Interview with Ambassador Brook Hailu Beshah

By James Turitto
Staff Writer
November 8, 2008

The African continent has witnessed several critical events this year that have escalated political tensions and increased security concerns. In Zimbabwe, despite losing an election for the first time in the country’s history, President Robert Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party are holding onto power, by cracking down on the opposition and refusing to cooperate in a peace agreement for unified governance. In Somalia, lawlessness continues to dominate the land -- and the seas. Several attacks on ships off the coast of Somalia have captured the attention of the international community. Tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea over the border grew as the UN peacekeeping mission withdrew. And in Sudan, the political conflict between the north and the south continues to boil. Additionally, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has returned to war, and Kenya is learning the hard lessons of keeping together a heavily divided government.

Ambassador Brook Hailu Beshah, an expert on security issues in Africa discusses the impact of these events with IAR correspondent James Turitto. Ambassador Beshah has a distinguished career, serving the Ethiopian government as its deputy representative to the United States from 2001-2004 and as acting ambassador in 2004. From 2004-2006, he was the Permanent Deputy Delegate of Ethiopia to UNESCO. Currently, he is a professor of Security Policy Studies at George Washington University, where he teaches conflict and security in Africa and focuses on the Horn of Africa. He recently appeared on BBC Television to discuss the consequences of runoff elections in Zimbabwe this summer, and has published articles in The Wall Street Journal.

IAR: We are in the midst of a global financial crisis and banks around the world are suffering. Stock markets from Tokyo to New York are crashing. Yet, people believe African markets might not feel the effect of this global disaster. Why is that? And what measures can African governments take to increase their relative strength compared to the rest of the world?

Amb. Beshah: Well, what I feel is that definitely African countries will be affected, in one way or the other, by the global economic crisis. Although Africa is on the periphery, the continent is entangled and is part and parcel of the global economic system. African societies are a mix of quasi-modern and quasi-traditional, where the formal and informal economies exist side by side. Some are still ‘mono-economy’ countries. Small, as well as large enterprises, which manufacture and produce goods and provide services, are impacted due to the price fluctuations of commodities exported like cocoa, coffee and most particularly oil, which is imported. In order to increase their standing, it is advisable that African countries undertake agriculture-led strategy and diversify their economy.

IAR: Considering a significant portion of many African countries’ budgets derive from foreign aid, do you believe that western countries like the United States and Great Britain will begin to cut back their financial aid? And will this create a problem for African governments? Will they begin to feel the financial crisis in years to come?

Amb. Beshah: Yes. My answer is in the affirmative. The amount and volume of aid will be affected. Most African countries are the recipients of aid from the USA, Great Britain and European countries and from the European Union. They get help, financial assistance, in the form of grants and loans.

Given the current economic crisis, America and the western countries would have second thought about continuing with or curtailing the economic assistance that they give to these countries, which is really significant.

If we take Ethiopia, my own country, as an example, this past year, America had given hundreds of millions through USAID alone. This is a significant amount. In regard to that assistance in the pipeline, definitely, America might give it a second thought in regards to the continuation of significant assistance.

IAR: Given the global food crisis that has hit Africa hard over the past year, how will Africans feel the effects in years to come?

Amb. Beshah: The fact is that the price of staple foods has gone up by leaps and bounds. Staple foods -- like wheat, barley, rice, and bread -- have gone up two to three times over, by as much as three hundred percent.

Definitely, these African countries are hard hit. On the other hand, recently, the price of petroleum has gone down to less than 70 dollars a barrel, which is welcome good news to oil importers.

IAR: In June, you appeared on BBC Television to discuss the elections in Zimbabwe. Much has changed since then. Former President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki is mediating a peace negotiation that is teetering on the edge of failure. Where do we stand now, and how do we achieve a peaceful solution to this conflict?

Amb. Beshah: That’s a very good question. The way things are in Zimbabwe: we are back to square one. Here we have a regime -- an authoritarian regime -- led by President Robert Mugabe, who is dragging his feet so as to hold on to political power. His own people have voted with their feet by going to neighboring countries, and they have repeated this by exercising their democratic rights in the election, meaning that they elected the opposition, which is hard for him to accept.

