Back to Common Ground Archive


Program 0028
July 11, 2000

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

Mohamed Sahnoun: This war between Ethiopia and Eritrea is a war between two countries. It’s a decision of the leaderships. It’s not the people. And that’s what makes it very unacceptable.

KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, coping with conflict in Africa.

Dumisani Kumalo: The path of democracy is going on, but it is also true we have two of the major problems in the DRC, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sierra Leone. So that’s what makes it seem like there is a reversing in the growth of democracy.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.

PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Africa is a continent in conflict. From the Ivory Coast to the Horn of Africa and points in between, armed conflicts are making headlines in the West. One of the more recent and deadly flash points happened along the six hundred mile border between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Kristin recently spoke with Mohamed Sahnoun, a special advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and a man who has played a key role in negotiating an end to the two-year Ethiopian-Eritrean war. Ambassador Sahnoun says unlike many of Africa’s conflicts, ethnic differences are not the main reason behind the battle for land between the two countries.

Mohamed Sahnoun: Well, there is background to the difficulties in the relationship between the two countries. First that Eritrea for a long time had fought for independence from Ethiopia. It was part of Ethiopia. It was one of the provinces of Ethiopia. But they always felt that they had their own kind of identity, their own kind of history. They were a former Italian colony and therefore that they needed to have their independence. And it was a long, protracted guerrilla war. Finally, when the former regime, Mengistu, in Addis Ababa was overthrown, the people who took over were good friends with the Eritreans and gave them independence. So the relations had actually been rather good between the new independent country of Eritrea and Ethiopia. But then gradually there were some misunderstandings of exactly what would be the shape of the relationship between the two. To some extent I think on the Ethiopian side they were thinking that Eritrea would be part of the same customary union, the same monetary union, the same economic union, and therefore that they would cooperate and work closely together. Especially that Ethiopia needed the ports; they have no outlet to the sea, and they needed the Eritrean ports, and therefore that the Eritreans would find also benefits in having a close cooperation with Ethiopia.

When finally Eritrea decided to coin their own currency, decided to have their own currency, it looked that they were very clearly now detaching themselves from Ethiopia. And then there were some tensions on the border. Really at the beginning too, trade issues, economic issues, and then, with the intervention of military units on the border, it became the conflict which started slowly, but then had terrible proportions.

MCHUGH: What makes this conflict different than other wars or conflicts in Africa? Say in Sierra Leone or the Congo?

Sahnoun: Well, that’s a very good question. Because one would, to some extent, understand some of the conflicts occurring today in Africa—Sierra Leone, as you said, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, even Somalia, and so on—these are conflicts which in fact are part of the process of the building of the nation state, a modern nation state. After all, there is, there are terrible legacies in Africa; largely colonized until the early ’60s and then during that colonial period most of these countries were not really united in a sense, within the borders. The borders were artificially drawn. And then there was a legacy of the Cold War, where the big powers, in the sense the two blocs, were less interested in human rights and good governance in these countries, but more interested in having allies, in having people who would be with one camp or another. So to some extent we are seeing today, we are seeing now these countries and these people now speaking about governance, now putting questions concerning human rights. And therefore we have strife. We have these problems. So to some extent they are understandable. They are part of the process; they are part of history. After all, it took Europe centuries before they have, they reached the nation states which they have today. And you needed also an industrial revolution in Europe so that there was a minimum of prosperity to enable people to think of themselves as part of the social class, for instance, instead of thinking of themselves as part of a tribe or part of an ethnic group. That development process has not yet occurred in Africa. So that, to some extent, explains this strife.

But this war between Ethiopia and Eritrea is a war between two countries. It’s a decision of the leaderships. It’s not the people. And that’s what makes it very unacceptable.

MCHUGH: The Sudan is seeing an influx of refugees because of this conflict. What’s the humanitarian situation like on the ground?

Sahnoun: This is a very, very serious development there. Really, it is a tragedy. About 750,000 people displaced in Eritrea alone. And thousands and thousands of refugees in Sudan. Now let’s not forget that this conflict, as this conflict was developing, there was also a famine which has stricken the area because of the drought. And the estimate from the United Nations of the people who have been, who are victims of this famine, it’s over twelve million people, between Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia, eight million of them in Ethiopia alone. So it is a tragedy.

