Eritrea: Coming In from the Cold – Atlantic Council

AFRICA CENTER:  Eritrea: Coming In from the Cold



(Atlantic Council) —  The Horn of Africa, long recognized as one of the world’s most unstable regions, is undergoing a round of seismic shifts. Massive and sustained anti-government demonstrations in Ethiopia have laid bare the fundamental brutality and instability of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which is Washington’s major security partner in the region. Tiny Somaliland and Djibouti are on high alert, bracing for a tide of Ethiopian refugees that—particularly in the midst of drought—could easily overwhelm those territories. South Sudan, the youngest nation on earth, has become a killing field. And the Westernfunded peacekeeping coalition in Somalia, which has been fighting the al-Qaeda linked terror group al-Shabaab since 2007, is critically fatigued and losing ground. These multiple nodes of instability pose a significant and immediate threat to US interests in the region.

Eritrea has long been stigmatized as a “spoiler” by Washington and stands accused of supporting terrorism. In 2009, at Washington’s urging, Eritrea was sanctioned by the United Nations for supporting al-Shabaab and for refusing to settle a border dispute with Djibouti. However, years of scrutiny by the United Nations Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group (UNSEMG) have yielded no evidence that Eritrea continues to be involved in Somalia, and the Djibouti conflict is mediated by Qatar.

A number of surprising developments have recently occurred in Eritrea, suggesting that the country is determined to throw off isolation for positive engagement in its foreign policy since the sanctions were applied. An engaged Eritrea would be very good news for the region at a time when Washington’s status quo approaches to Ethiopia, Somalia, and South Sudan are visibly failing. If the United States can encourage Eritrea on a trajectory of re-engagement, it should. But to do that, Washington must drop outdated notions about the threat that Eritrea poses. At a time when the Kenyan army has annexed parts of southern Somalia and is trafficking with al-Shabaab, when the Ugandan army is taking sides in South Sudan, and Ethiopian forces have killed hundreds and detained tens of thousands of protestors calling for government reform, Eritrea truly ranks among the least of the United States’ security concerns.

A disordered Ethiopia will make Eritrea more important to US security interests. By virtue of its geographic position between Ethiopia and Yemen, Eritrea is bound to serve either as a bridge or a barrier to the passage of terrorists between the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa. Thus far, Eritrea has repelled jihadists and proven immune to radical ideologies. This is a role for which it has received little credit. But Washington cannot afford to take Eritrea’s implicit cooperation in its counterterror efforts for granted.

If Eritrea is overwhelmed with refugees, or otherwise sucked into the Red Sea region’s growing unrest, the United States could find itself facing instability and perhaps a terror threat on both sides of the Mandeb Strait, which is a critical chokepoint for the $700 billion dollars of trade passing annually between the European Union (EU) and Asia. Threats to this trade route have in recent years led the United States to pour millions of dollars into combating Somali piracy—an indication of the Strait’s importance to US interests.

For these reasons, the United States ought to be concerned about its inability to project influence in Eritrea. This paper aims to assist the incoming US administration in securing US interests by offering a blueprint for improving relations with Asmara.

US Relations with Eritrea

Historical overview

In 1991, after thirty years of trench and mountain warfare, Eritrean rebels overthrew the Communist Derg regime and won independence from Ethiopia. The tenacity and bravery of the Eritrean rebels captured the hearts and imaginations of people across the globe. The period between 1991 and 1998 were watershed years for the country: a referendum establishing Eritrea’s independence was held, a democratic constitution was written (though never enacted), and Eritrea’s economy prospered.

However, separation from Ethiopia proved impossible. By 1996, a collection of small, unavoidable disputes between the two countries (over such matters as the regulation of cross-border trade, the creation of an Eritrean currency, and the demarcation of the border) had piled up, adding tension to a more substantive disagreement between Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi over Ethiopia’s decision to pursue a model of ethnic “federalism.” In 1998, only seven years after the end of Eritrea’s thirty-year battle for independence, these many differences escalated into a full-scale war between the countries that lasted for two years and killed some 90,000 people.

The Ethiopian-Eritrean border war ended when both sides agreed to sign the Algiers Agreement, which established a cease-fire and an independent border commission in The Hague (called the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission, or EEBC). The United States, the EU, the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union), and the United Nations signed the Algiers Agreement as witnesses. As it was desperately  attempting to broker a peace, the United States allegedly made closed-door promises to both sides that it would serve as guarantor to the EEBC’s ruling. However, when the EEBC eventually awarded most of the disputed border territory to Eritrea—including the flashpoint town of Badme—Ethiopia reneged on the agreement, and the witnesses to the treaty did nothing. Indeed, for the past fifteen years, Ethiopian troops have been permitted, by a silent international consensus, to flout the treaty and occupy Eritrean territory. In consequence, the border between the two countries is heavily militarized and skirmishes occasionally claim lives. And Eritrea has been trapped in a painful stasis known as “no peace, no war.”

Ethiopia’s refusal to comply with the firm and final ruling of the Boundary Commission is a major source of instability in East Africa. In efforts to destabilize each other’s territory, both Ethiopia and Eritrea have supported armed rebel groups, which inflame conflicts across the region. Eritrea has exhibited especially poor judgment in its choice of proxies. As noted earlier, one of the groups that it supported early on was the al-Shabaab militia group in Somalia. Eritrean support of al-Shabaab appears to have been short-lived and relatively insubstantial. There has been no evidence of Eritrean support for al-Shabaab since 2011. Eritrea has, nonetheless, remained under sanction by the United Nations (UN) Security Council since 2009.

Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in late 2006, and the Ethiopian army’s subsequent occupation of Mogadishu, by contrast, has done immeasurable harm to US security interests. Ethiopia’s invasion destroyed an innocuous and potentially constructive Somali grassroots governance movement called the Union of Islamic Courts. At the time, Ethiopia falsely alleged that the Union of Islamic Courts was a proxy of al-Qaeda and persuaded Washington to back this interpretation. When Ethiopia invaded Somalia and destroyed this moderate Union of Islamic Courts, it cleared the field for the rise of al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab—which before the invasion was unpopular in Somalia—was able to rise to power on a wave of public fury against the atrocities that the Ethiopian army was committing in Mogadishu.11 It was the rage of the Somali people against Ethiopian and US meddling in their country that permitted alShabaab to become a national resistance movement; to seize most of southern Somalia’s territory; and to provide the long-feared sanctuary to al-Qaeda.12 Worse still, outrage over the rapes and atrocities perpetrated by Ethiopian troops in Somalia sparked the transit of dozens of Somali-Americans from Minnesota to join al-Shabaab’s war against the Ethiopian army in Mogadishu, creating, for the first time, a problem of homegrown radicalization in the United States.

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