After some time, a peaceful compromise was made. Given the African Union’s (AU’s) pressure and the western world, he agreed to share power and create a coalition government. Now the government is refusing to implement the modalities of agreement that was negotiated by then-president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki.

As per the agreement, Morgan Tsvangirai would assume the position of Prime Minister of an enlarged cabinet. And the two political forces, ZANU-PF led by Robert Mugabe and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Morgan Tsvangirai, would share cabinet seats. Despite the agreement, President Mugabe bypassed Tsvangirai and has threatened to name all the Cabinet members from members of his own party, including the key ones—like Defense, Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Finance.

Given the past record of President Robert Mugabe, I think he would not share power with the opposition. We could say he was buying time.

I’m alarmed that Zimbabwe might slide back to a state of unrest and disturbance thus entering another bloody chapter of its political history. And I hope, somehow, President Mugabe will open his eyes, come to his senses, and face reality. He was the first President, he was a patriot, and he led the fight for freedom against British colonial rule. But when the time comes to go, he must go, and he has to go. And Zimbabwe, I think, has no shortage of enlightened and capable statesmen. It is time to pass on the torch to the young generation.

IAR: Under what preconditions will Mugabe cede either of the key ministerial positions—Home Affairs or Defense—to the MDC, and what might Tsvangirai have to cede in order for Mugabe to comply?

Amb. Beshah: I think, first and foremost, a deal is a deal. Thabo Mbeki, who had the blessing of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the African Union as well, is working hard to implement this deal because, at the moment, it is one last hope to save Zimbabwe.

Both sides should strictly follow the agreement and share key cabinet positions whether it is Defense or Home Affairs.

Morgan Tsvangirai has kept his side of the deal and so must Mr. Mugabe.

In that respect, Mugabe, if he just stops and thinks once again, and he goes back to implementing the articles of what has been agreed upon, that would be the solution. As for Mr. Tsvangirai, he should hold ground. He has come halfway. And he should be steadfast. Stay on at that position and demand, and also, reassure President Mugabe that what he wants is focus on dealing with the challenges the country is facing.

The economy is in a bad shape. Inflation rates are in the millions, and the people are going hungry. And, as you know, helplessness leads to unrest. You will be forcing the people to choose other alternatives, like violent means.

If Mr. Mugabe really loves his country, which I am sure he does, he should accept the verdict of the Zimbabwean electorate; share power while gradually letting go of state power and phase out of public life. He should transfer power to the new generation. In that way, he will be giving credit to his own name and to his own country.

IAR: Earlier, you mentioned the two parties must meet each other halfway. After the peace agreement was signed, both leaders received heavy criticism from their parties for giving in to the other party. If each party views the peace process as a zero-sum game, how will this create legitimacy for each leader?

Amb. Beshah: There is no doubt that the opposition parties, who won considerable parliamentary seats, should be accepted as legitimate partners. With this in mind, both sides [the MDC and the ZANU-PF] should stop playing a zero-sum game and look forward to the future and focus on solving the country’s problems.

Currently, you can see a struggle going on between the old idea and the new idea. The old as represented by ZANU-PF, and the new as represented by MDC. There is a struggle going on between the old generation and the new generation, as well, and also ideologically, there is a struggle between the old, left-oriented Marxist-fueled ideology versus the new market-oriented ideology, which is reflected by the two main contending political forces in Zimbabwe. It is only through reconciliation that both can become ‘winners’ and avoid seeing the peace process as a zero- sum game.

From my perspective, democracy, political pluralism, good governance and the rule of law are the only and correct options for the future of Zimbabwe. And legitimacy comes from free and fair elections, not through the barrel of a gun.

IAR: Let’s move on to East Africa. The Horn of Africa is considered one of the most conflict-prone regions in the world, second only to the Middle East. What is Ethiopia’s role in Somalia —peacekeeper, peacemaker, peace builder, or all of the above?