MCHUGH: In the Western media we hear a lot about Sierra Leone, we hear a lot about the Congo, we hear a lot about the conflicts going on in Africa. But we haven’t really heard much about Ethiopia and Eritrea. Any reason why?

Sahnoun: Well, that is true. I think basically because while the other situations have maybe allowed the media to cover these tragedies. Maybe the media were able to go into the camps and show what’s happening. It was more difficult for the media to go into the conflict area, such as between Ethiopia and Eritrea, because there is fighting, very heavy fighting, with thousands and thousands of people who are already killed, every day. The last figures which were given—of course, they are very, they are just an estimate, we know there is no way to confirm that—that there are almost 100,000 people who have died in the war between the two countries.

MCHUGH: Well, the United States has certainly expressed its support and given funds in recent weeks to Sierra Leone. But we really haven’t heard much about US support for this endeavor, in terms of trying to resolve the situation. Does the US have any involvement at all?

Sahnoun: Yes, actually the US administration has a special envoy, actually of President Clinton, who is Anthony Lake, who has followed the negotiations. And the US administration is making its contribution to the, to finding a solution. The United States has good relations with both countries. So this contribution I think is, will help definitely. There is also, I’ve seen some figures about humanitarian assistance given to both countries to cope with these, with the refugees, to cope with also the victims of the famine.

MCHUGH: On June 18, Ethiopia and Eritrea jointly pledged to stop fighting what many term a “useless war.” The agreement, however, is not an unconditional cease-fire. Instead, it only calls for cessation of hostilities. And while the accord doesn’t guarantee a lasting peace, Sahnoun is hopeful both countries are committed to moving beyond the two-year conflict.

Sahnoun: There is indeed, to some extent, now some very good hope for peace. Earlier on there was actually no cease-fire. There were an attempt to have a ceasefire, but there was no sign of ceasefire since the beginning of the conflict. There were negotiations; a couple of times there were documents which were submitted by the OAU which were accepted by both sides, but were never signed, were not, were never totally endorsed. So we hope this time that we might have reached a serious agreement.

MCHUGH: Are you hopeful that Africa will become a very peaceful continent in the future?

Sahnoun: Yes, actually I always tell what we call the Afro-pessimists, for the first time we’re seeing the people in Africa really coming with questions to their government. Questioning their government, hence that these kind of strife, hence these kind of problems, because now nongovernmental organizations, the media in Africa, are more active in asking questions. And really questioning their governments much more than before. We see in some countries where the process is already very encouraging. We have seen democratic elections in Senegal. We have already seen a democratic election in Nigeria that is a very important country. There are countries which are showing stability, such as Ghana, such as Mali, and so on. Such as South Africa. Also in southern Africa, Mozambique, and so on. So there are countries which are really showing a good governance and democratic, and also economic development, but there is a need for more assistance to be given. You know that over the last ten years development assistance has gone down by twenty percent and therefore, at the time where these governments over the last ten years are really trying to meet the challenges which they are facing, they are trying to cope with these challenges. At a time where they need assistance, this assistance is going down. So they are not finding the necessary help they should find today.

MCHUGH: That is Mohamed Sahnoun, a special advisor to United Nations secretary-general

PORTER: Emerging from emerging from conflict in South Africa and Mozambique.

Dumisani Kumalo: One day the problems of the DRC and Sierra Leone will be history. And people will be forced to look at Africa and realize that there’s more to Africa than conflict.

PORTER: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Or visit our Web site at Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

MCHUGH: While the West focuses its attention on Africa’s war zones, Mozambique and South Africa are on the road to recovery. Both nations, while emerging from conflict, still face an uncertain future. Carlos dos Santos is the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Mozambique, and Dumisani Kumalo is the Permanent Representative of the Republic of South Africa to the United Nations. I recently spoke with both diplomats about their countries, the various African conflicts, and their hopes for the future. We begin with Carlos dos Santos.

CARLOS DOS SANTOS: It’s the coming into being of real democracy in Africa. The president of South Africa actually has used the term African Renaissance, and he has written a book about it. And he is seeing Africa, like all leaders in Africa, seeing Africa resolving the conflicts within the continent and actually initiating development of all countries within the context of African unity. And the development of Africa is supposed to go through the building blocks of sub-regional organizations like the Southern African Development Community, which is working quite well. And we are hoping that that will sustain democracy in Africa.

