Jammeh ‘Award’ Coverage Reflects Chill in Gambian Press

Original story ran on the Committee to Protect Journalists blog.

PRI’s “The World” Oct. 1, 2010, interview on the story with Frank:

“President Jammeh bags 4 awards,” trumpeted a September 17 headline of the Daily Observer, a pro-government newspaper in the Gambia, a West African nation whose idyllic façade as “the smiling coast of Africa” is maintained in part by President Yahyah Jammeh’s brutal repression of the independent press.

Under the headline, Observer reported that “two of the awards with an accompanying letter came from the president of the United States of America, Barrack [sic] Obama, who commended the Gambian leader for the accolade, and also commended him ‘for helping to address the most pressing needs’ in his community.” The Gambia State House’s website similarly reported: “In a letter accompanying his two awards, the U.S. President Barrack [sic] Obama described President Jammeh as an inspirational leader and thanked him for his exemplary dedication, determination, and perseverance for the development of the Gambia as well as the advancement of humanity at large.” The story quickly spread over the Internet, reaching the circulation of the widely read, Washington, D.C.-based news aggregator AllAfrica.

The claims are false. Regarding “your query asking for confirmation of Gambian reporting on the Gambian president receiving awards and a letter from President Obama,” White House National Security Council spokesman Bob Jensen wrote in an e-mail to CPJ: “Those reports are incorrect. The Gambian president did not receive what the media reports are claiming.”

In fact, among the four announced awards, only one from the United States was undeniably real: a Nebraska Admiralship or award denoting Jammeh as an honorary admiral in the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska. A tongue-in-cheek distinction from the Midwestern, landlocked state, “an ‘admiralship’ in the fictitious ‘Navy’ of Nebraska is meant to be a ceremonial acknowledgment of Nebraskans who have shown outstanding citizenship,” noted Nebraska governor’s office spokeswoman Jen Rae Hein in a statement to CPJ. “We regret that this individual has attempted to embellish a certificate for a Nebraska admiralship, claiming that it was a high honor bestowed upon him by the governor, when to the best of our knowledge, this person has no relationship with or ties to Nebraska.” The spokeswoman further noted that the Nebraska governor’s office routinely processes thousands of admiralship requests annually.

The Gambian State House website reported that three of the awards, including the Nebraska admiralship, were presented to President Jammeh in Banjul by an unnamed official from a Palermo, Sicily-based organization called the International Parliament for Safety and Peace. Its website states that it was founded in 1975 by an archbishop of the Cypriot Orthodox Church. The international parliament has been reportedly accused of providing credentials to educational institutions otherwise not accredited in their own nations, and of selling membership, titles and other distinctions for fees.

The fourth stated honor was an “Honorary Vocational Bachelor’s Degree” bestowed upon Jammeh by the “Printers and Publishers Guild of Northern Germany,” according to the Daily Observer. German authorities told CPJ they found no record of any such award; extensive Internet searches in English and German revealed no such guild or other organization with a similar name.

Speaking to CPJ on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals, a former Daily Observer staffer, who worked at the newspaper in recent years, expressed no surprise at the credulous reporting of the awards. “If [the story] wasn’t out in the paper, someone would be in Mile 2 [prison] today–the managing director or the editor.” The person described a newsroom of fear: “You’re terrified. Nobody wants to go that prison.” One Observer reporter who may have suffered this fate is “Chief” Ebrima Manneh who has disappeared in government custody since National Intelligence Agency officials seized him at the Observer office in July 2007. Despite repeated calls from U.S. senators, journalists, activists and a West African human rights court ruling, Gambian authorities have continued to deny their detention of Manneh. Former colleagues said Manneh was arrested after printing a critical BBC article about Jammeh.

Daily Observer columns consistently flatter Jammeh and refer to him as “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh” in a cacophony of honorifics reminiscent of late Ugandan military ruler Idi Amin whose formal introduction was a recitation: “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshall Al Hadj Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC., Lord of all the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda.”