Amb. Beshah: Indeed, I agree with you that the Horn of Africa is a very violent, very volatile area. It is unfortunate that for the last several decades it has become a place of conflict and instability. In the Horn, the country that plays a central role is Ethiopia, which is due to its geostrategic position, plus its large population. Half of the population of the Horn lives in Ethiopia, a country with 80 million people. Ethiopia behind Nigeria is the second most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). If we take into consideration the whole continent, Ethiopia is going to overtake Egypt in the coming decade and become the second most populous country overtaking Egypt.

In this area, besides Ethiopia, we have Sudan, troubled with the North/South conflict and Darfur. Kenya also had its own share of problems, specifically with the election crisis which was fortunately resolved by a power-sharing arrangement. Djibouti, a former French colony, and Eritrea, which used to be a province of Ethiopia, are young states that achieved independence in 1977 and 1993 respectfully. And finally, there is Somalia, which has not had a central government since 1991.

As to the question whether Ethiopia is a peacekeeper, peacemaker, or peace builder…the answer is both yes and no. In regard to its role as peacekeeper, the Ethiopian regime intervened in Somalia “to create stability,” according to the Ethiopian regime. In the eyes of the Somali opposition, Ethiopia ‘invaded Somalia’. It depends on the angle you see it. This issue is very controversial.

From the point of view of the Ethiopian government, Ethiopia went into Somalia in December 2006 with an invitation from the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), and also, because it’s national interest was at stake when Islamist radical groups succeeded in capturing Mogadishu in the summer of that year. The Ethiopian government argues its role is that of a peacekeeper, peace builder and peacemaker. From the point of view of the Somali TFG, Ethiopia is a peacekeeper. From the point of view of the Somali opposition, Ethiopia is not a peacekeeper, peacemaker, or peace builder but an aggressor. And hence, they consider Ethiopia’s mission into Somalia not as an intervention but as an invasion.

Where are we now when we assess the situation after two years? There is more fighting and increased lawlessness. The Somali opposition has intensified its attacks against the TFG and Ethiopian troops and are liberating more and more areas and towns. Everyday civilian lives are lost. The Ethiopian military is incurring casualties, feeling the burn, and taking the heat. Did Ethiopia’s intervention create stability? It didn’t. It lacked support from the Somali people at large. Mainly because the Somali people see Ethiopia as a proxy of the United States in the Horn and this has affected the ‘acceptance level’ of the Ethiopian forces in Somalia.

The Ethiopian government, as far as we know, has reached a consensus to withdraw its troops from Somalia, eagerly hoping African Union troops will take over. This remains to be seen. Until such a time comes the Ethiopian regime is left to its own caprice and feels abandoned, most particularly by western countries which are unenthusiastic about getting involved in Somalia.

From the point of view of the western world, especially the United States, the Horn of Africa is a strategically important area. But, given the 1993 Black Hawk Down incident, it seems America would not venture in direct military intervention.

The biggest hurdle of the Somali opposition is its lack of unity and not being able to agree in forming one central government. Similarly, the TFG is divided. And it looks like they are more prone to fighting each rather than finding long lasting solutions.

If the Ethiopian troops withdraw, which seems likely, then the al-Shabaab, an Islamic insurgency group fighting the TFG since 2004, will definitely take over Mogadishu and it will not be far before we see an Islamic Republic of Somalia. They want to establish not a secular Somalia, but an Islamic one, which I think is detrimental, to the Somali people, to the neighboring countries, to the whole African continent, plus to the western interests, as well as the American interests.

IAR: Speaking of American interests, United Stated has had a historically close relationship with Ethiopia. How has this relationship affected Ethiopia’s status in the region, and how has it affected Ethiopia’s relationship among its neighbors?

Amb. Beshah: The United States is a major player in the Horn of Africa, especially since the end of the Second World War. Ethiopia had received considerable political and military support from the USA in the 1950’s and 60’s. From 1976 to 1991 the relationship cooled when the radical military government was in power. Since 1991, under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF’s) regime relations improved with the US, and they further improved in the post 9/11 period due to both government’s mutual interest in fighting Al-Qaeda and radical elements in the Horn. As a consequence this has contributed to elevating Ethiopia’s status as a regional power player, while at the same time establishing it as a US proxy.

