Breaking Through Our Dejavu of Disasters

You could spend a lifetime marveling at the criminality of the Eritrean government, if you were not so awestruck by its stupidity.  I am saying the Eritrean government because using its substitute—Isaias Afwerki, Isaias Afwerki regime, PFDJ—will get in the way of my argument here.   In any event, I will come to that near the end of the article. For brevity, I will just use the word Eritrea which is how the world treats acts committed by its self-appointed representatives, anyway. There is no clearer demonstration of how uniformly stupid Eritrea’s foreign policy (and, for that matter, its domestic policy) is than to refer to the background that led to Eritrea being placed under United Nations sanctions.   The 2009 sanctions on the Eritrean government did not descend from the sky; nor are they indications that the world is “not fair.” They are the consequences of Eritrea’s dealings with UN vis-à-vis Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti.

I. Ethiopia

Since 1999, the United Nations Security Council has been issuing resolutions on what it surreally calls the “situation between Eritrea and Ethiopia.”   By 2004, the “situation between Eritrea and Ethiopia” was such that the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) had rendered its verdict and said that the flashpoint of the Eritrea-Ethiopia border war, Badme, belongs to Eritrea. Ethiopia, which didn’t want to implement the ruling unconditionally was trapped: each UNSC resolution expressed “its concern about Ethiopia’s rejection of significant parts of the Boundary Commission’s decision, and its current lack of cooperation with the Boundary Commission.”

While trapped, Ethiopia also had a way out: the United Nations agreed with its definition that the United Nations, United States, Algeria, African Union and European Union are “witnesses” and not “guarantors”; and, thus, Eritrea and Ethiopia bear the “primary responsibility” for the implementation of the boundary commission. That is, the Witnesses would do what they can to facilitate, but they are not going to have legal obligation to enforce a decision.

By the time the UN heightened its language that it “demands that Ethiopia accept fully and without further delay the final and binding decision of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission and take immediately concrete steps to enable, without preconditions”, Ethiopia had a game plan: it would, officially, drop its Five Point Plan and it would commit in writing to the UN that it accepts fully the ruling. It did; and this was “welcomed” by the UN.

Meanwhile, Eritrea had no game plan for how to deal with the UN’s characterization of Eritrea’s “Guarantors” as “Witnesses.” Since one of the “guarantors” that was calling itself a “witness” was the United Nations itself—the others being the United States of America, Algeria, the African Union, and the European Union—you would think that would clue in Eritrea that it is praying at Mount Deaf and should reverse course, but no, it kept praying (and still is) at the same mountain. It also had no game plan on what to do in the event that the party with whom it shared “primary responsibility” for demarcating the border, Ethiopia, refused to co-operate.   No game plan unless one considers a monomaniac insistence that the Witnesses are Guarantors and that they have an obligation to compel the party that is obstructing the process, Ethiopia, to abide by terms it had agreed to is considered a game plan.

Consider just two issues: the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) and Lloyd Axworthy.

As part of the Algiers Agreement, the UN had a to maintain a 25-km buffer zone in Eritrea to cool off the tension between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The mandate of UNMEE was until such time that the border between the two States is permanently demarcated. So, if Ethiopia drags out demarcation indefinitely, UNMEE will be in Eritrean territory indefinitely? That was Eritrea’s reasonable question.   But the way it managed the issue, to continuously humiliate UNMEE (fuel denial, travel restriction) was a gamble that it would pressure the UN to pressure Ethiopia—a terrible gamble that only managed to annoy the UNSC and all the countries that contributed soldiers to the peace-keeping mission.

In the same vein, when the UN Secretary General appointed a Special Envoy, Loyd Axworthy, Eritrea could have hosted him (it is our culture, after all, to host guests) and politely told him that while it welcomes his visit, it still sees the faithful implementation of the EEBC as the best path forward. But no, Eritrea flat-out refused to see him. This angered the UN even more because it goes to the very issue of legitimacy and respect for the institution. Eritrea’s reaction was so boorish that subsequent UN resolutions consistently expressed negative language—“regret” and “alarm” “deplore”—at the way Eritrea was handling the issue.

By the time the Somalia issue exploded into full-fledged civil war, Eritrea had squandered whatever sympathy and goodwill it had accumulated for having a neighbor who refuses to honor his contract.

