Eritrea Crisis Destabilizes Imperialism’s Horn of Africa Beachhead
by Sarkis Pogossian, World War 4 Report
Last month, with the world’s eyes elsewhere, the Horn of Africa nations of Eritrea and Djibouti briefly went to war. Fighting over the cape of Ras Doumeira and Doumeira Island in Djiboutian territory reportedly left a dozen Djiboutian soldiers dead and dozens wounded. While Eritrea increasingly poses itself as an anti-imperialist vanguard in the region, much smaller Djibouti remains a de facto Western protectorate, hosting both French and US military forces for policing the region. Despite a halt in the fighting, the crisis has not been resolved—and France has already jumped into the fray.
The international community lined up behind Djibouti. As the UN Security Council, Arab League and African Union urged Eritrea to halt military action June 12, French officers stationed in the mini-state told the official Agence Djiboutienne d’Information (ADI) that France was providing Djibouti with military support—and preparing to send more troops, ships and war material. The French Defense Ministry admitted it was developing plans to establish mobile military bases close to the Eritrean border, to hold back an advance by Eritrean forces.
Paris was among the first governments to condemn the supposed Eritrean aggression. Only the US State Department’s condemnation of Eritrea was clearer. A State Department spokesperson referred to the border conflict as an Eritrean “military aggression.” The US Africa Command also has a large military presence in Djibouti. A statement read at the Security Council by US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said: “The Security Council calls upon the parties to commit to a ceasefire and urges both parties, in particular Eritrea, to show maximum restraint and withdraw forces to the status-quo ante.”
The Arab League urged Eritrea to withdraw its forces from border areas near Djibouti “immediately” and to respect Djibouti’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Eritrea rejected a fact-finding mission proposed by the League. (Djibouti is an Arab League member; Eritrea is not.)
Eritrea’s Foreign Ministry issued a press release calling the massive condemnation of its military action “baseless and mendacious statements.” When accusations of an incursion first surfaced June 10, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki told Reuters: “It’s a fabrication… We decline the invitation to go into another crisis in the region.”
Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh countered to the ADI: “If Eritrea wants war, it will get it.”
Although it was never reported by the mass media, the Somaliland Times website reported June 15 that at least one Eritrean gunboat was sunk after being hit by a missile. All the crew were believed dead, sources said. It was not known whether the missile was fired by French warships or the Djiboutian navy. Eritrea was reportedly using two gunboats to fire on Djiboutian ground troops attempting to dislodge Eritrean forces from positions they had seized.
Djibouti’s Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf said, “France will send warships in the coming days to the Ras Doumeira area… Our forces remain vigilant.”
In Paris, the Defense Ministry said three French ships were in the region, and two—a helicopter carrier and a frigate—had reached Djibouti’s territorial waters. “For the moment, their mission is to provide logistical, medical and intelligence support—there is no participation in combat,” armed forces spokesman Christophe Prazuck told Reuters.
A week after the apparent border skirmishes, Djibouti accused neighboring Eritrea of again illegally intruding into its territory. Foreign Minister Ali Youssef told AlJazeera June 20 that Eritrean troops crossed the border on the strategic Bab al-Mandeb Strait. “Eritrean troops entered Djiboutian territory and took more land,” he said. “Right now, Eritrean troops are stationed inside Djiboutian territories.”
Youssef said Djibouti was complying with international demands for de-escalation. “The UN Security Council has asked for both countries to withdraw their troops from this area,” he said. “The Djiboutian government has withdrawn its forces up to five kilometers inside Djiboutian land. But Eritrean forces have advanced.” Youssef showed Al Jazeera documents, pictures and maps Djibouti had submitted to the UN, purportedly showing trenches dug by Eritrean troops on Djibouti’s territory.
Some analysts say Eritrea has already effectively claimed the Bab Al Mandab Strait, which guards the entrance to the Red Sea—and critical shipping lanes. Political analyst Mahmoud Taha Towkal told AlJazeera: “There is a new reality. Under recent developments, the Bab Al Mandeb Strait is no longer under the control of Djibouti and Yemen. It is now controlled by three countries: Djibouti, Eritrea and Yemen. It is no longer under the control of the Arab countries.”