On the home front, since the 2005 federal and state elections the democratic process in Ethiopia has been curtailed and limited. Close to two hundred people died as a consequence of the election crisis. There is a slide backwards on civil and political rights, as well as the freedom of the press. Opposition party members and their leaders were put in prison under the guise and pretext of maintaining peace and stability.

In this respect, America’s image has been damaged in the eyes of the Ethiopian people due to its close relationship with the Ethiopian regime. And its actions have become questionable. From the perspective of the Ethiopian people, America should have put pressure on the regime and ‘tamed it’.

Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic country with lots of social, economic and political challenges. It’s a country where political process is highly regimented and the space for political discourse is controlled by the government in power. There are already opposition groups in the country -- especially in Eastern Ethiopia in the Ogaden region -- who are challenging the power of the regime. The US government should focus on the Ethiopian people because governments come and go, but the people will always be there, and the people do not have short memories.

IAR: Currently, the Ethiopian legislature is considering a bill that will criminalize NGOs that receive even as little as 10% of funding from foreign sources. Does this come from a growing anti-American sentiment on the part of Ethiopians?

Amb. Beshah: That does not have to do with anti-Americanism, but it has to do with the government’s desire to control the operations and the work of NGOs. The government, it seems, had decided to tighten the screws and has come up with this proclamation that has already been approved by the Council of Ministers. And it will be presented to Parliament soon for approval. I expect it will pass through Parliament easily because the ruling party controls at least 85 percent of the total seats.

Ethiopian civic societies, opposition parties and foreign donors, have reservations and criticize this law because the government has targeted NGOs that advocate and promote human rights, good governance, free media, etc. These types of NGOs enrich and fill the ‘spiritual, civil and political space’ of Ethiopian society, augmenting, regulating and exposing abuses of state resources by political officials, making them accountable and responsible. I consider their role very important to the development of a democratic and political culture in Ethiopia. Controlling these groups would put them at the mercy of the government.

The EU and other European countries have expressed their reservations as well. A case in point is the intervention of the US government, which ought to be commended. Recently, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights, Mr. David Kramer, was dispatched to Addis Ababa. He told Prime Minister Meles Zenawi that America has reservations to this new legislation and advised its ally to reconsider. Reports are coming in from Ethiopia that America’s plea has fallen on deaf ears.

I consider it a slide backwards on the part of the Ethiopian government, which had “advocated”, since coming to power in 1991, an agenda to promote democracy and open political space for all.

Most of these NGOs get some kind of financial support from outside the country and will be affected if the new law is passed. Hindering outside resources from giving financial contribution to such NGO’s that want to promote and teach civic education or gender issues is negative development.

IAR: Ethiopia has been in a border dispute with Eritrea since the early 1990s. Eritrea has gained its independence, and there have been various cycles of armed conflict, most recently between 1998 and 2000. Earlier this year, the conflict intensified, just at the time that UN peacekeepers departed from the border zone. On what terms would both countries negotiate a solution to this conflict?

Amb. Beshah: In regards to the border disputes between Ethiopia and Eritrea, it’s still an unresolved issue, and it’s an issue that can explode anytime. The two countries are in a stalemate. It’s a time bomb ticking. The soldiers are very close to each other. The two countries have some of the largest armies in Africa. After spending hundreds, if not billions, of dollars on peacekeeping, the United Nations has withdrawn its troops from the region this summer. The UN has been frustrated with the lack of agreement between the two states. Literally there is no buffer zone (or demilitarized zone -- DMZ) containing blue helmets.

It is sad that these two nations cannot find an agreement. The peoples of these countries have many things in common. They speak the same languages; come from the same ethnic groups; have the same lifestyles and share a common history, which is cemented by blood.

