afrol News, 15 November - Eritrean President Issayas Afewerki, who has been in conflict with most of the Horn region's states, now has defined Washington as its historic foe. The US, he says, had fuelled all conflicts Eritrea has ever been involved in. Only two years ago, however, Eritrea tried to market itself as Washington's prime ally in the region.
In May 2004, the Eritrean ambassador to the United States did his best to convince the Washington press that his country stood "ready to assist the United States in any way it can." Eritrea, he claimed, was a key ally in the so-called "war on terrorism", it belonged to the controversial "Coalition of the Willing" and national military installations and intelligence stood ready to support Washington.
Despite this, the never-elected regime of President Afewerki mostly received a cold shoulder from Washington. The US is not amused by the systematic human rights abuses committed by Asmara authorities, which are sailing up as Africa's most repressive regime. Eritrea is even threatened with US sanctions if it does not ease the pressure on religious minorities.
During 2004 and 2005, Eritrea increasingly slipped into international isolation. All Western countries turned their back on Asmara due to its repressive practices, while relations with arch-rival Ethiopia remain close. Eritrea was openly criticised by the African Union for its human rights abuses and got into conflict with the UN after accusing the world body of destabilising the region. The war with Ethiopia is not solved, war with Sudan became a possibility and neighbours Yemen and Djibouti grew increasingly sceptical.
During 2006, however, the pressured Asmara regime has brewed on a new foreign policy that slowly is opening diplomatic doors to other nations and regimes that feel the same kind of isolation. The most important step to be able to find this new diplomatic role was making peace with neighbouring Sudan, so the government of Eritrea recently helped reaching a peace accord between Khartoum and the eastern Sudanese rebels it had formerly trained and equipped.
With the north-western border now conflict free, Eritrea has been able to turn against its main enemy, Ethiopia. During the last few months, attacks on the UN mission monitoring the demilitarised Ethiopia border zone have increased and Asmara has sent large numbers of troops into the zone. Most disturbing, however, is Asmara's strong support to the Islamist movement controlling Mogadishu and large parts of Somalia, and which is threatening Ethiopia.
The UN has gone far in documenting that Eritrea is breaking the Somalia arms embargo by shipping large amounts of heavy weapons to the Mogadishu Islamists. A senior Eritrean official is based in Mogadishu to coordinate the growing assistance. There is also proof of a deployment of at least 2,000 Eritrean troops in Somalia, assisting the radical Mogadishu rulers, which have threatened Ethiopia with "jihad".
Matt Bryden, a consultant at the International Crisis Group (ICG), recently told afrol News that the Eritrean offensive against Ethiopia goes even further, involving the Ethiopian rebel groups Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). "Eritrean-trained Oromo fighters" are being "hosted" by the Somali Islamists and the ONLF - ethnic Somali rebels in Ethiopia's Ogaden region - is being armed by Eritrea.
According to security expert Bryden, Eritrea has a proper interest in fuelling an all-inclusive war in Somalia, which could spread throughout the African Horn region. "Eritrea's strategy appears to be to stretch Ethiopian military capacity by opening a second front in southern Somalia while ramping up the pressure along the Ethio-Eritrean frontier," said Mr Bryden, adding that Asmara is arming Ethiopian rebel groups.
In this conflict climate, Eritrea is leaving its old strategy of becoming a US partner. Washington has favourable relations with Ethiopia, and the US is a major ally to other countries sceptical towards the Mogadishu Islamists, such as Kenya, Uganda and non-recognised Somaliland. Supporting the Somali Islamists - which are known to have contacts with al Qaeda - is not compatible with being an ally in the US-led "war on terrorism".
President Afewerki thus has given up on building an alliance with Washington - a strategy that never could have been implemented as long as Asmara insists that its friends must be enemies of Ethiopia. Washington's long-term good relations with Addis Ababa are not easily hurt by occasional criticism, such as US protests following Ethiopia's violent elections. The Americans on the other hand got tired of what they saw as "loony policies" from Asmara, which wrote Soviet-style protest communiqués each time someone dared to criticise aspects of Eritrean policies.
Therefore, President Afewerki has sought new partners that do not criticise and that are equally allergic to criticism. The Mogadishu Islamist fit well into this. And the President's latest official travels underline Eritrea's new choice in partners. Following a visit to the Africa-China summit - where he offered Chinese businessmen generous resources exploitation opportunities and deepened ties with ex-foe Sudan - Mr Afewerki went to Qatar to meet with Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi and Chadian President Idriss Déby.
Already when in China, the Eritrean President started emphasising his new hatred towards Europe and America. China's "clear and well-defined programs for lasting partnership" were is stark "contrast with the exploitative relations of the West over the past 200 years, thus sacking Africa's natural resources and exposing the continent to dire poverty and backwardness," President Afewerki had noted.
Visiting a regional trade summit in Djibouti today, the Eritrean leader had developed his anti-US ideas further. "Our conflict is historically [tied] with the United States," he said in an interview with the French news agency AFP. Mr Afewerki claimed Washington was to blame for the late independence (1993) of Eritrea, while ignoring African resistance to the establishment of his state and Ethiopia's close ties to the Soviet Union at that time.
Washington further was responsible for the failure to implement the Eritrean-Ethiopian peace, because the US "doesn't want to implement the decision" of a UN border ruling. Also in Somalia, it was the US that was fuelling conflict due to Washington's "intervention" in the pretext of fighting terrorism. Claiming that Eritrea was sending troops and arms to the Somali Islamist was "not only false but insane," President Afewerki told AFP.
The US, according to the Eritrean leader, has been causing all historic and current problems for Asmara and the entire region. "They like to live on conflict. They create conflicts and exploit conflict," he concluded.
A redefinition of Eritrea from a US ally in the "war on terrorism" to a "rogue state" seems imminent as the Afewerki regime is rapidly redefining its foreign policy. Ethiopia and the numerous exiled Eritreans have been terming Eritrea "a rogue state that follows the rule of the jungle" for many years. Others may soon follow.
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