Over at the CIA, they must really be scratching their heads over Eritrea. It is hosting the exiled Islamist leaders of Somalia and is accused by Washington of backing Islamist insurgents there. But the New York Times reports Oct. 5 that it also hosts “more than half a dozen Darfur rebel groups” fighting the Islamist government of Sudan—including the United Front for Liberation and Development, which has been provided with its own offices by the Asmara regime, free of charge. The Times also points out that last year Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki “brokered a peace deal between the Sudanese government and rebels in a separate conflict in eastern Sudan that had ground on for 15 years and that cost thousands of lives.” (This is a reference to the Beja region, although the Times, in its maddening way, does not mention it by name.) Is this a schizophrenic policy, or is there some consistency here that we’re missing?
“It’s not easy fighting against regimes supported by superpowers,” Afewerki said in a rare interview with the NY Times‘ Jeffrey Gettleman, published Oct. 2. “But we did it.” This is a clear reference to Ethiopa, and, less clearly, to Ethiopia-occupied Somalia. So why is Afewerki supporting rebels fighting Sudan, a regime also on the outs with the American hegemon?
It’s especially odd given that Eritrea, like Sudan, is wooing Chinese investment for its resource sector. South Africa’s IOL reports Oct. 5 that Eritrea’s Ministry of Mines has granted two exploration licences to a Chinese base metal company and a joint Chinese-Eritrean gold venture, the Beijing Donia Resources Ltd and the Eritrea-China Exploration & Mining Share Company, respectively.
The Los Angeles Times also noted Oct. 2 that Eritrea, one of the world’s poorest nations, “walked away from more than $200 million in aid in the last year alone, including food from the United Nations, development loans from the World Bank and grants from international charities to build roads and deliver healthcare.” Afewerki vows he will not lead another “spoon-fed” African country “enslaved” by international donors.
“We need this country to stand on its two feet,” Isaias told the LAT. Fifty years and billions of dollars in post-colonial international aid have done little to lift Africa from poverty, he said. “These are crippled societies,” Afewerki said of neighbors who he charged rely heavily on donors. “You can’t keep these people living on handouts because that doesn’t change their lives.”
Afewerki has conscripted about 800,000 of Eritrea’s citizens for the self-sufficiency drive, which the LAT finds “so far has shown promising results. Measured on a variety of UN health indicators, including life expectancy, immunizations and malaria prevention, Eritrea scores as high, and often higher, than its neighbors, including Ethiopia and Kenya.”
“It’s like they have self-imposed sanctions,” said one diplomat, who feared government retribution if identified. “They’re turning into an Albania or North Korea.”