One of the frustrations with which Africa’s friends have had to repeatedly cope over the years has been the seemingly utter incapacity of the African leaders to deal with their more problematic peers: witness the annual African Union (AU) summit’s literal embrace of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe last year on the very morrow of a farcical “reelection” criticized the pan-African organization’s own monitors or, with a few honorable exceptions, its circling of the wagons around Sudanese despot Umar Hassan al-Bashir earlier this year after the International Criminal Court indicted him for crimes against humanity and war crimes for his role in the humanitarian disaster in Darfur. Thus it is even more bitterly disappointing when, on the few rare occasions the continent’s leaders do manage to get their act together and turn against one of their own, as they did this year with Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki – whose regime has not only supported a terrorist-led Islamist insurgency in Somalia, but been implicated in numerous efforts to destabilize countries throughout the Horn of Africa – that their efforts have been largely ignored, to the detriment of both the African states immediately bearing the brunt of the assaults from Asmara and the broader security interests of the international community.
To recall, it has been more than two years since I warned in this column space about the danger posed by “the rogue regime in Asmara which, for its own reasons, is fomenting a growing cycle of violence phenomenon that not only threatens the stability of its neighbors, but, because of its support of an al-Qaeda-linked Islamist insurgency, risks opening a broad terrorist front across the entire Horn of Africa.” Earlier this year, after a May emergency summit in Addis Ababa, the Council of Ministers of the subregional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) issued a statement asserting that “the government of Eritrea and its financiers continue to instigate, finance, recruit, train, fund and supply the criminal elements in and/or to Somalia” and calling on the United Nations Security Council to “impose sanctions on the government of Eritrea without any further delay.” The Peace and Security Council of the African Union concurred, issuing a communiqué expressing its “deep concern at the reports regarding the support provided to these armed groups [in Somalia], through training, provision of weapons and ammunitions and funding, by external actors, including Eritrea, in flagrant violation of the United Nations arms embargo” and likewise asking the Security Council to “impose sanctions against all those foreign actors, both within and outside the region, specially Eritrea, providing support to the armed groups engaged in destabilization activities in Somalia, attacks against the TFG, the civilian population and AMISOM, as well as against all the Somali individuals and entities working towards undermining the peace and reconciliation efforts and regional stability.”
Even the usually weak AU did not equivocate this time. In July, at the AU’s 13th annual Summit of Heads of State and Government, hosted this year by Libya’s Mu’ammar Qadhafi at his hometown of Sirte, issued a decision pleading with the Security Council “to take immediate measures, including the imposition of a no-fly zone and blockade of sea ports, to prevent the entry of foreign elements into Somalia, as well as flights and shipments carrying weapons and ammunitions to armed groups inside Somalia which are carrying out attacks against [the Transitional Federal Government, TFG], the civilian population and [the African Union Mission in Somalia, AMISOM], and also to impose sanctions against all those foreign actors, both within and outside the region, especially Eritrea, providing support to the armed groups engaged in destabilization activities in Somalia, attacks against the TFG, the civilian population and AMISOM, as well as against the Somali individuals and entities working towards undermining the peace and reconciliation efforts and regional stability.” Even more remarkably, the call for sanctions was virtually unanimous, with only Eritrea opposing the measure (whatever few friends Eritrea had in Africa evidently could no longer justify its continual intervention in Somali affairs since the withdrawal earlier this year of Ethiopian forces deprived Asmara of any Realpolitik justification of opposing a rival).
While, for the moment, the ongoing conflict in southern and central Somalia is perhaps the most urgent crisis in which Eritrea’s meddling has worsened the situation, it is by no means the only one in the subregion being stoked by Isaias Afewerki (for a sample of the Maoist-trained former guerrilla leader’s mindset, see the transcript released last month of a July interview with him conducted by Barney Jopson of the Financial Times; Jopson’s observations during and reflections about his journey to Asmara are also worth studying). In April 2008, Eritrean troops crossed the border into Djibouti and fortified positions near Ras Doumeira on the Red Sea. Two months later, Djiboutian forces came under fire from the Eritreans, sparking a brief conflict during which Djibouti received logistical support and intelligence from its former colonial power, France, which maintains a not insignificant military presence in the country as does the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), based at Camp Lemonier. An ultimatum from the UN Security Council, contained in Resolution 1862, passed in January of this year, gave Eritrea five weeks to withdraw its forces. Unfortunately, as the AU noted with “grave concern” in July, the deadline came and went with a “total absence of progress regarding the implementation by Eritrea of the successive decisions taken at the 11th and 12th Ordinary Sessions of the Assembly, held respectively in July 2008 and February 2009, as well as resolution 1862 of the UN Security Council regarding the border dispute between Djibouti and Eritrea.”
