Eritrea’s diplomatic offensive?

An US congressional delegation to Eritrea—the first in 14 years—which included Ilhan Omar, got little attention in mainstream media. Why?

Left to right: US Embassy Charge d’Affaires Natalie E. Brown, Ilham Omar, Eritrea’s minister of information Yemane Gebremeskel, Karen Bass and Congressman Joe Neguse. Image via US Embassy Asmara Eritrea Facebook page.

Ilhan Omar, the Somali-American congresswoman from Minneapolis, has been in the headlines lately for calling out Israel’s influence on US foreign policy and for her grilling of Donald Trump’s Venezuela envoy, the war criminal Elliot Abrams. Less well covered has been her venturing into the United States’s policy on Africa.

At the beginning of March Omar joined a US Congressional Committee led by Rep. Karen Bass to visit Eritrea. Others in the delegation included Eritrean-American congressman Joe Neguse of Colorado.

Karen Bass is chairperson of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, so this clearly was a high level affair.

That the visit happened may have been largely a consequence of changing geopolitics and conflicting interests of the superpowers in the Horn of Africa; buying time for Eritrea’s Life-President Isaias Afwerki and his regime, in power for 27 years already. It is unclear who will benefit from the visit by the US delegation: the US, the Eritreans or even Eritrea’s more powerful neighbor, Ethiopia. Afwerki’s regime has been shunned by the US and subjected to sanctions.

We doubt that the visit will receive the kind of scrutiny Omar’s remarks about Israel have received in US media. In a tweet, Omar described the visit as the “the first American delegation to Eritrea in decades.” It was the first in fourteen years. But the US may be following its chief ally in the region, Ethiopia.

The presence of Ilhan Omar on the trip was significant. She was born in Somalia, also in the Horn, and fled to the US via a Kenyan refugee camp with her family, settling in Minneapolis as a teenager. In Omar’s short time in Congress, Omar has emerged as a leading critic of US foreign policy. But, Eritrea may prove to be something else.

During the Eritrea visit, Omar sent out a bland tweet about her visit to Eritrea and expressed her gratefulness for being part of the delegation. She finished with “I fight peace and justice because only those who experience the pain of war, know the joy of peace.”

Then her tweets returned to domestic US politics.

A number of Twitter users, including many Eritreans, reminded Omar of the systemic abuses committed by Eritrea’s government against its citizens.

As for Karen Bass, she has bashed President Trump for meeting with North Korea’s autocratic leader. Eritrea is often characterized as “Africa’s North Korea.”  Some Eritreans couldn’t pass up the opportunity to remind Bass of her double standard for leading a delegation to the North Korea of Africa.

Joe Neguse, whose parents fled Eritrea in 1980, then still under Ethiopian control, also had little to say. He only added to a collective post-trip press statement signed by Bass: “I look forward to further discussions with my colleagues and the State Department on how to further promote peace, security, human rights, and democratic reforms in the region.”

Statements by Bass and tweets by Eritrean government officials, suggested the delegation held “a series of meetings,” with senior government officials, according to a tweet from the Eritrean minister of information, Yemane G. Meskel. On her way back to the US, during a stopover in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Bass spoke to the Associated Press about the Eritrea visit. For Bass, Eritrea “has been a mystery”—showing little reform since rapprochement with Ethiopia. Yet, she hoped to see several detained US nationals including former US embassy staff to be released “promptly, as well as other people who are incarcerated.”

So, in the absence of independent media or press conferences (especially on the Eritrea side), no one knows the outcome of the meetings. Eritrean state media was quiet on the matter. There was no mention of the meeting apart from the minister’s tweet. (A visit by French congressional delegation around the same time, also received only one-tweet by the information minister. This, in contrast to the relatively strong state media coverage of a visit by a Russian delegation at the time.)

More significant has been Afwerki’s diplomatic engagement with other African states, especially Ethiopia.

On March 3, Afwerki met with Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta, and Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, in what Eritrean state media described as a “Tripartite Summit.” Kenyatta flew back the next day, while Afwerki took Ahmed to show him the dams he had personally supervised during construction. (This while Eritrea’s cities, including Asmara, are suffering from a shortage of running water, further exacerbated in August last year when more than 300 water truck owners were rounded up and required to pay huge amounts to be released.)

Afwerki and Ahmed then flew to South Sudan and met with President Salva Kiir on March 4th. Clad in khaki attire, the newly enamored leaders, each facing mounting pressures in their respective countries,  discussed regional economic integration before addressing domestic issues.

In the fast-pace diplomatic thaw between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the unholy alliance of the leaders is unnerving Eritreans. Since July 2018, when Afwerki made his first official visit to Ethiopia, Eritreans have been wary of his utterances. His mercurial temperament and his grand ambitions make the fear legitimate. This is further compounded by the opaque nature of the regime wherein the majority, including senior officials, are alienated. In his first speech in Awasa, Ethiopia, President Afwerki stated, “from now on, anyone who says Eritrea and Ethiopia are two people is out of reality.” Then he told Abiy “you are our leader” and declared: “I’ve given him all responsibility of leadership and power.”

Since July 2018, Afwerki has met with Abiy nine times while he has only met with his Cabinet ministers once.

But a return of US and Ethiopian influence is not the only thing ordinary Eritreans have to think about. In August 2018 Reuters reported that the UAE is planning to build an oil pipeline from the Eritrean port Assab to Addis Ababa. There has been no official confirmation on the report from the Eritrean side.  Then in January 2019 at the World Economic Forum in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, Ahmed said he doesn’t see the need to have separate armies and embassies for Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti. A few days later, the official handle of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister tweeted that Ahmed held talks with his Italian counterpart and agreed to build an Addis Ababa-Massawa railway line. Massawa is an Eritrean port-city; Eritrea’s diaspora, fiercely nationalist, responded ferociously. In his attempt to ease qualms, the Eritrean minister of information tweeted that the proposed railway line was part of the “cooperation between the three countries explored in previous meetings.” It didn’t stop there. When the administrator of Ethiopia’s Oromia Region, Lemma Megersa, was asked why Ethiopia is building a navy when it does not have a sea, he replied, “You never know, we might have access to a sea in the future.”

During Ethiopia’s political parties meetings last month, Ahmed stressed Ethiopia’s unity and assured the audience that “Ethiopia won’t disintegrate, but it is a matter of time that those who have left would return.” He did not mention names, but it was obvious that he was implying Eritrea.

The diaspora-based Eritrean independent media are examining these events in retrospect. Prominent exiled freedom fighters have been sharing different anecdotes that foreshadow Afwerki’s ambivalent stand on Eritrea’s national sovereignty. The anxiety is widely shared, including among leading Eritrean intellectuals.

Bereket Habte Selassie, the chairperson of Eritrea’s 1997 constitution (never implemented), told journalist Martin Plaut, that with Afwerki’s singlehanded decisions, “Eritrea has been offered to Ethiopia on a silver platter.”

Further Reading

How to cover Eritrea

Eritrea has expelled all international correspondents and banned local private newspapers since 2001. One consequence is that Western media have had to play up their “unique” or “rare” access to “the North Korea of Africa.”

Over …