Monday, July 12, 2010

Is Something Happening In Asmara? - by Shlomo Bachrach

An eyes-opening paper on the current situation in Eritrea. Raising more questions than giving answers but... this is Eritrea !

Posted by Shlomo Bachrach on Sunday, July 11th 2010

President Isaias Afewerki can call himself whatever he wants, even president. Without an election, with a never-used constitution gathering dust, without an elective assembly, it’s just all Isaias all the time.

He has fought with everyone around, including Ethiopia, Yemen, Djibouti and Sudan.

The US has an ambassador in Asmara but after two years his credentials have still not been received. His tour will end soon, probably this way.

But are things starting to change? Are Isaias’ backers getting tired of their cranky, isolated and and useless ally? These include Libya, Qatar (possibly representing other Gulf leaders who prefer to stay anonymous), Iran, maybe a shout out from North Korea. Not an A-list group.

As Israeli diplomat Abba Eban used to say about the Palestinians (and could say about Israel itself today), Eritrea ‘never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity’ to be smart.

After his monumental blunder of attacking Ethiopia in 1998, Isaias accepted a ceasefire to stop Ethiopia’s counterattack deeper into Eritrea. Being much wilier than the Ethiopians, Eritrea negotiated a favorable ceasefire (Algiers, 2000) and in 2002 got a favorable ruling from the Boundary Commission in the Hague. Eritrea accepted the ruling but Ethiopia, which had committed in writing to do so, rejected it and still rejects it.

This gave Eritrea the moral high ground and international sympathy, which it soon threw away. Isaias made enemies instead, abandoning the diplomatic skills that for years had won his rebel movement so much admiration.

He has now thrown out almost all foreign aid and humanitarian assistance groups, despite reports of severe child malnutrition and a crippled economy. Thousands flee Eritrea every year, particularly military age youth (service can last for decades). There are thousands in a camp in Ethiopia, where they don’t want to be — a legacy of bitterness is the legacy of a century of colonialism and imperialism that divided what was once a culturally continuous region. Growing numbers are being admitted to the US. Four faiths are officially tolerated in Eritrea: traditional Orthodox, Roman Catholics (an Italian legacy), Evangelican Lutherans (a missionary legacy) and Islam. All others are harassed, or worse — abused, jailed, sometimes dying in roasting metal shipping containers in the desert sun.

The UN claims that Eritrea has been helping the Islamists in Somalia in a proxy war against Ethiopia. Eritrea denies it, but it is hard to imagine that there is no fire with all that smoke. Last December, the UN approved sanctions against Eritrea.

Did the sanctions start a change of policy in Asmara by underscoring Eritrea’s isolation. Are his sponsors, who are probably keeping Eritrea afloat — Qatar in particular — urging him to wise up? Eritrea makes most foreign investors feel unwelcome except the recent interest from mining companies. Light manufacturing, which could take advantage of Eritrea’s capable workforce is not in the cards. Mines hire few workers and are easier to isolate than factories hiring many low wage workers.

Maybe Isaias is seeing the handwriting on the wall? An Eritrean minister just gave an interview to VOA…a true rarity. Even more important, Eritrea accepted mediation (from the Gulf) to end its pointless but irritating military occupation of a strip of sand in Djibouti. Statements about Somalia, though still hostile to Ethiopia and the US, are now no more aimless than those from other governments.

Is opposition growing inside Eritrea, invisible to outsiders but not to his intelligence sources? Little word gets out so it isn’t easy to tell. Is the food shortage so ominous that he has no choice but to open up to the outside? Is Eritrea’s bad reputation making it harder for the mining companies to raise the hundreds of millions needed to develop modern mines?

Is Isaias now realizing the error of his ways? Or does he see a growing threat from his inner circle, which must be aware of Eritrea’s true condition and international reputation? He isn’t likely to survive an overthrow and has few choices for asylum.

For now this is all highly speculative. Yet hints and intuition suggest that something could be happening in Eritrea. The Eritrean people deserve better than they have gotten for the past two decades.

Source: Peace Corps Worldwide