ASMARA, ERITREA -- When U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld concluded a whirlwind tour of the horn of Africa and the Persian Gulf last week, he left in his wake more than just a handful of new allies in America's war on terrorism lined up behind him -- most of them countries that prior to September 11 rarely turned up on America's geopolitical radar. He also lent legitimacy to at least one government whose policies in recent years oppose everything the United States claims to stand for.
Rumsfeld's four-country tour of the region began on Tuesday, December 10 here in Eritrea, where he spent several hours meeting with President Isaias Afewerki before being whisked off for a similar meeting in Addis Ababa with Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi. He and Afewerki emerged from their meeting saying that Eritrea and America had agreed to cooperate closely in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
"This is a country that has been dealing with the problem of terrorism in the same way our country has," Rumsfeld told reporters at a press conference in the Eritrean capital. "And we both agree that these kinds of problems require cooperation over a sustained period of time."
Yet given its policies in recent years, Eritrea -- a country with which the United States has had strained relations at best for the past 14 months -- makes for a strange bedfellow. Of late, the euphoria in this part of the globe that surrounded Eritrea's 1993 independence has turned sour, as its government has failed to make the transition to multiparty democracy and its once-promising young president has overseen a descent from nationwide unity to disturbing authoritarianism.
As the CIA's country profile notes, parliamentary elections scheduled for December 2001 were postponed indefinitely. The People's Front for Democracy and Justice, a reincarnation of the Eritrean People's Liberation Party responsible for ushering in the country's independence, remains the sole legal political party. A constitution ratified in May 1997 has not taken effect, pending parliamentary and presidential elections. The Eritrean government says its border war with Ethiopia, which began in May 1998 and
ended in December 2000, is the reason.
Just as Russia used the post-September 11 U.S.-led assault on terrorism as a somewhat questionable pretense to fight its own domestic battles, Eritrea has used the global focus on terrorism to crack down on internal dissent. First, just one week after 9-11, the government detained 11 founding members of Eritrea's 30-year liberation struggle, including the former foreign minister and other prominent political leaders. Earlier in the year they had released a statement online calling on the government to institute democratic reforms. Shortly thereafter, the government closed the private press. Eventually, more than a dozen journalists were detained, and according to a number of religious organizations, several small evangelical churches in the country were closed.
Eritrea, one of several Italian colonies on the continent prior to World War II, now stands as one of the only nations without a single private media outlet. All detainees remain imprisoned at undisclosed locations without charge. No one knows if they are dead or alive, and the Eritrean government has made clear that it has no plans to release them anytime soon.
Initially, the response from the international community was swift and strong. The European Union suspended development aid to this tiny nation of 3.5 million, and criticized the government's actions, as did the United States. The Eritrean government is renown for being fiercely opposed to outside criticism of its internal affairs however, and retaliated almost immediately. The Italian ambassador to Eritrea was declared persona non-grata -- at the time, the Italian government sat atop the rotating head of the EU -- and was subsequently expelled from the country. In early October 2001, shortly after the United States criticized the government's actions, two Eritrean employees of the American embassy -- Alli Alamin and Kiflom Ghebrenichael -- were detained.
Afewerki denies these repressive acts were a blow to human rights
and democracy; he continues to assert that they were made necessary by the demands of
national security, cloaking his actions in the same language the U.S. government has used in its war on terror. When the U.S. State Department several months ago reiterated its criticism of the government's crackdown, the Eritrean government responded that its actions "had nothing to do with democracy or human rights." It also accused the United States of trying to overthrow
its government during its war with Ethiopia, a charge Washington rejects.
Diplomatic sources in Eritrea say that if immediate military assistance was deemed necessary by the United States, it would be asked for regardless of the political situation
in the country. Still, they say that long-term military cooperation between the United States and Eritrea is being hindered by the crackdown. American sources are reluctant to speak on the record for fear of instant, angry rebuttals by the government.
Though the United States has so far declined Eritrea's offers to use its Red Sea port of
Assab as a military base, the fact that Gen. Tommy Franks visited here earlier this year suggests that the Pentagon is interested in Eritrea's offer. In May, the Eritrean government stepped up its efforts to entice the United States to use the country as a base for possible military operations against Iraq by hiring the Washington lobbying firm Greenberg Traurig LLP to represent its interests. Eritrea is paying the firm an estimated $50,000 per month.
In a press release titled, "Why Not Eritrea," the firm says, "Eritrea provides the United States with a strategic advantage and hospitable atmosphere that cannot be matched in the region." The statement goes on to say, "Based on the current sentiment of the Arab community
and the geography of the region, it is increasingly clear that the failure to form an alliance with Eritrea is unconscionable." Eritrea has turned down numerous invitations to join the Arab League, and its population is divided roughly equally between Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims who have for decades coexisted peacefully.
During his visit, Rumsfeld did not say whether the United States had any plans to base troops in Eritrea or stage military operations there. He told reporters that he had discussed the detentions and press closure with Afewerki, but added that sovereign nations have the right to "arrange themselves and deal with their problems in ways that they feel are appropriate to them" -- hardly U.S. policy in other regions of the world. And he went on to say that America remains committed to strengthening its relationship with Eritrea.
"We are not offering anything to get anything from the United States," Afewerki said. "We have very limited resources, but we are willing and prepared to offer these limited resources to fight the global war on terror." He said that allowing the United States to base troops in Eritrea or stage military operations there was "the least we can do."
The United States does have about 1,200 troops stationed in neighboring Djibouti, where Rumsfeld traveled on Wednesday. Like other Muslim nations, Djibouti has expressed reluctance to allow the United States to launch part of a possible war on Iraq from its soil.
That might not be such a concern if America decides to take Eritrea up on its offer. After all, Afewerki said Eritrea has been dealing with terrorism for 13 years in neighboring Sudan, where Osama bin Laden lived in the early 1990s and from where he established his al-Qaeda network. Rumsfeld concurred, responding that the United States could learn a lot from Eritrea's experience.
The amiable atmosphere that surrounded Rumsfeld and Afewerki's meeting may not
be so encouraging to the several dozen Eritreans still languishing in prison -- their plight overshadowed by America's more pressing desire to broaden its anti-terror coalition. Meanwhile, their terror is being suffered in silence, and alone.
Alex P. Kellogg is a freelance writer currently based in Asmara, Eritrea.