What Went Wrong in Eritrea?

No Future
Notes from different corners of the world.
Sept. 9 2005 6:23 AM

What Went Wrong in Eritrea?

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The war between Eritrea and Ethiopia seems tailor-made for a U.N. resolution. There are no actual deep-seated ethnic enmities at work here. Rumors abound that the nation's two leaders are actually distant cousins. The conflict was a dispute over a border, and when the two sides agreed to a border commission's binding decision in 2000, it seemed like that would be the end of this fight.

Five years down the road, though, there is simply no end in sight. The world's policeman is bogged down democratizing Iraq and pacifying Afghanistan, and though 4,000 blue-helmeted troops can, for the most part, keep the two sides apart, they don't have anywhere near the muscle needed to force real peace. One Western diplomat I spoke with was even skeptical about whether either side wants peace at all. "If [Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles] Zenawi agrees to the border commission's decision, he's dead at home. If Afewerki makes peace, he has to face implementing the constitution. Maybe they both want to be at war."

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There was a flicker of American interest in cultivating Eritrea as a military partner in an increasingly volatile region that is seen as a likely home to many al-Qaida operatives. Rumsfeld even paid a visit to Afewerki. But it's unlikely that many al-Qaida members are active in Eritrea—even unsanctioned Christian groups are thrown in jail, and radical Islamists are high on the government's list of enemies. The military-to-military ties with the United States now seem largely symbolic—visits from military brass but no bases. When it comes down to it, the United States doesn't really have a dog in this fight.

The conflict between these two neighbors is a stupidity contest, and on the basis of recent behavior, Ethiopia is edging out Eritrea. Ethiopia agreed that the decision of the border commission would be final and binding, but then, after they saw this meant that they would lose the symbolically vital (but utterly worthless) town of Badame, they changed their tune. They said that it would be binding "in principle," but they would negotiate the specifics. That's hogwash, and everybody knows it's hogwash. The reality here right now is that the United States and the other major players are reluctant to publicly and forcefully side with Eritrea against a much more important commercial and military ally in the region. But if we want this kind of mediation to ever work again (and we will clearly need it in Africa and the rest of the world), then we need to put something behind this decision.

The problem is that Ethiopia, a much larger nation that receives close to $2 billion of international foreign aid per year, is both a donor darling and a more important player in the region. Ethiopia's leader, Meles Zenawi, has been actively courting the West, glad-handing around the world and joining Tony Blair's Africa Commission. Afewerki, on the other hand, retains the mindset of an embattled commander. Diplomats told me that this government is difficult to meet with and impossible to argue with. The only conceivable way to force Eritrea and Ethiopia to make peace is to threaten to suspend their foreign aid. But since most of that aid goes to humanitarian programs, it's political suicide for any Western politician to try to cut it off.

Ironically, the one possibility of U.S. sanctions against Eritrea comes from the International Religious Freedom Act. American Christians have been quick to point out that Christians are being persecuted in Eritrea for joining unsanctioned religious groups. Never mind that for years, journalists, opposition leaders, and even two local U.S. Embassy staffers have languished in jail. Throw a few Pentecostal Christians in the hoosegow, and suddenly the secretary of state has designated Eritrea a country "of particular concern" under the act.

The only substantive treatment of Eritrea in the U.S. media came in a 2003 Robert Kaplan piece in the Atlantic Monthly, which profiled the "sleepily calm, and remarkably stable state of Eritrea." Though Kaplan identifies many of the dangerous tendencies of Afewerki and spends a couple of paragraphs chronicling human rights abuses in Eritrea, one is left with an ambivalently positive impression of Afewerki's government. It seemed clear to me, from the people I spoke with on the streets of Asmara, Massawa, Keren, and the towns in between, that in the two years since Kaplan's piece, things had changed. Pseudo-peace and economic misery have now fractured Eritrean society and angered the young people that bear the brunt of the wartime burden. But the painful truth is that, unless al-Qaida explodes in Eritrea, the only Americans interested in this nation will probably be Eritrean expats and a few earnest readers of the Atlantic Monthly and other similar publications.

And so the West helps feed the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea. U.S. aid to Eritrea for 2005—about $200 million—is triple the 2004 amount. The leaders of these two nations waste their people's money on guns, tanks, and rockets. The United Nations stands by, doing what it can to keep the peace. And the whispers on the streets of Asmara continue, never rising up to a roar because Afewerki has been careful to let his people know that any dissent means they will be erased from the face of the earth—dead, maybe, but at the very least disappeared.

Tom Downey is the author ofThe Last Men Out: Life on the Edge at Rescue 2 Firehouse. Based in New York, he travels frequently to write about politics and travel for the New York Times, Men's Journal, Rolling Stone, and National Geographic Adventure. You can e-mail him at tom@lastmenout.com

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