What The US Should Do About Eritrea

In 2006, US-backed Ethiopia invaded Somalia and removed from power the Islamic Courts Union, which it perceived as a brewing threat.  To the United States, it was another extension of the global war on terror and it openly backed the invasion, claiming that the Islamic Courts were harboring terrorists responsible for the bombing of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Both Ethiopia and the US subsequently supported the creation of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, which all the US allies in the neighborhood – including Kenya, Uganda and Djibouti – supported and regional and international organizations including, IGAD, the African Union and the United Nations blessed. 


The regime in Eritrea, which bet all its cards on defeating Ethiopia and prevailing as a winner over the never-resolved border war of 1998-2000, saw the opportunity to open a proxy front in Somalia with the aim creating quandary for Ethiopia that would usurp its military capability, while simultaneously creating havoc by arming and motivating anyone who has an axe to grind with the ruling party in Addis Ababa.  As far as a Sub-Saharan military and political tit-for-tat goes, it was a gutsy, albeit foolhardy move on the Eritrean part, but given the history of how conflicts are handled in the region, probably not a surprising one.  For the millions of residents of Somalia though, it was indeed business as usual and there is nothing they could do except brace for impact and deal with the consequences. 


Five years later, Eritrea has nothing to show for its foolish adventure save for inching toward a pariah state, huge inflation, rampant military desertion, diplomatic isolation, UN Security Council sanction and domestic tension unseen since its independence.  Any rational thinking mind would have seen this coming long time ago, but for the egoistic tyrant in Eritrea, it was a way of proving to his supporters and adversaries alike that he was more than a petty dictator.  By pulling the right strings–so he thought–he could be a formidable foe not only to Ethiopia but to the United States foreign policy in Africa as well.  He availed the country’s strategic location and diplomatic resources to anyone with anti-American sentiments and became a liaison for the likes of Iran, Libya and various extremists and misfits of the region. With every failed attempt to play the role of a spoiler in the region, Isaias Afworki has been upping the ante and proving to the world that he is willing to do whatever it takes to blackmail everyone into agreeing with him. 


The powers that be, including the United States and its allies in the region have so far opted to use the AU and UN to contain the dictator.  For the most part, that policy has worked, at least until now.  Except for the poor people of Eritrea, who are silently suffering daily under the repressive police state, no one else seems to have felt the brunt of this brutal system –yet.  But so long as Isaias and his Neo-Communists are in power, they will continue to wreak havoc in the region, negatively affect the stability of governments in the fragile Horn of Africa and directly challenge US national security and other interests. 


Now, could a small desperately poor African state actually carry out all these and threaten the interests of the sole super power of the world and its allies? The answer is, yes. Yes, if it is willing to use the ugly power of terrorism directly or via surrogates.  So far, the Isaias regime has repeatedly shown its willingness to go that far.  To this day, it has neither denounced the activities of the terror groups such as the Al-Qaeda linked Al-Shabaab, nor has it stopped given them political support.  Case in point: after the July 11th terrorist attacks in Kampla, Uganda that left 76 people dead, including 7 Eritreans, instead of denouncing Al-Shabaab (which gladly took the credit) and vowing to bring the responsible to justice for killing innocent Eritrean citizens, the regime chose to up its propaganda on its state-owned media and foolishly tried to spin Al-Shabaab’s image as a bona fide Somali resistance movement.  In the mean time, another milestone toward the impending disaster has been reached.  Eritrea-backed terrorists have now killed Eritreans, Ethiopians, Ugandans and one American. So much for the policy of containment!  The next Al-Shabaab bomb can go boom in Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Kampala, or even in New York, DC or Los Angeles. 


There is nothing much American diplomats can do about those bent to kill innocent civilians to prove a point, but it is high time that they take concrete steps that show they have done their best to prevent them. 


This is not a call for a preemptive strike aimed at the Eritrean regime.  That would be irresponsible and the repercussions far reaching.  What is needed is not military might, but skillful, focused and stern strategy that works. But first, what is the US foreign policy in Africa anyway? 




