The Horn: Will More Sanctions Douse Eritrea Powderkeg?

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[Global: Eritrea]

The Horn of Africa is one of the most volatile places on earth with recalcitrant Eritrea and militant Somalia considered diehard “spoilers” in a region marred with perennial conflicts and starvation.

Ten million people are hungry in the Horn of Africa and scores are dying every day; the worst drought and famine hit are people in areas controlled by Al Qaeda and Al Shabab which Eritrea is accused of supporting. Staggering numbers of emaciated Somali women and children are flocking into make-shift feeding centers in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, which are themselves in need of food aid along with Uganda and Djibouti.

There is a total North Korea style of news black-out on the food situation in Eritrea which is also a drought-prone country. The UN estimates up to 75 percent of the Eritrean population is malnourished caused by outdated communist-oriented economic and agricultural policies. Eritrean refugees entering the Sudan and Ethiopia speak of a nightmarish distribution system of meager food rations in the country.

Early this month, leaders of the frontline states confronting Somalia and Eritrea met in Addis Ababa not to discuss the plight of the famine and drought stricken millions but to deal with the threat Eritrea is purportedly posing to the peace and security of the region. The frontline states, which are also members of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) believe Eritrea is still channeling arms and funds to terrorists and extremists fighting to topple the AU/UN backed government in Mogadishu.

Moreover the African Union and the US are worried by new developments of reported stepped up cooperation and coordination of activities between Al Shabab in Somalia and the Al Qaeda branch in Yemen.

While President Isaias Afewerki was wrapping up another state visit to Qatar on July 4, 2011 --the 4th trip in about a year-- his IGAD counterparts from Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti were drawing a communiqué urging the UN Security Council to slap a second round of harsher sanctions on Eritrea linking it to the activities of the dreaded Al Qaeda and Al Shabab in Somalia.

The proposed sanctions will target revenues from Eritrea’s lucrative mining sector and will also ban the transfer of funds from government supporters in the Diaspora. Eritreans hoped money from mining would make their country one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Now the future is uncertain and the people can only blame President  Isaias
Afewerki’s archaic totalitarian rule.

But President Afewerki does not seem worried. The Eritrean leader did not bother to go to Addis Ababa on July 4 to face his government’s accusers and refute the destabilization charges at the IGAD heads of state conference, if he believed he was clean. He could have asked for a change of venue if he did not want to be in the Ethiopian capital.

Afewerki also refused to attend the ordinary African Union Summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea from June 28 - to July 1, 2011 where he could have defended his country’s interests.

Lack of proactive engagement is seen as indicative of the defenseless Eritrean position. It has merely been denying IGAD’s claim through reactive press releases coupled by massive mobilization of its Diaspora supporters to campaign against the sanctions. Proponents of the Eritrean government are acting out of what they believe is their patriotic obligation albeit without questioning the government’s laughable diplomatic performances over the years.

Afewerki’s irrational policies have turned the entire continent against his country. He seems to look at African Union and IGAD heads of state as a mindless bunch of opportunists and subservient tools of Ethiopian or US hidden agendas. It should not be surprising especially to government supporters and opponents alike why Africa is very disdainful and utterly
unsympathetic to Eritrea’s legitimate yearning for a demarcated border with Ethiopia.

The UN Security Council is to start reviewing the need for additional sanctions on Friday. The Council’s determination will likely favor the position of IGAD as a regional organization whose member states say they are living under constant Al Qaeda and Al Shabab threats for supporting the Somali Government. President Omar Hassan Al Bashir of Sudan and Somali President Sheikh Ahmed want Eritrea punished. The other aggrieved frontline countries, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti have large ethnic Somali populations within their boundaries where it is feared that Al Shabab could easily infiltrate and cause harm.

Summing up the concern of the 6-nation IGAD organization in the Ethiopian capital last week, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki underscored what he described as the “destabilization activities in the region, associated with Eritrea,” adding: “This is a matter of serious concern and it is my hope that this Summit will focus some attention on it in view of the need for
collective security and sustainable peace.”

Another IGAD member, Uganda, with over 7,000 of its peace keeping troops now in Somalia, also wants to see a weakened Isaias Afewerki in retaliation for Al Shabab’s bloody attack in Kampala last year killing 74 people. The attackers were allegedly trained in Eritrea.

The Security Council is likely to endorse IGAD’s decision for more sanctions on Eritrea on top of those imposed in December 2009 enforcing armed embargo, freezing assets of officials and restricting their travel abroad. The question remains how tough and effective the new measures will be in disciplining and stopping Eritrea from allegedly undermining UN efforts to pacify Somalia.

Hopefully this time, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea will present to the public a convincing report on why the new measures against Eritrea are necessary. In the meantime, Eritrea can begin to show its willingness and ability to obey international laws by recognizing the UN and AU supported Somali government and by denouncing Al Shabab.

There is no guarantee this will stop the Security Council from imposing additional sanctions soon. But such a move may influence any idea of a possible third round of sanctions a year or two from now unless Eritrea drastically changes course.

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