Yet, it was not always so. The Daily Observer was once the standard-bearer of independent journalism in the Gambia. Launched in 1992 by Liberian editor Kenneth Best, the Observer was Gambia’s first daily newspaper and was once its largest circulation publication. Best, who arrived in Gambia as a refugee following the burning of the offices of his original Liberian Observer during civil war in Liberia, told CPJ the paper started with a circulation of 3,000 and peaked with a certain July 1994 edition that sold up to 30,000 copies. “‘Army coup in Gambia’ was the headline,” he recalled. “It was the first successful coup, and we told the whole story. We interviewed all the five lieutenants who staged coups.”
One of those lieutenants was then known simply as Yahya Jammeh. “We sold 10,000 copies in 15 minutes,” Best said. However, as Observer began scrutinizing the junta’s handling of transition to civilian rule, the newspaper became a target of government repression. Barely three months after taking office, Jammeh’s junta deported Best, who later sold the Observer to private businessman Amadou Samba.

That the handful of Gambian private newspapers has not challenged Jammeh’s questionable award claims is indicative of the chill of self-censorship that has fallen on continental Africa’s smallest republic. This is the result of years of repression, including a series of unsolved arson attacks on media outlets, the unsolved assassination of leading editor Deyda Hydara, ongoing arrests and Jammeh’s periodic threats to the media.

Pentagon’s Latest Friend is Africa’s Newest Tyrant

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

Infallible Nation?

I was riding a bike on a busy avenue in the Eritrean capital of Asmara when, one after another, several citizens of the newly independent nation began ordering me to stop. Why? I thought, as I was safely following the flow of traffic. But different men shouted and waved their arms, as if I were unwittingly driving a car the wrong way down a one-way street. Finally, after a uniformed policeman did the same thing, I dismounted and walked around a large traffic circle to ask him what I was doing wrong. He explained in broken English that bikes were prohibited anywhere on the boulevard, although no road signs saying so had yet been posted. I learned later that several cyclists who had tried to dodge through dense traffic at the boulevard’s wide intersections had been hit by cars to be either injured or killed.

From [Eritrea’s] long rocky coast on the Red Sea to the sandy edge of the Great Saharan desert, I have often rented bikes in [the nation] in order to unwind after a day of either talking with Eritreans or writing about their situation. I had noticed a shortage of road signs along with an apparent lack of understanding of road rules by many motorists, cyclists and pedestrians alike. But by then Eritrea’s revolutionary government had only three years in power and the formerly Marxist guerrillas leading the country in the 1990s had far more to do than direct traffic, even though their decree banning bikes from the boulevard seemed silly to me.

Today things across the tiny African Horn nation are much worse. Eritrea only became an independent state in 1993, just two years after Eritrean guerrillas finally prevailed against a foreign army. Although Eritrea is no bigger than the American state of Massachusetts and it has less people, every foreigner who visited tiny state in the 1990s was impressed by Africa’s newest nation. Eritrea reminded me of Switzerland as well as Austria as all three relatively small nations have an exceptionally developed sense of civil society. While the two above nations stand out in Europe, Eritrea stood out across Africa.

Eritrea’s streets everywhere for one thing were immaculate. Not only would almost no Eritrea even think to liter, many citizens would cross the street to pick up things as small as a bubble gum wrapper. Eritreans across the globe prided themselves on the daily sacrifices they made for their nation. While Eritreans in the country were always ready to be drafted into military service, Eritreans everywhere living outside it from millionaires to grocery store clerks voluntarily paid steep taxes to their native nation. “There is nothing I would not do for Eritrea, ” one young man told me in front of his fiancé, a stunningly beautiful woman whose patriotic parents had named her Eritrea.

But much like the contorted look of a pained face, Eritrea today faces painful trouble within. Eritreans are reluctant to talk about their problems like family members who do not want outsiders to see their dirty laundry. But in bars as well as in the privacy of a community online chat room Eritreans have lately been raging at each other about whom is to blame for their current tragedy. Nothing less than the future of their young 10-year-old nation is at stake.

The fight is already personal and [most but all] the main players are men who formerly led men and women Eritrean guerrilla fighters to power. But last week, only days after Middle Eastern terrorists attacked New York and Washington, the revolutionary government of Eritrea closed all of the country’s independent newspapers and imprisoned all of its top officials because they had dared to criticize the Eritrean president.

He was long the lead guerrilla fighter and today President Isaias Afwerki is a tall handsome man who has been greeted like a rock star by Eritreans in the diaspora. Inside his country he and other former guerrilla fighters led a one-party state throughout the 1990s that despite its monopoly of power seemed to enjoy a near consensus of popularity. In today’s world only the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan world wielded so much power and yet enjoyed so much popular support. Although Eritreans generally disagreed over many issues, they seemed to universally back Isaias and his allies who like most Eritreans are best known by their first name.

