Uganda bombings bring Africa together. Except Eritrea.

 By Max Delany, Correspondent / July 29, 2010

African leaders called for tougher measures against Islamist extremists in Somalia in the wake of the July 11 Uganda bombings. Eritrea is pushing for talks instead.

Kampala, Uganda

Shortly after marking two weeks since suspected twin suicide bombings killed 76 people watching the World Cup Final in Uganda‘s capital of Kampala, leaders from across the continent pledged to tackle the terrorist threat from Somalia at an African Union summit in the city.

After years of wrangling, underfunding, and broken promises, leaders agreed that the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia – AMISOM – would finally be boosted to its intended full strength of 8,000 soldiers and said that further pledges of soldiers from Guinea and Djibouti could see the mandated level rise still higher.

But while presidents from Senegal to South Africa condemned the Kampala attacks as unjustifiable and called for more robust action against the Al Qaeda-linked Somali Islamist group Al Shabab, which claimed to be behind the bombings, one country had other ideas.

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Sometimes called Africa’s North Korea, Eritrea has hermetically sealed itself off from the outside world. Late last year, the Ohio-sized nation on the Red Sea was sanctioned by the UN for supporting Islamist insurgents in nearby Somalia.

At the Kampala summit, an unusually high-ranking delegation from Eritrea – including the foreign minister and a key presidential adviser – opposed calls for more troops and a tougher mandate, reportedly asking why, if Afghanistan’s leaders can talk to the Taliban, Somalia’s leaders could not talk to Al Shabab.

Does Eritrea have links to Al Shabab?

In the aftermath of the Uganda bombings, US Congressman Edward Royce (R) of California wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton calling for the designation of Eritrea as a state sponsor of terrorism given what he called its “well documented” support for Al Shabab.

But Eritrean officials have repeatedly denied the accusations in the past and consistently argued that opposition to more AU peacekeepers in the country is based on the belief that further foreign interference is not the way to solve the Somali crisis.

Analysts say that while Eritrea has previously supported insurgents in Somalia as part of a proxy war with its bitter enemy and former master Ethiopia – which had troops in Somalia between 2006 and 2009 and has a festering border dispute with Eritrea – there is little proof that Eritrea is still supporting the Islamist extremists.

“There is essentially no concrete evidence that Eritrea continues to supply or assist Al Shabab over the past year and a half,” said EJ Hogendoorn, Horn of Africa director at the International Crisis Group.

Calls for dialogue with some elements of Al Shabab are not so unreasonable, Mr. Hogendorn said, as “sharp ideological divisions” inside the movement mean that it is far less cohesive than many policymakers believe.

One of the main problems is that Somalia’s feeble UN-backed transitional government is too weak or unwilling to offer sufficient sacrifices or security assurances to opposition groups or possible Al Shabab defectors, Hogendoorn said.

‘No calls’ for talks

Beyond Eritrea, it seems that few in the international community are talking of dialogue with Al Shabab, however.

At the summit, US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson, said that no one at a high-level meeting of regional and international players on Somalia – a meeting that did not include Eritrea – had suggested talking to Al Shabab.

“I heard absolutely no calls for any kind of reaching out to Al Shabab,” Secretary Carson said. “In fact, quite the contrary, some statements were made very clearly warning of the danger that Al Shabab and the extremist leadership of Al Shabab pose not only to Somalia … but to the entire region.”

The chairman of the African Union commission, Jean Ping, said that while Somalia’s weak Transitional Federal Government needs to broaden its support through targeted negotiations, there was no chance of talking to Al Shabab.

“There is the necessity to reinforce the basis of the transitional government by negotiating with all the Somalis who are able to negotiate,” Ping said. “The radicals do not want to negotiate, they just want to kill, so there is no question of negotiating with them.”

Talking at the end of the Kampala summit, Ping said, however, that improving relations between Eritrea and some of its neighbors – all of which it has fallen out with – could impact the crisis in Somalia.

“Eritrea is moving – they have solved their problem with Djibouti already, they have solved their problem with Sudan and we hope that this will have a positive implications not only for Somalia but also for their conflict with Ethiopia,” Ping said.

Eritrea warming to regional efforts?

Uganda’s state minister for regional cooperation, Isaac Musumba, said that Eritrean opposition to the regional stance on Somalia makes battling extremists in the country a tougher prospect. Uganda is the largest contributor of troops to the AMISOM peacekeeping mission in Somalia.

“If you have a country like Eritrea not agreeing to what all its neighbors are doing it is a dangerous opening,” Musumba said. “It can provide safe-haven and safe passage for the bad people.”

Although there was no sign of Eritrea softening its stance on Somalia, Musumba said its decision to send a high-ranking delegation to the AU summit and indications that it wanted to start participating again in the East African regional bloc, the Intergovernmental Agency for Development, after a self-imposed suspension, marked a small step forward.

“It is at least better to have someone that you don’t agree with but can now talk to rather than someone you don’t agree with and cannot talk to,” Musumba said.

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