Eritrea still in Somalia?

Hmmm, Eritrea got a flurry of headlines when Somalia was heating up a couple of months ago—then disappeared. What happened? This telling Feb. 22 story from The Economist, “Eritrea: Still in the Regional Game?,” is reprinted in New Jersey’s Eritrea Daily:

When Ethiopia invaded Somalia at the same time as Somalia’s Islamists were getting arms from (among others) Eritrea, there were fears that the war in the Horn of Africa might spread. Eritrea has long been at daggers drawn with Ethiopia, and fought a bitter war with it between 1998 and 2000 over a disputed border. But so far the latest war in the region has been contained. This week the UN Security Council authorised the African Union to send peacekeepers to Somalia for at least six months. Ethiopia, meanwhile, has emerged as the Horn’s top dog.

A slap in the face of Eritrea, then? It has long given aid to a variety of Ethiopian rebels in the hope that Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s leader, would fall. Eritrea’s policy of helping Somalia is part of the same game. But the government in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, was also wary of getting sucked too far in. Its economy is in a shambles. It could not afford another war.

In November a UN report said that Eritrea had almost 2,000 soldiers inside Somalia, a claim strongly denied in Asmara. More likely, Eritrea’s government was acting as a middleman and conduit for Arabs and others wanting to help Somalia’s Islamists, who took over most of the south and central parts of Somalia last summer. In return, Eritrea probably got a lot of Arab cash and petrol to keep its economy afloat.

In any event, Eritrea must be careful. Half its people are Muslim, half Christian. Its government is wary of fostering extremists elsewhere in the region, since they might decide to help Eritrea’s own extremists to try taking over Eritrea itself.

In the weeks after Ethiopia invaded Somalia, Eritrea’s government-orchestrated editorials shifted a little from abusing the Ethiopians to castigating the United States. Eritrea’s relations with America have worsened over the past few years, especially since it and the West seemed to acquiesce in Ethiopia’s rejection of an independent arbiter to mark the disputed Eritrean-Ethiopian border. Instead, Eritrea has cosied up to anti-American countries, including Iran and Libya.

While vainly helping Somalia’s Islamists, Eritrea has shown it can also help make peace if it wants to. It has mediated between Sudan’s government and Sudanese rebels on its border with Eritrea. And it is trying to promote peace in Sudan’s bloody western region, Darfur. Despite its recent setback in Somalia, it still wants to assert its claim to be a regional player.

The story’s subhead is “A small country that can help or hinder progress in the Horn.” We detect a whiff of wishful thinking here. We’re not sure that Eritrea’s role in the Darfur conflict has been all that helpful. Maybe after the defeat of his Somali allies, Isaias Afwerki is just hunkering down and consolidating his internal dictatorship lest he be the target of a “regime change” campaign…

See our last posts on Eritrea and the Horn of Africa and the Somalia war.