Even the Eritrean way of greeting remains unique. Many Eritreans press their alternate shoulders against each other and hold them together when they meet. The practice was common among guerrilla fighters meeting each other in the field when they were laden with too many arms to hug. Indeed, what gave the small nation its uncanny sense of cohesion was Eritreans’ thirty year guerrilla fight against first a feudal and then a communist government based in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Abeba. Nearly every Eritrean family lost a member to their long independence war and many families suffered greater loses. Like George Washington, President Isaias was elected to lead the nation after he led an even longer rebel struggle for independence.

Imagine now that if instead of establishing independent branches of government, President Washington had jailed former revolutionary leaders including legendary veterans like Thomas Paine for criticizing the President, along with closing down every newly independent newspaper. President Isaias and the remaining loyal officials of his government did just that when the world was barely watching the week of the September 11 terrorist attacks on America. The ruling Eritrean regime imprisoned the [former] Interior Minister, the [former] Defense Minister and three generals even though like President Isaias and his remaining followers they were all guerrilla veterans. But fifteen senior officials [many of whom are now] in prison had written an open letter that was critical of President Isaias.

He refused to convene even scheduled meetings of his own ruling party for a full year since September 2000 out of fear that dissidents might indeed win the sympathies of ruling party loyalists along with their votes against him. While the Eritreans who remain loyal to Isaias say that Eritrea has too many problems now to allow for any disunity, the Eritreans who have only recently begun to oppose him say that Eritrea has too many problems now not to openly debate how to handle them.

“We did not fight to have another dictatorship, ” is what one online critic said reflecting the views of many. Others retort that even to use the word dictatorship about Eritrea is an insult to their commonly beloved nation.

The controversy over the future is rooted of course in the past including the recent past. Eritrea won praise from foreign aid agencies in the 1990s as far ranging as the anti-poverty group known as Oxfam to the World Bank, as its former guerrilla fighters had comprised a new government that was on average incredibly honest. Most Eritreans would not steal from their government the same way that most people would not steal from their own family, and the government was blending free market and state-led efforts to develop and grow.

But the economy turned sour in May 1998 after Eritrea went to war with its former long-time enemy, Ethiopia. This time, the war astounded everyone as by then the leaders of Eritrea and Ethiopia were truly old friends and the border did not seem worth fighting about. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister was Meles Zenawi and he led a regional guerrilla movement that was long allied with another regional guerrilla movement led by Isaias. But tension among peasants and others along the border area had been neglected for years, so much so that when clashes finally turned violent in 1998 they took both leaders by surprise.

Whether the war was necessary is unfortunately one question that only a few Eritreans have ever dared to ask. But the question that many Eritreans continue to ask is why the war turned against Eritrea. Before the major battles began I nearly got into a fistfight at a Eritrean bar when I pointed out that even though Eritrean guerrillas were already proven to be truly extraordinary fighters, Eritrean government soldiers fighting over fixed ground against an enemy with an economy eight times richer could perhaps conceivably lose.

But the guerrilla veteran in the bar like most Eritreans everywhere seemed to universally perceive any such questions as being nothing less than a betrayal of their nation. Major political and military issues were not only not discussed in public in the early months of the fighting, but the government also intentionally kept some of the most important events leading up to the conflict in the dark. In hindsight, Eritrean government officials agree that they kept too much information secret including the all importantissue of how the recent border war began.

On May 6, 1998, Ethiopia militia forces who had been growing increasingly militant against local Eritrean farmers opened fire on an Eritrean army border patrol that was responding to recent displacements of Eritrean peasants. The Ethiopian militia killed three Eritrean army soldiers and four officers. (I originally reported less casualties.) Six days later Eritrea invaded the border area, thereby beginning a conventional war by its army without any real air force against a much stronger army backed up jet fighters and helicopter gunships. What was apparent then to nearly every foreign observer was not apparent to nearly any Eritrean: no matter how brave its citizens indeed were, Eritrea was bound to lose, as a guerrilla war and a conventional war are very different kinds of contests.

But Eritrea has yet to learn even the first lesson of the border war. A free press independently reporting facts along with a free exchange of ideas might have helped the nation avoid such a tragic loss so early in its development. Take the basic question, “Who started the war? ” Blood was first drawn by Ethiopia, in fact, but neither Eritrean officials nor citizens ever pointed out that fact to anyone expect in whispers to themselves. I later reported in The New Republic the May 6 clashes and the fact that it was Ethiopia that drew first blood. Not long afterward The Economist reported the same incident as well.

