Interview with David H. Shinn

David Shinn is an adjunct professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs. He served for thirty-seven years in the U.S. Foreign Service at eight embassies in Africa, the Middle East, and in Washington, D.C. He has a BA, MA, and PhD from The George Washington University.


Given the media coverage of the conflict in Sudan and the fragility of the current peace deal, should the fighting resume what will be required for there to be more direct intervention from the international community and/or individual countries such as the U.S., other developed countries or leading intergovernmental organizations?


It is important to distinguish between two ongoing conflicts in Sudan. One is the better known situation in Darfur and the other concerns implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the 20-year civil war between northern and southern Sudan.

Let me take Darfur first. The U.S. and a number of human rights organizations have declared that genocide occurred in Darfur following the outbreak of conflict in 2003. To the best of my knowledge, no other nation has called it genocide, although everyone agrees that horrible acts have taken place against many innocent Darfurians. The United Nations called the situation in Darfur “crimes against humanity.” The United Nations estimates that 200,000 (some say as many as 450,000) Darfurians have died in the conflict and two and a half million people have been displaced. The government in Khartoum clearly played a key role in arming a group in Darfur loosely known as the Janjaweed that carried out many of these acts against civilians. Subsequently, some of the rebel groups that oppose the government in Khartoum also conducted terrible acts against civilians.

The African Union established a force in Darfur of about 7,000 soldiers who were charged with monitoring the situation. This force did not have the mandate nor the numbers of soldiers required to intervene in a manner that could stop the violence in a region the size of France. Several countries, including the U.S., have pushed hard to establish a larger, more robust peacekeeping force with a mandate to intervene in stopping violence. After considerable foot dragging, the government of Sudan has agreed to the establishment of an African Union/United Nations Hybrid operation in Darfur that is to begin carrying out its mandated activities no later than the end of 2007. Known as UNAMID, it authorizes more than 19,000 military personnel, more than 6,000 police, and about 5,000 civilians.

The question is whether the larger UNAMID operation can accomplish what the African Union force failed to do. Some observers, me included, believe that until there is a political settlement agreed to by the government of Sudan and the dozen or more Darfurian rebel groups that NO peacekeeping force can end the violence. Although a new peace process is underway in Libya, it is severely handicapped by the unwillingness of a half dozen rebel groups to even participate in the discussions. The prospects as of late October for ending the conflict in Darfur are pretty dismal. Although the U.S. supports both UNAMID and the peace process, it has made clear that it does not intend to send troops to Sudan. The government of Sudan would almost certainly object if the U.S. or any European country did send troops unilaterally or even offered to contribute fighting units to UNAMID. As a result, the UNAMID force will probably consist of African troops supplemented by soldiers from countries like India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand, and China, which has already promised some 350 engineers. The U.S. and most Western countries will provide most of the financing, lift capacity to move troops into Darfur, and possibly some non-combat specialty forces to help with matters like intelligence and logistics.

The second issue in Sudan is implementation of the January 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the civil war between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and the central government based in Khartoum. Several years of negotiations between northerners and southerners resulted in a detailed and complex CPA that is now facing severe challenges. Under the terms of the CPA, the SPLM joined the national government for a period of six years, during which time there would be national elections in 2009 and a referendum in 2011 when the southerners could opt to remain federated with the north or choose independence. The goal of the CPA was to make unity attractive to the southerners. So far, this has not happened.

The southern regional government became so disenchanted with the implementation of the CPA that it pulled out of the central government in October 2007. The SPLM/A expressed unhappiness with the failure of the northern government to remove its security forces from southern Sudan and oil-rich Abyei region, lack of transparency in managing the sharing of oil revenues, failure to reshuffle southern personnel in the national government, and lack of progress in defining the border between northern and southern Sudan, among other problems. The bottom line is that Sudan’s vast oil wealth is located in the north-south border area, mostly in the south, and both sides want to control it. Unless there is a willingness by both sides, but especially the northern government in Khartoum, to make greater efforts to implement the CPA and make unity attractive, there is a real prospect that low level conflict or even a full-scale civil war could break out again.

