NEW YORK—he Eritrean ambassador to the United Nations, Araya Desta, is clearly animated when it comes to Ethiopia’s sudden military intervention in the Somali capital of Mogadishu last month.
For many Eritreans, Ethiopia’s “invasion” not only signals the growing strength of their archenemy, it also signals the arrival of a new power dynamic in the Horn of Africa, one in which the United States is now king.
“This war in Somalia is a proxy war for big powers,” Desta told The Washington Diplomat in an interview shortly before the U.S. strike in southern Somalia that targeted suspected senior members of al-Qaeda—the first overt U.S. military action in Somalia since 1994.
Desta strongly denied that Eritrea sent militants into Mogadishu to fight for the ousted Islamic regime, called the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). “To cover up what the big powers are doing, they have to mention the name of Eritrea now and then,” he said blankly.
The ambassador repeatedly mentioned the “big powers” during his interview, saying they are supplying Ethiopia with weapons and intelligence, but he did not expressly identify who these big powers were. So is he essentially talking about the United States? “You say it! I didn’t say it was the United States,” he replied coyly. “What I am saying is that there are some big powers who wanted to get involved in this matter. There is a general concern that some big powers want to dominate and control the world. If that is the situation, Somalia has become a victim of it.”
He did pointedly accuse the United States of treating every Horn of Africa country except Ethiopia as “trash,” leaving little doubt about the identity of these big powers. “They have used Ethiopia to fulfill their egos and their wrong vision and because of this we are seeing people dying,” he said. “Instead of killing people, wouldn’t it be better to do it in a peaceful way?”
Peace in the region, however, has been elusive. Following Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia in 1993, the two countries enjoyed close economic ties, but fighting erupted in 1998 over a bitter border dispute. In 2000, after Ethiopia launched a full-scale offensive inside Eritrea, a ceasefire was accepted, but the border war had already caused massive internal displacement, tens of thousands of lives lost and economic devastation—especially for Eritrea, which has a population of some 4 million compared to Ethiopia’s 77 million.
“We hate war because we suffered from 30 years of independence fighting and three years of a border conflict, and we don’t want any of our neighbors to suffer this problem,” Desta said.
The tenuous peace deal that was reached in 2000, however, never fully settled the issue of border demarcation, and many say the conflict in Somalia has been fueled by the long-simmering Ethiopian-Eritrean rivalry (see Dec. 21, 2006 news column of the Diplomatic Pouch online).
From Eritrea’s perspective, the United Nations, African Union and European Union should not be supporting Ethiopia’s involvement in Somalia. Ambassador Desta said he is pushing for an international conference of all the players to work out a united government for Somalia that is not dominated by any one power. This would include discussions between the two main players: the UIC—which had been welcomed by most of the population when it ousted the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) this past summer—and the largely unpopular but internationally recognized TFG, which regained control of Somalia following the Ethiopian offensive.
According to the ambassador, any political agreement should come from the Somalis themselves, whom he said are well accustomed to having village discussions to solve problems. “Somalia has been in disarray for 15 years without any leader or any government. Somalis have one ethnicity, one language, and, with some differences, one culture—and these people have been solving their problems under the tree with elders, women, young people talking it out. This is the Somalia way,” he said.
He added that whatever the perceived shortcomings of the harsh Islamic rule imposed by the UIC, it had brought stability before Ethiopia intervened. “We wanted to give it a chance. For about six months, to some extent, there was peace in [Mogadishu]. Shops were working, airports started to work, the port started to work. For the first time in 15 years, peace had come. We were saying: ‘Instead of interfering, the best thing is to bring both sides—TFG and UIC, and all of us, the U.N., [African Union], everyone—to the discussion table,’” Desta explained. “That was started by the Arab League in Khartoum. We wanted to continue this and let them solve their own problems, but it never materialized.”
Somalis, most of whom are Muslim, have long been suspicious of Ethiopia, which is strongly Christian, and the invasion just made the situation worse, Desta said. “Somalis consider Ethiopians as their number-one enemy and when they see an Ethiopian, they become nervous. When Ethiopia invaded, it becomes much more critical. When the Ethiopians went in with their tanks and planes, they disturbed the whole thing and the UIC started to flee. Definitely the UIC cannot challenge the Ethiopians.”
He flatly rejected charges that the UIC was harboring al-Qaeda members and that it was developing a Taliban-style government in Somalia. On the contrary, he said, the Ethiopian invasion was similar to the U.S. invasion of Iraq—an intervention that created terrorists, rather than destroy them.
“There weren’t terrorists in Iraq, the weapons of mass destruction were not there, yet this massive military force went into Iraq,” Desta said. “They toppled the dictator but then what happened? It became a ground for terrorists. And as far as Eritrea is concerned, or personally myself, there could be some supporters of al-Qaeda in Somalia, but these people are everywhere these days. They were in the [United] States, Great Britain, Spain and Italy.”
Furthermore, he argues that Eritrea wants internal stability in Somalia so that al-Qaeda can be stopped. “Once there is peace in the region, we can pick them off slowly.”
But many countries, including the United States, have rejected that claim, contending that the UIC was promoting a hard-line Islamic regime perfectly suited to the growth of al-Qaeda.
However, Desta counters that the Somalis are far too free-spirited to be burdened by a Taliban-style government. “It was businessmen who started the UIC,” he said emphatically. “Businessmen are, by nature, people who like to be free, to move, to trade as they want, and at the same time they had intellectuals from the States, from Europe and elsewhere who wanted to see peace and a government in Somalia. There were also professionals in the UIC. There were even nomads!”
He repeated the line, rejected by the TFG forces, that internal Somali agreement would have given the United States much easier access to al-Qaeda operatives in Somalia. “We were expecting agreement between the UIC and TFG and after that, it would be much easier for the U.S. to go there and get al-Qaeda,” he said.
Desta’s own country has suffered from al-Qaeda’s wrath: Four Belgian tourists were killed by al-Qaeda members in 1995, and followers of Osama bin Laden have been working to foment radical Islam in Eritrea, Desta said, especially after the al-Qaeda leader moved to Sudan in the early 1990s.
However, according to human rights and religious groups, Eritrea is far from being a free and open country when it comes to Christian groups. As it stands now, Catholics, Orthodox Eritreans, Lutherans and Sunnis are free to practice in the country, but critics charge that new religions, in particular Christian groups, find it virtually impossible to get official approval from the Eritrean government.
“Eritrea is not against any belief,” Desta responded. “People can practice any religion as long as they follow the regulations and the security of the country. These people don’t have a place to assemble. The government doesn’t know anything about them. The government told them: ‘We are not against any religion. You can believe in a stone or an animal, whatever you want.’
“We are also very serious about terrorism,” he continued. “We don’t allow everyone in a group to discuss unless they inform the government in advance because it’s a question of terrorism. You cannot believe them. We are not just against extremist Christians. We are also against extremist Muslims too.”
Which once again brings up the issue of Somalia. Desta was adamant that Eritrea would never send militants into Somalia to launch terrorist campaigns when the government is trying so hard to curb such fanaticism. Ethiopia’s allegations against his country are, he said, “totally ridiculous.”
And if his country has a poor relationship with the United Nations and the United States, he added, it is only because the international community has not addressed Eritrea’s ongoing border dispute with Ethiopia.
“We were quite happy to be members of the United Nations. We wanted to have close relations with the Americans, but unfortunately they didn’t want our relations. They chose the Ethiopians and even designed it as an anchor country in the Horn of Africa so Ethiopia would control Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya and others. That is the vision of the U.S., and we don’t agree with it. We simply won’t be dominated.”
About the Author
Sean O’Driscoll is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.