Why would Eritrea keep secret something that seemed to be so obviously in their national interest to publicize? One reason is that their leaders were too proud to admit that some of their own men including officers had already been killed. Rather than debate or even talk about the issue of going to war or what to do in response, they ordered the state press and other Eritreans to be silent as they mobilized the Eritrean army to advance into the disputed border area. Since the world’s press did not know about the killing of nearly an entire Eritrean army border unit six days before, the media everywhere reported that tiny Eritrea had started a major border war on May 12 with larger Ethiopia for seemingly inexplicable reasons.

Partly to make sure that Eritrea would not hide vital facts again, some Eritreans recently established many independent newspapers that the government has just now shut down.

Who is responsible for Eritrea’s current troubles? Every Eritrean who supported the border war and that includes nearly every Eritrean. The paranoia that Eritreans rightfully shared over three decades against occupying Ethiopian governments led them to collectively believe that the latest war was not in fact a border dispute provoked by local militant forces, but that it was instead part of a wider conspiracy to topple their entire state. No evidence of any alleged conspiracy has ever materialized, yet the Eritrean state press reported the allegation without challenging it. Many if not most Eritreans still cling to the frail notion that the border war was not really over the border and that it was necessary to their very nation’s survival.

Emotions often defy logic. In the end Ethiopia suffered more casualties than Eritrea, as many Eritreans are prone to claim, but Ethiopia has 17 times more people than Eritrea so it could better afford the losses. What continues to irk Eritreans is not that each nation lost tens of thousands of combatants in a bloody trench war, but that it left Ethiopia in control of far more Eritrean land than before. Eritreans still make faces and cross their arms or scratch their ears or heads as they try to explain mainly to themselves how, despite their loss of territory, they still did not lose the war. The irony is that their former allies in Ethiopia who still run its large nation are also facing unprecedented political unrest and any succeeding government in Ethiopia is likely to be even more hostile to Eritrea than before. Ethiopia lost its only port after Eritrea’s 1993 succession and many Ethiopians promise that one day they will take it back.

Eritreans, meanwhile, are turning on each other today like never before over who is to blame for their setbacks in the border war which they can barely admit even to themselves. Indeed, for the first time in Eritrea’s short history the eventual possibility of a civil conflict has become chillingly real. President Isaias and his remaining allies have imprisoned their former allies after they dared criticize his leadership. Most Eritreans whom I have met are exceedingly polite people who seem like they would take personal criticism well, but the same Eritreans cannot keep their respective faces from wincing as soon as they hear the slightest criticism of any kind about their nation whose history in steeped in so much of all their own families’ blood.

I was at first surprised years ago when some Eritreans got defensive when I suggested that banning bikes from a busy boulevard was no alternative to establishing common road rules including both more traffic lights and stop signs. After all, most Eritreans are the kind of people who would never think to run either, and they are indeed the kind of loyal, industrious people that would make any nation great. But my experience biking on the boulevard was only a window on the tension to come.

Even though Eritrea was once among the most promising nations in Africa, today its implodes like a dimming star over a tragically silly notion: whether the nation’s leadership like the nation itself is infallible. Thomas Paine was an American revolutionary fighter and a contemporary of George Washington and Paine is perhaps the American rebel who most challenged the authority of the early United States government and, in doing so, help keep it accountable and on a democratic track. But if Paine were an Eritrean today he would be in jail along with many other revolutionary veterans.

How long will it take Eritreans to learn something about their young nation that most people from older nations already know? Even the best of leaders make mistakes, but only the most deserving ones learn from them.

Africa’s Inexplicable Horn

Ethiopia’s former communist leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, prolonged a famine in northern Ethiopia in the mid-1980s to dry out two Marxist insurgencies that were each deeply rooted there. Today one former insurgent, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, prolongs a famine in southern Ethiopia to punish his former guerrilla ally on the northern Horn, Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki. During recent peace negotiations, Meles and other Ethiopian officials warned that, if necessary, they would teach Eritrea a lesson. Ethiopia launched an offensive against Eritrean positions last Friday just two days after the American diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, finished shuttling across the Horn between the two leaders to say in Eritrea that the war “can [still] be resolved by diplomatic means.”

