Eritrea’s importance in the Horn of Africa regional politics is dictated more by its strategic location along the Red Sea than its wealth. Despite talks of gold discovery, Eritrea is one the world’s poorest countries with an economy that was further bankrupted by a costly and absurd war with Ethiopia in 1998. Yet, Eritrea remains a regional power to reckon with. The sixth in our series about South Sudan’s pending historic independence referendum highlights Eritrea’s position; A position that naturally runs against Ethiopia’s.
Years after being a de facto leader of Eritrea, Isaias Afewerki was elected president in 1993 after the Horn of Africa country gained its independence from Ethiopia through a referendum. Four years after being installed as President, Isaias Afewerki refused to adhere to his promise of democratic reforms and has since ruled the country with an iron fist. And despite its independence from Ethiopia, the two countries have remained hostile to each other; The bone of contention is land.
In the early nineties, Asmara worked hand in glove with Washington to destabilize the Sudan, after Beshir’s regime fell out with the US. Eritrea not only opened up the country to CIA operatives, the SPLM, northern Sudan opposition parties like the Umma and the Democratic Unionist Party of Mirghani, but also went further to back armed rebels in Eastern Sudan (the Beja Congress among others).
Eritrea also channeled arms to the Darfur rebels and nurtured a general conflict state with the Sudan. But this situation has changed gradually with the Eritrean rulers distancing themselves from Washington and accusing the latter of fomenting plots and conspiracies to overthrow Isaias Afewerki.
Eritrean anger was exacerbated by the fact that Washington has refused to put pressure on the Meles Zenawi regime to respect the ruling of the International Court in Hague which had decided in Eritrea’s favor on the border conflict.
Nonetheless, Eritrea’s involvement on the side of the Somali radicals (more with Sheikh Aweys than with Al Shabab) also complicated the problem. The strategic concern of Eritrea being its troubled relations with Ethiopia; both help each other’s opposition and have tried to wage war by proxy. Eritrea’s stance towards the Sudan has shifted in accord with this basic concern.
Presently, Eritrea is much closer to Beshir than it is with the government of Southern Sudan (GOSS). Yet, Eritrea is visibly present in Southern Sudan and at the end of the day would prefer a united Sudan to an independent South Sudan under the domination of the West that has continuously condemned the Eritrean regime for gross violation of human rights.