II. Somalia

In 2008, a year before the imposition of sanctions on Eritrea, the United Nations Security Council had TEN (probably a record) resolutions about Somalia. The resolutions express, they urge, they call, they demand and finally they condemn “the significant increase in the flow of weapons and ammunition supplies to and through Somalia, which constitutes a violation of the arms embargo and a serious threat to the Somali peace process.”

There had been an arms embargo on Somalia since 1992 and a monitoring report on Somalia since 2002. By the time the sanctions were imposed on Eritrea, every monitoring group report on Somalia since 2002, (that is for 7 years, and sometimes there were two reports a year), mentioned Eritrea’s involvement in breaking the arms embargo on Somalia. In fact, said the Monitoring Group, Eritrea’s involvement goes back all the way to 1999 and its war-by-proxy with Ethiopia. War-by-proxy because there was no consistency to it: For example, Eritrea supporting warlord Aideed and then supporting his opponents, the Transitional National Government, when Aideed allied with Ethiopia. And vice-versa, of course.

Now, all this was par for the course: every country did it: Yemen did it, Ethiopia did it, rich Arab countries did it, the United States did it. Nobody got sanctioned; everybody got a slap on the wrist. But at some point, there was delineation: Africa (in the form of the African Union at Sirte) and the world (in the form of the United Nations) threw their hefty weight behind one side, and Eritrea threw its not-so-slender weight (when you consider that it was often a conduit for third parties) behind the other. And at every single turn since then, the Eritrean government picked the wrong side. If you look at the carcass of Somalia, you will see that Eritrea supported the Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia (ARS) when the world was supporting the Transitional Federal Government. When the ARS split into a Djibouti-based and Asmara-based groups, the world supported the Djibouti-based group and Eritrea, obviously, supported the Asmara-based group: and lost. When the Djibouti Agreement became the foundation for future Somalia, the Eritrean government lost and was stuck with all the refuseniks: Aweys and Al-Shabab. When Africa and the United Nations invested in African Union Mission On Somalia (AMISOM), Eritrea was on the opposing side, particularly as the UN was “reiterating its demand that all Member States, in particular those in the region, comply fully with the requirements of these resolutions.”

Eritrea could probably give a reasoned explanation of how it ended up allied with Shabab—that they were the armed wing of ARS before they split, etc, but it didn’t. And when every country got the message that there was only one “legal” side to take in Somalia or risk the wrath of the world, Eritrea (a superpower in its own mind) didn’t and now it is paying for it. Even worse, it was sending horrific letters to the United Nations lecturing them on why the Djibouti Agreement and Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government were the wrong prescription for Somalia. And by horrific, I mean this:

The Security Council statement asserts that the “Transitional Federal Government is the legitimate, internationally recognized Government of Somalia”. As my Government has underlined on many occasions, the highly complex and grave conflict in Somalia will not be resolved by arbitrary and ill-advised formulas that have no basis in international law and that do not reflect the wishes and sovereign political choices of the Somali people. “Transitional Governments” that are periodically hatched in non-inclusive incubators outside Somalia have never survived the test of time in the past years in spite of the huge military and financial support extended to them by their external sponsors.

It may very well be that Eritrea is right and the whole world is wrong, but there is a price to pay for defying the world and it is the responsibility of Eritrea’s policymakers to take that consideration into their calculation and there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that they did so.

III. Djibouti

Meanwhile, a year before Eritrea was sanctioned, it got into a military clash with Djibouti.

Of the other factors—understanding the nature of the United Nations, the Algiers Agreement, Somalia—how Eritrea behaved on this issue is the most inexplicable. It really is a temper-tantrum masquerading as foreign policy.

So, in June 2008 (which is, if you are taking notes, almost exactly a decade after the Eritrea-Ethiopia clash), Eritrea clashed with Djibouti. We know this because a New York Times reporter, Jeffrey Gettleman, reported it (complete with pictures of the two armies in border control.)

