Friday, March 15, 2013

Eritrea: Regime And Its Relationship With Outside World

Addis Ababa — Tensions between the Eritrean government and Britain escalated in recent months as a result of the continued detention of four British citizens since December 2010 until their release on 12 June 2011.
According to reports, the accused Britons were arrested after a gun battle with Eritrean coastal forces on the pirate-infested waters of the Red-Sea. Two of the four detainees, who tried to escape, were captured off the Eritrean coast and left without food and water for a day on a small island, before being taken back to the mainland to be imprisoned. It was also reported that all the prisoners were former Royal marines and worked for Protection Vessels International (PVI), a company that provides security services to vessels on the sea from piracy.
In a statement the Eritrean Ministry of Information claimed that the detainees admitted to having committed a crime. The Eritrean government also said the detainees regretted trying to escape from the port of Massawa, where there was an apparent dispute with local businessmen about payment for fuel and supplies. In addition, the statement declared that the detainees bore accountability for acts of invasion, organizing terrorism and espionage".
In response to the Eritrean regime's defiance to release its nationals, the British government, on 6 June 2011, restricted the Eritrean embassy in London from providing any other services to the large Eritrean community in the country, other than consular services and the issuing of visas. Prior to this restriction, the British government had given two directives to the embassy in retaliation for the imprisonment of British citizens. First, Eritrean diplomats and visiting officials were to be restricted to the London area only; and second, the UK government banned the collection of taxes from the Eritrean community in the UK by the Eritrean regime. As one of one of the detainees is an Australian citizen, the Australian government imposed similar restrictions on Eritrean diplomats based in Australia.
These detainees were not the only foreigners in the prisons of Asmara. There are several others from many parts of the world. The Swedish-Eritrean journalist and writer, Dawit Isaak, has been held in an Eritrean prison since 2001 without trial and is considered a traitor by the Eritrean government, even though the Swedish government and other notable organizations have tried very hard to get him released.
Those many arrests and imprisonment by the Asmara regime are results of the government's strategy to convince Eritreans that they are living under constant threat posed from neighbouring and other countries. This serves as a scapegoat to cover to its poor performance in promoting democracy and economic growth inside the country.
As part of this conspiracy theory, in 1995 the Eritrean regime went into armed conflict with Yemen over the island of Greater Hanish in the Red Sea, one of the largest in the then disputed Zukur-Hanish archipelago. In 1998 the permanent court of arbitration determined that the archipelago belonged to Yemen.
In 1998, Eritrea engaged in another war with Ethiopia with a pretext of border dispute over Badme. This war led to hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides and severe economic crises for both countries, in particular Eritrea, because Ethiopia, being landlocked, was solely dependent on the Eritrean Ports of Assab and Massawa for its imports and exports. From 1991-1998 Eritrea earned hundreds of millions of dollars per annum from Ethiopia for port services.
Moreover, Eritrea and Djibouti clashed in 2008 over the disputed Ras Dumeira area. The aftermath of this conflict led to the UN Security Council resolution 1907 (2009) against Eritrea. Further sanctions were imposed, following Eritrea's alleged involvement in support of Al-Qaeda linked Islamist militants, mainly Al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam, working against the international community effort to bring a lasting peace in Somalia. The US government also threatened to include Eritrea on the "state sponsors of terrorism" list in 2007.
In addition to the above disputes, the actions of the Eritrean government have isolated the country internationally. Eritrea boycotted the African Union (AU) for more than a decade and only reinstated its ambassador to Ethiopia and the AU in January 2011, fiercely protesting what it described as the AU's 'failure' to condemn Ethiopia for its alleged violations of a peace agreement that ended the 1998-2000 border war. Additionally, the Asmara regime withdrew its membership of IGAD, East Africa's primary regional body, after a rift with its arch-foe, Ethiopia, when a meeting on Somalia threatened to divide the region in 2007.
In assessing the impact of the Eritrean government's behavior in political and economic terms, it seems clear that the withdrawal from important African regional organizations cost Eritrea dearly. In addition, the imposition of the UN Security council sanctions on Eritrea, which included arms and travel sanctions for Eritrea's support of insurgents trying to topple the nascent government in Somalia was a severe blow to Eritrea. It is significant too, that for the first time since their establishment, the AU and IGAD called upon the United Nations to introduce sanctions against a member state. Due to the ill-conceived political strategies of the Asmara regime, the country's image has been tarnished internationally. The behavior of Eritrea has prompted at least one observer and scholar to refer to Eritrea as the 'North-Korea of Africa'.
Moreover, the Eritrean economy is highly dependent on revenues generated from Eritreans living abroad through organising national festivals and rallies. Additionally, the Eritrean government has been collecting two percent income tax from the nationals living oversees. When Eritreans abroad refuse to pay this tax, their families back home are penalised either with a hefty fine of 50,000 Nakfa or imprisonment. However, the UK government has banned this kind of taxation and the Australian government followed suit. Others, mainly Western governments, may follow this trend if the Eritrean government continues to defy the international community. Consequently, the Eritrean government may experience a drastic fall in revenues during the coming years.
Today Eritrea is becoming more like a private company that belongs to President Isaias Afewerki rather than a country with 5 million inhabitants. Even worse, President Isaias doesn't seem is interested in promoting peace, stability and democracy in the country mainly to protect his grip on power for many years to come. Therefore, there is little hope for better Eritrean foreign relationships with the world and its neighbours without a radical change in direction by the regime.
Special thanks to: Mehari Taddele Maru, ACPP Addis Ababa Programme Head, Dr. Duke Kent-Brown, PRP Addis Ababa Programme Head, Dr. Debay Taddese and Hallelujah Lullie
Abele Abate is an intern in the African Conflict Prevention Programme's Addis Ababa Office.

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