In 2007 the Bush administration launched a separate military command whose sole focus is Africa. AFRICOM, which is actually currently headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, was setup after a thought process that includes “acknowledging the emerging strategic importance of Africa” according to the official website. There are honest critics in the United States, in Africa and within the international community that are skeptical about the mission, which among other things provides military aide and training to friendly states. Whether this is actually designed to put a check on China whose hunger for resources has made Africa very important, or to protect and control the flow of oil for the United States is debatable. But, what is undeniable is that the mission continues to grow in size and importance.  President Obama must have liked where things are heading as he has tripled AFRICOM’s annual budget which now stands at $300 million. 


Those whose knee jerk reaction is to oppose every American foreign policy initiative may not ever be convinced, but the mission so far is viewed to be successful. It has created tremendous opportunities not only to professionalize militaries but also to keep aid flowing and help with creating basic infrastructure. The Africa Standby Force that AFRICOM is helping revamp might even prevent the next Rwanda or Darfur. In the Horn of Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Djibouti have greatly benefited from their alliance with the US and their ability to channel the resources it brings to each country be it via the Pentagon or the State Department. 


The Eritrean regime is vehemently opposed to AFRICOM’s mission, not only because it tips the military balance in favor of Ethiopia (it definitely did 2006 – present), but also because it does not mesh well with the system that it is trying to create within the country and even the entire region.  Phrases like “self-reliance” and “social-justice” are the new euphemisms that the Isaias Afworki regime is using to sugarcoat its governance system, but it essentially is a Maoist communism, an African North Korea.  Notwithstanding the PR labels, for more than 15 years now, it has been trying to create in Eritrea a system that everyone thought failed with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  One-man, one-party rule; full command of commerce; total militarization of society; control of travel and movement; banning of the private press; meddling in religious affairs; and total absence of the rule of law are characteristics of godless communists.  The core of their principle is the total submission of the individual to the spooky state; and this principle is diametrically opposed to the values of civil rights, democracy and rule of law.  Therefore, it’s no wonder that the Eritrean regime looks at the United States and its African mission as its natural enemy. 


Especially in the past few years, the dictator of Eritrea has been engaged in concerted propaganda efforts to convince the Eritrean public that America is the cause of all their suffering.  Even though it is abundantly clear that most, if not all, of the failures can be traced to the unelected tyrant’s ill-advised policies and misadventures, the regime has been distorting facts and telling half truths aimed at creating a convenient scapegoat. By tapping into emotional sentiments and fanning conspiracy theories it has somehow succeeded in creating an atmosphere that at best mistrusts the United States and at worst views America’s intentions as hostile.  Again, great miscalculation, but this aura has given the PFDJ ruling clique a false sense of confidence in which it thinks it would be acceptable to pal around with world renowned terrorist that have publicly vowed to kill Americans. 


By design or miscalculation, slowly but surely, the despot has positioned Eritrea’s foreign policy to squarely collide with that of the United States’.  If the status quo is maintained, and things are allowed to continue to where they seemingly are headed, dangerous and totally uncalled for disaster looms in the horizon. In the event of a terrorist attack by Somalia based groups with links to Al-Qaeda or Al-Shabaab, and if such an attack ends up killing Americans, the anger and call for retaliation and revenge will include those who encourage them. And Eritrea will end up being a target faster than its foolish leaders can say: “prove it!” 


As an immigrant in America who enjoys the opportunities this great country has to offer, and as one who cherishes its democratic values, my dreamy ideal is that one day my home country will be as great as my adopted one.  And my nightmare? The opposite of that of course…and that my two countries will be on a collision course and I will have to face the inevitable dilemma –the emotional type, if not the intellectual one.   


But we do know that this is a false choice, because the Eritrean people and America people (and their elected officials) are not in conflict whatsoever!   The Eritrean people have no dog in this fight, not only because they never get to choose their leaders but also the value that they espouse is very close to that of Americans’.  Love of freedom, equality and tolerance are highly treasured by the average Eritrean.  And for the tens of thousands of us who proudly call ourselves Eritrean-Americans, the hyphen in the middle stands for a cherished bond that only those who are deprived of their liberty for generations can possibly know. Perhaps more than any group of immigrants and first generation Americans, we understand that the simple freedoms are not to be taken for granted. To us Eritrea and America are not merely countries but states of mind that stand for independence, freedom and liberty. Thus, the two nations are natural allies, with tyranny as their common enemy. 