Now, Djibouti is a member of the Arab League. And Djibouti is practically a French colony. And Djibouti is landlocked Ethiopia’s main port. And Djibouti is host of the Djibouti Agreement that was the path to Somalia’s reconciliation. So, to the surprise of nobody except Eritrea, the inevitable happened: ONLY two DAYS after the initiation of the conflict: a Statement by the President of the Security Council on June 12

“The Security Council condemns Eritrea’s military action against Djibouti in Ras Doumeira and Doumeira Island. The Security Council calls upon the parties to commit to a ceasefire and urges both parties, in particular Eritrea, to show maximum restraint and withdraw forces to the status quo ante. The Security Council urges both parties, in particular Eritrea, to cooperate and engage in diplomatic efforts to resolve the matter peacefully and in a manner consistent with international law.“

As a country which has had experience with the UN on how the institution deals with conflicts, as a country which had conflicts with a neighbor over islands (Hanish/Yemen), as a country which had experience with importance of timely communication with the UN on all military conflicts (Ethiopia), Eritrea should have known what was next: that the UN would demand a return to status-quo-ante, it would task a fact-finding mission to gather facts by traveling to Djibouti and Asmara.

“As a local proverb says, ‘a slingshot hits its target and emits a shrill cry first’.”  I heard the citation of this damn proverb throughout 1998-2000, but I never thought I would hear it followed by this statement: “Djibouti thus did not only launch an unprovoked attack, but leveled a trumped-up and well-orchestrated accusation against Eritrea.” We learned nothing from our Badme Debacle: this was from a statement Ambassador Araya Desta read to the United Nations on June 24, 2008!

This Dejavu of Disasters is what happens when you have no institutions and no learning organizations. What followed is even worse: a fact-finding mission was delegated by the UN to visit Eritrea, Djibouti and Ethiopia and, all together now:

“The mission was initially scheduled to visit Djibouti and Eritrea, as well as Ethiopia: Ethiopia shares a common border with both countries in the area of Mount Musa Ali and is also the current Chair of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). However, it was not possible for the fact-finding mission to visit Asmara or the Eritrean side of the border to ascertain the prevailing situation. In spite of several discussions and requests in New York and Asmara, the Eritrean authorities refused to issue visas to the mission.”

And therefore:

“The refusal of Eritrea to receive the United Nations fact-finding mission to ascertain the facts on the ground meant that only the Djibouti version and chronology of events was made available to the mission. During its visit to Djibouti, the mission was given the following chronology of events by the authorities of that country:”

And any Eritrean who has been reading massive exodus of Eritreans to anywhere, the following narration by Djibouti as to what could have contributed to the skirmish does NOT ring false:

(k) Mid-April to 10 June: while EDF and DAF are positioned at the border within a few meters of each other, over 50 Eritrean soldiers of various ranks (the exact number is yet to be established) desert their army and seek asylum on the Djibouti side. The deserters receive the protection of DAF, which refuses to heed appeals from EDF to return them. EDF issues several ultimatums and threatens reprisals if the deserters are not returned;
(l) 10 June, 1215 hours: another EDF officer deserts and crosses the border into Djibouti. DAF again offers protection, as had been the case with the previous deserters. Again, EDF commanders demand the return of the deserter, this time within an hour. DAF ignores the ultimatum;

(m) 10 June, 1840 hours: EDF opens fire at DAF while the majority of Djibouti soldiers are busy praying. The ensuing clashes last more than 24 hours. About 44 DAF soldiers are believed killed, 19 are missing in action. The number of casualties on the Eritrean side is unknown, but unconfirmed reports indicate that Eritrean losses are not considerable;
(n) After 10 to 12 June: following the growing expressions of international concern and the deliberations of the Security Council, which, inter alia, called for a pullback of the forces to their previous positions, DAF withdraws to about 4 or 5 kilometers from the Eritrean positions. The fact-finding mission was able to confirm the pullback on the ground. For its part, EDF ignores the calls for a withdrawal from its positions on the heights of Ras Doumeira, or at least the mission was not able to ascertain the reactions of EDF to the Security Council’s call for withdrawal from the newly occupied positions.

It appears that Eritrea knew exactly what the facts were and did not want to confirm them. But if it had engaged the fact-finding mission (all of whom were UN staffers/technocrats) it could have driven this point home (which appeared in a report that it didn’t even contribute to) calmly:

(c) The mission has identified an interrelation between the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict and the Djibouti-Eritrea crisis. Even though this issue was never discussed extensively during the mission, it is almost certain that a breakthrough in the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace process will go a long way towards securing the cooperation of Eritrea in efforts to demilitarize its border with Djibouti. Any progress in resolving the Ethiopia-Eritrea issue would also be likely to encourage Eritrea to accept an international arbitration process that would lead to a mutually accepted demarcation of the Djibouti-Eritrea border. One should not underrate the formidable impact of the protracted Ethiopia-Eritrea dispute on peace and stability in the entire Horn of Africa, given especially the frustration of Ethiopia and Eritrea at the lack of progress on this issue since the Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission ruling in April 2002. The members of the fact-finding mission share the increasingly accepted view that much of the instability in that region is related to unfinished business and the unresolved Ethiopia-Eritrea dispute, particularly their efforts to counter each other’s (real or perceived) interests and actions in the region, be it in Djibouti or in Somalia;

But it appears that, once again, it was allowing its rage that the UN could not “compel” Ethiopia to withdraw from Eritrean territories to dictate its foreign policy. If the letter President Isaias Afwerki wrote the UN is anything to go by, the latter appears to be the case:

It is against this backdrop that the United States Administration has chosen a “propitious” time to contrive and orchestrate a seemingly new and diversionary scheme under the rubric of a “border conflict”. This was effected through the “submission” that the President of Djibouti was made to lodge anew with the Security Council yesterday. This appalling scheme has further been accompanied by outright intimidation and sabre-rattling against Eritrea. Eritrea’s position on the whole episode has been clarified repeatedly and does not merit repetition here.

In the letter, President Isaias Afwerki is accusing the United Nations of being a US lackey which probably explains why virtually no nation voted against the sanctions on Eritrea.

What Now?

Observing Eritrea 2014, one is often struck with what the motif would be if it were a story. Pride and downfall? Heroism and Honor? Power and Fortune? There is no danger of over-thinking this because you will be awakened by banality. Consider Eritrean Ambassador to the UN, Girma Asmerom’s, response to the recent Monitoring Group Report on Eritrea. First, there is the-UN-betrayed-Eritrea-in-the-1950s broken record, which is a lot like Ethiopia’s harangue to the UN during the 1998-2000 border war that the League-of-Nations-betrayed-Ethiopia-in-the-1930s: this doesn’t impress anybody at the UN who is younger than 100 years old.   Second, consider Ambassador Girma Asmerom’s recommendation: they (all the members of monitoring group) should all be fired! There is a pattern to this: the previous head of SEMG should be, yep, fired! What was party-cheerleader Writer Sophia Tesfmariam’s reaction to the UN’s Commission on Inquiry which has been authorized by UN to collect information on massive human rights violations in Eritrea? They (Sheila B. Keetharuth and her entire staff) should be fired! Everybody (except Isaias Afwerki) should be fired!

There is a huge disconnect between how the world communicates with Eritrea and how Eritrea communicates with the world and with itself.  Here’s one example: when long-time Africa expert Herman Cohen penned a sympathetic article suggesting “Time To Bring Eritrea In From The Cold”, Eri-TV interviewed Isaias Afwerki and he took the expression literally: “what cold? Since when?”

Another weird phenomena: the Eritrean government has taken the same position with the UN as it has with Eritrean opposition: they don’t exist! Well, they exist but somebody else is pulling the strings. The UN doesn’t exist; it is the US pulling the strings (which must be offensive to China and Russia who are not exercising their veto power); the Eritrean opposition doesn’t exist; it is just Ethiopia pulling their strings; whose strings are being pulled by the US (no wonder we are SO uncoordinated: that is a lot of strings.)

Of course, we, ok I say that there is no Eritrean government: it is just Isaias Afwerki pulling the strings. How is this possible? There are many ways to do this: writer Gore Vidal once wrote that “the whole point to a ruling class is they don’t conspire, the ruling; they all think alike.” So I begin with this premise: Nakfa (military hierarchy, communist orientation, Habesha culture) provided the environment for Isaias to emerge as a leader; the followers then begin to think like him and to mimic him down to his mannerism and vocabulary: not because there is anything inherently bad about Nakfa, but because that is what followers do, particularly when a leader is larger-than-life and charismatic. So, even if one makes the assumption that many of the followers have some autonomy, then it still follows that they have internalized how to communicate in a way that they always MUST assume Isaias Afwerki, as the Brother Leader, is the primary audience. Consider this: “In Cairo on 15 February 2014, the Monitoring Group raised the question of the source of the weapons used to arm TPDM [DemHT] with the Senior Political Adviser to the President of Eritrea, Mr. Gebreab. Mr. Gebreab told the Group that the Government of Eritrea does not support TPDM, which he said was interested in fighting the Government of Ethiopia.”