Djibouti Between Two Worlds
It was the opening of the Suez Canal (under joint French-British control) in 1869 that turned the Red Sea from a remote backwater to a strategic shipping route. In anticipation of the canal’s opening, France established a protectorate over Djibouti in 1862 to police the Red Sea’s southern mouth. By 1900, it had become a complete colony—known as the Cote Française des Somalis, or French Somaliland.
In 1945, like other French colonies, Djibouti was made an official French territory—but the enclave was still largely ruled from Paris, and deemed particularly critical. On coming to power in 1958, Charles de Gaulle gave each French African territory the option of immediate independence—except Djibtouti.
The drive for Somali self-determination after Somalia became free from Britain in 1960 prompted Paris to hold a referendum on independence in 1967—for which France aggressively mobilized the non-Somali population (mostly Afars and Issas) to vote “no.” After the independence initiative was defeated, France tellingly changed the name of the colony to the Territoire Française des Afars et des Issas. It would be another ten years before Djibouti gained independence—and France would continue to maintain its largest African military force in the former colony.
Since 9-11, the US has joined France in militarizing Djibouti. The US Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) has been operating from Djibouti since December 2002. Some 1,600 US troops are at Djibouti’s Camp Lemonier, France’s largest base in Africa. The troops include infantry and special operations forces from all the services. Helicopters and refueling aircraft are also based there. CJTF-HOA forces have carried out special operations, supposedly against al-Qaeda forces, throughout the Horn of Africa.
In addition to being an imperial military beachhead for policing the region, Djibouti is also slated to become a cultural and financial beachhead for corporate globalization—with a mega-scheme in the offing for a bridge across the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb between Djibouti and Yemen. This would be an historic first land link between the Arabian peninsula and Horn of Africa.
Middle East Development LLC, the Dubai-based construction company controlled by Tarek Mohammad bin Laden—half-brother of Osama bin Laden—announced last month it is seeking to raise $190 billion to build two new cities in Djibouti and Yemen and a 28.5-kilometer bridge linking them. The new cities would be on the model of King Abdullah Economic City project in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait’s Silk City project, developed in recent years as an investment for fast-accumulating petro-dollars.
Such Persian Gulf heavy-hitters as Qatar’s state-owned Qatari Diar Real Estate Co. and Dubai’s port operator DP World Ltd. and investment company Istithmar PJSC are also sinking money in Djibouti development. Bloomberg reports that the Bechtel Group has also expressed interest in the bridge mega-project.
While elite planners envision Djibouti as as a bridge to bring free markets and high-tech stability from the Arabian Peninsula to the Horn of Africa, it could actually become a bridge to bring the insurgent violence of the Horn back to the Arabian heartland.
Yemen itself is facing both a terror campaign from clandestine Sunni militants on al-Qaeda’s model and a tribal insurgency from Zaydi Shi’ite rebels in the north. In fact, announcement of the bridge mega-project coincided with a major escalation of violence in Yemen. On May 31, government forces beat back an advance by the Zaydi rebels who brought their battle to within 12 miles of the capital San’a. Homes in Bani Heshiash, outside the capital, were destroyed by artillery fire.
That same day, “al-Qaeda Organization in the Arabian Peninsula—Yemen Soldiers Brigades” claimed responsibility for a mortar attack on a refinery in the southern port city of Aden the previous day, which officials said did not cause damage. In addition to both being at war on the government, Yemen’s Sunni and Shi’ite militants also appear to be at war with each other, blowing up each other’s mosques. On May 30, a gunman opened fire in a mosque at Kohal, in Amran northern province, killing at least eight as they knelt for prayer and wounding dozens of others. On May 2, a bomb rigged to a motorcycle exploded outside another mosque in the north, killing at least 12 worshipers.