The United Nations has a peacekeeping operation known as UNMIS in Sudan to support implementation of the CPA, to help with humanitarian assistance, and protect human rights. Its strength as of the beginning of October 2007 was almost 9,000 troops, more than 600 military observers, 650 police, and almost 1,000 civilian personnel. The U.S. contributed 13 police. For the time being, the international community is focused on encouraging all sides in the conflict to implement the CPA. If the CPA fails and conflict breaks out again in southern Sudan, UNMIS is not equipped nor does it have the mandate to stop the fighting. It is unclear what steps the international community would take to deal with a renewed civil war. What is clear is that it would be a disaster for southern Sudan, northern Sudan, and the entire region. Sudan borders nine countries and the Red Sea. No country, including the U.S., has suggested that it is ready to step in and provide troops to end a new, potential conflict.


What if anything can be done to stabilize the Horn of Africa, particularly Somalia? What should Ethiopia’s role be in protecting the new government?


This is a huge question. With the exception of Iraq/Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa is the most conflicted region in the world today. I have already talked about two conflicts in Sudan, which is part of the Horn of Africa. The other two principal issues are the Ethiopia-Eritrea border dispute and the situation in Somalia. The antecedents of both conflicts are long and complex.

The immediate problem along the Ethiopian/Eritrean border is the reluctance of Ethiopia to accept the final decision of the Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Commission. Both countries accepted binding arbitration by the Commission. After the Commission announced its results in 2002, Ethiopia argued that the finding was flawed. Although there may be merit to Ethiopia’s argument, the fact is that it accepted binding arbitration at the outset. Eritrea accepted the outcome and has been critical of the international community ever since for not forcing Ethiopia to abide by the agreement. In the meantime, Eritrea has weakened its position by refusing to comply with all of the terms of the UN peacekeeping mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea known as UNMEE.

Eritrea, contrary to the Border Commission findings and the UNMEE mandate, has moved troops into the Temporary Security Zone bordering Ethiopia while Ethiopia has significantly increased the number of its forces inside Ethiopia along the Eritrean border. These developments have caused a rise in tension between the two countries and led to predictions by many observers that Ethiopia and Eritrea are likely to return to war.

I disagree with those analysts who are predicting the outbreak of war. Ethiopia will not attack Eritrea because it currently holds the disputed territory which the Border Commission awarded to Eritrea. Any attack on Eritrea would be met with widespread condemnation by the international community, including those countries that provide it significant quantities of foreign aid. In the event that Ethiopia did initiate an attack into Eritrea, it would be met by a strong sense of Eritrean nationalism and the Ethiopians would likely incur high causalities.

Although Eritrea has an incentive to occupy the small pieces of border territory awarded to it by the Border Commission, Ethiopian forces soundly defeated Eritrea in 2000 and the military strength of both countries has not changed significantly since then. An Eritrean invasion of Ethiopia would encounter strong Ethiopian nationalism and almost certainly be defeated. Finally, any war initiated by Eritrea would be strongly condemned by the international community.

This situation just does not seem to me likely to result in war. Some argue that a minor border miscalculation could get out of hand and lead to all-out war. I doubt it. Both countries have professional, disciplined armies that are not likely to allow a minor incident to develop into a major war. For different reasons, both armies are also experiencing internal morale challenges. This could be a problem if one side believes the other side has a huge morale problem while not acknowledging its own deficiencies. I suspect, however, this will serve as a restraint on both countries to tread carefully before engaging in any major military initiative.

While I am not particularly concerned that war will break out between Ethiopia and Eritrea, I don’t have a solution for ending the border dispute that will eventually allow the two countries to normalize their relations. Both sides have adopted intractable positions and neither one shows any willingness to compromise. Eritrea continues to occupy the legal high ground on the border issue but has damaged its position by doing everything in its power to assist forces hostile to Ethiopia, especially in Somalia, to confront Ethiopia militarily. For its part, Ethiopia hosts Eritrean groups that are committed to replacing the leadership in Eritrea.

The U.S. shared intelligence information and provided moral support to Ethiopia and the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) as they removed the Islamic Courts structure from power in Mogadishu early in 2007. This policy came at a steep price. The TFG never had broad-based Somali support and the Ethiopians and Somalis are traditional enemies. If Ethiopia had been able to get in and out of Mogadishu quickly, it might have been able to avoid a serious deterioration in relations with most Somalis. It is now almost a year later and the Ethiopians seem stuck in Mogadishu as the protectors of the TFG. If the Ethiopian forces pull out, the TFG will probably be pushed out of Mogadishu by its Somali enemies. The longer Ethiopian forces remain in Mogadishu, the greater will be the animosity between Ethiopia and most Somalis. In the meantime, remnants of Islamic militias and other opponents of the TFG have become stronger and conduct daily attacks against the TFG, Ethiopians, and innocent Somalis who live in Mogadishu.