The trigger that ignited the war was in 1998 when Eritrean troops captured the border town of Badme. Between 1998 and 2000, more than one hundred thousand soldiers died from both sides. It was a fight to the finish. When the war was concluded with Ethiopia taking back Badme and other lost lands, both agreed to take their case to The Hague, the International Court of Justice. After a number of years of deliberation, the court decided on delineating and demarcating the border. Badme was awarded to Eritrea and it accepted the border decision while Ethiopia ‘accepted it in principle’ and demanded negotiation most particularly as to the award of Badme to Eritrea. To this day the border issue is not resolved. Badme is under Ethiopian control.

The position of the Ethiopian government is: Yes, we’ll accept the decisions of the International Court of Justice, but first let’s negotiate. Eritrea’s stance is: first implementation of the decision, then negotiation with Ethiopia, which would be followed up by normalization of relations between the two.

There are areas that were given to Ethiopia that it did not claim and which it wants to include in future negotiations with Eritrea. The Ethiopian regime is now walking on a tightrope with the sentiments of the people of Ethiopia, who don’t want to part with Badme. If the Ethiopian government hands over the town, it would be at its own peril with political consequences.

IAR: Speaking of recognition of a free nation, Somaliland has illustrated a high level of sovereignty and stability over the past 15 years. In a country plagued by lawlessness and in a region known for instability, Somaliland has proven to be an island of stability in a sea of chaos. Why have Ethiopia, the AU, the UN, the US, and Great Britain refused to recognize its independence as a free and sovereign nation?

Amb. Beshah: Somaliland, with its capital in Hargeisa, used to be called the British Somaliland and was ruled by the UK during the colonial period. The Italian Somaliland, literally the rest of Somalia, with its capital in Mogadishu, used to be called Italian Somaliland. The people living in both areas are of the Somali ethnic group; they speak the Somali language, but come from different clans. In the case of Somaliland, the Isaaq clan is predominantly found there, while the Darod, Hawiya and other clans live in the rest of Somalia.

The ways and means of colonial administration had its own impact on both territories.
The British style of colonial rule—as can be observed in Anglophone Africa, countries like Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya just to cite a few—had allowed limited form of political participation, limited form of self-rule, and local government. Generally speaking, these had positive impacts at time of and in post- independence period.

This was a blessing in disguise for the Somaliland Somalis. It made them more open to contending political views, to different political parties and to a young, yet vibrant press. They are more prone to modern democratic discourse--not fighting with weapons, but fighting with words. So there is a tradition of tolerance and of being tolerant. In the case of Italian Somaliland these factors were unfortunately absent, and hence its consequences were felt right after independence and to this day.

In 1960, both colonies gained independence and agreed to form one political entity with its capital in Mogadishu. Free elections were held and there was a legitimately elected government in place. There were also different political parties. Unfortunately, the democratic process in Somalia was short lived. It ended with the assassination of the Somali head of state which consequently led the country to authoritarian rule culminating in the coming to power of General Siad Barre whose reign lasted till 1991.

This led to frustration for the people of Somaliland who had resented since independence the ‘unbalanced relations’ they have had with the Italian part. The ‘South’ dominated the ‘North’ by holding and controlling state power and the political landscape of the country. After a long and protracted civil war which was also undertaken in Somaliland, the rule of Siad Barre came to an end. Now, after almost 20 years, Somalia still has no strong central government and has become a “failed state”.

The northerners, the former British Somaliland, organized themselves, and formed a new state called Somaliland and declared themselves as a free nation totally separate from the rest of Somalia.

They declared to the world: If they ever were to be part of Somalia, it would be under an open, tolerant, democratic Somalia. But given the current reality and condition, they argue they would rather exist as a separate country.

Their effort to gain recognition and be accepted as a sovereign and independent state has not yet borne fruit. They have approached neighboring countries, African states; the AU; EU; the USA to give them recognition. Even Ethiopia, it seems the neighboring country they counted on, refused to recognize them. There were reports in the 1990’s that the leaders of Somaliland were considering some kind of loose political association with Ethiopia. Hence there was no “de jure” recognition.

However, Somaliland has received “de facto” recognition. Several states, especially neighboring ones, have recently begun direct relations with the Hargeisa government. A case in point is Ethiopia. Addis Ababa has opened a diplomatic mission in Hargeisa and has named an Ambassador.

