The article “Eritrea – Paths Out of Isolation”, written by Annette Weber, a Senior Fellow of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, is not only replete with factual errors but also seems to miss the larger picture in its perception and discourse on the current realities in Eritrea. In the first place, Eritrea’s “isolation” was not self-imposed; it was an elaborately designed effort by the US and its allies, France and the United Kingdom. Furthermore, from Eritrea’s National Service Program to the Diaspora Tax to Eritrea’s regional policies, Weber seems to have bought Ethiopia’s narrative on Eritrea: lock, stock, and barrel.
Since its inception, Eritrea’s National Service Program and role of the youth in Eritrea’s economic development have been deliberately and maliciously maligned, and misrepresented. Weber regurgitates the very narratives that have been passing for fact in western academic and media reports-and Ethiopia’s propaganda machinery. She writes:
…The main cause is in fact the potentially unlimited military service that was introduced in 2002. Both men and women are obliged to complete this “national service”, which must officially be completed between the ages of eighteen and fifty. While the duration is supposed to be limited to eighteen months, it can in reality last ten years or more. Apart from national defense, citizens may be ordered to work in agriculture, road building or mining. For the Eritrean government in Asmara, national service therefore represents a significant economic factor…
First of all, there is no “unlimited military service that was introduced in 2002. That is categorically false. Eritrea’s National Service program was introduced in 1995, three years into Eritrea’s independence in 1991 and a year after the referendum was conducted in 1994. The 1995 Proclamation lists its main objective as being the creation of a new generation characterized by love of work and discipline, and to foster national unity and equal participation of the people in the development of Eritrea’s economy. The work by Eritrea’s youth in the various sectors of the Eritrean economy are in accordance with Article 8 of the 1995 Proclamation which clearly states:
…all Eritrean citizens from the age of 18 to 40 years have the compulsory duty of performing Active National Service. Active National Service consists of six months of training in the National Service Training Center and 12 months of active military service and development tasks in military forces for a total of 18 months…
It was not military capacity that consumed the minds of Eritreans; rather, it was the daunting task of nation building which included rehabilitating and reconstructing of Eritrea’s devastated economic and social war ravaged infrastructures.
Weber acknowledges the negative role played by the international community in the Horn region. She writes:
…The Algiers Agreement of 2000 and the 2002 decision of the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) delimiting the border created the formal preconditions for peace. Yet Ethiopia refuses to this day to recognise the proposed border line and continues to occupy Eritrean territory. Neither the African Union nor the UN nor bilateral partners demand that Addis Abeba observe the agreements and implement binding decisions. Ethiopia is one of the West’s closest allies in the “war on terror” and valued as a stable (albeit repressive) regional power in the Horn of Africa. The AU even has its headquarters in Addis Abeba. Ethiopian pre-eminence creates a situation where the West is much more conciliatory towards Ethiopia than to other countries in the Horn of Africa, generally turning a blind eye to repression, human rights violations and antidemocratic measures…
Weber claims the UN sanctioned Eritrea for providing arms and “asylum” to members of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). Neither the Somalia Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) nor any other agency of the UN has been able to provide evidence to this allegation fabricated by Ethiopia and its handlers and yet, Weber presents it as fact. Instead of calling on the Security Council to unconditionally lift the illegal sanctions and restore Eritrea’s sovereignty, she writes:
…Reintegrating the country in regional structures could build trust and neutralize the Eritrean narrative of Ethiopian aggression and international conspiracy…The international community could assume the role of a guarantor of regional integration, and should work to neutralise the Eritrean conspiracy narrative. But to reduce Eritrea’s mistrust the West will have to pursue a more balanced policy towards the different countries in the Horn of Africa.
There is no “Eritrean conspiracy narrative”. Ethiopia is militarily occupying sovereign Eritrean territories and the US led international community has sought to isolate and weaken Eritrea economically and politically. These are not Eritrean narratives, they are facts. Weber neglects to mention the fact that the African Union, the European Union as well as the United States were the witnesses and guarantors of the Algiers Agreements signed by Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2000. The so-called international community has abrogated its moral and legal obligations and has found itself to be irrelevant on matters of peace, stability and security in the Horn region. Eritrea’s mistrust is not misplaced, or unwarranted.
Ethiopia and the US-led international community have, in the past prevented Eritrea from participating in international conferences, meetings, military and counter-terrorism campaigns etc. US officials used demarches to call on Europeans and others to “dis-invite” Eritrea and also took every opportunity in their visits to the region to malign Eritrea and discourage engagement with Eritrea.
