By The Strathink Editorial Team
Last week there were reports that 20 members of a rebel movement—known as the Benishangul Gumuz People’s Liberation Movement (BPLM)—had been captured while attempting to attack the site of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The dam, now close to completion, is expected to quadruple Ethiopia’s current electricity and export power to other African countries and potentially Europe. Ethiopia is poised to become Africa’s largest producer of electricity with the capacity to earn an estimated $1 billion dollars a year.
Ethiopia has claimed that Eritrea is behind this organization and the recent attack.
Bloomberg news quotes Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel saying, the accusation that his country sponsored the group “is preposterous and peddled for some sinister reason.” Gebremeskel added that he had “never heard of this group.”
The organization’s telephone number, cited in a press release announcing the formation of the Peoples’ Alliance for Freedom and Democracy, a coalition of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), and the Sidama National Liberation Front (SNLF) has an Eritrean country code (#291).
There are a number of people in the foreign policy community in the United States who are calling to, in the words of former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Herman Cohen, “bring Eritrea in from the cold.” Another proponent calling for removing sanctions against the Eritrean government is the Atlantic Council’s Bronwyn Bruton on, we presume, the advice of one of the Council’s donors, Nevsun Resources. Nevsun Resources is a Canadian firm whose only asset was the Bisha Mine in Eritrea until recently acquiring a gold and copper project in Serbia.
Should the United States lift its sanctions on Eritrea and facilitate a robust diplomatic relationship with the Eritrean government?
Eritrea and its supporters argue that the original call for sanctions was based on a falsehood. The original call was based on a U.N. report accusing Eritrea of supporting of al-Shabaab and refusing to withdraw troops from the disputed border with Djibouti. The U.N. imposed an arms embargo, travel ban and froze the assets of some of Eritrea’s military and political leaders. The African Union had been advocating for U.N. sanctions for these same reasons. Subsequently, Eritrea withdrew from the African Union.
Eritrea has strenuously denied supporting al-Shabaab since then. In 2012, the U.N. Somalia and Eritrean Monitoring Group (SEMG) announced that it could find no evidence of Eritrea supporting al-Shabaab during the previous year. In July 2016, the U.N. Monitoring group said it could find no evidence that Eritrea was supporting al-Shabaab but “[Eritrea] still violates U.N. Security Council resolutions and remains a destabilizing influence.”
Let’s assume, then, than that Eritrea is no longer supporting al-Shabaab. Should the United States lift its sanctions on Eritrea and facilitate a robust diplomatic relationship with the Eritrean government? What are the positives and negatives of such a move? What would be the expected outcomes for Eritrea and the United States?
- On the positive side, one might argue that only with a better relationship could the U.S. “leverage,” say, foreign assistance, to make Eritrea improve its governance and become a better neighbor to the countries in the Horn of Africa.
Aid conditionality has generated intense debate within the foreign policy community.  What seems clear, however, is that conditionality may have some effect but only on democratic states. According to Gabriella R. Montinola’s research on 67 countries over a period of nine years, “the value of aid to governments depends on the degree to which it helps them maintain power, and recent work shows that the marginal impact of aid on political survival increases with level of democracy.”
In the case of Eritrea, President Isayas seems the least likely head of state to be affected by aid conditionality at all. His views on the United States and foreign assistance have been clear and consistent for the last 25 years..
President Isayas has said that, “It is no secret that they [the United States] dominates the world. It is no secret that they control resources.”  The United States dominated by “special interests” controls the world by proxy—“by agents.” According to the President, the United States is ruled by a “sick and intolerant ideology of domination and control.” 
The insidious control exerted by the United States, says the President, is done by controlling the world’s oil, manufacturing sector and technology.  Even more insidious than controlling global resources is the fact that “they [the United States] control our minds.” These are the President’s own words.
And as for foreign aid, President Isayas, until recently, has been steadfast in his refusal to accept foreign aid packages from the West. He has pivoted on this principle by accepting 200 million Euros in assistance offered by the European Union to presumably stem the tide of Eritrea’s migrants fleeing across the border at an alarming rate of 5,000 per month.
It seems a stretch to believe that even if Eritrea accepted aid from the United States, he would feel pressured to abide by international laws and norms—particularly if that pressure were exerted by the United States.
- The United States would have a new ally in the strategic and volatile region of the Horn of Africa to counter encroaching extremism.
Eritrea is strategically situated on the Red Sea, the gateway to the Middle East. Its neighbors include Djibouti, Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia. Across the expanse of the Red Sea is Yemen. For the United States, Eritrea occupies prime real estate and in the post-9/11 world, the United States needs all the friends it can get to counter the threat of terrorism from al-Qaeda, ISIS, al-Shabaab and their allies.
