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Report Says Somalia, Sudan Destabilizing East African Region

By Alisha Ryu
27 June 2008

Earlier this week, a global survey of states most at risk of failure named Somalia and Sudan as the top two most unstable countries in the world. As VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi, both African countries are embroiled in complex internal and external conflicts that are destabilizing neighboring countries and threatening tens of millions of people.

Somalia took the top spot in this year's Failed States Index, replacing Sudan, which had held the dubious distinction for the past two years.

In the annual survey compiled by the U.S.-based Foreign Policy magazine and independent research organization Fund for Peace, Somalia scored higher than Zimbabwe, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in terms of its vulnerability to violent internal conflict and the deterioration of its civil society.

Conflict-resolution specialist Jan van Eck in South Africa says Somalia's problems are particularly challenging, because they are caused by conflicts between numerous groups trying to fill an enormous power vacuum.

The Horn of African country has been without a functioning government since 1991 when factional leaders overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and began fighting amongst themselves for control of the capital Mogadishu and elsewhere.

"In Somalia now, you have two conflicts - between the internal parties themselves and then between some of the internal parties and Ethiopia and America," he noted. "It is a failing state - you can even say there is no state - where there is just no progress."

In 2004, a U.N.-backed-but-unpopular transitional government was formed in exile, but it was too weak to challenge Somali Islamists, who were rapidly consolidating power. By late 2006, the Islamists had control over much of southern and central Somalia and had largely restored order. But hard-line elements in the movement were suspected of strengthening their ties to terror groups.

With the support of the United States, neighboring Ethiopia intervened militarily in December 2006 and ousted the Islamists. That sparked an Islamist-led insurgency against the unpopular government and Ethiopian forces. The fighting has claimed the lives of thousands and has created what the United Nations calls the worst humanitarian disaster in the world.

The crisis has been further complicated by allegations that Eritrea is fighting a proxy war against archenemy Ethiopia in Somalia by supporting Islamist rebels. Eritrea denies the charge.

Earlier this month, several moderate figures in the Somali Islamist movement severed their ties with Eritrea and signed a U.N.-sponsored peace deal with the interim government in Djibouti. The Islamist hardliners, who boycotted the talks, rejected the deal and has vowed to continue fighting.

Eck says the peace deal effectively isolated the hardliners, who are likely to create more instability, not less.

"The group remained outside the meeting and that means whatever agreement has been reached between the government and some of the opposition group will not hold," he added. "We still do not have a platform whereby inclusive negotiations between the two sides can take place and so the conflict will continue."

Professor Eric Reeves at Smith College in the United States says second-ranked Sudan suffers from the opposite problem in that there is too much power concentrated in one group in the center. Reeves has been observing the African country for more than a decade.

He says despite a peace agreement in 2005 that ended Sudan's two decade-long civil war between Sudan's Arab-dominated government in Khartoum and African rebels in the south, Khartoum is still refusing to share power and cracking down on anyone trying to challenge its rule.

"The history of Sudan is a history of conflict between the center and the periphery, between Khartoum and the peripheral areas that have been marginalized politically and economically," he explained. "I am not sure how the regime does survive, except by ruthless control of the military and the security apparatus."

Sudan is Africa's largest country with multiple ethnic, religious, and socio-economic groups. It is home to three regional conflicts - in the south, west, and east - which pits local rebel groups against the ruling Islamist National Congress Party in Khartoum.

The conflict in the western Darfur region has been the main focus of international attention in recent years. Since rebels rose up against Khartoum in 2003, attacks by government forces and allied militias have led to the deaths of 200,000 civilians and the displacement of more than two million others.

Security in Darfur has continued to deteriorate, exacerbated by fighting between rebel factions and an escalating proxy war between Sudan and neighboring Chad, which is also threatening to destabilize the Central African Republic.

Reeves says Sudan's future as a nation appears uncertain at best.

"We are in a period of time, where there seems to be no exit from a disastrous Darfur strategy other than to continue to keep four million people on the verge of destruction," he added. "There is no real peace in the east. And we have a great deal of instability in south Sudan with the crisis around Abyei on the border between south and north Sudan. We have to pay attention because this is a very, very important country. It borders nine other countries in Africa and its collapse would have an enormous impact from Kenya to Libya to Chad to the Central African Republic."

Five other countries in sub-Saharan Africa - Zimbabwe, Chad, Congo-Kinshasa, Ivory Coast, and the Central African Republic - were among the top 10 most unstable in the Failed States Index.

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