Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1313, (29 september - 5 October 2016)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1313, (29 september - 5 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Eritrea: Out of isolation?

The war in Yemen has been a gateway for Arab Gulf States to pay attention to Eritrea, long ignored and beset with problems, writes Haitham Nuri

Al-Ahram Weekly

For a quarter of a century Eritrea remained an isolated country after its independence from Ethiopia in the early 1990s. Its isolation was compounded after vicious wars between the two in 1998-2000 as authoritarianism and militarisation increased. However, there are signs of change in Asmara, although its extent is not clear.

Asmara’s isolation increased after the EU imposed sanctions against Eritrea under the pretext that it is cooperating with the Somali Shabab Al-Mujahideen militant group, formerly affiliated with Al-Qaeda. The group’s leadership has since pledged allegiance to what is known as Islamic State (IS).

At the same time, for years Asmara was the headquarters for Sudan’s opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) before it was dismantled, which stoked hostilities with the Sudanese regime. Meanwhile, Eritrea lost Arab support after its quarrel with Yemen over the Hanish islands in the south Red Sea.

Over the past two years, however, some positions have shifted. The Saudi-led Arab alliance began its war in Yemen, which forced Gulf countries to cooperate with Asmara to ensure it does not side with the Houthis or their Iranian allies. The UAE leased a small port on the Eritrean coast to convert it into a logistics naval base as part of the war effort of the Arab alliance. The naval base not only has economic benefits, such as the $500 million annual lease, but is also official recognition of President Isaias Afwerki’s regime, which came to power following independence in 1991.

The naval base allowed Eritrea to expand its relations with Gulf states and garner relations beyond Qatar, which was never hostile to Eritrea. Thus, we should expect Arab aid to Asmara in the near future. According to Berouk Mesfin, an Ethiopian researcher at the African Institute of Security Studies (ISS), the Asmara regime views rapprochement with the Gulf as a royal gateway to the entire Muslim world, especially in Africa.

Ethiopia is worried about the collapse of its arch enemy regime in Asmara because millions of refugees could head to Addis Ababa and further compounded difficult conditions in the country. Mesfin believes it is not in Ethiopia’s interest to permanently put pressure on Afwerki’s regime until it collapses; all it wants to do is to keep hostilities at bay in the region. This complies with Ethiopia’s ambitious development plans, especially in cooperation with China, and solidifying its alliance with the US after a visit by US President Barack Obama to Addis Ababa, making it one of Washington’s closest allies in Africa.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ignored Asmara during his visit to East Africa, and met with the president of South Sudan, which is an even younger nascent state than Eritrea.

Ethiopia also wants to de-escalate with Egypt on the Grand Renaissance Dam issue because it wants joint security cooperation against terrorism, and to prevent any possibility of the Islamist regime in Khartoum from cooperating with the Mujahideen group.

All these are reasons for Addis Ababa to deescalate with Asmara, stated Mesfin, in order to concentrate on domestic development. Meanwhile, Eritrea scaled back relations with Shabab Al-Mujahideen to help Asmara break out of its isolation, which was appreciated by Europe. But Europe has other concerns in Eritrea and Western media is constantly reporting on the thousands of Eritrean youth fleeing the country annually. ISS estimates thousands of youth flee the country weekly.

Open-ended army conscription, bleak economic prospects, authoritarianism and unprecedented censorship are all reasons for emigration among youth. Authoritarianism is a reflection of a violent history. The country gained independence after a 30-year civil war with Ethiopia (both the imperial and communist regimes) in which tens of thousands were killed on both sides. The regime uses hostilities with Ethiopia to justify non-time limited army conscription.

“Naturally, Europe does not want another failed or collapsed state that sends thousands of refugees its way,” stated Kamal Daqash, a Sudanese expert on African affairs. “There must be European-Eritrean cooperation with the participation of neighbouring Arab and African states to end Asmara’s isolation. Everyone will be harmed by another failed state in the Horn of Africa.”

East Africa is plagued with collapsed states such as Somalia, or countries fighting civil wars such as Sudan and South Sudan, or varying degrees of unrest demanding the removal of leaders who have been in power too long. According to a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) issued in May 2013, the Asmara regime is fragile. When Afwerki disappeared for several weeks there were rumours that he died or was ill, revealing there is no plan for succession. Around 100 soldiers seized the Ministry of Information for one day before their rebellion was stamped out. Also, there is the “catastrophic state of the Eritrean army.”

It is difficult to predict what will happen post-Afwerki since there are rising social tensions based on religion (Muslims against Christians), ethnicity and provinces.

Europe’s concerns go beyond the refugee issue and include interests in natural resources in a virgin land that has never experienced Western investments. According to the ICG, there are Western oil companies operating in Eritrea. Daqash explained that Eritrea opened its doors to oil companies because they can put pressure on Western countries to lift sanctions and restore aid.

“A few years ago, Eritrea announced it achieved three millennium development goals (MDGs) announced by the UN in 2000,” he said. “However, this was useless and did not ease Asmara’s isolation.”

Eritrean Minister of Health Amna Nour Hussein announced in 2014 that her country reduced infant mortality by more than two thirds (MDG #4); improved maternity health (MDG #5); and reduced rates of HIV/AIDS and malaria (MDG #6).

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Eritrea reduced malaria infections by 90 per cent, while maternal mortality rates dropped by 75 per cent, improved accessibility to potable water by 85 per cent, and eradicated illiteracy among seniors by 80 per cent.

However, this was not enough to vindicate the regime in Asmara until the refugee tragedy began to loom over Europe and the Yemen war became critical for the Gulf. Only then did the world community begin to ease Eritrea’s isolation.

“The performance of the regime will improve greatly by amending the conscription law, economic reforms and opening up the political realm,” predicted Daqash.

Mesfin believes relations with Sudan and even Ethiopia can be improved, although he doubts any progress will be made on human rights issues or establishing a plan for succession after Afwerki.

International investments, albeit few, would reduce the number of youth fleeing the country. “In small countries, serious steps are felt quickly,” Daqash asserted.

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