Dumisani Kumalo: The path of democracy is still going on. I think what confuses people are the two issues of Sierra Leone and DRC. I mean, if you look in southern Africa, Mozambique just had their successful election; Namibia has had elections; Zimbabwe will have an election soon. And then other countries in the region. So really it’s the path of democracy is going on, but it is also true we have two of the major problems in the DRC, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sierra Leone. So that’s what makes it seem like there is a reversing in the growth of democracy.

MCHUGH: Would you say then that perhaps the Western media is focusing too much on the negative and not the positive in Africa, Carlos?

DOS SANTOS: Definitely. I think that’s what has been happening in terms of the media. Not only Western perhaps, but the media. They always focus on the negative. And they don’t speak about the positive and try to promote that. I think it is the way the media works. They consider the bad news the best news to give. But that also is evolving. Some news organizations are also giving some positive developments and we would encourage them to do more of that.

MCHUGH: Dumisani, would you agree?

KUMALO: Yeah, well I agree with that. In fact there is a perception here that if you don’t report anything negative out of Africa you haven’t reported anything. You look at all the stories, reporters go out to Africa to seek negative stories, because this is a place where you have to go there and seek negative ones. And it’s, they never just think of going to Africa to seek positive stories.

MCHUGH: President Clinton certainly visited Rwanda and said, “Never again,” in terms of the genocide, but yet the US doesn’t really seem to doing a lot in terms of Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Congo, and other parts of Africa. Why is the US not getting involved? Dumisani?

KUMALO: Well, there is a difference between what the administration says and what Congress does and what the State Department does. These three power centers of foreign policy act very differently. President Clinton certainly has been very supportive of democracy in Africa. He came to Africa and really highlighted some of the positive things about Africa. But Congress doesn’t care about any place outside of the fifty states. They are negative on foreign policy all over the world, but more so on Africa. So that can only be changed by Congress itself. So I think we mustn’t mistake that. President Clinton, if left to him, would want to see America becoming involved in Sierra Leone and becoming involved in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But Congress would care less about those places.

MCHUGH: Carlos?

DOS SANTOS: Yes. I agree with Dumisani that President Clinton and his administration have tried to do a lot in relation to Africa. And we can quote a few examples, including the historic meeting that we had at the United Nations, which were concentrated on Africa. And this was an initiative by Ambassador Holbrooke with the support of the administration. But it seems that this has not found right support from Congress and the Senate of the United States. We are not really sure what is the reasoning behind that, whether it’s lack of interest or lack of knowledge of the situation in Africa, but we think there is a lot to be done in terms of combining foreign policy which is pursued by the administration of the country and the legislature of the country.

MCHUGH: The US of course is viewed as the one remaining superpower in the world, and therefore many countries around the world feel that the US has a responsibility to help the hot spots of the world. Does South Africa have a responsibility in Africa to bring development to the rest of the continent? Dumisani?

KUMALO: No, our first responsibility is to the region of southern Africa. I mean we see ourselves as a part of the region of southern Africa, the Southern Development Community. And our economy is intertwined with what’s happening in southern Africa. Zimbabwe, we now have the issue of the farmers and people invading their farms. It’s affecting the economy in South Africa. So we first see ourselves as a country of southern Africa, and then a country of Africa. In fact, if you look at all the major development projects that we have funded on our own, by the way, in southern Africa, and have included either electricity, extending an electricity grid into Namibia, and whether it’s working with Zimbabwe on other things, and Mozambique. And so we see ourselves as a country that is very interlinked with the futures of the countries that are of southern Africa.

MCHUGH: Carlos, does Mozambique feel that South Africa has a responsibility?

DOS SANTOS: Well, we believe that each country of the sub-region has a responsibility in relation to the sub-region. Just as any country within the continent of Africa has a responsibility towards the continent. And we see South Africa as the one country that is endowed with resources, much more development than other countries. And the good thing that has happened is that with the change of regime in South Africa, with the whole change of the apartheid system, we find the leadership there that is willing to work within the context of the sub-region, as Dumisani has said, and within the context of the continent, to promote Africa as a whole, and not look for hegemonic position within the sub-continent and within the continent. And this is very positive. And we are hoping that this will help bring about development in southern Africa, and also in the continent of Africa.

KUMALO: One thing to add. For instance, every one of the countries in SADC gets assigned or chooses an area which they focus on. Malawi, for instance, which people listening to your radio probably don’t even know where it is on the map, but it’s very key for us in southern Africa in matters of telecommunications. Now you may not think of Malawi when you think about telecommunications, but it plays a very key role in helping all the countries of southern Africa in the coordinating role of doing that. So this is what’s, what it means to be regionally involved, in that there’s no country better than the other, but everybody brings in their own efforts, their own skills, into the betterment of everybody.

