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Is Eritrean policy shift just “tactical”?

September 10, 2010


Eritrea’s arms seem to have been folded in a sulk for a long time now. The Red Sea state has, for some, taken on the black sheep role in the Horn of Africa family. But President Isaias Afewerki is looking eager to get off the naughty step.

His opponents say he was put there for good reason. Eritrea became increasingly isolated in the region after a 1998 – 2000 border war with neighbouring – and much bigger – Ethiopia.

Things have been tense between the two ever since – partly fueled by the fact that Eritrea only fully ceded from Ethiopia in 1993 after rebels led by Isaias and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi ousted a communist regime.

Eritrea has also fallen out with another neighbour, Djibouti. The two countries have been kicking each other in small but regular border clashes since 2008.

But the biggest blot on Eritrea’s copybook is its alleged backing of Somalia’s Islamist al Shabaab rebels – fast becoming an ulcer, not just for Somalia, but for the whole region. Analysts say Eritrea funds and trains Shabaab as a way of getting at Ethiopia, the West’s closest regional ally and a country that sent troops into Somalia in 2006 to run another Islamist group out of the capital.

The United Nations Security Council finally took action against Eritrea last December, imposing sanctions for its destabilising meddling in Somalia.

Eritrea reacted with what has become its typical scorn and fury, denying all charges.

But, in recent months, some analysts say they’ve detected a “softening”.

Isaias reached out to Djibouti and a peace deal was struck. He sounded more conciliatory tones towards neighbours in interviews. His foreign minister went on a serious hand-shaking spree on the sidelines of an African Union summit in Uganda.

And, last weekend, a meeting took place that surprised many. Isaias welcomed UN special representative for Somalia, Augustini Mahiga, to his capital Asmara for talks. The Eritreans could not have been more diplomatic in their statement afterwards.

“President Isaias pointed out that the UN has a higher responsibility to find a peaceful solution for the Somali issue and expressed Eritrea’s full support for the initiatives being taken by the world body,” a statement posted on an Eritrean government website said.

“Moreover, President Isaias expressed his conviction that the Somali issue would be resolved in a politically inclusive manner and emphasized the UN’s responsibility in creating conducive grounds for the Somalis to resolve their differences.”

Some analysts see the moves as proof that Eritrea – on the brink of a potentially lucrative gold mining boom – is worried about becoming isolated. It has also tried to forge friendships with Qatar, Iran, Israel and Egypt.

But when I recently asked Ethiopia’s Meles, now often rather theatrically referred to as the ‘arch-foe’ of Isaias, whether he thought the Eritrean hand was outstretched, and whether he would shake it, he seemed less sure than some.

“I don’t really see any softening of the stance of the Eritrean government and I doubt whether the Eritrean government at this stage is capable of making a u-turn,” Meles told me.

“It may be the case that it has gone too far and has burned too many bridges for it to make a u-turn. It may be the case that, if it were to do so, its hold on its domestic circumstances may be seriously weakened.”

For Meles, the Djibouti deal is a “too early to say” situation, the diplomatic glad-handing is “frantic” and “nothing new” and any change in policy is simply an attempt by Eritrea to remove “the noose of sanctions from around its neck”.

“There may be tactical shifts but I don’t see a strategic reorientation,” Meles said.

So is Meles right? Is the shift tactical? Or this a genuine attempt at realignment?


What do you expect Meles Zenawi to say about his regional nemesis? Meles Zenawi was behind the UN sanction on Eritrea and he wants it to remain isolated as such. Also Meles Zenawi’s intelligence acts just like Pakistani intelligence agency in Afganisthan. Zenawi wants Somalia to remain fragmented so that he remains relevant in the area. The most likely reason may be Eritrea – on the brink of a potentially lucrative gold mining boom – is worried about becoming isolated.

Posted by danpol | Report as abusive

Another nonsensical spin of a blog entry from Reuters.

There is a saying ” A hungry hunter will shoot any bird and calls it a pheasant”.

We know what game is being played here and who is trying to implicate Eritrea at every turn.

May be Reuters reporters when they wake up from their slumber, will chose to write something that make sense.

Eritrea has been consistently holding to its ideals, and the bunch of bullies in this unipolar world, are doing what bullies do, to get what they want.

May be Reuters will be kind enough to write a blog and remind us about the outstanding “Hague” international ruling that is being glossed over, but is the elephant in the room.

May be they should also remind us about the 2000 soldiers that vanished into thin air of Somalia, that was claimed by the falsified report written by UN.

