Presumably, you are aware of the aberrant behavior of the Eritrean strongman. At least, you must have read President Isaias Afeworki’s interview with a Swedish media – posted in this blog. Yet, the interview, though baffling, may not reveal to you whether such a deviance is merely a personal habit of the President or it is a norm of the Asmara regime.

But the Diplomatic faux pas by the new Eritrean Ambassador to the African Union(AU) will.

Yes, Eritrea is back at the AU, after some 7 years of boycott, allegedly under pressure from the Qatari Emir and the Norwegian government.

Its representative, Ambassador Girma Asmerom, submitted, to the Chief Commissioner of the AU, Jean Ping (PhD), his letters of accreditation, as the new Eritrean permanent representative to the AU in Addis Ababa, on January 17/’11 and, consequently, attended the summit, held in Addis Ababa, by the end of January.

In the Summit

Indeed, Girma Asmerom seized the opportunity to remind Eritrea’s presence, albeit in the wrong way, at the closed-door summit, as reported by the weekly press statement of the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry.

First, Girma Asmerom had to interrupt the Commissioner’s reading of its report to make semantic corrections.

It was the Commissioner’s statement that there is a ‘deadlock’ between Eritrea and Ethiopia
that was found erroneous. Girma Asmerom’s argued the word deadlock implies that there still was an unresolved border issue between the two countries, while in fact the border had already been ‘virtually’ demarcated. Later, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi snubbed it saying this is no more than a legal oxymoron with no practical meaning. Whatever the merit of Girma Asmerom’s statement may be, it is inexplicable what he intends to accomplish by interrupting the Commissioner to dispute such a neutral word.

That was not all. Girma Asmerom had another ‘surprise’ later in the meeting.

While stating his government’s position, after reiterating Eritrea’s rejection of the UN-recognized
Transitional Federal Government [TFG] of Somalia, Girma Asmerom demanded the withdrawal of ‘foreign troops’ from that country. In disbelief, the AU Commissioner asked Girma, whether by ‘foreign troops’ he meant to refer to Al-Shabaab affiliated terrorist from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Of course, not. Girma assured him he is referring to AMISOM [African Mission to Somalia] forces, which is mandated by AU and UN.

Apparently, Girma Asmerom elaborated that this position, demeaning the African troops as foreign troops, is a case of Eritrea ‘thinking outside the box’. Meles Zenawi mocked him saying this might amount to act well outside all applicable international norms. The Ethiopian delegation advised Eritrea to start to think “outside the box” of its current preoccupations, while the Foreign Ministry later commented stating the truth is that when Eritrean leaders think ‘out of the box’ they almost always come up with something they most certainly expect the rest of the world will feel uncomfortable with.

What the Eritrean government intended to achieve is not clear. Mind you, Girma was speaking at a summit of an organization that considers the deployment peace keeping forces in Somalia as a milestone in its endeavor to become an effective regional body. And, his statement amounts to slapping the very organization whose support it seeks to the lifting of the UN sanction on Eritrea.

In Meles Zenawi view, that he reiterated during the Summit, there is a significant attitudinal problem on the part of the regime in Asmara that leaves much to be desired. In the same fashion, the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry concluded that the apparent renewed interest to resume participation in the AU is no more than a somewhat amateurish effort to embarrass those they believe are their detractors and an attempt to spoil any forum that might stand in the way of their unwholesome adventurism. Respect for AU, or any similar organization for that matter, has never been something that has appealed to the Eritrean regime.

Rehabilitation or just another confrontational venture?

Eritrea’s confrontational venture, or call it ‘intent to embarrass its detractors’ if you may, is evident in the manner in which it handled it return to the AU – an episode which was supposed to signify rehabilitation and pave the way for the lifting of the UN Security Council sanction on Eritrea. At least, that was what its sympathizers in the international community wished it to be.

In a letter circulated on the beginning of 2010, the Asmara regime accused Ethiopia of blocking Eritrea’s right to participate in AU. A statement intended to back-up its explicit demand that AU should not hold its summits in Addis Ababa and also indirectly linked to the Libyan leader endeavor to move the Head Quarter – a position Isaias Afeworki supports.

