Eritrea: Isaias Afwerki on the Path to Chaos
It is now official: the ruling regime has spilled Eritrean blood fighting all our neighbors: Yemen, Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti. In every case, the hot-headed and impulsive actions of the ruling regime harmed the interest of Eritrea and diminished its reputation. And in every case, Eritrea’s interests could have been secured better if a peaceful approach had been tried. The conflict with Djibouti is yet another ill-conceived strategy borne of the regime’s all-consuming obsession with Ethiopian politics.
Obsession With Ethiopian Politics
Since 1999, when it convinced itself that the Horn of Africa is not big enough for the incumbent governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia, the Eritrean regime has been making woefully inaccurate predictions about the Ethiopian government’s lifespan and working to reduce them. In 2005, it actually thought that the 2005 Ethiopian elections would see the toppling of its nemesis, the TPLF. Not in the elections, but in the outrage that would ensue following election irregularities: either via the withholding of crucial funds from Europe, or an uprising from the people.
It had also hoped that an implementation of the EEBC ruling would result in clear loss of territories, like Badme, for which Ethiopia paid heavily—resulting in outrage and uprising by Ethiopians.
That hasn’t happened either.
The regime blames the US, particularly the State Department, for both. It has concluded that the only way that Ethiopia can change is if the US orders it to change. But how to get the US to come around?
To unhook the US from Ethiopia, the Eritrean regime recognizes that it has to have leverage, ability to deliver on something that the US would value highly. Such as a stable Ethiopia and Somalia. And to deliver stability, it must first create instability throughout the Horn of Africa—including in formerly stable portions of Somalia, like Somaliland and Puntland, as well as in Djibouti. To Isaias Afwerki, then, Djibouti is just an opportunity to create chaos in the Horn--a disorder out of which only he can command order.
To help him achieve this goal, he uses two actors: Ethiopian opposition groups and Somali opposition groups.
Ethiopian opposition groups hosted in Eritrea include the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Ogadeni National Liberation Front (ONLF), the Sidamo movement, the Tigray People’s Democratic Movement (TPDM), and the Ethiopian People’s Patriotic Front (EPPF.) All have armed groups.
The Eritrean regime also hosts (and facilitated the creation of) the Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia (ARS), an umbrella for Somali expats, of whom the dominant group is the Islamic Court Union (ICU.) The ICU also has an armed wing which, together with the Muqawama (Resistance) and the Shabbab (Youth) have been battling Somali and Ethiopian troops in Somalia.
There is no ideological coherence to Eritrea's foreign policy. Eritrean Islamist groups are illegal in Eritrea but Somali Islamist groups get unlimited support. The difference? The Eritrean Islamist groups are not shooting at Ethiopian soldiers. In the 1990s, the Eritrean regime, which now congratulates itself for its sympathies to revolutionaries, was only too happy to ignore or to participate in the liquidation of the same revolutionaries in Ethiopia (such as OLF and ONLF) that it is supporting now. The most dramatic of all is how Somalia's Aweys, a former foe, has become an ally.
Somalia or Bust
The original plan was to open up so many war fronts with Ethiopia (via Sudan, via Eritrea and via Somalia and within Ethiopia proper), that the Ethiopian government would either collapse or sue for peace. But despite endless prophesies by Isaias Afwerki that the Ethiopian government was approaching 0 hour, that hasn’t happened. The Ethiopian opposition groups were unable to coalesce into a cohesive fighting force. (Last month, they agreed to unify their armed wings.)
In contrast, the Somali insurgents have been, with each passing month, controlling more and more territories, and inflicting heavier casualties on the Ethiopian and Somali governments. They had even managed to export the conflict to Somaliland and Puntland who, unbelievably, were engaged in their own “border conflict.”
Earlier this year, the Eritrean regime had a change in strategy: to focus the assault on Ethiopia’s weakest point—Somalia. To achieve this goal, the Ethiopian opposition groups were moved from their bases in the Western lowlands of Eritrea to the Denakil Depression. And, for the first time, arms and soldiers were smuggled to Somalia via Djibouti.
To Somalia With Love
For a more comprehensive understanding of the Eritrea-Djibouti conflict, one must read the April 2008 report of the UN Monitoring Group (Arms Embargo Enforcement) on Somalia. The Committee faulted Yemen for allowing its porous borders to be used by smugglers; Ethiopia and Uganda, for selling arms in the Somali arms bazaar; and Eritrea, for training and arming Somali insurgents and sneaking them to Somalia. There isn’t much remarkable about the report except for the following: how the arms and soldiers were sneaked to Somalia.