Yemen has also been shaken by food riots this year—and Djibouti is also facing grave food shortages, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net) warns. Some 130,000, including 50,000 in Djibouti’s capital, already require emergency food assistance, the network found. FEWS Net also noted that the recent border conflict with Eritrea could aggravate the situation. “Approximately 1,000 people have been displaced in and around the conflict zone, and as many as 22,000 could be displaced, should the violence worsen,” it stated in an alert.
“The situation has remained calm, but both countries are sending additional troops to the area, threatening renewed violence,” the network stated. “The border conflict could have important food security implications for Djibouti and the greater East Africa region.”
Djibouti’s pastoral communities, which rely on Eritrean markets for food, are already affected by the conflict and reportedly fleeing to Khorangar, Obock City, or further inland. A semi-desert state that experiences frequent droughts and imports all its staple foods, Djibouti is classified by the UN as both a least developed and a low-income, food-deficit country—as the region’s elite planners chart futuristic schemes.
Secret War for Somalia
The crisis with Eritrea broke out just as a peace deal between Somalia’s transition government and Islamist rebels was concluded in Djibouti. Although few media accounts made the connection, this was likely not coincidental.
The accord was signed with the opposition Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS)—based in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, and politically backed by Eritrea. A significant faction of the ARS boycotted the talks, saying there can be no dialogue until Ethiopian occupation troops leave Somalia.
Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, leader of the Council of Islamic Courts, flew to Mogadishu after the accord, saying he signed the UN-mediated peace agreement because it provides a 120-day timetable for an Ethiopian withdrawal from Somalia. But ARS hardliners, led by Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys in Asmara, say the accord legitimizes the Ethiopian occupation of Somalia.
Violence has continued virtually unabated in Mogadishu since the accord was signed, with scores killed in ambushes and skirmishes. Nonetheless, Somali Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein insisted Ethiopian occupation troops would be withdrawn within 120 days of the signing in Djibouti. “The agreement between us and the opposition is a historic one and the Somali government would implement it,” Hussein said.
That may not happen if the hardliners maintain enough of an upper hand within the ARS to keep alive an armed resistance.
Late last year, when Asmara brokered formation of the ARS among the Somali opposition factions, Abu Mansur Robow, ex-deputy defense secretary with Somalia’s ousted Islamic Courts Union, told Mogadishu radio that his Shabaab resistance group has “nothing to do” with the new rebel alliance. Robow said al-Shabaab was “not satisfied” with the Asmara conference. The Shabaab, which probably controls most of the insurgents on the ground in Mogadishu, may now join ranks with the dissident faction of the ARS that boycotted the Djibouti talks.
Somalia is going deeper into crisis. The number of people in Somalia in need of emergency food aid is likely to rise one million from the current 2.5 million in the coming months, the United Nations warns. Mark Bowden, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for the region, says Somalia faces a worse situation than Darfur.
Hundreds of youths hurled stones and blocked roads with burning tires May 6 in a second day of protests over food prices in Mogadishu, where the price of corn meal has more than doubled since January and rice has risen from $26 to $47.50 for a 110-pound sack. On May 5, tens of thousands took to the streets and five people were killed by government troops and armed shopkeepers.
Continued US intervention in Somalia also fuels popular anger. More than a thousand people demonstrated in Dusamareb, central Somalia, May 4 against a US air-strike that killed an alleged al-Qaeda militant and at least 11 others.
In the May 1 pre-dawn attack, US missiles destroyed the home of reputed al-Qaeda leader Aden Hashi Ayro in Dusamareeb. The attack killed 24 others in the targeted house and nearby homes. “This will not deter us from prosecuting our holy war against Allah’s enemy,” Sheik Muqtar Robow, a spokesman for Ayro’s Shabaab militia told AP via telephone. “If Ayro is dead, those he trained are still in place and ready to avenge against the enemy of Allah.”