As of late October, there was a window of opportunity for ending the conflict. The TFG Prime Minister, Ali Mohamed Gedi, stepped down. This opened the possibility for naming a new prime minister, perhaps even one who has been opposing the TFG, and one who has widespread Somali political support. Combined with other personnel changes in the TFG and a sincere willingness to share power, there is the possibility to establish a government of national unity that attracts the support of the TFG’s political opponents. Should the TFG work towards this goal and should the opposition agree to participate in such a government, a breakthrough is possible. But the window could close quickly. Working with the international donor community, the African Union, the Arab League and especially Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti, the U.S. should quietly do everything possible behind the scenes to achieve this outcome. The alternative is a return to constant conflict in Mogadishu and the inability to establish a national government acceptable to most Somalis.


Libya was recently voted to serve on the United Nations Security Council for two years, beginning in January 2008. How do you think Libya will use its position on the Council, and in particular do you think it will have a positive influence on the government’s handling of internal issues including human rights?


As compared to a decade or more ago, Libya has already shown a willingness to engage more constructively with the international community. There was a time when Libya actively supported terrorist organizations and was engaged in an effort to develop nuclear weapons. It has stopped both of these activities and the U.S. has removed Libya from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Libya has been particularly active in African affairs and was one of the leaders in reconstituting the Organization of African Unity as the African Union. In October 2007, Libya hosted peace talks (unsuccessful as of this writing) between the government of Sudan and the rebel groups in Darfur.

Libyan foreign policy is very much the policy of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi. In describing the Darfur peace talks in Sirte, Libya, Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times, referred to the city as “Colonel Qaddafi’s hometown and a grandiose testament to his grandiose dreams.” Qaddafi is something of a dreamer and his ideas often come to nothing. But he keeps trying and there is no reason to think he will become somnolent once Libya joins the UN Security Council. Libya can be expected to be an unusually active member of the Council. On the other hand, it is doubtful that its membership on the Council will have a significant impact on Libya’s internal policies.


How have African domestic and international politics been affected by the growth of Islamist movements in recent years?


Nearly half the population of the African continent is Muslim. North Africa, East Africa and the Horn, and parts of West Africa account for the vast majority of the Islamic population. Central and Southern Africa are largely Christian or animist. Not surprisingly, Islamist movements have occurred primarily in countries like Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria. Most of these movements have been benign and are primarily interested in implanting some form of Sharia or Islamic law. Although a number of the Islamist groups aspire to political power as we have seen in Algeria, Somalia, and Egypt, at the moment only one African government can be described as Islamist. That is the current government in Sudan.

The issue that concerns the U.S. is the relationship between some of these movements and terrorist activity. Osama bin Laden lived in Sudan from 1991 until 1996 and had close ties with Sudan’s National Islamic Front. The government of Sudan asked bin Laden to leave in 1996. An Islamic organization known as al-Ittihad al-Islamiya in Somalia carried out terrorist acts against Ethiopia in the 1990s. A few of the leaders of the Islamic courts who seized power in Mogadishu in 2006 had ties to al-Ittihad and contact with al-Qaeda. A terrorist group in Egypt, Gam’at Islamiya, tried to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during a visit to Addis Ababa in 1995. The al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb continues to oppose the secular government of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and threatens to spread to other countries. Al-Qaeda almost certainly received help from local Islamists before its attack on the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. These are the kinds of groups that worry the U.S.


China is becoming more and more involved in Africa. What are the benefits for Africa? What are the negative implications? Do you think China’s eagerness to trade with African countries, particularly those with poor human rights records, threatens U.S. national security in the long term, particularly in terms of energy dominance and support for the spread of democracy?


I spent two months last summer visiting Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, Nigeria, Angola, South Africa, and Swaziland researching China-Africa relations. Although China has a long relationship with Africa, it has become unusually active there in the past decade.