Then there is the North Korea arms scandal americas/08iht-arms.4.5191534.html

May be they should also remind us, why Western hypocrites who call themselves democracies, are too willing to roll red carpet and make one of Africa’s brutal leaders, who massacred election protesters and stolen elections, who said “I can kick out anyone if I don’t like their eye colors” and performed ethnic cleansing on 80,000 Ethiopians of Eritrean origin. Yet is given the highest aid in Africa.

And finally, the Reuters blogista might want to remind us, the current leader of Somalia was considered a terrorist when he was in Eritrea, and now he is a reformed character and puppet leader.

Man ………. I give up. Why bother writing, if you can not at least write factual

Eritrea will always survive the lies, hypocrisies, sadism, greed, sieges by outsiders. No amount of handicapping will prevent Eritrea from reaching where it wants to go.

No realiggnments, no tactical shift, just following its principle!!

Posted by Say_what | Report as abusive

Although an interesting topic for an article I think some key questions were missed in laying out the background. For instance, when you suggest that Eritrea only seceded from Ethiopia in 1993 you left out that it was illegally annexed in 1962. Furthermore you left out that Ethiopia (in particular the government of Meles Zenawi) continues to flout international law by occupying sovereign Eritrean soil. In addition Ethiopia hosts terrorists bent on turning Eritrea into a theocracy, not even Sudan harbours those groups anymore.

Again, an interesting topic, I feel however that it was executed in a balanced way.

Posted by merhawie | Report as abusive

The article is about Eritrea yet we are as usual subjected to Meles’ diatribe on Issaias.
Eritreans and (those interested in Eritrea) care about what the Eritrean leaders think. Yet there is hardly anything about what the leaders said.

Eritrean foreign minister reiterated while in Uganda that arming AMISOM or fighting Al-shabab using foreign troops is not the solution for Somalia. Yet you focused on his “hand-shaking spree” instead. And regarding Eritrea’s mineral riches, Eritrea’s president answered to journalists that it would be very damaging for Eritrea to pin its economic revival on gold mining. Yet you focused on unfounded Eritrea’s fear of isolation. Eritrea remains steadfast and defiant because it can; it is self-reliant and is highly focused on reviving its internal infrastructure with internal resources.

Who cares (except for his maters and Ethiopians) about what vote-rigging crime minister Meles Zenawi thinks of Eritreans? Why didn’t you ask him about why he occupies sovereign Eritrean territories or to stop wreaking havoc in Somalia in contravention international laws? Oh, that is not the kind of detail the U.S. administration and greedy military industrial complex wants you to focus on? We know how the U.S. media operates.

Posted by minder | Report as abusive

I am an Eritrean, but I agree with what Meles has said.
At this moment the Eritrean regime is facing both internal(unforeseen ) and external problems. It is well known whenever the regime faces a problem,it uses a tactful retreat instead of fixing it. Now the regime is deceiving the International community. But, I am so sorry for some Eritreans who want to defend the regime because they hate Meles. But we can’t hide the facts. How can a country for almost 20 years govern without Constitution, with out elected president and imprison its citizens with out bring them to justice.

Posted by Girar | Report as abusive

Don’t you think your quotation is an important point to the region from a wise geopolitical point of view, when you said, “President Isaias pointed out that the UN has a higher responsibility to find a peaceful solution for the Somali issue and expressed Eritrea’s full support for the initiatives being taken by the world body,” I think what we need to see is the peace for Somalia not the other way. What is needed now; how and what the world community can act seriously about the issue, we should not point finger pointing on Eritrea which sincerer enough to be committed to a comprehensive peace and nation building process.

Posted by Ibrahimo | Report as abusive

Policy change – domestic or foreign – is just not what the Eritrean leaders have in mind. They are addicted to power and money and are simply looking for some tricks to help them get more of the same so that they can continue to bully and terrorize people inside and outside the country’s borders. While turning the country into a giant prison, the regime has been sending funds and arms to Al-Shabab and other extremists in Somalia causing the deaths of tens of thousands of men and women in that country. Thanks to the UN sanctions and continued pressure from Eritrea’s neighbors, Tyrant Isaias is beginning to feel insecure. He fears that his misinformed and repulsive attitude may lead some wary African and Western powers to extend the sanctions to his new gold mine operations. Isaias needs the money from his mines to buy military aircraft and other new weapons to threaten his neighbors. In addition to destabilizing Somalia, he has already attacked Sudan, Yemen, Ethiopia and Djibouti.