Eritrea would make a strategically important ally for the United States, sharing intelligence and serving as a buffer to extremist groups seeking a greater foothold in the Horn. However, Eritrea has a history of quick-shifting alliances and, moreover, harbors and supports terrorist groups.
Take the case of Yemen. There were earlier allegations that Eritrea was supporting Houthi rebels and Iran in Yemen’s bloody conflict. When the United Arabia Emirates (UAE) had a falling out with Djibouti, on the very day Djibouti evicted Saudi Arabia and the UAE from its airbase, Eritrea signed a security and military partnership with the Gulf states. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are on not on the side of the Houthi rebels. In return, the UAE has provided an aid package to Eritrea and is modernizing Asmara International Airport, constructing new infrastructure, and increasing fuel supplies to Eritrea.
Eritrea cannot be faulted for choosing allies to serve its national interests but the sudden flip-flop is a red flag for other countries in forging more lasting strategic partnerships.
It is difficult to understand Eritrea’s long-term foreign policy other than as a regional spoiler to peace. Since independence, the one consistency in Eritrea’s foreign relations is as an instigator to conflict with virtually all of its neighbors. And if we accept the fact that Eritrea is not supporting al-Shabaab—or at the very most there is no discernible evidence of Eritrea providing weapons to al-Shabaab—we certainly cannot ignore the fact that Eritrea plays host to Ginbot 7, the Benishangul Gumuz People’s Liberation Movement, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), to name a few—self-described terrorist organizations targeting Ethiopia.
How then, would better diplomatic relations with Eritrea serve to strengthen U.S. efforts in the Horn of Africa to counter extremists when Eritrea supports these extremists? The argument is specious as long as Eritrea continues to support armed groups attempting to de-stabilize Ethiopia. Extremism comes in many forms and is not confined to an ideology based on forming an Islamic state.
- Better diplomatic relations with Eritrea would balance U.S. influence in the Horn between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Much has been written about the U.S. relationship with Ethiopia. Proponents of a strong relationship argue that Ethiopia serves as a critically important “anchor state” in the rough neighborhood of the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia, surrounded by Somalia, South Sudan and, yes, Eritrea, is a stable partner for the U.S., sharing intelligence for counterterrorism and playing an important role in regional organizations, most notably the African Union and IGAD. There are those, however, that see the U.S. partnership with Ethiopia as detrimental to resolving the border issue with Eritrea, specifically, and the balance of power in the Horn, generally.
Would a better relationship with Eritrea erode, or even dissolve, the U.S. partnership with Ethiopia? The answer is yes. Ethiopia could not tolerate the U.S. aiding and abetting the Eritrean government. Eritrea has shown its determination to undermine any gains—whether economic or political—made by Ethiopia. The attack on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is just one out of many attempts by Eritrea to cause havoc for its neighbor. Eritrea has consistently blamed every one of its problems and setbacks on Ethiopia.
Indeed, President Isayas has said that the “no war, no peace” situation over the demarcation and delimitation of the border following the Algiers agreement is a sinister follow-up to the U.S.’s instigating the war in the very beginning. According to the President, “That decision [arbitration] is blocked by the U.S. cover-up for the failure of the misguided policies in the Horn of Africa for the last 20 years.” Ethiopia, says the President, is an agent of the United States.
Strathink tried very hard to understand the arguments supporting a better relationship between Eritrea and the United States. We can’t seem to be able to identify one positive in supporting President Isayas, particularly in light of the strategic importance of Ethiopia to U.S. national security interests.
The relationship between Eritrea and the United States is fraught with landmines—hidden explosives that can detonate with just wrong misstep. Fast shifting alliances, harboring terrorist organizations, repeated attempts to de-stabilize its neighbors, its enmity with Ethiopia and a pathological hatred of the United States all work to discourage a more positive relationship with the United States. In the end, it is difficult to predict an outcome that would provide any benefit to the United States.
No constitution. No elections. No rule of law. Indefinite national services. A staggeringly dismal record on human rights. What possible benefit would be derived for the United States in partnering with Eritrea?
Only the Government of Eritrea would benefit from a better diplomatic relationship with the United States. And is this beneficial to the people of Eritrea? The Eritrean government has chosen to remain in this perpetual winter where democracy and the economy stay frozen in time—where the drip, drip, drip of stagnation and oppression slowly suffocates the lifeblood out of the Eritrean people. The United States can’t bring Eritrea in from the cold. It exists in a perpetual winter until real, organic change can move it forward.
 When Does Aid Conditionality Work? Gabriella R. Montinola, Department of Political Science University of California, Davis October 2007.