The Ethiopian offensive is the Horn war’s third major round of fighting and it began on May 12, the two-year anniversary of Eritrean troops first seizing several positions in the disputed border area between the two nations. Six days before the 1998 Eritrean invasion, Ethiopian militia opened fire on an Eritrean army unit near the disputed borderline, killing a handful of soldiers and officers. For months afterward, Eritrean officials kept silent about the Ethiopian militia attack, even though it was the first drawing of blood in the Horn war and it preceded Eritrea’s initial seizure of disputed territory. “It was a mistake not to publicize the [Ethiopian militia] attack,” says one Eritrean official now in hindsight.

Such tight-lipped deportment by Horn leaders is consistent with their respective characters. While African combatants from Sierra Leone to the Democratic Republic of the Congo fight over commodities like diamonds, Horn combatants fight over emotions alternating between ego and humiliation. The lack of any clear strategic objective for either side in the Horn war has long baffled observers.

Africa’s Horn wars are more over pride than politics.

“It’s inexplicable these two countries would go to war over these differences,” said Holbrooke in Asmara last Wednesday. Holbrooke apparently fails to see that each Horn leader needs to be perceived by his own constituents as having made the other guy eat dirt.

Ethiopia builds up

“Might is right” was something Eritrea’s Isaias said during the interim between the first Eritrean advance in May 1998 and the Ethiopian counter-attack in February 1999. Only after losing most of the disputed border terrain including “Badame” in an epic trench battle killing tens of thousands did Isaias finally reverse his prior refusal of an Organization of African Unity (OAU) peace proposal to accept it. After reclaiming “Badame,” Ethiopia’s Meles delayed for over a year before last week finally rejecting the OAU peace process. Over the same period, Eritrea only grew more anxious to sign it. Eritrea made the same mistake in 1998 that Ethiopia appears to be making now in thinking that a massive deployment of force will bring it a relatively quick and painless victory. .

Tiny Eritrea is hemorrhaging badly — a fact that should surprise no one considering that Ethiopia’s economy is more than nine times the size of Eritrea’s. Even though Ethiopia spent about $550 million last year on the war, its military spending still represents less than 10{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of its gross domestic product (GDP). Eritrea, meanwhile, spent about $180 million in 1999 on the war, which is more than one-fourth of its GDP. Most of Eritrea’s arms purchases have been purchased by funds sent by expatriates living as diaspora who, according to official sources, sent back $121.3 million in remittances last year. Nevertheless, Eritrea can still not afford to buy more than a few jet fighters to match the ones Ethiopia recently bought.

In recent months, Ethiopia bought more arms including Russian SU-25 attack jets. By then, the early-warning system that Meles’ government implemented to avoid disasters like famines worked perfectly. Foreign experts and Ethiopian officials alike knew that 8 million Ethiopians — largely ethnic Somalis — concentrated in the Ogaden region of southeastern Ethiopia were at risk of starvation.
What about human suffering?

Up to eight million more Ethiopians are threatened with starvation if the famine spreads. This time usually drier Eritrea is in better shape because it has absorbed more rain, unlike much of southern and eastern Ethiopia, which is in the third year of a drought. The rainy season that in some areas came early this year and usually lasts until September only worsens the immediate tragedy. Rains help farmers who have already sown seeds, but they do nothing for the three-quarters of a million men and, in Eritrea’s case, women deployed at or near the front. The rains have already begun to impede some travel from Red Sea ports that international relief agencies need to bring food and other supplies to the Ogaden and elsewhere in Ethiopia. Rather than spend even a dime on building weather-proof passages on roadways to feed people in the southeast, Meles’ government has devoted its resources to fighting Eritrea in the north.

Meles’ government has shown a similar callousness when it comes to Assab, Eritrea’s second Red Sea port. Although it falls within the original Italian colonial borders of Eritrea, Assab was modernized by the communist Mengistu regime, which expanded the port and built the roadway connecting it with Addis Abeba. In April, Isaias offered to allow the U.N. and other relief agencies to bring food to Ethiopia via Assab, which has traditionally served Ethiopia’s relief assistance needs. But Meles refused the offer. “In Ethiopia, we do not wait to have a fully tummy to protect our sovereignty,” he later explained. Instead, U.N. and other agencies have begun to bring in food from neighboring Djibouti and the international community has already spent millions to improve Djibouti’s port and the road connecting it with Ethiopia.