Of course, it should come as no surprise that Isaias Afewerki was willing to pick a fight with Djibouti, a tiny statelet the size of Massachusetts with a population of barely half a million. Just a decade ago, he was just as prepared to commence hostilities with Ethiopia, a country whose population of 85 million is 15 times the size of Eritrea’s and with a GDP is at least 20 times larger. The resulting two-year war – which an international panel at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled in a 2005 decision to have been due to Eritrea’s violation of international law by “by resorting to armed force on May 12, 1998 and the immediately following days to attack and occupy the town of Badme, then under peaceful administration” by Ethiopia – left at least 100,000 dead and cost untold billions of dollars in damages.
Regrettably, it is not only that repeated appeals from African regional organizations have not only fallen on deaf ears, but there seems to be evidence that of a willful refusal to face the reality of the situation. Two weeks ago, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon submitted to the Security Council the semi-annual report on Somalia that he has been tasked with preparing. Astoundingly, in a 20-page document that is supposed to access the Somalia’s political and security situation, Eritrea is mentioned only once and then only to report without comment U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s August 6 admonishment that “with respect to Eritrea we are making it very clear that their actions are unacceptable their interference with the rights of the Somali people to determine their own future are the height of misplaced efforts and funding and we intend to take action if they do not cease.” The UN chief devoted more space in the document to expressing concern about illegal exports of livestock and charcoal from Somalia and bemoaning human and drug smuggling. No wonder on astute observer, Jacob Heilbrunn, in a hard-hitting analysis in the July/August issue of Foreign Policy, characterized Ban as “nowhere man,” “the world’s most dangerous Korean,” and “a dilettante on the international stage,” noting that, even in the undistinguished company of his immediately predecessors, Ban “appears to have set the standard for failure.”
Not surprisingly, with this type of “leadership,” the UN has yet to sanction the Asmara regime, notwithstanding efforts to move toward sanctions like those made last week by the British permanent representative, Ambassador Sir John Sawyers, and the U.S. alternate representative for special political affairs, Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo, who told her Security Council colleagues that “it is time for the international community to consider ways to address Eritrea’s destabilizing impact on Somalia and the region.” Interestingly, it seems Eritrea’s own diplomats have apparently given up trying to defend their master’s troublemaking. During his recent appearance at the opening of the 64th session of the UN General Assembly in New York last month, Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh avoided any discussion of regional issues, devoting his entire address to histrionic denunciations of the “prevailing world order” and the “culture of ‘politics of fear’ and ‘management by crisis’” and criticisms of the United Nations as unable to “realistically cope with the exigencies of the 21st century.”
On the other hand, to be fair to the Ban and the UN, others are likewise guilty of burying their heads in the sand. In June, Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican who chaired the House Africa Subcommittee for eight years and is currently the ranking member on the Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade Subcommittee, offered an amendment to the foreign operations bill that would urge the Secretary of State to declare Eritrea a “state sponsor of terrorism” on account of the country’s well-documented record in the matter in general and, more specifically, its support for al-Shabaab (“the youth”), an al Qaeda-linked Somali group that was already formally designated a “foreign terrorist organization” by the U.S. Department of State last year. As the congressman noted in his foreign policy blog, the proposal was rejected on a party-line vote of 245 to 183, with some of its opponents defending their stance by arguing that “Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki sent a letter to President Obama expressing the desire to engage on these issues” (!). The majority thus chose to ignore the May Senate testimony of Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson that “we have clear evidence that Eritrea is supporting these extremist elements, including credible reports that the Government of Eritrea continues to supply weapons and munitions to extremists and terrorist elements” including al-Shabaab and the Hisbul Islam (“Islamic party”) group of Sheikh Hassan Dahir ‘Aweys, a figure who appears personally on both United States and United Nations antiterrorism sanctions lists and who was based in Asmara from January 2007 until April of this year when he returned to Somalia to carry on the fight to turn the country into a militant Islamist state (for a look back at Eritrea’s sponsorship of ‘Awey’s activities, see my report two years ago on the establishment of the insurgent alliance in the Eritrean capital).
Nor is it the case that the charges of Eritrean support for Islamist extremists in Somalia is merely American propaganda, as the regime in Asmara and its dwindling band of apologists have been wont to claim. The most recent report of the UN Security Council’s Monitoring Group and Panel of Experts on Somalia was especially damning in its detailed chronicling of Eritrea’s critical role in enabling the insurgency:
The Eritrean Government continues to provide financial support to ARS/Asmara, to deliver occasional consignments of weapons to its forces and their allies inside Somalia, and to provide Eritrean travel documents for some of its senior leaders. At the same time, the Eritrean Government has begun to develop linkages with a more diverse array of armed groups inside Somalia.
