The conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, that can be traced back at least as far as their unresolved border war of May 1998 to June 2000, has taken many forms. In the past Somalia was the battleground in which this was played out. Is the civil war now underway between the forces of President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar the latest site of this deadly contest? There is no definitive answer to this question, but here is the evidence.
It is clear that Eritrea gave succor to the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) after they were forced to flee from the Somali capital, Mogadishu, by Ethiopian forces in January 2007. Some of the ICU established themselves in Asmara. Others decided to remain in Somalia – becoming the backbone of al-Shabaab and later an affiliate of al-Qaeda. The United Nations imposed sanctions on Eritrea in 2009 because of its support for al-Shabaab. UN Security Council Resolution 1907 accused Eritrea of: “…providing support to the armed groups engaged in destabilization activities in Somalia…”
Reports from UN Monitors have documented over a number of years how Eritrea provided weapons and other assistance to al-Shabaab. In its latest report (S 2013/440 of 25 July 2013) the Monitors noted Eritrea’s attempts to improve relations with Somali President President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. The report went on: “However, Eritrea’s strengthening of relations with Mogadishu seems to be driven by tactical decisions in Asmara that continue to contribute to regional destabilization. In particular, the Government of Eritrea maintains close links to a network of warlords and other spoilers in Somalia, which includes at least two leaders of Al-Shabaab.”
It is worth noting that the same UN report talked of Eritrean involvement in South Sudan and Uganda: “The Monitoring Group has obtained information about Eritrean military intelligence and financial operations in Kampala and Juba. Eritrean and intelligence sources in both Kampala and Juba confirm that Eritrea’s ruling PFDJ party have fronted a number of business operations, from restaurants and hotels in Kampala and Juba, to water distribution and food and beverage imports in Juba, often working closely with Ugandan and South Sudanese businessmen as silent partners.”
South Sudan: Allegations of Eritrean involvement
Is the conflict between Kiir and Machar that erupted on the evening of 15 December 2013 the latest stage for Eritrea – Ethiopian rivalry? John Prendergast of the US lobby group Enough clearly thinks this is possible. On the 26th of February he gave evidence before the US Congress’s Subcommittee on Africa. This is what he said:
“South Sudan’s eruption has threatened to regionalize the war in ways not seen since the 1990s. On the one hand, Uganda has overtly intervened militarily in support of Juba’s government. On the other hand, allegations are increasing that both Eritrea and Sudan are covertly providing support to the South Sudanese opposition forces, though firm evidence has yet to emerge. Sudan’s history of supporting some of the ringleaders of South Sudan’s armed opposition is deep, and South Sudan supported Sudanese rebels are alleged to be siding militarily with Juba’s forces in areas near the border of the two countries. Both countries still remain deeply interconnected and in many ways interdependent, and neither can be at peace if its neighbor is at war. Ethiopia has strongly warned Uganda to pull out its forces, with an unknown “or else” attached.”
Prendergast went on to describe the possibility of a regional conflict as a “nightmare scenario.” He concluded: “Currently, Eritrea is covered by sanctions for its support for armed elements inside Somalia. A credible investigation should be initiated to determine whether Eritrea is providing resupply support to South Sudanese rebels as has been alleged. If evidence corroborates these reports, those sanctions should be expanded from Somalia to South Sudan. Such an investigation should also attempt to determine if Sudan is providing similar support as has been alleged.”
As Prendergast states, these are allegations and not evidence of Eritrean involvement. He does not disclose why he believes the allegations are worth investigating or where they came from. So what is the context?
- Sudan (also allegedly backing their former ally Riek Machar) held talks with Eritrea in January this year. President Omer Al-Bashir and his Eritrean counterpart Isaias Afewerki met on the 25th of January in Asmara. The visit is reported to have been much more than a swift trip: it lasted three days. The two presidents are reported to have offered their support to South Sudan and President Salva Kiir, but did they also discuss covert support for Machar and his rebels? There is no way of knowing, but at least for the present Asmara and Khartoum appear to be on the same wavelength as far as South Sudan is concerned. Salva Kiir despatched an envoy to Eritrea this week, and apparently received assurances of President Afewerki’s support.
- There has been growing pressure from some senior American ex-diplomats for sanctions against Eritrea to be relaxed, as a way of bringing the country back from the cold and ending the Eritrea-Ethiopia dispute. Among them is the former US Former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Hank Cohen. Cohen argued recently that the time had come to act and that this was in Washington’s best interests: “…the normalization of relations between the United States and Eritrea would open the door to military-to-military cooperation of the type that would enlist Eritrea in the war against Islamic terrorism in the Horn coming from across the Red Sea. Yes, the time has come to bring Eritrea in from the cold.” This argument was supported by another former US diplomat Ambassador David Shinn.
- Ethiopia has strongly resisted lifting sanctions against Eritrea. It has argued that: “…recent talk of mending Ethio-Eritrean relations, the subject of discussion by some sympathizers of Eritrea, also seems detached from reality. It is based on false assumptions about the regime in Asmara which, in reality, has repeatedly made it very clear it is opposed to any form of dialogue. The call for the lifting of sanctions is out of synchronization with any reality on the ground…All the evidence shows that Eritrea is continuing to negate regional peace efforts, consistently making alliances with spoiler groups in Somalia and elsewhere.”
- At the same time, a report appeared on a website accusing Eritrea of continuing to ship arms to Somalia. “the Ethiopian military in Central Somalia intercepted an Eritrean attempt to smuggle powerful rockets to the Southern Somalia as well as Somali territory in Ethiopia on a Yemeni commercial small boat off the coast of Puntland and Galmudug regional States of Somalia.” The source of this report was said to be Ethiopian military intelligence.
So is Eritrea arming Riek Machar and taking its fight against Ethiopia into South Sudan?
The answer would appear to be inconclusive. John Prendergast has yet to provide evidence for his allegation before Congress. Eritrea clearly has “form” – having armed Al-Shabaab as well as rebel groups active inside Ethiopia. The Ethiopias – for their part – are clearly deeply concerned that Eritrea might escape the UN sanctions net, as suggested by Cohen and Shinn. Ethiopian military intelligence is stepping up the pressure by providing reports of continued arms shipments to Somalia. At the same time President Isaias Afewerki is co-ordinating his Sudan strategy with Khartoum – something that is of sufficient concern for Salva Kiir to send an envoy to Asmara with an unknown message.
Perhaps all one can say for sure is that it is a murky old world: Ethiopian and Eritrean involvement in South Sudan will need careful scrutiny.