In actual fact, Eritrea’s withdrawal from AU was not prompted by Ethiopia’s acts. According to the statement by the Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on Nov 20/2003, Asmara was angered at the AU failure to put “pressure or taking disciplinary action” against Ethiopia” for the implementation of the boundary demarcation between the two countries. The statement said, “It is hard to understand why the AU, which is based in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, prefers to keep silent and act irresponsibly”. “In such a situation, the Eritrean government, with deep regret, has no option but to withdraw its ambassador from the AU.” Notice that, the then Eritrea’s Ambassador to AU, Salih Omar, was still in his office in Addis Ababa when Eritrea announced its decision to boycott the AU.

By withdrawing from AU, Asmara might have hoped to garner international attention and also to taint Ethiopia’s image as the seat the organization. Yet, surely, it didn’t expect AU to twist Ethiopia’s arms, a tall order for a consensual organization even if Eritrea’s claims were grounded.

Apparently, the Asmara regime forgot its original reasons or pretexts for withdrawing from AU. On the first week of February 2010, the regime circulated a letter to African heads of state ‘accusing Ethiopia of blocking its right to participate in African Union summits and meetings’. The letter alleged ‘for the last 10 years Eritrea has been denied its right to participate in African Union summits and other meetings in Addis Ababa by Ethiopian refusal to extend proper diplomatic and security guarantee’. The letter also requested African Union ‘to stop holding its summits and other meetings in Addis Ababa’.

This may seem a smart media maneuver to the Eritrean regime. In fact, it might work with some commentators who may fail to note how seriously Ethiopia takes its responsibility as the host of the AU. But in diplomatic circles, such a brazen disinformation in an official letters amounts to nothing but a diplomatic faux pas.

In rebuttal, Ethiopia re-assured AU’s chief commissioner, Jean Ping, Eritrea was free to establish a mission to AU headquarters in Addis Ababa and all necessary security and diplomatic needs will be provided.

About a months later, Premier Meles Zenawi reiterated his government’s willingness to issue visa to Eritrean delegates to the AU. That was on a press conference with foreign journalists on March 18/2010.

According to Meles Zenawi’s statement the interview,(watch video above) it seems Ethiopia has no say on whoever Eritrea may send except that s/he would be restricted to Addis Ababa. This appears to be in contrast to the international practice, as there are several precedents where host countries denied visa to a particular representative based security reasons or unofficial reasons. Ethiopia’s obligations as a host of AU is unlikely to be different from that – though I couldn’t find the text of Ethiopia’s treaty with the AU.

Thus, presumably, the Premier’s statement was intended to deny Asmara any further excuses and also to fend Ethiopia’s stature as a host country.

True to form, President Isaias Afeworki wished to turn the matter into another diplomatic crisis by assigning (on June?) the very person whom Ethiopia is supposed to deny visa. That is; Ambassador Girma Asmerom. Eritrea’s former Ambassador to Ethiopia who was declared persona non grata and expelled in 2002. Nonetheless, Ethiopia let the Ambassador enter Addis, thus presented his letters of accreditation to AU Chief Commissioner on January 17/’11 and attended the AU summit two weeks later. Ironically, the Ambassador reported in his statement at the AU that the Ethio-Eritrea relation has improved recently, as if the issuance of visa to him was at the heart of the dispute.

What’s next?

It is unlikely that the Ambassador would be content with low-key diplomatic works. Of course, that won’t satisfy the Eritrean strong man, either. He has a thing for drama. In fact, why send a man of questionable ethics whom even the Eritrean opposition parties, based in Addis, reportedly lobbied to be denied visa? And, why belittle the brave African men and women holding the peace in Mogadishu streets as ‘foreign troop’ in the first summit he attended just two weeks after being introduced to the diplomatic community in Addis?

The Ambassador’s mission couldn’t be lobbying. Instead, the Asmaran regime reappearance at the AU is probably intended to achieve what it sought to do when it recalled its former Ambassador to AU, Salih Omar, back in 2002. If our absence couldn’t undermine the AU, let’s attend the summits and challenge the delegates to start ‘thinking outside the box’. Of course, since the Asmaran regime flatters itself as the ‘Israel of Africa’, its diplomats are supposed to be smarter than the rest of African diplomats combined.

Thus, it would not be far-fetched to predict that Ambassador Girma will do everything possible to stir another diplomatic crisis. Rest assured we are set for a major drama. Stay tuned.

Daniel Berhane