MCHUGH: What are some of the specific projects that perhaps Mozambique and South Africa are working on jointly?

KUMALO: For instance, there was, one of the well-known ones was the Maputo Corridor. And you have to remember that the people of Mozambique and the people of South Africa are essentially one people. What our presidents have been doing is that they are working on developing both countries….

DOS SANTOS: ….perhaps just to explain this concept of Maputo Corridor, the concept of the corridor which Dumisani was speaking about, is a very good concept. Because it’s not just about opening up highways to link Mozambique and South Africa, and improving the railway system. It’s also about developing those areas along those lines, so it’s about developing that. And you have joint projects by South African businessmen and Mozambican businessmen, under the auspices of the government, with the support of the government. We also have one important project, which is energy for the region. The largest dam in Africa, in Mozambique, generates electricity which goes to South Africa, is transformed, and goes back to parts of Mozambique. One last point, in terms of unemployment, South Africa has a problem of unemployment; Mozambique has a problem of unemployment. Historically, miners from Mozambique have gone to work in the gold mines in South Africa. This creates a problem because you have your unemployment in South Africa. How do you solve that? The understanding that the two governments have is that you have to create opportunities for employment in Mozambique so that these miners, instead of working in mines in South Africa, would work in Mozambique. And you don’t just send people back in huge numbers. This has helped even to resolve tension between the two countries in terms of treatment of this kind of thing. This is good for cooperation between the two countries.

MCHUGH: Kofi Annan is the first UN secretary-general from sub-Saharan Africa. Has that appointment been a benefit to Africa, Dumisani?

KUMALO: Oh yeah, tremendously so. It’s really helped to have somebody at the head of the UN who understands the sensitivities of the continent. In fact, this year was a very good year because we had the president of the General Assembly, who is from Namibia; and the secretary-general, of course, who is from Ghana. And it’s been a dynamic year in that sense. However, it’s also true that the secretary-general is constrained by many factors, including the bureaucracy, including the permanent members like the United States that won’t let him do certain things that he would like to do. So it’s in spite of that constraint, it has been a tremendous help that we have somebody who understands the sensitivities of the area, even in cases where he can’t really do something. And he’s up for reelection next year. I hope he will make it, because he would really complete all the work that he started. But you see, it does help, in that sense.

MCHUGH: Carlos.

MCHUGH: Yes I think Kofi has made Africa proud. He has made us proud because he has done a good job. And I think this goes to show and to break the myth that maybe Africans are not as good as other people from other societies. He is doing a good job and I think he has done a lot of good, not only for Africa, but for other regions he has really gone a long way in helping solve issues related to international peace and security. And also addressing the development problems of developing nations, especially of Africa.

MCHUGH: What are your hopes or your dreams or your aspirations for Africa as a continent as a whole in the next five to ten years, Carlos?

DOS SANTOS: Well, of course our hope is that we can get the continent free of conflict, a continent in peace and stability. As Dumisani has said at the beginning of our interview, you really find very few hot spots. But they remain the concern of our leadership in Africa. We know, as everyone knows, that the continent is rich with a lot of potential in terms of human resources and natural resources and that we can develop. And if our partners in the international community are willing to help Africa to develop its human and natural resources, we should be able to develop fairly quickly. Because the world has developed in such a way that we don’t have to go through all the stages of development that other countries have gone through. We can jump start our own development. And we are hoping that we will have that support from the international community.

MCHUGH: Dumisani, the last word.

KUMALO: There’s more than fifty countries in Africa, and only two of them are having trouble, and that’s the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone.

I don’t know how many countries there are in Europe off the top of my head, but I can think of five countries that are serious problems in Europe. Nobody thinks of Europe being in crisis because there’s more than five countries that are in crisis. And we only have two. And when you look where we were ten years ago, the progress has been tremendous. And so I think one day the problems of the DRC and Sierra Leone will be history. And people will be forced to look at Africa and realize that there’s more to Africa than conflict.

MCHUGH: That is Dumisani Kumalo, the Permanent Representative of the Republic of South Africa to the United Nations. We also heard from Carlos dos Santos, the Permanent Representative from Mozambique. For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security