China has three principal interests in the continent. First, it wants to maintain access to African natural resources (oil, gas, minerals and timber) to help sustain its booming economy. If the economy founders, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party will be in trouble. The economy will experience a setback if it does not continue to receive these natural resources from Africa and elsewhere. Second, Africa has fifty-three countries. China has diplomatic relations with forty-eight and Taiwan with five. Africa constitutes more than a quarter of the UN membership and holds positions in organizations important to China such as the World Trade Organization and the UN Human Rights Council. China wants the political support of these countries. Third, Africa is potentially an important market for Chinese exports. A relatively poor continent, it is not particularly significant today as a market for Chinese goods. But with 900,000 Africans, and as they become richer, Africa will become a more important trade partner. China is looking at the long-term.

Africa benefits because China offers another source of assistance, one without political conditions except to require acceptance of the “One China” principle. Angola, for example, has received $13 billion in low interest loans from China in recent years. Neither the World Bank nor any Western country is prepared to offer that kind of assistance. Never mind, that Angola will pay for the loans through the export of oil to China and use the loans largely to build roads, dams, bridges, etc. drawing on large Chinese companies that are either state-owned or partially owned by the state. In effect, much of the loan money remains in China and China receives the oil that it needs. But the Angolans and other African leaders want infrastructure projects. China is providing them quickly, at low cost, and usually of reasonable quality. African countries do not have to worry about World Bank or U.S. conditions concerning good governance, transparency, corruption, and human rights. Western donors have largely been out of the infrastructure business in recent years.

For those African countries that have oil, minerals, and timber, Chinese demand helps drive up their price, and hence the amount of money these countries earn. Of course, those African countries that do not have these valuable commodities end up paying more for them because the price has risen, partially as a result of growing Chinese demand. Chinese leaders frequently visit Africa and often invite African leaders to visit China. Africans appreciate the attention and these visits often result in promises of Chinese assistance, exchange programs, student scholarships, etc.

I believe that the positive implications of Chinese engagement in Africa outweigh the negative ones. But there are some negatives. China has so far not been very good at understanding or engaging with civil society, opposition political parties, labor unions non-governmental organizations, and groups that ultimately lead to a vibrant and free society. As a result, China has not been active in encouraging better human rights practices, reducing corruption, increasing transparency, and improving governance. Over the long term, it is in the interest of all peoples to improve these practices.

Some of China’s trade practices have had a harmful impact on nascent African industries, especially textiles. China produces textiles more cheaply and efficiently and undersells textile production in Africa. China is making a serious effort to redress this problem but as long as China maintains a comparative advantage it will be difficult to resolve. There have also been instances where counterfeit Chinese textiles, medicines, and other products have undercut African manufactured items. Finally, China has been criticized for its labor, worker safety, and environmental practices in Africa.

There could eventually be competition between the U.S. and China over access to African energy. In 2006, 22 percent of American oil imports came from Africa while 33 percent of Chinese imports originated there. Because the U.S. is a much larger oil consumer and importer, however, it imported much more oil from Africa than did China. For the time being, there is enough African oil to go around and experts believe that most finds of oil in the coming years will be largely in unexplored Africa. Except for Sudan, the U.S. and China buy oil from essentially the same African countries. As a result, the U.S. has no business criticizing China for purchasing oil from African countries with poor human rights records when the U.S. is doing the same thing.


It seems that Brazilian President Ignacio Lula da Silva views the African continent as a natural ally and a possible sphere of influence. Second only to Nigeria in people of African descent, Brazil has contributed significant peacekeeping forces to Mozambique and Angola, provides the backbone for the IBSA Dialogue Forum, and is aggressively pushing the use and production of ethanol fuel across the continent. How important a player is Brazil in Africa, and what is the nature of its activity there?


To some extent, you have answered your own question. Brazil is clearly a country to watch in Africa. So far, its most significant relations have focused on Africa’s lusophone countries: Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, and Guinea-Bissau. But Brazil is branching out. The IBSA Dialogue Forum with South Africa and India is especially interesting. All three countries are significant players in the international community. The Forum is looking at a number of issues including development and trade. Brazil’s president has made four visits to Africa since taking power in 2003. In 2006 he went to South Africa, Ethiopia, Algeria, Kenya, and Tanzania. Brazil has also developed solid ties with major oil producers, Nigeria and Sudan. Brazil is on the march in Africa.


What do you think of the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership? Could the funds be used more efficiently? Who do you think should win?


The Ibrahim Index of African Governance, supported by Sudanese-born billionaire businessman Mo Ibrahim, measures the degree to which essential political goods are provided within the forty-eight countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to the 2007 Index, the highest ranked countries in Sub-Saharan Africa in order from the top were Mauritius, Seychelles, Botswana, Cape Verde, and South Africa. Robert Rotberg, professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, conceived and directs the Index.

