Long accused of aiding and abetting the Al Shabaab insurgency in Somalia, Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki’s three-day visit to Kampala last week was interpreted as an attempt to end his country’s isolation. Analysts said the outcome of the visit would thus have security and geopolitical ramifications right across East Africa and the Horn of Africa.
Even though he was invited by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni — whose troops form the backbone of the nearly 10,000-strong African Union Mission in Somalia, Amisom, that is fighting the Somali militia — Afewerki is said to have leaped at the opportunity to mend fences with regional leaders within the framework of the Inter Governmental Authority on Development (Igad).
However, geopolitical and security analysts were not persuaded that Afewerki is about to turn a new leaf. They argued that the Eritrean leader, whom a UN Monitoring Group report last month accused of fuelling terror in the region through Al Shabaab, was using his Kampala visit to push for his own agenda in Somalia in the wake of the defeat of Al Shabaab in Mogadishu. This is the immediate setback that triggered Afewerki’s “relenting,” but the war to achieve other objectives is not yet lost.
“He still commands a lot of respect among the big Somali Islamist groups; he is not here to surrender, because Afewerki is a hard man. But he can use this platform to bargain with regional and international leaders. And this is something that Museveni can buy into, because he also knows what cards Afewerki holds,” said Simon Mulongo, Ugandan legislator and former director of the Eastern African Standby Brigade.
The visit came as Eritrea launched a last-ditch diplomatic offensive to stave off further international sanctions that would cut off major streams of revenue for the government, crippling an already weak economy.
The UN Security Council is preparing to vote on adopting a report that accuses Asmara of working to destabilise the Horn of Africa region, including financing armed groups in Somalia, Sudan and Djibouti.
The Eritrean government has instead called for an internationally brokered “political and diplomatic” solution to its longstanding territorial row with Ethiopia, which Asmara said was the main problem in the Horn region.
According to Mr Mulongo, Afewerki stands for a united Somalia, referred to as “five-star Somalia” that comprises the regions of Ogaden, the Somali territory in the north of Kenya, Djibouti, Somaliland and Puntland.
Indeed, after hours of a closed-door meeting with his host, Afewerki reiterated this position, arguing that Somalia is not just about Al Shabaab or his perceived support of the terror group that is affiliated to Al Qaeda.
“Get this out of your mind. Somalia isn’t about Al Shabaab. The main issue is reconstitution of Somalia,” he said during a joint press conference he addressed with his host at State House Entebbe at the end of his visit on Thursday last week.
“We shall not be distracted by Al Shabaab. People try to focus on this negative phenomenon, it’s distracting… If Somalia can be reconstituted, they will take on any terrorism organisation, piracy and even this famine. We are not talking Al Shabaab… we are focusing on serious issues,” he said, adding that accusations that his government is funding Al Shabaab are “accumulated rumours and lies.”
Even though Uganda and Burundi are the only countries to contribute troops to Amisom, the member states of Igad — Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia — have rallied behind the Somali Transitional Federal Government.
“At this time, what is required is not isolationist measures that destabilise the region but diplomatic and political efforts that will build trust and confidence among the countries in the region,” read a statement circulated by Eritrea’s missions at the UN and Africa Union.
Eritrea, already under a UN arms embargo, has over the past month been under huge international pressure after a UN Monitoring Group report accused it of supporting extremist groups including Somali fundamentalist militias as part of its bitter row with neighbour Ethiopia.
Eritrea was sucked into the Somali conflict because of geopolitics; it then became the vanguard of forces against Ethiopian and Western interests, which meant that it was also against Igad interests, meaning it ended up isolated.
Now the situation has become critical with the defeat of Islamic forces in Mogadishu; Mogadishu is a harbour that offers access to the sea, but it is also the main hub of most of Somalia; it also remains a symbolic capital.
“I am convinced that Afewerki’s coming here was triggered by the realisation that his long-term project is about to fail, and so he has to save face. He knows that Museveni now becomes a key factor, given his position in Somalia: His army contributes the bulk of the Amisom forces; it is his commanders who lead the force and he wields both diplomatic and military muscle, recognised by the US, EU and regional governments,” Mr Mulongo told The EastAfrican.
Despite this being a humbling experience for Afewerki, sources argue that there are some things the Eritrean strongman will not accept. In 2006, when the AU mooted the deployment of a peacekeeping force in Somalia, for instance, Afewerki told off Museveni at a frosty meeting in Massawa, Eritrea when the Uganda president was lobbying Igad countries to contribute troops. A diplomatic source told The EastAfrican that the Eritrean leader “never gave a chance to Museveni to speak to him” and told him to “deploy his army to Mogadishu only if he was prepared to take his soldiers back in body bags.”
This is why analysts say Afewerki will not just beat a meek retreat but will table his own agenda, which he views as the basis of peace in the Horn.
Prior to last week’s events, political and diplomatic manoeuvring to rein in the Horn’s renegade saw the first ever Joint Permanent Commission meeting, which took place in July between Uganda’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa and Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ato Hailemariam Desalegn. The two expressed concerns over Somalia’s shaky Transitional Federal Government existing side by side with the Al Shabaab militia. And in a pointed remark, Mr Desalegn noted that Al Shabaab was thriving because it is “supported by various actors in the region and beyond.”
A top official of the ministry told The EastAfrican that the two agreed to expand their activities to stabilise Somalia. But considering the frosty relations between Asmara and Addis Ababa, it was agreed that Kampala would be the engine to drive this move, to bring Asmara back into the fold and resist international moves to slap further sanctions on the country, as it had emerged that the UN Security Council was preparing to vote on adopting the UN Monitoring Group report that accused Asmara of destabilising the Horn, including financing armed groups in Somalia, Sudan and Djibouti.
It should be recalled that Museveni accused Afewerki of supplying arms to Al Shabaab in a meeting with former US assistant secretary of state for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer in 2008, as US diplomatic cables leaked by global whistleblower WikiLeaks revealed last year.
By JULIUS BARIGABA in Uganda and ARGAW ASHINE in Ethiopia