By Kibreab Tesfay
Former US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Herman Cohen’s article (Time to Bring Eritrea in from the Cold; published by African Arguments on 16 December 2013) seems to have stirred much interest among old Africa hands even as there is scant evidence of serious introspection and policy review inside Foggy Bottom and other principal tentacles of the US foreign policy establishment. Indeed, the arguments that Ambassador Herman Cohen has put forth for revamping US-Eritrea relations and scraping the unwarranted UN sanctions imposed against the latter largely at the instigation of Washington, have elicited various reactions from the region, and, follow-up articles and rejoinders by former US Ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shin, as well as Ambassador Princeton Lyman of the US Institute of Peace.
Apart from the strident, myopic and predictable views of some die-hard Ethiopian officials (Ambassador Tekeda Alemu and his ilk), all protagonists essentially agree on three critical matters; i) that the allegations linking Eritrea with Al-Shebaab are not true and mainly conjured up for political purposes; ii) the resultant sanctions imposed by the UNSC were legally inappropriate and counter-productive; and iii) improvement in US-Eritrea ties is essential and bodes well for the stability and security of the volatile Horn of Africa region.
But the apparent consensus outlined above ends there. As it happens, serious fissures appear in the narratives and perspectives of the different authors on the underlying causes, chronology of events that brought about this state of affairs as well as the way forward. In one way, the disparate depictions and half-truths are akin to the parable of the six blind men who portray an elephant in as many ways from partial physical contact to its body mass.
A caveat is appropriate before delving into the validity and accuracy of these disparate portrayals. The original title is really a misnomer that conveys a false image even if the hyperbole may have been deemed useful for the purposes of the article.
Eritrea is not really out in the cold in terms of normative diplomatic indices and parlance. Yes, it has troubled ties with the United States. But even if one were to acquiesce in former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s, description of the United States as the “indispensable nation”, it would represent extreme diplomatic hubris to dub one country as “out in the cold” if it happens to attract the ire of Washington. The fact is Eritrea enjoys formal diplomatic ties with literally all UN Member States (Ethiopia and Djibouti excepted); has over 30 Embassies and Consulates all over the world while hosting a similar number in its capital city; and has membership in vital regional, continental and international bodies to promote its considered national security interests. In terms of investment, Eritrea continues to attract FDI in mining, fisheries, tourism and other lucrative sectors from all over the world. Eritrea has also robust programmes of bilateral and multilateral economic cooperation agreements with the European Union, UN Development Agencies, China, various Middle Eastern countries, Japan, India etc. So Eritrea is not out in the cold by any stretch of imagination although its troubled ties with the US has, admittedly, entailed sanctions at the UN and harassment at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
To revert to some of the major inaccuracies and flawed arguments;
1. Ambassador Shin conflates the cardinal issue of respect of Eritrea’s sovereignty and territorial integrity with other incidental and tangential matters of the restoration of diplomatic and mutually beneficial ties of cooperation that can be freely cultivated between the two countries thereafter. Indeed, in as much as friendly ties between Eritrea and Ethiopia would be desirable adding value to both countries with positive ramifications to overall regional peace and security, the two countries are not Siamese twins that are innately bonded at the hips. Vibrant trade exchanges and policy harmonization are options that both countries can pursue if they see eye to eye on strategic precepts of development and economic growth. “Trade, open borders, telephone links, air travel arrangements and port uses” are all ingredients that lubricate friendly ties of good neighbourliness between the two countries and that contribute to mutual economic growth. Modalities and mechanisms of their implementation can and would be entered freely between the two independent States through mutually beneficial bilateral, and at times multilateral, agreements within the framework of regional bodies; IGAD, COMESA etc.
But they can also part ways and maintain no or minimal trade and investment cooperation without jeopardizing regional peace if both uphold the normative principles and practices of international law. Subordinating, as Ambassador Shin does, cardinal principles of international law and the co-existence of two neighboring States to normalization of economic ties, is not only putting the cart before the horse but it is legally tenuous and fraught with dangerous implications and precedents to regional peace and security. The terms of the Algiers Agreement are also unequivocal. At a more abstract level, the ebbs and flows of trade and economic cooperation between two neighbouring States have no correlation whatsoever to their independent existence.
