Eritrea: Ethiopia, the US and the UN



Eritrea: Ethiopia, the US and the UN


Dade Desta


This part is a reflection on what have been written and recommended recently on Eritrea. Part 2 will see how the US-Eritrean relations have evolved over the last two decades and possible scenarios of future change in light of some assumptions relevant to Ethiopia’s interests; in part 3, we will look into Eritrea’s troubles with the UN/SC with respect to the recently placed sanctions and their impacts vis-à-vis Ethiopia’s policy interests; part 4 will exclusively focus on Ethio-Eritrean pending issues and the future.

I. Let It Be a Freezing Hell


Depending on the reality one must face, one may prefer to opt for illusion. President Isaias would rather be standing outside in the freezing cold than be warm in the arms of Ethiopia. A diplomat who knows him well was heard saying President Isaias has become very sad after PM Meles’ death. His sadness was not that he felt the untimely departure of Meles but that the Ethiopian leader was always ahead of him, that he had always outfoxed him and that he left forever before Isaias gets a chance to score back a face-saving point. Even if Isaias now magically finds the capacity to strike in any form, it would never be recorded as a score against Meles. Many observers characterize him as contrarian and erratic and that his many colossal miscalculations are more of ego driven than policy.


It seems there are still some who have not given up on him. David Shinn and Herman Cohen are not ordinary policy experimentalists. It is based on views and opinions of such policy experts US African policy makers shape and formulate their policies. From recent posts of these two former influential diplomats, it doesn’t take a wild guess to read that a new US policy intonation is hovering over the Horn.


Cohen’s is a call to the US and the international community to end Eritrea’s time-out. A child needs to just sit out her minutes of the time-out. She is not usually asked to earn her freedom by righting the wrong done. Ambassador Cohen seems to believe Eritrea has done the time for her crime. In some cases, he argues there have been unnecessary excesses of heavy handedness on Eritrea that need to be corrected urgently or Eritrea will be frozen for no fault of its own. He thinks the key game changer to change Eritrea’s situation would be helping it normalize relations with Ethiopia that needs to be initiated by handing over Badime. He is calling for the UN sanctions to end. He is asking the US to start military-to-military cooperation with Eritrea.


Weeks later, Ambassador David Shinn followed up with a non-rejoinder rejoinder to Cohen’s policy memo, only that Shinn thinks doing it would not be that simple. Shinn added some backgrounds to the conflict that he appeared to have re-enriched now with lots of hindsight considerations. Ambassador Shinn now seems convinced the problem is way more complicated than being a border issue, and that it started way earlier than May 1998. He subtly argues all actions-reactions-counteractions preceding the 1998 crisis have equal causation weight in escalating the conflict. Shinn fails to emphasize the weight and the responsibility of the last straw- the forceful entry and occupation of Badime and Sheraro territories. Although his analysis rightly points to the bigger picture much better than the simplistic and sympathetic recommendations of Ambassador Cohen, he ends up recommending the same wine. The pointers, the timing and the intonations lead you to believe that this could be because of a well thought synch rather than coincidence.

An Eritrea opposition website,, referred to Cohne’s new call “Engagement Version 23.0” characterisng the entire policy confusion throughout Isaias’ time in power. had this more to say: ‘The West has been on a roller coaster of “let’s-isolate-no-let’s-engage-no-let’s-isolate-no-let’s-engage” ever since Isaias Afwerki told them,...“he would be more likely to satisfy U.S. demands on human rights in the context of a growing military partnership, but would not do so if merely hectored by the State Department.”’ What makes the recent articles a big-deal is the possible policy implications they carry and the wrong signals they send to President Isaias. The US and the world have a terrible habit of remaining silent when it matters to speak up and speaking up when they have to remain silent. Mark Twain has a sharp line for such harmful tendencies: “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.” They don’t speak right and loud to settle smokes and dusts. It is mostly the opposite. Recall how it might have helped if they had spoken loud and clear to denounce the aggression in 1998.


The recent articles highlight the real gravity areas of Eritrea’s troubles and recommend ways to end them: new engagement with the US, lifting sanction by the UNSC and normalization with Ethiopia. It is important to emphasize the latter- normalization- is boldly tagged with the transfer of Badime. From Ethiopia’s angle, the prime interest with Eritrea would be sustained peace on the minimum, and then, cooperation for mutual benefits. Ethiopia tried to get peace from Eritrea’s partnership through magnanimity and appeasement. Ethiopia got neither partnership nor peace from Eritrea. Relative peace was secured only after Isaias’ regime was weakened militarily and politically. All efforts for peace and reconciliation between Ethiopia and Eritrea have thus far failed miserably because of their inherent weaknesses. Those efforts suffer from an over simplistic approach in favor of expediency. The real causes of the conflict, which emanate from divergent identity perspectives and competing economic interests of the parties, were short-changed for a border dispute. All third party efforts including mediations, arbitrations and rulings contributed nil at best or negatively at worst in bringing the conflict to a peaceful closure. There are plenty arguments asserting the international approach may have sidetracked the peace process to unnecessary complications and unintended consequences.

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