The Pope was there. Russia’s Putin was there for the first time in 10 years. China’s Xi Jinping was there for the first time. Cuba’s Raul Castro was there for the first time. The Palestinian flag was there for the first time. In fact, a “record number of world leaders”—150—were there. Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki, wasn’t there, failing in one more of his job descriptions: representing Eritrea at the United Nations. This is curious given that Eritrea’s state media routinely rails against the UN for crippling its development with “UNfair” sanctions and “UNjust” indifference to violations of its sovereignty. UNreal.
The president has made a tradition of this: he wasn’t at the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) Heads of States summit in Egypt in June, where he missed the discussion about creating an even larger African common market. He wasn’t at the African Union (AU) Summit in South Africa also in June, where he missed discussions on a range of issues. He wasn’t at the UN’s “Addis Ababa Action Agenda” held in Ethiopia in July, where he missed discussions on the Third International Conference on Financing for Development (FFD3). UNreal.
Representing Eritrea at the UN’s annual meeting of the General Assembly, which ended on Saturday, was its Foreign Minister, Osman Saleh.
So, what’s on the world’s agenda? What keeps the world up at night? And by “world” we mean, of course, the industrialized nations. Russia asked the world to form a coalition with local governments, no matter how distasteful the local governments might be, to defeat terrorists like ISIS. The world was not impressed. Europe said, “Can we do something about Syrian refugees?” and had no clear consensus. Palestine said it no longer feels bound by its treaty with Israel, but nobody took it seriously. Israel said it is amazed that the world is silent as a member state—Iran—pledges to annihilate it and, for dramatic effect, its Prime Minister gave the audience the silent treatment (literally) for 45 seconds: they were not impressed. Pakistan accused India of fomenting instability and called for new peace treaty; India said not before you give up terrorism.
In South America, the topic was all about climate change. El Salvador, Suriname, Dominica, talked about how climate change is wiping out their economies. Indian Ocean island nations one-upped them: “Never mind GDPs; we are drowning here; can we treat global warming a bit more seriously?”
In Africa, (excluding Zimbabwe which told the world: “we are not gays!”) the topic was MDG, terrorism, and UN reform, particularly of its veto powers. Nigeria talked about the danger of Boko Haram, which was echoed by Niger asking for “international response” since Boko Haram is a threat to Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Benin. Also, world, please do something about Libya. Central African Republic talked about its wave of violence, which forced the head of state to cut his UN trip short and head back home, leaving his Foreign Minister to give his speech. Sudan had meetings on the margins with US, on how to get its sanctions lifted. Then, leaders from Mozambique, Ethiopia, Uganda, Gabon, Kenya, Senegal all complimented themselves for the “remarkable progress” their countries had achieved in meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDG); and how much they welcome the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs.)
Listening to all the speeches, one gets the sense that the world is on fire. It has terrorists, failing states, and a massive refugee/migrant crisis. The UN has 9 peacekeeping missions in Africa; 4 in Asia; 2 in Europe and 1 in North America. There are large wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia, and Sudan. There are simmering and bloody feuds all over, including in Central African Republic and Burundi, and crushing poverty engulfs the planet.
It’s against this backdrop that Eritrea’s Foreign Minister, Osman Saleh, gave his speech. It had four parts. It included the same self-praise other African nations indulged in, using selective goals from the Millenium Development Goals (MDG): in Eritrea’s case, it is always Goals 4,5,6 and never mind 1,2,3,7,8,9. Even the adjective he used—“remarkable”—is the same one used by other African states. Another part of his speech was to bemoan the dysfunction of the United Nations—as countries have done for 69 of the UN’s 70 years of existence. But, whereas nations, and national blocs—like the African Union—have suggested ways to remedy this by, for example, expanding the list of the permanent members of the Security Council to include an African voice, the Eritrean government has sought a policy of self-isolation. The third part of his speech was a call for the UN to lift the sanctions on Eritrea; and, lastly, it was a call for the UN to compel Ethiopia to abide by the terms of the Algiers Agreement and vacate land ruled sovereign Eritrean.
And all of this was said within the backdrop that Eritrea is “peaceful, stable, secure and harmonious.” The world has no reason to doubt him: in the whole year of 2014, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), there were only 10 Eritreans killed while crossing the border to Sudan. Never mind the thousands of Eritreans who have been made to disappear, killed, hijacked, ransomed, tortured, drowned in what feels like every day of the week. Like this one.
Given all of the above, the UN is likely to say, “Good on you, and good luck with that” and do nothing more. On the UN’s list of priorities of massive wars, overstretched peacekeepers, refugee crisis, a melting planet, population explosion, Eritrea’s self-inflicted wound—and, surely, the sanctions are a self-inflict wound—doesn’t register. The allies Eritrea are counting on—Russia and China—are mired in their own morass and re-pivoting. Russia could not get the UN to give an ear to its coalition-building formula (hold-your-nose-and-support-the-tyrant) because of its aggression in Ukraine. Its economy is in free-fall and it is dealing with its own sanctions. China is busy getting acquainted to its new role as an empire: here’s a couple of billion dollars for the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and peacekeeping missions.