The people of Eritrea have absolutely no say what the self appointed leaders choose to do and say.  So, it wouldn’t be a stretch to conclude that, a gang of unenlightened extremists have held hostage their own people and have become major contributors of instability in East Africa, directly endangering the lives of millions and indirectly threatening the interest and security of the United States. 


So, What Should the United States Do? 


Let me start by quoting one of the greatest speeches I have ever heard uttered by a political leader.   


“Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world:


All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.


Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country. ….The rulers of outlaw regimes can know that we still believe as Abraham Lincoln did: “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it.”


     The leaders of governments with long habits of control need to know: To serve your people you must learn to trust them. Start on this journey of progress and justice, and America will walk at your side.” 


These beautiful words were part of a speech made not by the greatest orator and wordsmith of our generation, President Barrack Obama, but they were actually spoken by his predecessor George W. Bush in his 2nd Inaugural Address in January, 2005.    


President Obama had even more profound words that trigger warm and fuzzy feeling about what is possible and what America stands for, and we’ve heard them. 


The point is, it is easy to come up with words if they are not backed up by concrete action.  And every time that happens, credibility yields to hypocrisy. The fact of the matter is the United States continues to “ignore oppression, and excuse oppressors”.  The oft repeated rationalization is that it has to operate between idealism and pragmatism. 


Sometimes though, there comes a time when an opportunity to be both pragmatic and idealistic lends itself.  Helping freedom deprived Eritreans and spreading the cause of liberty is an ideal thing to do; and protecting the security and other national interests is of course pragmatic.  In this case, the two are intertwined and can no longer be viewed as separate. It is high time that those responsible for implementing America’s policy take steps that will help protect the country and garner good will among those who are living in tyranny and hopelessness. 


Reading a Tyrant’s Mind 


If his past modus-operandi is any indication of what Isaias may be contemplating today, it is to probably force the United States into cutting a deal with him, so he can have the upper hand in matters that matter the entire Horn neighborhood.  He almost succeeded when the Bush Administration was looking for a base in the region just before the invasion of Iraq.  He positioned himself as an expert of how to conduct the “war against terrorism”. Neo-conservatives like former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were courting him around the year 2002, and the Eritrean regime lobbied congress to setup a military base in Eritrea, which never materialized, and Djibouti was eventually selected as the base for Camp Lemonier.  Things turned even worse for the dictator, as Ethiopia strengths its relationship with the United States and American officials preferred to deal with the smooth operator Meles Zenawi than the unpredictable and erratic Isaias Afeworki.  And now, according to some credible analysts, the United States is seriously considering moving AFRICOM’s headquarters to Addis Ababa. 


Isaias Afworki failures continue to mount: from the unresolved border ruling to maintaining depomatic relationship with the powers that matter. The US, UN, EU, AU, IGAD, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Uganda are firmly on one side; their combined and separate power is of course insurmountable.  Instead of changing courses toward creating a democratic Eritrea that is governed by the rule of law and one that is united, Isaias continues to tread along the edge of a cliff and into the abyss that includes supporting desperados and fanatics like the Al-Shebaab group. It’s a losing battle and he deserves to loose, but he should not be allowed to take down the Eritrean people and their hard won independence and honorable name. 


If Isaias Afworki’s aim had been to get attention of the United States, he sure has it now.


At this juncture, it would be a great mistake to assume that he would be a reliable partner.  His history, personality and innate hatred of anything that includes democratic principles and rule of law do not allow him to be part of the solution.  As a matter of fact, he and a handful of his operators are part of the problem.  They are the only extremists Eritrea has and dislodging them from power will be akin to removing a choke from a bottleneck. 


Here are 3 strategies that will certainly have immediate impact. 


1)  Stern Warning and Smart Targeting 


Listing Eritrea as a State Sponsor of Terrorism may sound like the next logical step and one the Bush State Department tried to push; the Obama administration dangled as a warning; and a few days ago Congressman Ed Royce (R – CA) recommended Secretary Hilary Clinton do, in response to the Kampala bombing.  But at the end of the day, that will only give more notoriety to Isaias Afworki and may even enhance his ability to get help from his would be peers on that list; not to mention, unnecessarily broad-brushing an entire nation.  