A US submarine fired three Tomahawk cruise missiles into southern Somalia March 3, aiming at what the Defense Department called terrorist targets. The missiles hit the town of Dobley, five miles from Somalia’s border with Kenya, partly destroying a house and injuring local residents. The strike was supposedly aimed at Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Kenyan wanted by the FBI for questioning in 2002 terror attacks on a hotel and an Israeli airliner in Mombasa which were claimed by al-Qaeda. Others said the target was Shabaab leader Hassan Turki.
But the continued Ethiopian military presence in the country is probably the greatest source of unrest. In one all too typical incident April 20, Ethiopian troops opened fire on civilians in a street in Baidoa, killing 13 after an explosion there killed two soldiers.
In a May, Amnesty International called for an investigation into the role of the US in Somalia following publication of a report accusing its Ethiopian allies of committing war crimes. The report, “Routinely Targeted: Attacks on Civilians in Somalia,” says Ethiopian troops in Somalia are killing civilians, slitting the throats of insurgent suspects, and gang-raping women. Ethiopia’s government dismissed the report was unbalanced and “categorically wrong.”
In February 2007, the New York Times reported that the US had quietly provided intelligence aid for Ethiopia’s December 2006 invasion of Somalia, which one unnamed Washington official called a “blitzkrieg.” The story by Michael R. Gordon also claimed that a US Special Operations unit deployed in Ethiopia, Task Force 88, had ventured into Ethiopian-occupied Somalia for clandestine missions, and that US military advisors had trained Ethiopia’s elite Agazi Commandos for the Somali invasion.
The “proxy war” between Eritrea and Ethiopia in Somalia may survive the Djibouti accord. And Eritrea’s apparent seizure of Djiboutian territory during the talks may have been an effort to derail them.
Puntland & Somaliland: Autonomy Under Attack
Not all of Somalia is under the control of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and Ethiopian occupation. The northern enclaves of Puntland and Somaliland are de facto independent states, and have been spared the harsh cycle of insurgent and repressive violence which has left thousands displaced from Mogadishu. But these enclaves are now increasingly embroiled in the region’s crisis.
The flag of Eritrea was set on fire June 16 in Garoowe, capital of Puntland, in what local authorities called a protest “to condemn the Eritrean attack on Djibouti.” The autonomous government’s ministers were among those who oversaw the ritual flag-burning amid chants of “Down with Eritrea, Victory to Djibouti!”
Puntland health minister Abdirahman Said Mahmud aka Degaweyne said blood was being donated at blood banks to assist Djibouti’s armed forces, and that livestock had been handed over to Djibouti to be slaughtered for use by its armed forces. Information minister Abdirahman Muhammad Bangah said Puntland was ready to form a united front against Eritrea.
In June 2007, the regional website Geeska Afrika reported that US warplanes based in Djbouti were overflying Puntland in preparation for air-strikes against suspected al-Qaeda fugitives. The report also stated that a US Navy warship shelled the Puntland coastal town of Bargal, killing at least 12 Islamist fighters.
The moves also came amid growing talk that Eritrea was attempting to destabilize Puntland as a step towards destabilizing TFG-controlled Somalia. Puntland President Adde Mussa accused Eritrea of infiltrating both Ethiopian and Somali opposition exiles into the enclave to foment unrest. “The so-called Free Parliament and Union of Islamic Courts members in Eritrea have joined up to pay money to some Puntland government members who were sacked, but Puntland will not be affected by such manipulation continued by that alliance,” he said. Mussa said that the mayor of Bosaso, Qadar Abdi Hashi, and five other local officials were sacked because they received bribes from the “Asmara group”—a reference to Eritrea’s capital—”to create violence and political tension in the region.”
“Puntland troops resisted the invasion carried out by a group of Somali and foreign terrorists,” Mussa added, alluding to further armed conflict in the enclave which the world press have ignored.
Puntland also clashed with neighboring Somaliland in April 2007 over a disputed strip of land along their shared border in the Sanag region. “Puntland forces attacked the town of Dahar around 8:00 this morning,” Somaliland Information Minister Ahmed Hagi Dahir said in a statement. “The attacking forces were supported by 17 technicals and 3 big trucks.” Technicals are pick-up trucks mounted with weapons, the Somali version of a tank. At least one fighter was reported killed.
