Friday, November 30, 2007

Asmara, the magnet for opponents

Indian Ocean Newsletter N° 1227 01/12/2007
A small country with big ambitions, Eritrea has become the headquarters of opponents from all over the Horn of Africa. Asmara uses them against Ethiopia or as bargaining counters to make its presence felt on the regional diplomatic scene. But its aid is not without obligations, as many of its “guests” have found out to their cost.

Full steam ahead for Ethiopia. While Eritrea is subsidising the Islamist leaders of the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS), founded in Asmara in September, it is putting the overwhelming bulk of its support into backing Ethiopian rebels. Some leaders of these Ethiopian rebel groups have lived for many years in Asmara, such as Daoud Ibsa of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), along with his staff and other of this organisation’s officials. Hundreds of OLF recruits have been stationed and trained in a camp near Teseney. The head of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), “Admiral” Mohamed Omar Osman, is frequently in Asmara where the leader of the Ethiopian People’s Patriotic Front (EPPF), Musse Tegene, moved after leaving his residence in Geneva. Mussa Ibrahim of the ARDUF (Afar rebel movement) is also one of Asmara’s new residents, where Gelfato Feka of the Sidama Liberation Front and Meazo Make of Southern Ethiopia People’s for Justice and Equality are also “guests” of the Eritrean government. The movements of these Ethiopian opponents are monitored by the security services and the Eritrean government party and they are under the control of Colonels Teame and Mussa. The ONLF, which can take pride in an extensive action against a Chinese mining company in Ethiopia, carried off the lion’s share of funds given by Libya to Eritrea to finance the Ethiopian opposition. The other Ethiopian rebel groups had to be content with the strict minimum.

Manipulation over Darfur. A great many Darfur militants have had Eritrean support, ever since Sharif Harir, a Zaghawa who joined the AND in 1995, and the former governor Ahmed Ibrahim Diraige. Khalil Ibrahim and his JEM movement were for a while strongly present in Asmara, whereas Abdel Wahid Mohamed an-Nour on the other hand came there in 2004 but was very soon irritated by the Eritrean interference. Today, the splits between the Darfur factions are so wide that no rebel movement stays in Asmara for any length of time. However, the band of frequent “visitors” includes Sharif Harir (who acts as an intermediary with Chad), Ahmed Tugod Lissan who still has his old habits, Ahmed Abd-el-Shafie (a Fur, the head of the “traditional” wing of the SLM), Diraige of course and Souleiman Marjan (a Meidob who is at the head of Unity, one of the splinter groups of the SLM). Khamis Abdullah Abakar of the United Front for Liberation and Developement and Abdullaziz Daffalh of the Darfur Revolution Democratic Front have arrived there recently. The two assistants of a leader of one of the SLM factions, Mustafa Eisa Mustafa and Elhadi Idris live there too. But the Eritrean leaders do not hesitate to go to Darfur themselves. Yemane Gebreab, the political advisor to President Issayas Afeworki, spent several weeks in Abéché at the beginning of 2007 to try to coordinate the various Darfur rebel factions.

Strong arm tactics. These rebels are quickly brought to heel when they are no longer part of Eritrean diplomatic strategy or if they turn out to be too independent. So, the Sudanese rebels of the Eastern Front were used for military actions against Sudan and later for peace negotiations with Khartoum but were later sent back home. In 2005, the Darfur rebels present in Asmara were briefly “sequestrated” to make them adopt the strategy determined by Eritrea. Certain disgraced rebels were suddenly handed hefty bills for their stay in Asmara, a tab hitherto picked up by the Eritrean authorities. The fate of others was much less enviable. One EPPF leader, Tesfaye Getachew, died under torture in Eritrea, while his rival, Colonel Tadesse is under house arrest. The same happened to the former general secretary of the OLF turned dissident, Galasso Dilbo. As for the former Somalian warlord Hussein Aideed, who has been living in Asmara for several months, he is believed to be under high surveillance because Eritrea sees this former GI as a US agent.