Posted by Beraki | Report as abusive

Issias nick is already on the rope; this is a desperate measure because inside the country mistrust and dissatisfaction become rampant. Also Eritreans are hitting the road to leave the country as quick as possible. The exodose become unstoppable, people are fed up the way he handle everything, the only people who defend him are some crazy people in diasporas and it is a matter of time and he will lose his balance and will be on the air, as I said this is a crazy move at the same time their southern neighbor become stronger economically politically and even with social support so the regime is dying

Posted by Kemalyy | Report as abusive

Your article is interesting and covered the base.

Though Eritrean government is trying to reach out now, but it is too late to take it seriously. President Issaias lost a lot on his credibility globally, regionally, and internally.

Look at the Djibouti affair. President Issaias informed the whole world that there was no incident; nothing happened in the border with Djibouti. He added it is a pure fabrication of the US and its allies. This has been going on for some months. Now, he accepted the Qatari mediation and war prisoners will be swapped. All the futile rejections diminishes President Issaias’ credibility and cannot be taken seriously. In addition, He never learned any diplomatic skills to adapt for change or gather skills from previous experiences. The incidents with Yemen(95), with Ethiopia(98), and Djibouti clearly show that Eritrea shoots before it alerts the international and regional bodies. And President Issaias’ behavior has become predictive for performing wrongs. Even, when he makes withdrawals and concessions.

Internally, Eritrea is at worst stage of its existence with civil liberties much worse than when it was under occupation under Haile Sellasie. Parliamentarians arrested for more than 9 years without due process and their immunity revoked. The legislative assembly last met in 2002, and there is no judiciary. In a nutshell, no separation of powers, and no working constitution. All, laws are emanated by decree of the President. And all meetings are of his cabinets, which is executive usurpation. Such government cannot mend its behavior in the long run, as clash of ideas is absent, and no internal controls.

For Eritrea to mend the bridges, the best is if President Issaias could keep his promise that there will be constitutional Eritrea and is willing to put the interests of the nation before his interests and leave power. Then a new leadership will start with new untarnished phase with all the neighbors and international bodies.

Posted by Tirhas | Report as abusive

“Eritrea has also fallen out with another neighbour, Djibouti. The two countries have been kicking each other in small but regular border clashes since 2008.”

Setting aside the claim of “regular border clashes” – Leaving out the fact that these two countries Peacefully Resolved their issues is shoddy journalism at best.

Posted by HizbawiGinbar | Report as abusive

“The United Nations Security Council finally took action against Eritrea last December, imposing sanctions for its destabilising meddling in Somalia… Eritrea reacted with what has become its typical scorn and fury, denying all charges.”

The UN Security Council has yet to come up with any evidence whatsoever on Eritrea’s alleged “meddling in Somalia.” In fact and on the contrary, arms intended for the TFG get sold on the market and inevitably reach the hands of insurgents, more notably Al Shabaab.

Posted by HizbawiGinbar | Report as abusive

Most of the regions’ leaders seem not interested on bringing peace to the Horn for simple reasons: if the people relivied from war and start to live peacefully, there is a great danger to their autocractic power. They will continue to play many tactics as long as they think it will help them to safeguard their grip. All the softenings orchestrated by the leaders are meant to calm their worries of staying in power.

Posted by Weldeab | Report as abusive

Well Meles would say that wouldn’t he? but what is interesting is why is Meles spending so much energy in blackmailing and defaming Eritrean when he has so much to do in country

Let US BRIEFLY see the situation in Ethiopia
1. HIV/AIDS is in a rampant stage
2.There is chronic food shortage
3. the gab between the haves and the have nots increasing at sky rocketing rate
4.The prostitution industry is on the increase
5. People are dying from curable diseases
6. Ethiopians are know for poverty through out the world
7. the country is divided by ethnicity problems -very fragile politics that can shatter down any time
the list are endless

so what does it matter if Meles says anything about Eritrean-it would matter if such comment comes from a successful leader but From Meles–he is making himself subject of mockery

Meles is a failure
even his hometown Tigray is suffering from shortage of water

I urge Meles to deal with his domestic problems first before he can be consulted about regional issues

The leadership quality of a leader is not measured by the quality of his interviews or the equableness of his speech but by the change that he can bring on the quality of life of his people

Hence using Meles is a poor reference for any sort of political analysis of that region

Posted by MACKSUGAR | Report as abusive

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