Somaliland is the former colony of British Somaliland, along the Gulf of Aden and bordering Djibouti. It claims independence from Somalia, and is seeking international recognition of this stance. Puntland and TFG-controlled Somalia to the south together constitute the former Italian Somaliland, which London gave to Rome as a reward for lining up with the Allies in World War I (and took back by military force in World War II). Puntland has not formally seceded, but is effectively autonomous. Puntland and Somaliland have fought for years over the Sool and Sanag regions, partially claimed by Puntland on an ethnic basis. Somaliland says they are part of its territory under the colonial border Britain left. Since the Djibouti crisis, these tensions have again become inflamed—threatening both regions’ status as relatively peaceful enclaves.
Ethiopia: Proxy Faces Blowback
Ethiopia, which invaded Somalia with US support, may itself face destabilization as blowback from its military adventure. On May 29, a little-known Somali group claimed responsibility for a bomb attack that killed three in Ethiopia on the eve of national celebrations marking the 17th anniversary of the current regime’s ascent to power. “We will keep on fighting until we liberate our country from the Ethiopian invaders,” said Haji Abukar, a spokesman for the previously unknown Islamic Guerrillas, after claiming responsibility for the bombing two days earlier at Nagele, 560 kilometers south of the capital, Addis Ababa. “Our fighters will continue their holy war against the enemy of Somalia and we will target them everywhere.” The Guerillas’ statement said: “We are an Islamic group that stands for the liberation of Somalia and have a good relationship with the rest of the insurgents in Somalia.”
The Islamic Guerillas may or may not be linked to the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF)—a secular rebel group of ethnic Somalis fighting for self-rule in Ethiopia’s eastern Ogaden region along the Somali border. The oil-rich Ogaden Basin was the goad of a brief war between Ethiopia and Somalia in the Ogaden Crisis of 1977, when Somalia invaded in support of Ogaden separatists but was driven back after three months of fighting. The ONLF have stepped up their attacks since Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia—and are facing a brutal counterinsurgency campaign.
The Pentagon’s new Africa Command officially still has no headquarters on the continent, with African governments reluctant to draw terror attacks and accusations of acquiescing with neo-colonialism. For the moment, it remains officially based in Stuttgart. But Djibouti constitutes a sort of de facto African headquarters, and Ethiopia is a close second.
The Pentagon has, astutely, chosen an African American as first chief of the new Africa Command, Gen. William “Kip” Ward—and his first official visit to the continent was, of course, to chief US ally Ethiopia. Meeting with African Union leaders in Addis Ababa last November, Ward explicitly addressed widespread fears of the US establishing a permanent military presence on the continent. “Any notion of a militarization of the continent because of this? Absolutely false; not the case,” said Gen. Ward. “Africa Command is not here to build garrisons and military bases.”
That same day, Somali insurgents dragged the bodies of dead Ethiopian soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu, amid fighting that killed at least 20 and sparked a further exodus from the city. “It is our belief that every individual in Somalia has to participate in the resistance and the defeat of the Ethiopian occupation,” Somali opposition leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed told AFP from Eritrea.
Given that the specter of foreign soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu is obviously redolent of the similar incident involving US troops there in 1993, Washington is wise to be using proxies this time around. But these proxies may have to bear the brunt of the backlash—as the new Djibouti crisis indicates.
Eritrea prides itself on having fought—and won—against both superpowers, or at least their local proxies. “It’s not easy fighting against regimes supported by superpowers,” Afewerki said in a rare interview with the New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman last October. “But we did it.”
The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) waged an armed struggle against Ethiopia when it was under the Soviet-backed Mengistu Haile Mariam from the mid-1970s through the early ’90s—and then waged a border war with the US-backed Ethiopia of Meles Zenawi from 1997-2000.
Eritrea is a product of Italian colonialism. First establishing a protectorate at Assab on the southern coast in 1882, by 1889 Italy had brought the entire territory under its direct rule—for the first time uniting the Afar, Danakil, Beja and other Muslim peoples of the coastal lowlands with the Tigrinya of the inland plateau. While the highlands had sometimes been under the rule of Ethiopia’s predecessor states such as Axum and the Abyssinian kingdom (and are predominantly Orthodox Christian), the coastal lowlands never were—they were a patchwork of small Muslim kingdoms, which eventually came under Ottoman rule (1557-1865). Italy used Eritrea as a staging ground for annexationist adventures in Ethiopia, which it invaded in 1894 and (more successfully) 1936.
In World War II, Eritrean insurgents and a British expeditionary force succeeded in driving out the Italians. After the war, Britain remained in control of the territory as the UN debated its future. The US, envisioning naval bases on Eritrea’s coast under the compliant Ethiopian regime of King Haile Selassie, strongly backed Ethiopia’s proposal to annex the territory. As a “compromise,” the UN finally agreed to a “federation” in which Eritrea would have broad autonomy under Ethiopian rule. This took effect in 1952. But in 1962, Ethiopia unilaterally abrogated Eritrea’s autonomy, disbanding its assembly and declaring the territory “the 14th province of the Ethiopian Empire”—with the promised US naval base at Kagnew.
When the fall of the Ethiopian monarchy to a leftist revolution in 1974 failed to bring any concessions to Eritrea’s national aspirations after three years, the EPLF took up arms. In the 1980s, the EPLF was allied with Meles Zenawi’s Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which sought to overthrow Mengistu’s Soviet-backed regime. The twin guerilla movements survived Mengistu’s genocidal counter-insurgency. When Mengistu fell in 1991, Meles Zenawi took power in Ethiopia. Eritrea under the EPLF prepared a referendum on independence—which was overwhelmingly approved in 1993.
But independent Eritrea and “liberated” Ethiopia shortly fell out over border demarcation, leading to the 1997-2000 war. Today arch-rivals, Isaias Afewerki and Meles Zenawi have both been in power since 1991, and have both suppressed opposition—the prior somewhat more thoroughly.
Isaias Afewerki has banned all political parties except his EPLF. While all countries in the region have pretty horrific human rights records, Eritrea has come under special criticism. Amnesty International says thousands of prisoners of conscience are behind bars, and religious minorities (principally Protestant converts) are barred from practicing their faith. Reporters and even musicians have been imprisoned, and especially brutal treatment is meted out for those who resist military service.
Isaias Afwerki’s Eritrea is something of an enigma. Eritrea hosts Somalia’s exiled Islamist leaders even as it has banned female genital mutilation, a barbarity carried out in the dubious name of “Islam.” In addition to offering support and sanctuary to the deposed ICU leaders, Eritrea brokered dialogue among Somali clan leaders who oppose the Ethiopian occupation, leading to the formation of the ARS.
Eritrea is playing an increasingly active role in the region, even deploying peacekeepers to the Chad-Sudan border—while its Ministry of Information attacks deployment of UN peacekeepers in Darfur as “neo-colonialism.” While Asmara hosts the leaders of Darfur guerilla organizations, it has also brokered a peace deal between Khartoum and the Beja rebels in Sudan’s east.
Eritrea is clearly trying to insert itself in the regional game, and build a counter-force to the pro-US Egypt-Ethiopia-Uganda bloc. This necessitates dealing with Islamists like the ICU and the Sudan regime. Yet President Isaias’ speech on the occasion of Eritrea’s 16th Independence Day celebration May 25, 2007 took several swipes at regional rival Ethiopia—while making no reference to Islam. (Isaias himself is of Christian background.)
So the alliance between Somalia’s Islamists and Eritrea’s secular dictatorship would appear to be one of convenience. How long will it last? And is Isaias Afwerki’s regime planting the seeds of its own destabilization?
Ironically, the Eritrean regime initially sought to curry favor with Washington by invoking a mutual Islamist threat in the aftermath of 9-11. Immediately after the 9-11 attacks, Afwerki unleashed a purge, imprisoning several journalists, students and dissidents, accusing them of being al-Qaeda or (paradoxically) Ethiopian agents. In December 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld flew to Eritrea to meet with Isaias Afwerki, becoming the highest-ranking US official to do so since Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia in 1993.
There is a militant Islamist underground in Eritrea. An “Eritrean Islamic Jihad” has launched a few armed actions against what it calls the “Christian regime” and (ironically) the “terrorist regime.” This is believed to be linked to the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), an early rival to the EPLF which continues to exist in clandestinity. First launched in the 1960s by Muslim Afars from the coast, the ELF was superseded in the late ’70s by the EPLF, led by Isaias Afewerki from the Christian-majority Hamasien highlands. While both groups professed a secular Marxist ideology (as nearly all African armed struggles did in that innocent time), the ELF received aid from the Arab nations, and may now have links to the Islamists.
But the US alliance with Ethiopia inevitably drew Eritrea into conflict with Washington. The split became clear just over a year ago. The Geeska Africa Online news service, reporting from Nairobi in April 2007, quoted Jendayi Frazer, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, accusing Eritrea of backing the Islamist insurgents in Somalia. “No insurgency group can survive without support from neighboring countries, certainly Eritrea is the country of greatest concern,” Frazer said. She added that while the “global jihadist network” is also supporting the Shabaab insurgents, Eritrea will do “anything that will hurt” its southern neighbor. “This is very much aimed at Ethiopia,” she said after returning to Nairobi after five hours in Baidoa—the first trip to Somalia by a US official in over a decade.
Eritrea dismissed the charges. “The Eritrean government is not disposed to reply to such a statement by an amateur diplomat that does not reflect the US administration’s official stance,” a statement posted on the government Web site said.
Speaking at the end of a visit to Ethiopia in September, Frazer issued the strongest threat yet that Eritrea could be officially labeled a sponsor of terrorism. Frazer said the presence of exiled Somali Islamist leader Hassan Dahir Aways in Asmara was further evidence that Eritrea provided sanctuary for terrorists. Hassan Dahir Uways is officially labelled a “terrorist” by Executive Order 13224 of Sept. 23, 2001.
A report to the UN Security Council last summer found that Eritrea had secretly supplied “huge quantities of arms” to Somali insurgents, in violation of an international embargo. “Somalia is awash with arms,” the Monitoring Group on Somalia said in its report handed in to the Security Council in July 2007 and leaked to the AP. It accused Eritrea of flying shipments of surface-to-air missiles, explosives and other arms to the Shabaab. Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu called the accusations a “big lie,” adding: “These allegations are not new and we know where they are coming from. The UN is acting as a megaphone of the United States.” But the report also had criticisms of Ethiopia, accusing its troops of using white phosphorous bombs against insurgents.
Recently Eritrea has clamped down on UN operations on its territory, in retaliation for the failure to implement the border ruling by an independent commission which ended the 1997-2000 war with Ethiopia. Ethiopia has not withdrawn its troops from the disputed border town of Badme, which the commission awarded to Eritrea. Eritrea wants the international community to put more pressure on Ethiopia to comply with the ruling.
Like Sudan, Eritrea is wooing Chinese investment for its resource sector. Eritrea’s Ministry of Mines has granted two exploration licenses 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.
But the government is emphasizing a drive towards self-sufficiency. The Los Angeles Times noted last October 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 LA Times. 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.”
Isaias Afewerki has conscripted about 800,000 of Eritrea’s citizens for the self-sufficiency drive, which the LA Times admitted “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.”
Official isolation and paranoia may be the price of this policy. “It’s like they have self-imposed sanctions,” the LA Times quoted one diplomat, who feared government retribution if identified. “They’re turning into an Albania or North Korea.”
But the self-sufficiency policy could help Eritrea ride out sanctions and regional war—while Djibouti, a heavily dependant enclave, could prove far more brittle, even with the big guns of Paris and Washington behind it.
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Reprinting permissible with attribution