The Monitoring Group has received numerous credible reports from governmental sources and Somali eyewitnesses that Eritrea provides military training to armed Somali opposition groups…
The Monitoring Group has continued to receive information indicating that deliveries of arms and ammunition by small boat, originating in Eritrea, continue to occur on a fairly regular basis. A far greater proportion of Eritrean assistance, however, now takes the form of contributions in cash or kind. The purpose of the new emphasis on cash contributions is not only to arm the opposition, but to also disarm Transitional Federal Government and Ethiopian forces by enticing them to sell their weapons, ammunitions and uniforms, or to defect entirely…
According to multiple sources, some with first-hand knowledge of the procedure, cash is either made available from an Eritrean embassy bank account in one of these locations or hand-carried by courier from Asmara to the destination. The cash may then be sent in small amounts via Western Union or Somali hawala agencies to Somalia. Increasingly, cash is handed over to sympathetic businessmen, who use it to procure foodstuffs, second-hand clothing or electronic goods for export to Somalia. Once in Somalia, the goods are then resold to finance the armed struggle.
The Monitoring Group believes that Eritrean arms embargo violations take place with the knowledge and authorization of senior officials within the Eritrean Government and the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). Operational responsibility, however, lies with the Eritrean intelligence services.
(Of course, Eritrea denies all of this. In fact, the Ministry of Information in Asmara recently even put out a statement shamelessly advocating “an end all the foreign interferences in Somalia” and declaring that “the sole solution…is to respect the wishes of the Somali people, and withdraw and stop any foreign involvement in Somalia.”)
If Eritrea’s support of the insurgency in Somalia were not bad enough from the point of view of the United States and other countries with interests in the Horn of Africa, there is also the worrisome evolution of Asmara’s relations with another pariah state with longstanding ties to international terrorism, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Last year, at about the same time he was drawing opprobrium for his aggression against the neighboring Djibouti, Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki signed a series of trade and investment deals with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. These May 2008 accords were followed by an October 2008 memorandum of understanding to boost cultural, scientific, and educational exchanges cooperation between Asmara and Tehran. The relationship quickly became something of a whirlwind romance, its intensity quickly ratcheting up. On May 6, 2009, Radio France Internationale (RFI) published a report that, since last December, Iranian Revolutionary Guard units had been secretly deployed to the Eritrea port of Assab where they were strategically positioned astride the vital Bab-el-Mandab straits – 2-mile-wide Bab Iskender and 16-mile-wide Dact-el-Mayun, connecting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden – through which nearly 10 percent of the world’s maritime commerce passes each day. RFI’s Olivier Rogez suggested that an anti-Western regional alliance of Eritrea, Iran, and Sudan was emerging “whose sole logic is to counter internal destabilization, real or imagined, by the major Western powers.” While a spokesman for the Eritrean regime denied the report, barely two weeks later Isaias Afewerki was calling on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the Iranian capital and the Tehran Times, the mullahs’ English-language mouthpiece, was headlined “No Limit for Iran-Eritrea Cooperation: President.”
Beyond the direct consequences of continued failure to deal with the multiple challenges presented by the Eritrean regime, one must consider the wider implications of the international community not responding to what have been rather unprecedented appeals from the subregional grouping of states as well as the African Union as a whole. At the very least, the United States and the other permanent members of the Security Council have to be perceived as giving serious consideration to the sanctions request lest an unintended “chilling effect” discourage African leaders from again assuming the initiative in reining in other spoilers among their homologues and taking ownership of the management of security and stability on the continent.
One month ago, I warned here that “the situation across the territory of the onetime Somali Democratic Republic remains precarious, continuing to pose a threat not only to Somalis and their neighbors, but to international security as a whole.” That assessment remains unchanged, especially when one notes incidents like the threats made just this week by al-Shabaab to launch attacks against Kenya and the arrest on Monday by Kenyan authorities of yet another U.S. citizen of Somali descent trying to make his way to join the extremists in southern Somalia. While the root causes of Somalia’s problems are internal – the fact that the current head of the TFG, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has been outside the country for a month (last week he was touring Somali diaspora communities in Minnesota, Illinois, and Ohio) hardly helps with expand governance on the ground, although one would be hard-pressed to blame the man for preferring a Midwestern idyll to war-ravaged Mogadishu – external meddling has certainly fueled the conflict. Isaias Afewerki effectively wagered that he could stoke the fires of Islamist extremism and yet maintain control of the flames, which he hoped to direct at his longtime Ethiopian rival, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Before the entire neighborhood and areas beyond are consumed in the conflagration unleashed by the increasingly erratic Eritrean despot, the international community needs demonstrate in no uncertain terms that his dangerous gamble is a sure loser.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor J. Peter Pham is Senior Fellow and Director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also hold academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. He currently serves as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA).