Webs of Conflict and Pathways to Peace in the Horn of Africa: A New Approach?

February 29, 2012 // 10:00am11:30am
Event Co-sponsors: 
Africa Program

CHIC DAMBACH, Chief of Staff, Congressman John Garamendi, CA

STEVEN MCDONALD, Director, Africa Program and Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

BIRTUKAN MIDEKSSA, Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow, National Endowment for Democracy

Ambassador DAVID SHINN, Former Ambassador to Ethiopia and Professor George Washington University

PAUL WILLIAMS, Associate Professor, George Washington University


United States’ Engagement in the Horn of Africa

The Woodrow Wilson Center’s Horn of Africa Steering Committee’s recent publications Horn of Africa: Webs of Conflict and Pathways to Peace, a conflict mapping report and its supplemental policy recommendations document, Pathways to Peace in the Horn of Africa: What Role for the US, were presented to a public audience on February 29, 2012 by George Washington University professor and lead author Paul Williams. Williams provided an analytical assessment of the United States’ policy toward the Horn of Africa since the early 1990s, highlighting that one of the main constraints hindering the current US policy towards the region is the United States’ “uneven level of engagement,” which is dominated by counterterrorism issues, regime stabilization, and humanitarian assistance.  As a result of the strong emphasis on these issues, little attention is given to conflict resolution that would address the core causes of conflict in the region, such as poor governance, the lack of accountability, inequitable distribution of resources, corruption, and on-going localized disputes with historical, ethnic and resource competition roots.  Because of this policy focus, the United States is viewed by the governments and people of the region through a very schizophrenic lens, with many seeing it as antithetic to their interests, and others as a source of support.

Williams outlined the key findings of his research, which concluded that given the Horn’s embodiment of the most authoritarian, corrupt, and militarized governments, the centrality of governance issues are impossible to ignore.  Other significant findings highlighted the legacy of mutual destabilization stemming from a long-history of governments’ support of insurgent groups, and rebel groups in their neighboring countries.  This “interconnectedness” of the conflicts further rendered the current conflicts increasingly intractable. Regional borderlands, localized issues, and resources (land, oil, and water) were other components that contributed to the exacerbation of conflict in the Horn of Africa.  A final conclusion in his research linked diaspora groups with dampening the dynamics of the conflict in addition to fuelling them.

Birtukan Midekssa, a Reagan-Fascell Democracy fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), underscored this point by outlining the drastic reversal in U.S. involvement in the region, particularly in regards to her native country of Ethiopia over the past several decades.  Midekssa stated that, unlike the era of “American imperialism” where the idea of America was something to be romanticized and revered, and was viewed as the “friend of the people” during an era of repression, the American government of today has employed itself “as an accomplice in causing [their] plight.”  The U.S. provision of funds and its alliance with the current regime contribute to its subjective political interests and decision-making.  However, Midekssa did iterate that “America is a country to look up to,” and one that has the capacity to pave the course for democracy in the region.

Contributing Factors Exacerbating the Present Conflict

 “Food security, and conflict prevention and mitigation continue to persist as the two most crucial issues in the Horn of Africa,” highlighted Ambassador David Shinn, former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia and George Washington University professor.  The conflict mitigation aspect of past initiatives “was an abject failure,” stated Shinn, “since it accomplished nothing, [and] new conflicts kept overwhelming the initiatives.”  The main complexities that must be untangled are the bureaucratic components of US policy.  For example, since ambassadors are assigned to countries and not regions, there is a tendency for U.S. officials to adopt a bilateral focus on the conflict.  Consequently, the there is an exclusion of valuable regional actors in conflict mitigation processes.  This view was supported by Williams in his study which states a more productive measure would entail the United States building trust with local actors and civil society groups by “getting US personnel out of the embassies and capitals, and into the field.”

Midekssa suggested that the inclusion of other conflicts, such as that of religious and tribal affiliations should be focused on more in the recommendations document.  “The current regime [in Ethiopia],” she indicated, “lacks the ability to coexist, holds a strong intolerance for dissent, and is unable to engage and cooperate in negotiations.”  Midekssa added that it is in the interest of the United States and the people of the Horn of Africa to adopt and implement Paul Williams’ recommendations, as this is the only way progress will be made.

Issues of Accountability

Chic Dambach, who currently serves as the Chief of Staff for Congressman John Garamendi (CA), compared the present impasse in the Horn of Africa to the 1981 Algiers Accords where the lack of pressure and accountability from the US contributed to a lack of implementation of the Agreement.  Dambach fervently emphasized that in order to avoid a similar scenario occurring in the Horn of Africa, it is the role of the United States to hold actors accountable.  Without such, there will be no changes towards stability in the region.

To reiterate Dambach’s argument, Midekssa emphasized that there is a growing need for institutions that would allow for the constructive resolution of conflicts among citizens and would provide a more effective means of bringing stability to the region. 

“Holding actors responsible,” she states, “would have avoided wars in the past had the regimes been held accountable for their actions and acknowledged a responsibility for their citizens.”


As Ambassador Shinn concluded, the United States does have an interest in encouraging democratization, human rights, rule of law, and governance in the region, and these factors should be highly prioritized on the same level as combating counterterrorism issues.  In order to effectively address the issues of the Horn, multiple changes must take effect: the US must put peacebuilding at the center of its policies; it must trade carefully with regional actors; and it must adopt the role of an impartial mediator. 

Addressing the conflict of the Horn must not solely rely in Track I diplomacy efforts.  Williams underscored that, “there needs to be an equivalent of civil society’s engagement in similar types of forums at the Track II diplomacy level…where civil society actors can play an important role in these forums and then feed in to the Track I level.” It is necessary to understand that civil society groups must be heavily involved, as their participation remains crucial to achieving sustainable peace in the region.


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
Event Speakers List: 
  • Chief of Staff, Congressman John Garamendi, CA
  • Deputy Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Africa, US Agency for International Development
  • George Washington University
  • Associate Professor of International Affairs, Elliot School of International Affairs, George Washington University
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