Eritrea: Isaias Afwerki on the Path to Chaos – Awate

July 16th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

It is now official: the ruling regime has spilled Eritrean blood fighting all our neighbors: Yemen, Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti. In every case, the hot-headed and impulsive actions of the ruling regime harmed the interest of Eritrea and diminished its reputation. And in every case, Eritrea’s interests could have been secured better if a peaceful approach had been tried. The conflict with Djibouti is yet another ill-conceived strategy borne of the regime’s all-consuming obsession with Ethiopian politics. (more…)

It is now official: the ruling regime has spilled Eritrean blood fighting all our neighbors: Yemen, Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti. In every case, the hot-headed and impulsive actions of the ruling regime harmed the interest of Eritrea and diminished its reputation. And in every case, Eritrea’s interests could have been secured better if a peaceful approach had been tried. The conflict with Djibouti is yet another ill-conceived strategy borne of the regime’s all-consuming obsession with Ethiopian politics.

Obsession With Ethiopian Politics

Since 1999, when it convinced itself that the Horn of Africa is not big enough for the incumbent governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia, the Eritrean regime has been making woefully inaccurate predictions about the Ethiopian government’s lifespan and working to reduce them. In 2005, it actually thought that the 2005 Ethiopian elections would see the toppling of its nemesis, the TPLF. Not in the elections, but in the outrage that would ensue following election irregularities: either via the withholding of crucial funds from Europe, or an uprising from the people.

Neither happened.

It had also hoped that an implementation of the EEBC ruling would result in clear loss of territories, like Badme, for which Ethiopia paid heavily—resulting in outrage and uprising by Ethiopians.

That hasn’t happened either.

The regime blames the US, particularly the State Department, for both. It has concluded that the only way that Ethiopia can change is if the US orders it to change. But how to get the US to come around?

To unhook the US from Ethiopia, the Eritrean regime recognizes that it has to have leverage, ability to deliver on something that the US would value highly. Such as a stable Ethiopia and Somalia. And to deliver stability, it must first create instability throughout the Horn of Africa—including in formerly stable portions of Somalia, like Somaliland and Puntland, as well as in Djibouti. To Isaias Afwerki, then, Djibouti is just an opportunity to create chaos in the Horn–a disorder out of which only he can command order.

To help him achieve this goal, he uses two actors: Ethiopian opposition groups and Somali opposition groups.

Ethiopian opposition groups hosted in Eritrea include the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Ogadeni National Liberation Front (ONLF), the Sidamo movement, the Tigray People’s Democratic Movement (TPDM), and the Ethiopian People’s Patriotic Front (EPPF.) All have armed groups.

The Eritrean regime also hosts (and facilitated the creation of) the Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia (ARS), an umbrella for Somali expats, of whom the dominant group is the Islamic Court Union (ICU.) The ICU also has an armed wing which, together with the Muqawama (Resistance) and the Shabbab (Youth) have been battling Somali and Ethiopian troops in Somalia.

There is no ideological coherence to Eritrea’s foreign policy. Eritrean Islamist groups are illegal in Eritrea but Somali Islamist groups get unlimited support. The difference? The Eritrean Islamist groups are not shooting at Ethiopian soldiers. In the 1990s, the Eritrean regime, which now congratulates itself for its sympathies to revolutionaries, was only too happy to ignore or to participate in the liquidation of the same revolutionaries in Ethiopia (such as OLF and ONLF) that it is supporting now. The most dramatic of all is how Somalia’s Aweys, a former foe, has become an ally.

Somalia or Bust

The original plan was to open up so many war fronts with Ethiopia (via Sudan, via Eritrea and via Somalia and within Ethiopia proper), that the Ethiopian government would either collapse or sue for peace. But despite endless prophesies by Isaias Afwerki that the Ethiopian government was approaching 0 hour, that hasn’t happened. The Ethiopian opposition groups were unable to coalesce into a cohesive fighting force. (Last month, they agreed to unify their armed wings.)

In contrast, the Somali insurgents have been, with each passing month, controlling more and more territories, and inflicting heavier casualties on the Ethiopian and Somali governments. They had even managed to export the conflict to Somaliland and Puntland who, unbelievably, were engaged in their own “border conflict.”

Earlier this year, the Eritrean regime had a change in strategy: to focus the assault on Ethiopia’s weakest point—Somalia. To achieve this goal, the Ethiopian opposition groups were moved from their bases in the Western lowlands of Eritrea to the Denakil Depression. And, for the first time, arms and soldiers were smuggled to Somalia via Djibouti.

