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Why Eritrea’s Afewerki is coming here

The Horn of Africa’s belligerent leader, Isaias Afewerki, is set to visit tomorrow as he tries to mend fences and end his country’s isolation.

According to a news release from State House dated August 11, “President Afewerki, who will arrive in the country on August 16, [tomorrow], will visit various business and trade centres in Uganda before meeting with the Eritrean community resident in Uganda.”

The Eritrean leader, who will be in Uganda for a three-day state visit, is accused of supporting the al Shabaab militants in Somalia, who were forced to abandon Mogadishu at the end of July. In hosting Afewerki, Uganda will have scored a diplomacy coup as the visit entrenches President Museveni’s position as the anchorman of stability in the volatile region.

“The more territory we capture, the more we are exposed, so if we can stop the funding, then it’s an advantage,” commented Dr Philip Kasaija, a lecturer of International law at Makerere University.

Kasaija agrees that the isolated leader is perhaps trying to make peace overtures in the region.

“Eritrea does not have friends. He could be attempting to mend fences,” Kasaija said.

Afewerki is also desperate to placate the West with UN sanctions on his regime looming. The United States and the United Nations accuse the Red Sea country of funneling weapons to Islamist fighters in Somalia, an accusation Afewerki rejects.

To compound Eritrea’s problems, On July 30, the UN authored a report accusing Eritrea of planning to make Baghdad-style bomb attacks on Addis Abba to disrupt the African Union summit in January this year. The report by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea accused the Eritrean spy agency and the Oromo Liberation Front (a rebel group fighting for the independence of the Oromo people against Meles Zenawi’s government) of complicity in the foiled attack.

In January, during the AU summit, Ethiopia claimed to have thwarted a terror plot by Eritrea to cause large-scale collateral damage during the conference. Security agencies recovered a huge cache of ammunition, sniper rifles plastic explosives, gas cylinders, and detonators. Denial by Asmara and the subsequent spar between the countries at that time prompted the UN group to investigate the accusation.

In the report, Eritrean intelligence services were accused of planning an operation in league with Ethiopian rebel groups to detonate a car bomb close to the AU headquarters, where 30 African heads of state were attending the summit aimed at bringing peace and prosperity to the continent.

Afewerki rules with an iron fist and a dented foreign image. His economy appears to be in tatters—young Eritreans have fled the country in droves, yet the dictator remains unhinged. Eritrea does not have a constitution, the president arguing that there is no need for one when the country is at war. There has been no election held in the last 14 years.

Journalists and political opponents that have criticised his regime have been handed long spells of incarceration in a country where military service is compulsory.
But those sympathetic to the Asmara regime argue that sometimes the regime has played the role of arbitrating conflicts in the horn of Africa. The current president of Somalia’s TFG, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed and the leader of the Hizibul Islam, Sheikh Dahir Aweyes, lived in Asmara.

Both Sharif Ahmed and Aweyes were part of the Union of Islamic Courts, which was funded by Eritrea. The group took control of Somalia briefly, before being overthrown by the Ethiopian army. To the older generation in Eritrea, despite his domestic perils, Afewerki is still the symbol of the much-vaunted change the citizens craved for during years of colonial oppression.

To understand the struggle is to understand Afewerki’s defiance. Eritrea was colonized by the Italians, occupied by the British and then handed over to the Ethiopians, who ruled it brutally for 30 years, first with the help of the Americans, then with the Soviets.

Afewerki then led a guerrilla movement that built underground cities and trained women to fight in one of the few successful separatist movements on the continent. Eritrea won its independence in 1993, but has since remained strained by a wave of conflicts. A war between Eritrea and Ethiopia over a rocky strip cost the lives of about 100,000 people.

Like any lessons were not learnt, the Asmara regime is now occupying parts of the Djibouti-Eritrea border in yet another dispute. It was triggered by tension which began on April 16, 2008 when Djibouti reported that Eritrean armed forces had penetrated into Djibouti territory and dug trenches on both sides of the border.

The crisis deepened when armed clashes broke out between the two armed forces in the border area on June 10, 2008. On his visit to Kampala, President Afewerki, who pulled out of the regional bloc, IGADD, in 2007, will be accompanied by his minister of Foreign Affairs, Osman Saleh; the head of the Political Affairs office and advisor to the president, Yamane Ghebreab; the Secretary, Office of the President, Amin Hassen, and the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Beyere Russon.

Afewerki will hold bilateral talks with his host President Museveni, at State House in Entebbe. According to the news release, “Eritrea is one of the strategically vital countries to the stability of the region, especially in the Horn of Africa and the wider global agenda.

His visit to Uganda and meeting with President Museveni, who has been a strong advocate of peace in the Horn and the region, will be a strong boost to peace efforts on the continent.”


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