Last chance for Eritrean leader to redeem himself

By Tabu Butagira & Isaac Imaka


More than a decade ago, former US President Bill Clinton helped to popularise the buzzword ‘new breed’ of African leaders. His administration official had named Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea, among others, as a ‘new breed’ of African leaders. And exactly one month ago, today, the UN Monitoring Group identified Asmara as a sponsor of al-Shabaab- the Somali-based militants designated a terrorist group by Washington.

The dirty detail is that Eritrea, which has unfinished border dispute with Ethiopia, allegedly financed and armed the radicals in a proxy war with Meles Zenawi’s government that installed the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Somalia. Asmara had supported TFG’s predecessor, the Islamic Courts Union.

Sponsoring al-Shabaab
The UN’s drab assessment of Mr Afewerki stretches to tie his regime’s hand in an alleged failed plot to kill African Union leaders during a summit early this year. “In January 2011, the government of Eritrea conceived, planned, organised and directed a failed plot to disrupt the African Union summit in Addis Ababa by bombing a variety of civilian and governmental targets,” reads part of the UN Monitoring Group’s report signed by Hardeep Singh Puri.

So why would President Museveni invite a man so loathed and isolated to dine with, and giving him a honourable 21-gun salute? A senior diplomat in Kampala, who asked not to be named to discuss Mr Afewerki’s visit unencumbered, said the Eritrean leader is “a weak man looking to redeem himself”.

The UN Security Council under Resolution 2002 passed on July 29, slaps further sanctions on Eritrea to include individuals and entities identified as political or military leaders recruiting or using child soldiers.

Yet Asmara wants a comeback to the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) after staying in the international cold since 2007 when it walked out on the regional bloc. “The idea of the visit is to bring the man closer so that he sees the light if he is not going to continue to be isolated regionally and internationally,” the diplomat said.

Officials told this newspaper that Mr Museveni would candidly tell his guest, in their closed-door talks, to choose between supporting al-Shabaab, and remaining sidelined. Already the July 17 UN report alludes to some elements of Eritrean intelligence linked to the foiled bomb attack in Addis Ababa, roam in Uganda, South Sudan and Kenya.

Another government official said: “If he (Mr Afewerki) doesn’t (reform), Uganda will frustrate Eritrea’s comeback to IGAD and lobby for UN action against him at the UN General Assembly (sitting next month).” However, Amb. James Mugume, the foreign affairs permanent secretary, disagreed. “The two leaders will discuss regional peace and security, including IGAD, issues”. “Eritrea by joining IGAD will come to our side and play a more positive role in regional peace and security efforts,” he said.

The US, which bankrolls operations of AMISOM – and to which Uganda is the largest contributor – has been piling pressure on Eritrea. It has emerged that President Museveni and a visiting US delegation including Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Mr Donald Yamamoto, on August 10, extensively discussed Asmara’s unsettling behaviour during wider talks about restoring stability in the greater Horn of Africa.

The al-Shabaab have already withdrawn from Mogadishu, days to yesterday’s arrival of the Eritean leader, preparing the psychological mood for talks between former friends-turned-foes.

Mr Museveni, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, alongside Afewerki, formed Africa’s so-called “new breed” of leaders, although today all have questionable governance record and dictatorial tendency.

Presidential Spokesman Tamale Mirundi, said: “This (visit) means Uganda’s role in international diplomacy is well-recognised and that President Museveni is a key player.”

It is understood that both Mr Museveni and Mr Afewerki were, before Uganda deployed its military to Mogadishu in March 2007, friends and worked to achieve South Sudan’s liberation.

(Source: Daily Monitor)

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