Given the high stakes in the Horn of Africa, and very low level of effort that would be required to set the stage for a much better relationship in the future, it is surely in Washington’s interest to try.
By Dimetros Birku,
For over seven years, Eritrea was treated more like a pariah state.The UN imposed sanctions and certainly United States was a big factor for the policy outcome that severely affected Eritrea. Yet, much of the US allegations on Eritrea including support to radical Islamic groups were not significantly substantiated with evidence.
This month, Brownyn Bruton , Deputy Director of Africa Center in Atlantic Council, released research based report entitled “Eritrea: Coming In from the Cold”. In the report, Brownyn made a case for Eritrea or, to be more accurate, a case for United States’ strategic interest in the horn of Africa in general and in Eritrea in particular.
Emphasized in the research, arguably, is the point that United States will not benefit from its current policy on Eritrea and paradigm shift along the lines of improving relation with Eritrea is of great importance to the United States. The paper is intended to be a blue print for the incoming Trump administration to improve relations with Eritrea.
Also the fact that the regime in Ethiopia, Brownyn rather employs the name Ethiopia – obviously erroneous if seen in light of relation between the administration and the Ethiopian people and the tyrannical nature of the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) government, played a role in terms of misinforming the US about developments in the region is noted in the paper. She seem to think that the regime in Ethiopia, in fact, contributed to the rise of Al-Shabaab in Somalia by falsely linking the “Islamic court” with Al-Qaeda and subsequently invading Somalia in 2006.
The development has even caused emergence of homegrown terrorists in the United States as there was radicalization after invasion of Somalia by regime in Ethiopia and young people moved to Somalia from the United States to join Al-Shabaab.
From the trajectory of global politics, the writer noted that Eritrea is forming alliances with countries in the Gulf region and it is working on relations with China. In that regard, she seem to think that emerging multi-polar world order does not favor US policy as it relates to Eritrea and perhaps in the region as well.
Overall, while the paper advises Eritrea to work on human rights issues, it has done a reasonably good job in terms of making a case for normalizing relations with Eritrea by highlighting the various concrete external and internal policy measures Eritrea took, including allowing some NGOs to return to Eritrea and improving relations with European countries, as omens of readiness to improve relation with other countries including the United States.
Finally, the paper made about five recommendations both for Eritrea and the United States.
It is to be noted that former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Ambassador Herman Cohen, was calling on what he called a “face-saving” solution to negotiate Ethiopia and Eritrea which apparently fell on deaf ear.
Regime in Ethiopia still contemplates, it is apparent from rhetoric during the state of emergency and from the way it understood the popular uprising across the country, major war with Eritrea.
Brownyn Bruton’s paper also recounts circumstances that led to confrontation between Ethiopia and Eritrea. In that regard, she noted that the Eritrean President Isayas Afwerki and the late Meles Zenawi had disagreement in 1996 over Meles Zenawi’s decision to make Ethiopia ethnic based Federal state.
Nearly two decades later, early signs of problems related to ethnic federalism manifested in the recent popular uprising in Ethiopia but the regime demonstrated propensity to understand it as a manifestation of foreign interference in the affairs of Ethiopia and is mired in a window dressing policy measures rather than addressing the fundamental issues.
On the contrary, despite different forms of challenges, as Brownyn noted, Eritreans are unified across ethnic and religious lines. Of course it could only be seen as a policy outcome.
Ms Bronwyn Bruton’s brilliant analysis of the US-Eritrea relationship can be found on the Atlantic Council‘s web site. For the purpose of giving a recap of the paper, here we are sharing the introductory and recommendation sections of the report.
Eritrea: Coming In from the Cold
By Bronwyn Bruton
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 eld. And the Western- funded 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 o 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 traffcking 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 counter terror efforts for granted.
If Eritrea is overwhelmed with refugees, or otherwise sucked into the Red Sea region’s growing unrest, the United States could nd 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.
These multiple grievances cannot be rectified overnight. However, a couple of key actions could quickly put US relations with Eritrea on a positive trajectory.
1) Lift the UN sanctions on Eritrea
2) Reject Ethiopian irredentist claims on Eritrea
3) De-personalize US policy toward Eritrea
4) Let Europe lead
5) Insist on improvements in the human rights situation in Eritrea—but do not single out Eritrea for criticism
Washington has a strategic interest in repairing relations with Asmara, and the upcoming change in administration offers a convenient opportunity for a reset in relations. Nevertheless, Eritrea has already pivoted successfully toward new alliances in the Gulf and a new economic partnership with China, and its leaders are reluctant to invest scarce diplomatic resources in a hopeless cause. In order to improve relations, a strong signal needs to be sent from Washington to Asmara.
President Isaias and his advisers will not swivel back toward Washington unless they have good reason to do so. However, numerous conversations and meetings in Asmara lead to the conviction that President Isaias would very much like to put his relations with Washington on a more constructive footing. Given the high stakes in the Horn of Africa, and very low level of effort that would be required to set the stage for a much better relationship in the future, it is surely in Washington’s interest to try.
The writer is editor of the Ethiopian website Borkena.com and he can be reached on twitter @dimetros