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
"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
"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
"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.