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.
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.
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.
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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