Eritrea offered its views on Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, Syria and others, but the US led international community chose to ignore Eritrea’s positions and in the case of Somalia, even sanctioned Eritrea for not joining the fray. Suffice it to mention a few examples of how the US-led international community and Ethiopia worked to isolate Eritrea economically, militarily and politically:
1/ A 20 August 2009 cable, “Demarche: Egypt Invitation to Eritrea for Bright Star”, authored by AF Phillip Carter is clear of its intentions. The Department was requesting assistance from the US Embassy in Cairo to convince the Government of Egypt NOT to invite the Government of the State of Eritrea (GSE) as an observer to the BRIGHT STAR military exercise. The State Department cable said:
…Embassy Cairo is requested to communicate with Egypt’s Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the highest appropriate level to urge Egypt to remove Eritrea from the list of invited observers to the BRIGHT STAR military exercise. Due to the time sensitive nature of DOD preparations for the exercise, immediate action is appreciated…The U.S. has strong objections to inviting Eritrea to participate in the BRIGHT STAR exercise as an observer…
2/ US position on Eritrea is clearly spelled out in the 2 December 2009 cable,“Response: Pres. Kikwete Tells Rep. Payne That Tanzania & Turkey Will Co-host Somali Talks”. The US State Department had received information that the Government of Tanzania (GOT) had expressed interest in partnering with Turkey to bring the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and Somali opposition factions together for talks. Once again, the US does not want Eritrea to participate:
…We are specifically concerned about the suggestion that Eritrea would be invited to the table. There have been similar proposals from Qatar and Egypt…
3/ On 30 June 2008, the last day of the Slovenian EU Presidency, James Swan led the U.S. in its biannual troika discussion with the EU on African issues. In this cable he clearly states what US intentions vis a vis Eritrea are:
…Roger Moore, European Commission Director for East and Southern Africa, said Commissioner Louis Michel came away from recent meetings with PMs Meles and Isaias believing that neither is really looking for a solution to their lingering border dispute…. Swan questioned a recent 120 million euro allocation by the European Commission for Eritrea and said the U.S. believes the regime should be further isolated. Moore said the money has been allocated, but not yet programmed or transferred…
4/ A 18 November 2009 cable, “Europeans Track U.S. On East Africa But Remain Reluctant To Sanction Eritrea” is an example of the economic isolation orchestrated by the US and its allies-in this case Germany:
…During a German MFA experts level meeting in Berlin to discuss the challenges facing East Africa, it was clear the Europeans saw eye to eye with the United States on most Horn issues but differed on the advisability of sanctions against Eritrea…Whether to engage or isolate Eritrea as a spoiler was what the quint group addressed. Germany reported not being encouraged by its efforts to engage with Eritrea and noted that the German government had decided to freeze its support for the Bisha mining project, which he predicted would paralyze the project…
Seven years later, Bisha thrives. Producing gold, silver and copper!
5/ In the cable, “France Backs European Engagement with Eritrea” from the US Embassy in Paris shows that the US was against Brussels issuing an invitation to President Isaias Afwerki:
…France supports EU and EC efforts to engage Eritrea, including the invitation by the European Commission for President Isaias Afwerki to visit Brussels… LeGal remarked that the invitation to Brussels was well within European Commission norms, which only barred a visit by Zimbabwean President Mugabe. (C) Eritrea was emerging as a regional force, with influential and valuable networks, in the French and EC view, LeGal stated, adding that Asmara’s clout was growing in response to Ethiopian activities. Regarding Darfur, Eritrean knowledge of and involvement with rebel groups was incontestable, she remarked…
Alas, Eritrea’s invaluable insights and opportunity to learn from an astute and mature leadership with deep knowledge of the region and its dynamics were squandered….
The US and its allies have prevented Eritrea from attending meetings that concern regional issues at regional and international forums for the last 15 years. Today, ethnic bloodletting and conflicts define the region and solutions seem remote. IGAD has been completely dominated by Ethiopia and Ethiopia continues its belligerent stance against Eritrea. But Eritrea is thriving, albeit at great cost. It has managed to pull its meager resources-human and material-to ensure food security, develop its economy, achieve 7 out of the 8 UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), build its health delivery system, its higher education infrastructure, educate and train thousands and improve its human resource capacity. International “isolation” has helped Eritrea discover its hidden potentials and build on its social capital.
So it is not Eritrea that needs a “path out of isolation”-but rather, it is the US-led international community that needs to correct its deadly mistakes and rethink its incoherent policies for Africa in general and the Horn of Africa in particular.