THE African Union (AU) has taken the unprecedented step of calling on the UN to impose heavy sanctions on one of its own members. It wants to punish Eritrea for helping jihadist fighters in Somalia with arms and training which it says have caused the deaths of many civilians and AU peacekeepers.
The union has also called for a no-fly zone over Somalia and a blockade of its ports. Neither is likely to happen. Air patrols by America and others might win the jihadists more support; a blockade of the long coastline is almost impossible. But the AU may have better luck with sanctions. The UN Security Council has already expressed “concern” that Eritrea may have breached an arms embargo on Somalia.
Eritrea’s detractors say it has become a pariah in the mould of North Korea. A one-party state, it jails and even kills those of its citizens with independent minds. It conscripts its young into armed forces far bigger than it needs. At least it has no nuclear ambitions. But it exports instability and inflates its sense of importance by backing rebels in Chad, Ethiopia and Sudan, as well as Somalia. It seems long ago that President Bill Clinton lauded its president, Issaias Afwerki (pictured above), as a “renaissance African leader” after a long struggle brought independence from Ethiopia in 1993.
Mr Afwerki has dismissed the latest charge of gun-running into Somalia as a CIA lie. The AU, he says, has been hoodwinked by Ethiopia, which hosts the African club’s headquarters in Addis Ababa. Eritrea is still on a war footing with its larger neighbour over a disputed border. Its main reason for backing the jihad in Somalia is to hurt Ethiopia. If Eritrea is to have a chance of beating the Ethiopians in the future, it thinks it must stretch the front-line. Hence it backs separatists in Ethiopia too.
Some say Eritrea’s arms shipments to Somalia have been paid for partly by Iran and individual rich Arabs. Maybe so. But Eritrean support for the Islamist insurgency in Somalia is long-standing. And the AU is fed up with it.