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Bringing Eritrea In From The Cold

The London Conference on Somalia was a missed opportunity to test Eritrea's commitment to re-engage with its neighbours.
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Water under the bridge? Two men in Asmara. Photograph by Carsten Brink.

The London Conference on Somalia last month represented the best chance in years for a coordinated international response to the conflict in Somalia. But some instrumental actors were left off the guest list.

Crucially, Eritrea did not receive an invitation, despite having clearly demonstrated its ability to influence events in Somalia in the past.

Since the conference, Eritrea has been highly critical of discussions, rejecting what it viewed as an externally-driven process which ignored the wishes of the Somali people.

Given Eritrea’s interferences in Somalia in the past, however, this critique has a puzzling and hollow ring to it. What seems more likely is that Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki was less aggrieved at the failure to incorporate ordinary Somali voices than the failure to include Eritrea.

Excluded Eritrea

This exclusion also came just a few months after the UN Security Council refused to delay its vote over whether to impose sanctions against Eritrea in order to first allow President Afewerki to speak to the body. Information Minister Ali Abdu called this a travesty of justice and insisted, “there is absolutely no justification for rushing into these kinds of destructive sanctions or this resolution”.

Eritrea’s omission was driven in large part by the belief it has been a destabilising influence in the region for some time. The nation stands accused of funnelling supplies, weaponry, and financial assistance to radical Somali groups, such as Hizbul Islam and al-Shabaab as part of a proxy war with Ethiopia for much of the last decade.

These actions earned an initial round of sanctions from the UN in December 2009, marking the first time the African Union has called for such measures against one of its own members.

A July 2011 UN report contained serious allegations of a terrorist plot devised by Asmara to attack the January 2011 African Union summit on Ethiopian territory.

This led to a second round of sanctions, belatedly imposed in December 2011, focused on disrupting Eritrea’s cash flows by targeting its nascent mining sector and diaspora tax.

Unfair opprobrium?

Asmara’s absence at the London Conference was probably of most benefit to Eritrea’s historical enemy Ethiopia. Yet, beyond the assertions that Eritrea is a destabilising force, it is unclear what Eritrea has done recently to garner the level of opprobrium from which it suffers.

Kenyan assertions that Eritrean planes flew arms to al-Shabaab militants last October during its invasion of Somalia were refuted by the UN. Just this week, two German tourists were released by the Afar rebel group ARDUF (thought to be supported by Asmara), who captured them during a bloody operation in January 2012. And despite declarations from ARDUF that the Eritrea government had nothing to do with the kidnappings, Ethiopia maintains its claims of Eritrean involvement, and plans to seek even tougher sanctions against its neighbour.

Eritrea has also recently sent signals that it wishes to come back in from the cold. In 2007, Asmara furthered its diplomatic isolation by suspending membership to the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional East African organisation, over Ethiopian actions in Somalia. In July 2011 it sought to reactivate this association.

But rather than beginning a process of re-engagement, the Ethiopian-dominated organisation called for additional sanctions. Earlier that year, Eritrea also reopened diplomatic relations with the African Union. And last August, President Afewerki conducted a ‘peace trip’ to Uganda, where he held security talks with Yoweri Museveni. The fact that Museveni not only received Afewerki, but also came to a joint agreement on security issues in Somalia, represented a rare level of mutual understanding from two previously strongly-opposed parties.

Second chances

Whether these moves demonstrate a legitimate change in foreign policy or are little more than strategic manoeuvring in the wake of increased international pressure remains to be seen. Nonetheless, for a country obsessed with sovereignty and self-reliance, Eritrea wants to be bestowed legitimacy; a legitimacy Asmara feels the international community has wrongly denied it time and time again.

The London Conference was a chance to provide Asmara such legitimacy, and gauge its true intentions for the future of Somalia.

While the planners may not have wanted to invite a perceived adversarial presence, Asmara has the ability to affect future events in Somalia, positively or negatively. Eritrea is likely the country in the region most familiar with al-Shabaab, its leadership structure, financing networks and supply routes – information that will be useful for future operations against the radical group.

Thus engaging Eritrea on security issues, in the wake of its recent interest in enhanced regional cooperation, presents a greater set of potentially advantageous outcomes for Somalia’s future than assuming Asmara’s continued intransigence.

Whether Addis Ababa or anyone else likes it, sanctions or not, Eritrea can affect events in Somalia. The international community must recognise this fact and allow Eritrea a chance to play a constructive role going forward, as a preliminary move to wider re-engagement. If Asmara fails to be a positive actor, it will find itself returned to diplomatic isolation. But at least Eritrea will not be able to say no one let it try.

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Comments

In 2010, the former US ambassador to Ethiopia, Donald Yamamoto said that Ethiopia's 2006 invasion of Somalia was a mistake. “We’ve made a lot of mistakes and Ethiopia’s entry in 2006 was not a really good idea,” said Yamamoto.

That's what Eritrea has been saying all along: The Somali problems cannot be solved by outside military intervention. The Arab League has also called for no outside intervention. Eritrea is not a lone voice.

You can read it here...
Ethiopian Invasion of Somalia, a Debacle U.S. Official says
http://www.mshale.com/article/News/News/Ethiopian_Invasion_of_Somalia_a_...

It is idiotic and counterproductive to exclude parties from regional discussions but that's how politics gets played everywhere these days - it's all about who has the power & Eritrea, regrettably, doesn't have much.  Afwerki could help himself a lot if his regime was even a little less repressive, to provide a contrast with his neighbor Zenawi but he hasn't matured into that kind of leader - and won't.  Don't look for any civil rights progress from either dictator.  As for Somalians sorting out their own problems, there has been scant evidence of that in recent decades, if ever.  The clan-based societies throughout the region have been largely unable to overcome their differences when left to their own devices.  Where you do see functional national entities, with the exception of Ethiopia, all are former colonial possessions, so their nationality was forcibly layered atop their tribal identities.  The neo-colonists are exploiting those same clan/tribal/ethnic differences to splinter the former colonies into smaller, easily exploitable units.  The two-faced Arabs (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen) were supplying the Somali extremists, so they have a lot of nerve complaining about outside interference, especially since they don't even share borders with Somalia.  At least Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya can rightfully claim concerns about the extremist elements at or within their borders.  The Arabs are whining only because they see themselves being shut out of any future exploitation of the region, not out of any concern for the black Africans, who they still deride and treat as slaves in their countries.

 Whether or not the claims are true that the Eritrean government has assisted groups such as Al-Shabab, to isolate the country from diplomatic discussions will only promote anger and frustration within the government. This issue itself has the potential to further destabilise the region. 

Eritrea doesn't have any issues with Somalia rather than, its problems with Ethiopia. Eritrea doesn't share a border with Somalia. It doesn't have any somali communities in its borders. Its alleged support of Al-Shabab or ICU emanates just from its desire to undermine Ethiopia. Ethiopia on the otherhand has national security concerns regarding Somalia. It has fought two wars with Somalia in the past, and has intervened twice in post-1991 Somalia. The Greater Somalia dream to include the Ogaden region of Ethiopia to Somalia has been a source of tension for decades betweeen the two countries. There is an ethnic insurgency in the Somali region of Ethiopia. There are issues that concerns Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya that stem out of sharing borders and communtiies in this countries. Igad members are also stakeholders on Somalia.Inviting Eritrea to the Somalia Conference is just rewarding its efforts in interfering in Somalian politics. As to Eritrea's membership to IGAD, Eritrea is still not readmitted as a member of the organisation, and its upto the members of the organisation as to how they should engage the country back into their midst. Bringing Eritrea from the Cold for its intervention in Somalia is the effect that the regime in Asmara desires. I am not sure that inviting Eritrea to the table while the conference did not attempt to engage Al-Shabab could help the issue in anyway. Eritrea and Ethiopia's problems, are theirs to solve and they should be encouraged to solve it and not encouraged to export it by rewarding such attempts.

Very balanced account of Eritrea.I was just following the news that tension between Ethiopia and Eritria is on the rise again.