What is needed is the immediate implementation of the targeted sanction, under UNSC Resolution 1907. That should include the dictator’s top lieutenants in his administration and their financial enablers and enforcers in the West. President Obama’s Executive Order 13536 that added Isaias Afewrki’s political advisor, Yemane “monkey” Gebreab, to the list of sanctioned persons is a move in the right direction but would be rendered ineffective if it is not targeting the entire gang. 


It is also about time someone from Congress, the State Department or Pentagon pays Isaias Afeworki a personal visit and in no uncertain terms tell him what the United States’ reaction would be in the event that US citizens are killed by any of the Somali groups he is supporting now or in the past, no matter what kind of support that may be –political, material, monetary, diplomatic or otherwise.  The days, that this was a hypothetical scenario are behind us. The bombing in Kampala was a major mile stone.  There remain many US-born Somalis who have recently disappeared and it is largely feared that they are being indoctrinated by extremists into committing terrorist acts in the United Sates.  The Eritrean regime must be forced to publicly denounce Al-Shebaab and its association with it –for that is the only insurance that it may have left to avoid military reaction.  And for us Eritrean-Americans, it’s about protecting our loved ones on both sides of the Atlantic. 


2) Protecting Eritrea’s Refugees 


Eritrea under Isaias Afeworki’s rule has not only become the biggest trouble maker in the Horn Africa, but also one of the biggest producers of refugees.  It’s abundantly clear that the two are interconnected.  Innocent Eritreans asylum seekers are currently suffering under precarious conditions around the globe. The long term solution to this problem may be to eliminate the factors that are making them flee their country, but for those who are desperately looking for help, time is running out and in most cases it is a matter of life and death. 


The United States can be a great help, especially by pressing the Egyptian, Sudanese, Libyan and even Ethiopian authorities to improve the conditions of Eritrean refugees within their territory.  The poor refugees’ plight can be immediately alleviated by simply expediting their asylum applications and working with their family members in the US. 


3) Empowering Democratic Reformers 


Eritreans are not simply fleeing or waiting for someone else to solve their problem. Most Eritreans already agree that regime change is the ultimate solution to the country’s problem.  Within the opposition movement, the widely accepted preferable method is to push for revolution and reform by peaceful means.  The Eritrean regime has its ardent and vocal supporters, but the vast majority of Eritreans within the country and abroad would be more than happy to see the end of the dictatorship. 


Eritreans know that they are just pawns in the chess game of world politics.  They know everyone they come in contact with view and treat them as expendable.  But now that the interest of the international community and specifically the United States’ are clearly mingled with that of the Eritrean people, the America must show that it will walk on their side as they reclaim their fate and fight for democratization of their country. 


As of this writing, Eritreans from around the world are gathering in Addis Ababa under the theme: National Conference for Democratic Change.  The conference which is being conducted under the auspices of the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA), the umbrella group of the opposition movement, seeks to unite Eritrean of different backgrounds.  A successful conclusion of the conference will be a giant stride for the organic democratization movement and a clear message of support by the United States will be a great shot in the arm. 


This conference is likely to jump start other similar events around the globe which will eventually encourage Eritreans to demand change within their own country.  Along the way, America must live up to its promise and duty to still be a beacon of hope for those who are fighting to end oppression and tyranny.  In his July 4th speech, American Ambassador to Eritrea has artfully indicated that the when it comes to independence and freedom, America’s position is pretty clear. I sincerely hope that Ronald McMullen’s and other American leaders understand that, there are people who actually hear them and take their message to heart. Will the “country of the free” be there when the downtrodden rise up against their oppressors?  Will America stand with those who stand for their liberty? Great speeches; but it’s time for bold action. 


The Cost of Inaction 


Conversely, an argument for staying the course, containing Isaias to keep barking in his backyard, for ignoring the pleas of Eritrean refugees and underestimating the impending threat can probably be made. 


To a giant super power like the US, Eritrea’s dictator may be just a grass snake it can easily ignore.  But as he positions himself to wield more power by networking with more and more extremists and amassing wealth from newly discovered gold mines, the little snake will turn into a formidable serpent; and sooner or later, he will have to be dealt with.

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