Barring some 9-11 type of rule-changer, it is hard to see how Eritrea’s demands to get the sanctions lifted will be given anything but a deaf ear.
Is It Ineptitude or Intentional?
How did Eritrea allow itself to be sanctioned when it knows, or should have known, that its actions would lead to sanctions and it would be very difficult to get them lifted? There are two theories for this: ineptitude or intentional. Clueless or conscious?
Ambassador Andeberhan Welde Giorgis put it as follows in his book “Eritrea At A Crossroads:A Narrative of Triumph, Betrayal and Hope”:
“Clueless about the adverse geo-political consequences of its total isolation, the dire implications of sanctions for the country, and the enormous difficulty in getting sanctions removed once imposed, the regime virtually dared the UN Security Council by insisting on its blanket denial [of its roles in Somalia and Djibouti] and refusal to heed its repeated resolutions and warnings. The government’s pathetic behavior allowed Ethiopia to scheme not only to deflect attention from its continued defiance of the EEBC’s [Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission] mandatory ruling but also to further isolate Eritrea. Addis Ababa capitalized on Eritrea’s self-suspension of membership in IGAD and the AU to mobilise unanimous support for a resolution calling for UN sanctions against Eritrea by the two regional bodies.”
If that is indeed the case, then it is tragic for Eritrea that a clueless group leads it. Another theory is that Eritrea’s policy makers (Isaias Afwerki Plus) are as smart as Ambassador Andeberhan (and you, and me, and anyone who saw this coming) and they knew exactly what they were doing. They knew their behavior in Somalia and Djibouti as well as their withdrawal from IGAD and their hibernation in AU would result in Eritrea being sanctioned and they knew, all along, that once it gets sanctioned, it will be next to impossible to get out from the sanctions and they went ahead to get Eritrea sanctioned and isolated.
From an accountability standpoint, it doesn’t matter which theory is right. The standard used for evaluating the consequences of decisions that executives make is: “they knew or should have known”, or what the legal types call “intentional tort”. And in any normal country, the executive team would resign for inflicting so much harm on the country.
But Eritrea is not a normal country—it is a country where the engineers of rashness want to be celebrated and given kudos for their recklessness; one where people who disagree are exiled, made to disappear, or imprisoned for life under the most inhumane conditions.
No matter which theory you believe in, you can’t explain the behavior of those who are the supporters of Isaias and Isaiasism and those who believe that Eritrea was sanctioned for no reason at all, and that the sanctions are being kept in place for no good reason at all. Unless you consider the Cuban model.
The Cuban Model
Back to the UN. Delegates of member states greeted Cuba’s Raul Castro with sustained applause. In his address, he called on lifting “an embargo that should not be in place anymore… causes harm and hardship to the Cuban people”; he demanded the return of Guantanamo Bay (which has been occupied by the US for a century, a gift from Spain, Cuba’s former ruler); he blamed the West for destabilizing the Middle East which has created, among others, the refugee crisis. His speech was received with sustained applause.
Cuba, without a single modification in its 50-year-long policy, just recently prevailed on the US to modify its policy of isolation; and it prevailed on the world to list it in the Human Development Index (HDI) making it, using HDI standards, to be a member of the exclusive “very high human development” club.
That’s the model for some Eritreans now: Cuba.
Perhaps to counter the imperfect “Eritrea: Africa’s North Korea” narrative, some have now begun an aspirational counter-narrative: “Eritrea: Africa’s Cuba.” You can see that narrative here, here, and here. The similarity that people want to draw is this: Eritrea, just like Cuba, is being penalized by the US for the simple fact that it chose an independent path from the one prescribed for it by the US. And just like Cuba it will not yield, and it will wait for the US to come to its senses—even if that takes 50 years. And for 50 more years, the US can talk about how Eritrea is being emptied out; how there is no democracy; how it is a brutal dictatorship….but Eritrea, like Cuba, will just focus on improving the people’s quality of life until it, too, joins the “very high human development” club.
If you can’t even begin to understand that, well, join the club. I can’t understand that thinking when Eritrea is now, as Rania Mamoun put it in her beautiful reportage, “gliding with broken wings.” But “gliding” and “broken wings” are contradictory. Broken wings, unless they have self-healing powers, result in catastrophic damage and the consequence of that is a hard landing, with zero gliding.
Everybody can see the bird (or plane) with broken wings. And everybody knows what happens to birds (or planes) with broken wings. But there is seeing and then there is SEEING. (“…for we walk by faith not by sight…”) A person who sees a disaster in the making and is blind to it and, indeed, praises it can only be an ideologue, a true believer. And as a social scientist once wrote, ideology is another form of narcotic, as addictive as alcohol, drugs and gambling. And when gambling is your ideology, then that is twice as addictive and it is next to impossible to reform without massive family intervention. But only from family: any other form would be totally destructive. Eritreans need to intervene and stop the Eritrean government from harming itself and the Eritrean people.