Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld last week became the highest ranking American official to ever visit Africa’s newest nation, the small state of Eritrea on the Red Sea across from Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
At a time when Saudi Arabia is refusing to host U.S. forces for a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq, the United States is looking to expand its military presence across the Arabian Peninsula on the African Horn.
“There are forces in the world that are urging, recommending, teaching fanaticism, extremism and terrorism, and those forces need to be overcome,” said Rumsfeld in the Eritrean capital of Asmara in a joint press conference with the Eritrean leader, President Isaias Afwerki. “One of the things that has happened since the events of Sept. 11 is the development of new relationships around the world.”
Today, just south of Eritrea on the Red Sea, the even smaller state of Djibouti is already hosting thousands of U.S. combat forces and docking American war ships. Eritrea, with a much longer coastline and two more deep water ports, is attractive turf. The U.S. military commander for the Middle East, General Tommy Franks, has already visited Eritrea four times during the Bush administration, the last time in March.
But the Pentagon’s interest in Eritrea comes at a time when the State Department over the past year has been raising concerns about human rights. Many of Eritrea’s former top diplomats and cabinet officials have been jailed in secret locations by the very government that they served.
Both the jailed Eritreans and their Eritrean jailers are veteran guerrilla fighters of Eritrea’s long independence war. So is the country’s President, Afwerki, who led the 31-year battle for independence against Ethiopian forces backed first by the U.S., then by the Soviet Union.
Two years after guerrillas liberated Eritrea, “Isaias,” as he is known, was elected by guerrilla fighters to serve as president with the explicit agreement that his government would soon establish a constitution and elections.
But in September 2001, after eight years in power, Afwerki jailed many of his closest comrades along with journalists, students and other critics of his government.
Hebret Berhe, a guerrilla veteran and former Eritrean ambassador to four Scandinavian countries, resigned in protest last year. “We have a responsibility to the martyrs to implement the constitution, the rule of law, democracy and justice,” she said. “We thought we would bring independence and then a democratic government. If not, then what is the difference between a colonizer and Isaias.”
Until recently, U.S. military ties with Eritrea were restricted because of the crackdown on civil liberties. In October, the State Department raised human rights concerns on the anniversary of the jailing of two of its Eritrean employees. They were arrested last year hours after the U.S. ambassador in Asmara, Donald McConnell, formally protested Afwerki’s jailing of Eritrean officials and others.
“They don’t respond well to pressure,” explained one U.S. official in Asmara.
Afwerki’s crackdown began one week after the 9-11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Eritrean spokesmen claimed that the dissidents were agents of either Osama bin Laden or Ethiopia.
This October, Afwerki and his spokesmen made a new claim — that the jailed dissidents had been backed by the CIA. In a press release, the Eritrean Foreign Ministry accused the Clinton administration of trying to “unlawfully change the government” and accused the Bush administration of “unwarranted intervention” in Eritrea’s internal affairs.
The prisoners read like a who’s who of Eritrea’s diplomatic corps plus a few of their wives, some student leaders and more than eighteen journalists. One is Fessheye Yohannes, an independence war veteran, who was moved to a secret prison after he and nine other jailed journalists began a hunger strike last May.
Last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists that I represent in Washington honored Yohannes in absentia with an International Press Freedom Award.
The Eritrean government is not known to have filed charges against any prisoner. With the exception of the two U.S. embassy employees, all the prisoners are being held incommunicado. Meanwhile, the government’s allegations that they were part of a foreign-backed plot remain unsubstantiated.
Afwerki may have other reasons to jail his critics. Eritrea’s last war — against Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000 — ended with Ethiopian forces displacing more than a third of Eritrea’s population. Some of the jailed ex-diplomats had favored peace negotiations as the conflict began turning against Eritrea, but Afwerki chose to keep fighting. The arrests came a year later as criticism was growing more open.
When asked about the prisoners Tuesday in Asmara, Rumsfeld said a “country is a sovereign nation and they arrange themselves and deal with their problems in ways that they feel are appropriate to them.” He said that U.S. and Eritrean officials have been engaged in “a very straightforward discussion” about many matters.
Afwerki announced at the same press conference that Eritrea was offering to host American troops in Eritrea; Rumsfeld said that the issue was under discussion. But as the United States moves closer to Eritrea, some wonder whether “Isaias” would be a reliable American partner in the long term. “This guy is not stable,” warns ex-ambassador Berhe.
Frank Smyth is a free-lance journalist and a consultant to the Committee to Protect Journalists. He traveled to Eritrea as part of a delegation from the committee in July. He has been writing about Africa since 1994 for publications including The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Nation, The New Republic,, Village Voice, Foreign Affairs, The Washington Post and The New York Times. His clips are posted at www.franksmyth.com.