By Kaltum Guyo
If there is a lesson to be learnt from the invasion of Ethiopia’s Tigray region by Eritrean troops, it is that rogue regimes need more engagement than isolation. The international community is good at turning its back on countries it deems rogue, never to return.
Given the challenges the Horn of Africa has posed to peace and security in the region in the past few decades, it may be time to reconsider timeframes when it comes to sanctions rather than letting them run indefinitely.
Sanctions on many African countries pose more harm to the citizens than it does to the leaders.
Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe may have been sanctioned due to his autocratic rule but he did not lose sleep over lack of food, healthcare or designer clothes for his wife. When the West turned its back on him, Mugabe went East and carried on as usual. The void created by Western allies was quickly filled by China. Beijing propped up Mugabe’s regime until his political demise. It took the intervention of the military even then to instil a semblance of order and open Zimbabwe to the world once more.
The problem with sanctioning African countries lies with lack of uniformity on who needs to sanction whom and who has the right to lift the sanctions. There is more of geopolitics at play than UN’s involvement in many cases.
Even when the UN imposes sanctions, there is always the voice of a powerful country behind the sanction. Iran has seen more sanctions from the US, for instance, than even from the UN, the latest having been imposed by former US President Donald Trump, mostly inspired by his pro-Israel stand.
Isolationism creates power vacuums, as witnessed in Somalia in the 1990s and 2000s. As the world walked away from Somalia, Al-Shabaab moved in and grew tendrils under the very nose of the international community. The power vacuum introduced Osama bin Laden to the world.
The mastermind of the twin 1998 Nairobi and Dar es Salaam US Embassy bombings and 9/11 bombing in America lived in Somalia during its isolated phase and had the free reign to inspire Al-Qaeda, one of the deadliest terror groups that continues to cause mayhem in Somalia and Africa.
Nobel Peace Prize
Eritrea seems to suffer the same fate as Somalia. President Isaias Afwerki has not won many plaudits with the international community, given his record on human rights violations and has been shunned for more than 20 years.
The main victim of the tension between Eritrea, Ethiopia and the rest of the world has been young Eritreas, who have fled the country in droves. The UNHCR estimated the number of Eritrean refugees at more than half a million in 2018.
Leaving Afwerki, and by extension, Asmara, isolated will only lead to further suffering of the citizenry. The influx into Europe and North America of Eritrean refugees will continue. Isolating Eritrea further is not the best way to stem the flow of young and resourceful Eritreans into refugee camps in some of the most inhospitable places, such as Libya.
When Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for brokering peace between his country and Eritrea, Mr Afwerki was left out. But both men were deserving of the prize. And an opportunity was lost to give Eritrean’s peace and stability. There is no Abiy Nobel laureate without Afwerki. Similarly, had the latter not extended his hand to accept the friendship, there would have been no such peace.
Commenting on the relationship between the US and Iran, former US President Barack Obama was quoted as saying: “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Mr Afwerki did, indeed, unclench his fist for the sake of peace with his neighbour and, by extension, the world. Not recognising his input is akin to not willing to engage him further to reform Eritrea for Eritreans.
Abiy was criticised for the Tigray incursion, which he did with the help of Eritrea. His Nobel was felt undeserved after he went to war with a section of his own country, and which he leads. The critics failed to recognise the fact that the conflict in Tigray is separate from the longstanding feud between Asmara and Addis Ababa. Had he not taken the steps to bring Eritrea out of the cold, it would most likely have been forgotten.
The international community should be blamed for closing the door firmly on Eritrea. The snub only legitimised their latest action in Tigray. They had nothing more to lose if they had nothing left. If they were deemed rogue, then they would play to the gallery — as they did by hiring out troops to friends with no fear of recrimination from the world.
Sanctions are fine but the open-ended timeframes need to be sanctioned. The international community gets hinged on sanctions and war much more than it does diplomacy when the latter should always be the default line when pursuing peace and security.
Ms Guyo is a legal researcher. firstname.lastname@example.org. @kdiguyo