It is unlikely that Somaliland will come back to Somalia under the old conditions. It looks like the Somalis [in Somaliland], have tasted how sweet independence and self-determination are. Time and time again the leaders of Somaliland proudly declare their achievements: peace, tranquility, and economic progress. Hargeisa and the port city of Berbera are booming. Berbera has become an additional outlet for the export and import of landlocked Ethiopia and are expanding the port facilities. In addition to the roads that link Jijiga, Ethiopia with Hargeisa and onwards to Berbera, there is a regular air link between the two.

We live in the 21st century where self-determination and independence of peoples is respected. My expectation is Somaliland will be accepted—recognized by African, the USA and by the European countries in the immediate future.

IAR: Considering the lawlessness in the shipping waters off the coast of Somalia and the rise of piracy this year, do you foresee a decline in trade flow to countries in the Horn of Africa?

Amb. Beshah: Because there is no central power or authority in Somalia, one negative spin-off effect of this conflict has become the ever growing piracy issue, where Somali armed groups are attacking merchant ships. They use satellite phones and navigation equipments to coordinate their activities. They also monitor the travel patterns and routes of international ships. When they attack, they use ‘mother ships’ accompanied by several speedboats. They have become successful and are getting millions of dollars in ransom. As a consequence, they are more organized and more daring.

Horn countries namely those that have sea coasts -- like Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and, on the other side of the Red Sea, Yemen -- do not have strong naval forces. Consequently, the warships of France, the USA, the Russian Federation, and Germany, to name a few, have begun to permanently monitor the Somali coast, the Gulf of Aden, Bab el Mandeb and up to the port city of Mombasa, Kenya. This area next to the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz is strategically very important in that a considerable volume of international sea trade and commerce is undertaken through these routes.

I find it appropriate, given the inability of countries of the area, that developed countries have stepped in as “stakeholders” and are now actively monitoring sea-lanes off the coast of Somalia so as to mitigate sea piracy. The problem can be curtailed, but given the lawlessness of Somalia, I expect more and more Somali armed groups are going to attack ships. This problem can only find a solution if, and only if, there is a stable government in Somalia, which will maintain peace and order…so the piracies will continue for years to come.

IAR: The Kenyan government claimed that they purchased the arms shipment from Ukraine that was hijacked by pirates in September. However, news reports have been released indicating the end buyer as the Government of South Sudan. Do you believe the government of South Sudan is rearming itself for renewed conflict?

Amb. Beshah: Indeed, the Kenyan government reluctantly claimed the purchased arms shipment from Ukraine. This incident indicates to us to what extent the situation is precarious and both sides are nervous. It is an open secret that both the central government in the Sudan and the Government of Southern Sudan are making preparations and flexing their muscles for any eventuality. As a result of the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) a few years back, there is a relative peace between the two which I think should be diligently strengthened by ‘continuous and persistent confidence building measures’. The people of Southern Sudan will vote on a referendum scheduled for 2011.

Somali pirates have become very active taking over ships and hostages, and demanding ransom money. A case in point is the incident you mentioned in your question, the capture of a ship loaded with more than 30 T-72 tanks. It was shipped from Ukraine and destined to Juba, to GOSS (Government of Southern Sudan) and to be unloaded in the port of Mombasa. Kenya has denied its role in the purchase of arms for GOSS. Such incidents aggravate the deep-rooted insecurity and lack of confidence the governments in Khartoum and Juba have against each other.

The year 2011 is decisive not only for the Sudan but for other states in the Horn as well. Two scenarios could occur. Scenario 1: The referendum takes place without an incident. It would be monitored by the AU, the UN, the EU and international observers, and consequently would be implemented. Based on the decision of the people of Southern Sudan, either this troubled region continues as part of the Sudan polity or a new state will literally be born in the Horn of Africa. How will the rest of Sudan accept this, with its power base in Khartoum? Time will tell. Scenario 2: The peace process fails, and the referendum, due to tensions and conflicts, does not take place. This would definitely damage the CPA, and Sudan could plunge back to political chaos and bloodshed that has accompanied it since its independence in 1956.

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