The prize you refer to is $5 million that will be offered for the first time to a former Sub-Saharan African head of state who has done the most for his people. In my view, the prize should only go to a former head of state who stepped down voluntarily after his constitutionally-mandated term of office expired and he did not manipulate the constitution to extend his longevity. A top candidate for winning the first prize should be Nelson Mandela of South Africa. If you are a billionaire and want to do something useful with a tiny part of your money, I see no problem in spending $5 million in this manner.


Does the establishment of the new African Command (AFRICOM) signal a more substantial commitment on the part of the U.S. government and the Department of Defense to African affairs? If so, what are the driving forces behind this shift, and what are its likely effects for U.S. policy going forward?


AFRICOM does signal more involvement by the Department of Defense in Africa. But AFRICOM is not a new idea. It has been around for years. U.S. military commands have had responsibility for covering Africa for decades. The confusing bureaucratic jurisdiction was part of the problem and one of the reasons for creating a new command that now includes all of Africa except Egypt. Until recently, the European Command in Stuttgart had responsibility for most of Africa. The Central Command in Tampa, Florida, covered Egypt, the Horn of Africa and Kenya. The Pacific Command in Hawaii had responsibility for Africa’s Indian Ocean islands. This was not an efficient system.

In my view it took 9/11 and the new U.S. foreign policy focus on counterterrorism to get the Pentagon to finally approve AFRICOM. An added incentive was growing American reliance on African oil and concerns there might be threats to African oil reserves, especially in the Gulf of Guinea. Many Africans believe there is another reason for creating AFRICOM now—to challenge growing Chinese influence on the continent. I don’t believe this was a reason for moving forward with AFRICOM.

The U.S. is trying to sell the creation of 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 a little disingenuous to sell it primarily on this basis. 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, in my view the most intelligent location for the permanent headquarters is the east coast of the U.S. at an existing military base that has excess capacity. I suspect there are a number of east coast members of Congress who would agree with me.


Has the U.S. done enough to address the ongoing crisis in Darfur? What about the U.N.? If one could go back to 2003, what would you recommend these groups do differently?


Clearly, no one has done enough to address the crisis in Darfur because it is still out of control. Having said that, there is a tendency by many persons to make solutions sound simple. There are no easy solutions to this conflict. It is a horribly complex problem that is being over-simplified by too many well-meaning people and groups. If one could roll back history to February 2003, I would urge much more attention to beginning immediately an effective peace process involving the government of Sudan and the two rebel groups in Darfur at the time—the Sudan Liberation Movement and the Justice and Equality Movement. The crisis has moved well past this opportunity.


What is the status of the U.S. fight against al-Qaeda or radical Islamist factions in Somalia? How is this fight affecting U.S. relations with regional powers? What are the limits on U.S. commitments in the region (particularly military)? How concerned should the U.S. be about the Islamic Courts Union’s insurgent tactics?


The terrorist issue in Somalia has been excessively hyped by the U.S. There have been and probably continue to be al-Qaeda connections with small numbers of Somalis. There were links between some leaders of the Islamic Courts Union and al-Qaeda. But al-Qaeda was never the driving force in Somalia. The primary concern of Somalis was an end to violence and a return to stability. The Islamic Courts briefly provided that stability, albeit sometimes using draconian tactics. Its leadership also made statements guaranteed to raise alarms in neighboring Ethiopia.

The Islamic Courts do not currently function in Mogadishu. The Somali Transitional Federal Government backed by the Ethiopian military removed them from power. What remains in Mogadishu are some of the radical militias that supported the Islamic Courts, key Somali sub-clan groups that oppose the TFG, and the occasional return of warlord politics and clashes. The situation is volatile and messy.

I have no doubt that al-Qaeda will continue to try to exploit the situation in Somalia. But putting the focus on the Islamic Courts and al-Qaeda is the wrong focus. The U.S. and the international community should emphasize power sharing and creating a Somali government of national unity that I discussed earlier. Moderate members of the Islamic Court structure should be brought into this government. If the TFG fails to attract widespread Somali support, no foreign government can keep it in power. In any event, the U.S. has limited means, military and otherwise, in the region to influence the situation inside Somalia. Except for providing humanitarian assistance, encouraging power sharing, and monitoring the terrorist situation, it might be better to lower its profile on the Somali issue.

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