The Case To Hold Eritrea Accountable


How to hit the Eritrean regime where it hurts the most

An Eritrean joke goes: One day, Eritrea’s president flew with his top advisors for a tour around the world. As he was flying over his own country, he saw nothing but all green. He looked at one of his advisors who was sitting by his side, and asked, “I’ve always thought that my country is desert, with no green grass, but in this modern era, you never know what is wrong with nature.” The advisor, avoiding eye contact with his commander in chief replied, “It’s not green grass, Mr. President, they are military uniforms.”

In 1992, Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia. Located on the eastern part of the African continent, Eritrea isolated itself in the early stages of its independence. Since then, it has waged wars on all its neighboring countries. It has defied United Nations resolutions 1907 and 1862, which mandated the regime to withdraw its troops from the disputed territories of Ras Dumeira in neighboring Djibouti. And, it has supported regional terrorist groups, such as the Somalia based Al-Shabab to torment the security and stability of its neighbors. In various occasions, the international community has attempted to enforce existing resolutions to contain Eritrea, but it has failed miserably due to the loopholes created by the international bureaucracy.

In light of these developments, there are three possible options for the international community to enforce existing resolutions and slam new ones on the regime. As a starting point, the Africa Union (AU), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the European Union (EU) must unify behind one single objective: the time of strategic patience has ended. They can do so, first of all, by urging international institutions that function under their member states to refrain from doing business with the Eritrean government. Secondly, by squeezing the financial flows to Eritrean banks. And thirdly, by hitting Eritrea’s top government officials with global travel ban and freezing their asserts. 

Trouble Maker

In the beginning of its statehood, Eritrea conspired with neighboring Sudan’s opposition party, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), to destabilize the Sudanese national security. In 1995, Eritrea invaded an offshore Yemen island called Hanish and attempted to provoke an interstate war with Yemen. Subsequently, it waged a two-year-long war with Ethiopia in 1998 that terminated with UN mediation in 2000. It has repeatedly invaded Ras Dumeira mountain and island, a demilitarized zone that falls between Eritrea and its neighbor, Djibouti.

Historically, the state of Eritrea has furnished financial support to terrorist groups like the Somali-based Al-Shabab. According to a July 2011 report by the United Nations Security Council, payment receipts unearthed in the Eritrean Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, showed that Eritrea financially supported individuals linked to Al-Shabaab’s high-ranking operatives. Among them are Ugas Abdi Dahir, an influential figure who acted as a spokesperson for Al-Shabab for some time, and Mohamed Wali Sheikh Ahmed Nuur, whose brother, “Major Abdulqadir”, was then a “senior commander in Al-Shabab.” The report also suggested that up to 20,000 USD was channelled through the Eritrean Embassy in Nairobi in favor of the individuals stated above.

Why Existing UN Sanctions Are Ineffective? 

Loopholes, created by international bureaucracy allows that the Eritrean regime gets away with murder. While international development funds, such as the European Union’s European Development Fund (EDF) is a critical source of income for the Eritrean regime; it has little impact on improving the livelihood of the average Eritrean. The EDF spent more than 290 million Euros on development projects, such as integration, education, agriculture, energy, governance, judiciary system, and the like in Eritrea, yet the regime has made little, if any progress in all those areas.

In their joint report in 2015, a European Union-Eritrea Partnership, boasted twenty years of friendship. According to the report, the EU “has been advocating for the promotion of dialogue” between Eritrea and its neighbors. It also advocated for Eritrea’s integration into regional institutions.”

In spite of the EDF efforts, Eritrea continues its unfriendly attitude towards its neighbors, as evidenced by its recent invasion of Ras Dumeira in Djibouti mid 2017. Eritrea even refused to grant access the AU convoy and assess its border disputes with its neighbor. Despite years of advocacy for integration by the EDF, Eritrea remains extremely disintegrated and isolated from its regional neighbors.

With respect to education, according to the Global Campaign for Education, a “civil society movement that aims to end the global education crisis,” Etrirea is ranked in second place with the poorest record for children’s education. The GCE placed Eritrea right after Somalia, a country that has been ravaged by intractable civil war for more than 27 years.

For agriculture and food security, the EU has invested more than 67 million Euros on various projects. In the southern region of Debub, the EU invested in a project that sought to equip milk collectors, and cooling facilities with “stand-alone solar energy systems.” In the region of Anseba, northeast of Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, the EU invested in other projects that aim to reduce poverty “through sustainable natural resource conservation.” While these projects are beautiful in rhetoric, their impact on the livelihood of the average Eritrean is yet to be seen. 

Eritrea ranks number 179 out of 188 in the United Nations Human Development Index. The Business Insider, an independent news website that operates in multiple continents, ranks Eritrea in the top 10 among the world’s 30 poorest countries.

As far as governance goes, the EU has spent more than 4.7 million Euros on improving the capacity of community courts in Eritrea, yet its system lacks fundamental judicial review and due process.

The problem is that international institutions such as the EU are deluding themselves while expecting social improvement by making business with a despotic regime. The programs, stated above would never have been established without the blessing of the Eritrean ministries of agriculture, energy, and state-owned Centre for Organizational Excellence (ERCOE), which often operates in an entirely opaque environment. Due to lack of transparency, it is difficult to determine whether those funds produce any meaningful economic incentive for the Eritrean citizen.

International development funds, such as the EDF must be given with strict guidelines to independent civil society organizations; i.e. the Washington based Eritrean Development Foundation. According to the Human Rights Watch, there haven’t been any locally-known independent Nongovernmental Organizations, (NGOs) in Eritrea since 2001 due to government restrictions. This process of assigning strict grants would keep the regime at bay and have a direct impact on the welfare of the Eritrean citizen.

What Can Be Done To Hold Eritrea Accountable?

To start with, the international community, especially the AU, IGAD, and EU, need to deal with Eritrea through concentrated economic and military sanctions. The economic sanctions, imposed by the UN in response to Eritrea’s violation of UNSC resolutions 1862 and 1907 (2009), have yet to be enforced.

While certain European countries, such as the United Kingdom have already steeped up their efforts to tighten their grip on the Eritrean regime, other major international players seem not to take seriously enough the threats Eritrea poses on the regional peace.

In addition, international organizations that currently operate in Eritrea should be directed by their sponsor states to freeze every development program that is currently underway. To mitigate potential humanitarian crisis, such as famine and epidemics, food and medical supplies must be kept in place and categorically be coordinate via independent NGOs, and other regional Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs) that have access to the country. This plan will enable those organizations to spend their taxpayers’ money on the people, rather than the state. It also falls in line with UN Secretary General’s Antonio Gutierrez’s wish to focus more on “people”, and less on “bureaucracy.”

  As a second step, the AU, EU, and IGAD should collectively develop a framework that aims to squeeze the flow of money to the Eritrean regime. A more concentrated sanction on Eritrea’s central bank and its remittance services would hurt the regime dearly, because it is where it makes most of its profits.

For the sanctions to ease, Eritrea should lift the blockade of information off of its citizens. It should exhibit sincere commitment to improve its human rights record consistent with the manifesto of UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which includes reducing inequality, providing quality education, peace, justice, and strong institutions.

Thirdly, Eritrea’s high-ranking military and government officials continue to make business as usual. Eritrea’s top bureaucrats continue to travel around the world to conduct business on behalf of their regime. It is ironic while the average Eritrean is barely allowed to travel abroad, their government executives generously cruise around the globe. To undo this habit, in this case, IGAD through the AU must rally the EU and collectively call for a vote of a new UNSC resolution.

Such resolution will aim to impose global travel ban and assets freezing on a wisely selected group of the regime’s most influential officers, beginning with the president, Issayas Afeworki. Those sanctions ought to remain in place until the regime fully complies with the guidance of previous UN resolutions, including UNSC resolutions 1907 and 1862.

The international community, especially African countries, should take Eritrea’s destabilization seriously. Africa is growing economically at an alarming rate. In 2015, the Financial Times reported that Africa attracted most of foreign direct investments. 

A significant percentage of those investments come from China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative—a trillion-dollar infrastructure project that aims to create a more interconnected world. Djibouti and Ethiopia, two of Eritrea’s neighbors, attracted a lion’s share of those investments. China built a multi-million railway system connecting the two countries that was inaugurated in the spring of 2016. This railway will assist to deliver goods to the consumer of both countries efficiently and will give them an opportunity to play more economically competitive role in the continent. But as long as Eritrea continues to play a destabilizing role, regional peace will remain in jeopardy.


Mohamed Mahad D. Darar is an academic based in Colorado, USA. He is the former CEO of the American Institute in Djibouti, East Africa. Mr. Darar’s research and studies focus on Middle East and East Africa. Follow him on twitter at @mahaddirieh

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