A seasoned diplomat and academic of Ambassador Shin’s caliber cannot, surely, be oblivious to these rudimentary concepts. But Ambassador Shin has always been an avid supporter of Ethiopia. This may have corroded his objectivity as his arguments are, to be candid, embellishments of the narrative that successive Ethiopian governments, including the present one, have constantly put forth. The purported “negative psychological element” between Eritreans and the Tigrayan ethnic group in Ethiopia that Ambassador Shin invokes is in fact an ubiquitous social phenomenon that prevails everywhere; even between different language/ethnic groups within the confines of the same country. These emotional traits cannot be factored in the calculus of nurturing normative State-to-State ties between two neighbouring countries on the basis of international law.
2. In almost all the articles, US-Eritrea ties are depicted in a rather simplistic, anecdotal, way and mostly in reference to one or two recent incidents. Both Ambassadors Shin and Lyman cast doubts on Eritrea’s willingness and readiness for improved ties with Washington. Ambassador Lyman recounts his personal initiative in 2008 which failed principally due to Eritrea’s recalcitrance at the highest levels. Foreign Office officials in Eritrea and at the US Embassy in Washington contest this version of the story. In any case, there is ample published literature illustrating that friction in US-Eritrea ties goes back to 1998 to coincide with the outbreak of border hostilities between Eritrea and Ethiopia (see US unprovoked hostilities against Eritrea). Senior Eritrean officials have long maintained that the United States relapsed to its half-century old stance, perhaps out of diplomatic inertia rather than from a cool-headed geopolitical calculus, to put all its eggs in the Ethiopian basket once the two countries were pitted in armed confrontation against each other.
Historically, the United States had supported imperial Ethiopia’s bogus claims on Eritrea to bring about the UN imposed “Federation” between the two countries in 1950; kept silent when this was unilaterally abrogated by Ethiopia to annex Eritrea in 1962; and, extended arms and military training to suppress Eritrea’s liberation struggle thereafter. US hostility to Eritrea did not alter much even after the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie by a military junta and Ethiopia’s new alignment with the Soviet Union in the context of the Cold War. And although US-Eritrea ties enjoyed healthy growth and unprecedented warmth from 1991 until 1998, Washington unilaterally “reset” the burgeoning relationship to revert to its “historical mode” after the sad events of 1998. Eritrean Foreign Office officials cite US biased positions during Ethiopia’s successive offensives between 1998 and 2000 as well as its myriad diplomatic acts to block the implementation of the “final and binding” EEBC Award. The latter was in spite of the fact that the United States was the principal architect and broker of the underlying Algiers Peace Agreement. US-Eritrea ties have thus a long, checkered, history. They are not and cannot be reducible to the recent phenomenon of Al-Shebaab and Eritrea’s fabricated “linkages with terrorism”.
But, irrespective of the inaccuracies and flaws cited above, the debate itself is positive that must be welcomed. As I intimated at the beginning, it is not clear whether this is a reflection, or a harbinger, of serious policy review in the State Department. But a balanced and constructive US approach to its ties with Eritrea and the Horn of Africa as a whole can bring vital dividends to the parties concerned and to the pursuit of enduring peace and stability in the region. The stakes are indeed high. The Horn of Africa has proximity to the Middle East; straddles the vital Red Sea international maritime traffic; has a combined population of more than 150 million and is endowed with considerable natural resources. Peace and security between and within all the countries of the region is vital if all the comparative advantages of this region are to be realized to the benefit of its peoples.
Along with other major international actors, the United States can surely be a force of good in this endeavor. But this will require primary recognition and respect for the policy choices and interests of the countries in the region. The dysfunctional paradigm of subordinating local interests and aspirations to overriding US geopolitical interests has proven a recipe for perennial turmoil in the Horn of Africa in the past 60 years. Recent history and the dynamics of our times accentuate the imperative of overhauling the old, obsolete, paradigm and the advantages that can be accrued from a fresh, bold, approach.