in US policy towards the region.

Nevertheless, there will be a US new administration soon. There will be opportunities for renewed engagement; the Eritreans are in particular keen to build links with the US. Sir Kieran concluded by stressing that a new sustained, high-level and balanced approach is necessary not just in the Horn, but across the whole of Africa.

Summary by Adrian Johnson, RUSI


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