One of the frustrations with which Africa’s friends have had to repeatedly cope over the years has been the seemingly utter incapacity of the African leaders to deal with their more problematic peers: witness the annual African Union (AU) summit’s literal embrace of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe last year on the very morrow of a farcical “re-election” criticised the pan-African organisation’s own monitors or, with a few honourable exceptions, its circling of the wagons around Sudanese despot Umar Hassan al-Bashir earlier this year after the International Criminal Court indicted him for crimes against humanity and war crimes for his role in the humanitarian disaster in Darfur.
Thus it is even more bitterly disappointing when, on the few rare occasions the continent’s leaders do manage to get their act together and turn against one of their own, as they did this year with Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki—whose regime has not only supported a terrorist-led Islamist insurgency in Somalia, but been implicated in numerous efforts to destabilise countries throughout the Horn of Africa—that their efforts have been largely ignored, to the detriment of both the African states immediately bearing the brunt of the assaults from Asmara and the broader security interests of the international community.
While, for the moment, the ongoing conflict in southern and central Somalia is perhaps the most urgent crisis in which Eritrea’s meddling has worsened the situation, it is by no means the only one in the subregion being stoked by Isaias Afewerki.
In April 2008, Eritrean troops crossed the border into Djibouti and fortified positions near Ras Doumeira on the Red Sea.
Two months later, Djiboutian forces came under fire from the Eritreans, sparking a brief conflict during which Djibouti received logistical support and intelligence from its former colonial power, France, which maintains a not insignificant military presence in the country as does the US Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), based at Camp Lemonier.
Of course, it should come as no surprise that Isaias Afewerki was willing to pick a fight with Djibouti, a tiny statelet the size of Massachusetts with a population of barely half a million.
Just a decade ago, he was just as prepared to commence hostilities with Ethiopia, a country whose population of 85 million is fifteen times the size of Eritrea’s and with a GDP is at least twenty times larger.
The resulting two-year war—which an international panel at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled in a 2005 decision to have been due to Eritrea’s violation of international law “by resorting to armed force on May 12, 1998 and the immediately following days to attack and occupy the town of Badme, then under peaceful administration” by Ethiopia—left at least 100,000 dead and cost untold billions of dollars in damages.
Regrettably, it is not only that repeated appeals from African regional organisations have not only fallen on deaf ears, but there seems to be evidence that of a wilful refusal to face the reality of the situation.
Two weeks ago, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon submitted to the Security Council the semi-annual report on Somalia that he has been tasked with preparing.
Astoundingly, in a twenty-page document that is supposed to access the Somalia’s political and security situation, Eritrea is mentioned only once and then only to report without comment US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s August 6 admonishment that “with respect to Eritrea we are making it very clear that their actions are unacceptable their interference with the rights of the Somali people to determine their own future are the height of misplaced efforts and funding and we intend to take action if they do not cease.”
The UN chief devoted more space in the document to expressing concern about illegal exports of livestock and charcoal from Somalia and bemoaning human and drug smuggling.
No wonder on astute observer, Jacob Heilbrunn, in a hard-hitting analysis in the July/August issue of Foreign Policy, characterised Ban as “nowhere man,” “the world’s most dangerous Korean,” and “a dilettante on the international stage,” noting that, even in the undistinguished company of his immediately predecessors, Ban “appears to have set the standard for failure.”
Pham is senior fellow and director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City.