Friday, August 31, 2007

Bare Knuckle Tiff with Washington

Indian Ocean Newsletter N° 1220 25/08/2007
Asmara’s relations with the American administration have entered a highly turbulent phase.

Eritrean president Issayas Afeworki doesn’t have a high opinion of American officials in charge of U.S. policy in Africa. In the past, he described Susan Rice, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Bill Clinton as “childish and uninformed.” Jendayi Frazer, who fulfils the same functions in George W. Bush’s administration, doesn’t rate much higher in his eyes. Afeworki considers her a protégé of secretary of state Condoleeze Rice and feels - not without some reason - that she is very pro Meles Zenawi, the prime minister of Ethiopia and Afeworki’s rival.

On the delicate question of delimitating the border between the rival states of Ethiopia and Eritrea, Frazer isn’t ready to accept the decision handed down by an international arbitration board, a ruling Asmara insists must be honoured. She has suggested finding a new boundary acceptable to both countries, which Afeworki refuses.

Realizing that the United States won’t turn up the heat on Ethiopia to make it accept the border delimitation decided upon by the arbitration panel, Afeworki is seeking other means of getting Addis Ababa to give in. Hence his assistance to Islamic elements in Somalia, which has only worsened diplomatic relations with Washington. To the point that Frazer let it be known in public last week that her government is thinking of adding Eritrea’s name to the list of rogue states. The tougher American stance towards Asmara also results from a lobbying campaign in the United States by Christian evangelist circles who have been denouncing repression against their brethren in Eritrea for years.

Washington has equally given Eritrea 90 days to close its consulate in Oakland, California in a tit-for-tat move against the Eritrean government’s restrictions on the activities of the U.S. embassy in Asmara. In February the embassy was forced to reduce its diplomatic operations after the Asmara authorities demanded to inspect the contents of the American diplomatic bag.