Then he excused himself to respond to a text he got from TPDM. No, but it is ridiculous to claim that in a country which doesn’t permit a congregation of Eritreans to move from Point A to Point B, a large group of Ethiopians are traveling all over the country—never mind the “unproven” military presence of DemHit; just focus on the much publicized (on their own website, available to the monitoring group) musical troupe, “TPDM Concerts In Eritrea”—even though the “Government of Eritrea does not support TPDM.” Look, Yemane, (and you know this, because you are smart): the Monitoring Group knows about what you are doing in Eritrea with TPDM the same way you knew what was happening in Ethiopia during the Eritrean Revolution: defectors.

So, our way out is quite simple, but not easy. (a) Remove the primary audience, Isaias Afwerki, and the ruling class, headless, will stop using its Isaias voice—as has happened to most exiled EPLF/PFDJ officials; (b) Create an alternative voice by being a good example of what a democratic organization looks like, as HASN’T happened in the exiled opposition. Yet.

Meanwhile, all evidence this week is that It appears that what everyone fears will happen. A spontaneous uprising, without a clear leader is clearing its throat to give its voice in Eritrea. In this regard, many of us who had downplayed the possibility of that happening in a police state have been humbled. Many of us have believed our own media releases and sources: Eritrea is full of youth who are enslaved and are agitating to leave the country. While this may be largely true, it is not all true. There appears to be another group: those who want to fight back but need assistance from the outside. Those who are tired of being taken for granted by the government, and pitied by those of us in exile. “What you forget,” I was told by one of them, “The mistake you guys make…Eritrea is an authoritarian state but it cannot be a totalitarian state because, after all, it is an African State. Even if it wants to be one, it can’t: it doesn’t have the resources.”

Finally, Ethiopia.  It is clear to me that they do not just want an Eritrea without Isaias Afwerki. They want an Eritrea without many Eritreans—those who have a mindset that Eritrea has the legal and moral authority to dictate its terms even if it means that it will have to reject the Ethiopian narrative of history. This is not an inconsequential belief: if they believe that elongating the rule of Isaias Afwerki enhances the likelihood of the Ethio-refusnik (those of us called advocates of “artificial identity”) voices dying out a merciful death, then they will do everything they can to elongate his rule.   Consider the utter panic that gripped Aigaforum when there were rumors that Isaias Afwerki had died a couple of years ago.  Just in: consider the article which appeared on Voice of America (Tigrinya) on how Aboy Sebhat (the godfather of TPLF) thinks that the long-standing policy of TPLF that the “Eritrean question is a colonial question” should be reconsidered.


The sanctions on Eritrea didn’t descend magically and they are, actually, entirely predictable, part of our deja vu of disasters, of anger masquerading as foreign policy. This is so given how the United Nations operates and how (a) the Eritrean government made a series of bad decisions as it relates to UN’s characterization of the “guarantors” as “witnesses”, and the actions it took to resolve the Eritrea-Ethiopia dispute; (b) the Eritrean government double-downed on its investment in Somalia when the whole world had taken sides and vested itself with the Djibouti Agreement; (c) the Eritrean government chose to dismiss a military clash with Djibouti that was the result of Eritrean soldiers defecting to Djibouti when Djibouti was screaming to the UN. Given the response Ambassador Girma Asmerom gave the United Nations (that the entire Monitoring Group should be fired) and given how the United Nations reacted (extending the sanctions and the monitoring group for another year by a vote of 13 yes and 2 abstentions—both abstentions having to do with treatment of Somali sales of charcoal and nothing to do with Eritrea), it is clear that Eritrea has not learned any lessons at all and the march of folly will continue.

Meanwhile, it appears that the long-suffering Eritreans are showing signs of rising up against the tyranny imposed on them and the government has brought in, for reinforcements, Eritrea-based Ethiopian opposition to restore order (same opposition that, we are told, gets no support from the Eritrean government.) If we fear descent into chaos, we need to find a way for the Eritrean Defense Forces to take over and we need to find a way to mainstream the EDF into finding a voice that is independent of Isaias Afwerki. This can only be done if those of us who are in the Diaspora set a good examples by creating democratic organizations that respect all the values we claim to cherish: equality, diversity, and justice.


Related Posts