African business, politics and lifestyle
Is Eritrean policy shift just “tactical”?
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?