To Somalia With Love

For a more comprehensive understanding of the Eritrea-Djibouti conflict, one must read the April 2008 report of the UN Monitoring Group (Arms Embargo Enforcement) on Somalia. The Committee faulted Yemen for allowing its porous borders to be used by smugglers; Ethiopia and Uganda, for selling arms in the Somali arms bazaar; and Eritrea, for training and arming Somali insurgents and sneaking them to Somalia. There isn’t much remarkable about the report except for the following: how the arms and soldiers were sneaked to Somalia.

* The Monitoring Group has found that during the current mandate period [October 2007 to April 2008] a number of States continue to be in violation of the embargo, while some trans-shipment routes have changed. Eritrea is now supplying weapons along the borders of Djibouti… [emphasis added]

* During the current mandate, the Monitoring Group received information with regard to new routes being used by violators of the embargo. For example, weapons flow in from Eritrea by a route along the Eritrean-Djiboutian border via Zone 5 (Ogaden), from Ethiopia into Somalia (see sect. II.C). [emphasis added]

* Also noticeable during the current mandate was the use of “low tech” means of transport to bring arms into Somalia. Donkey carts, camels and horses have often been used as means of transport, for example, on the Eritrea-Djibouti border, and inland from Kismayo. As a result, tracing arms shipments has become more difficult. [emphasis added]

In its report, the Monitoring Group disclosed that smuggling weapons to Somalia via the Eritrea-Djibouti border was a “new route”, a “noticeable” change in the “trans-shipment routes.” The Monitoring Group reports that Eritrea not only smuggled weapons through the Djibouti border, but also fighters of Al-Shabab (the most extremist elements of the Somali opposition) after their training in Massawa and Asab.

The Monitoring Group gets inputs from the parties involved and sent a letter to Eritrea on March 7. The Eritrean representative to the UN responded in March 20, denying the UN accusations. The Monitoring Group’s report was distributed by the UN on April 24, 2008.

On May 5, the government of Djibouti filed a complaint (Document entitled: Border Crisis Between Djibouti and Eritrea) with the Security Council against Eritrea, and included a timeline of activities dating back to February 4, 2008. In May, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced that his country is “prepared to secure its vital trade route” with Djibouti, in the event an Eritrea-Djibouti border breaks out and, according to Eritrea’s ambassador to the UN, Ethiopia now has militarized presence in Jebel Mussa, at the tripartite border of Eritrea-Djibouti-and Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, in a blow to Isaias Afwerki who wants to control the Somali portfolio, the UN representative attempting to reconcile the Somali opposition and government, chose Djibouti as the venue. In an interview with Reuters, Isaias was uncharacteristically speechless about this move which he, no doubt, expected to amount to nothing—a reasonable expectation, given Somalia’s peace-making history. Surprisingly, the meeting between the ICU and the TFG, led to a breakthrough agreement which quickly won the support of the UN, the US and regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia. This, once again, left Isaias Afwerki fuming and near isolation.

And when Isaias Afwerki is fuming and near isolation, he always strikes.

Dealing With Eritrea’s Outlaw Regime

The speed and the resoluteness with which the International Community has reacted to Isaias Afwerki’s provocation are testimony to the world’s disgust with his endless adventurism.

Within days of Djibouti’s complaint, the United Nations, the African Union, the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Conference, and even IGAD have condemned his aggression and demanded that he reverse it. Old habits die hard, and he is likely to want to stretch and stall and when he does, the United Nations Security Council, the US and the EU must impose punitive measures against him.

Like what? We believe a good beginning would be for the International Community to look into a petition that was presented by the Eritrean Global Solidarity (signed by thousands of Eritreans) in February 2006. The petition called for the following actions to be taken against the Eritrean regime:

* A ban on entry visas to all Isaias regime officials who seek to travel to Western nations.
* Curtailing the regime’s ability to raise funds in foreign countries.
* Stopping its covert and overt international commercial, banking and other enterprises.
* Assist in lifting the campaign of intimidation the Isaias regime imposes on Eritreans living in the Western nations.

The Eritrean regime requires crisis and war to elongate its stay in power. It needs free movement in, and extraction of money from, the Eritrean Diaspora. Good hearted foreign governments cannot claim to be ignorant about the injustices and inhumanity inflicted on Eritrea by its unelected rulers. By now, all concerned should reach the conclusion that the time for diplomatic niceties and attempts to persuade the Eritrean regime to change its modus operandi will bear no fruit. Stronger measures that target the regime without affecting the long-suffering people are long overdue: the peace and stability of the region require it.

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