Meles’ government has only grown more popular, ironically, with the war. This Monday up to 200,000 Ethiopians demonstrated in support of the war effort in Addis Abeba. (Some Ethiopian Orthodox Church officials along with other religious leaders remain critical of the government’s handling of the famine.) Much of their protest focused on the U.S. and British embassies for their joint proposal for a U.N. arms embargo against both Ethiopia and Eritrea.

An international answer?

Like elsewhere in Africa, Western efforts on the Horn come too little too late. Even if the U.N. security council were to now impose an arms embargo on the Horn, it could only help lessen the intensity of the next possible round of fighting. And with U.N. peacekeepers unable to control irregular forces in Sierra Leone, no one is suggesting that they should be deployed between the armies of two fully engaged Horn nations. The only remaining option is to escalate diplomatic pressure on Meles to compel him to halt his offensive, which, in the continued absence of any clear goal, only serves his need to be perceived by his own people as having punished Eritrea.

The West faces a similar conundrum to one it faced 16 years ago. The more the responsibility the international community assumes to feed Ethiopia’s people, the more resources it frees up for the nation’s ruling regime to spend on the largest conventional war ever in Africa. The death toll in the previous one of this scale, the Afrikaner-Boer war, was a little more than 30,000 combatants. No doubt by now the Horn war’s death toll is greater. To fuel its campaign, Meles’ government even tried and failed to tax the first sacks of Western food aid arriving this year for the famine. “They are completely expecting the international community to deal with it,” says an official from a donor nation.

Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist and a contributing editor at He has previously written about the African Horn in Foreign Affairs, World Policy Journal, The New Republic and Jane’s Intelligence Review. His website is

France’s Feeble Demand

One trait that France and the United States have in common is that each nation acts like it has moral authority to lead the world.

The opportunity for global leadership rests largely on other factors — namely power, wealth and credibility — things that the United States tends to have more of than France. But whenever a smaller state challenges a larger one, it usually needs a moral advantage to prevail. A good example is the one Panama enjoyed in negotiations with the United States over the Panama Canal. That lesson has eluded France. Even though France’s ethical credibility remains stained over its unconditional support for Rwanda until the early days of the Central African nation’s 1994 genocide, French leaders recently launched a bipartisan challenge to the United States over its unilateral dominance of world affairs.

The French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, began the refrain last November in a Paris speech when he called America a “hyperpower.” A month later, Vedrine, a Socialist, told American reporters in Paris that American leaders “have always been for sharing the burden” of multilateral actions. But, he added,”[t]hey’ve never been much for sharing the decision-making” over those actions.

The same week, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, another Socialist, urged America to exercise power more “discreet[ly],” and President Jacques Chirac, a Gaullist, insisted that the United States do nothing less than share its power. Their joint demand would no doubt stand a better chance of success if nations were to perceive that France enjoyed moral authority over the United States.

Is France up to the challenge?

Many non-Americans fear America’s influences needs to be checked.

At the very least, countless people worldwide are glad to finally see at least one Western nation stand up to the United States. Many non-Americans fear that America’s overwhelming economic and cultural influences need to be checked. The world, too, has observed the technological superiority of U.S. weapons in strikes from Baghdad to Khartoum, along with America’s readiness (and shamelessness) to use them. Since American bombers (with the help of the British) dominated NATO’s air strikes last year against Serbia, France has pushed Europe to upgrade its capabilities in order to provide a Western military alternative to American-led might.

One might dismiss France’s challenge if one did not know that France has the largest non-American military force of any NATO ally but Turkey, even though France’s troops are still less than one-fourth the size of U.S. forces. Nevertheless, France is richer and stronger than America’s closest ally, Great Britain. France enjoys another advantage in challenging America’s global influence. Most French people not only want their government to play a lead role in foreign affairs but, unlike Americans, they both expect and accept that French troops will assume risks as needed. Since the Cold War, French troops have been deployed amidst ongoing crises in places from Rwanda to Kosovo with broad French public support.

French people also seem to understand better than Americans do the limits of military power. During the Cold War, France withdrew from Vietnam before the United States decided to back the same army that France had already abandoned. Unlike Americans, French people know well the lesson that even seemingly invincible empires later fall, from the examples of King Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte. Even France’s currently governing Fifth Republic was founded upon realism. The first president, Charles de Gaulle, sought to rival America’s global power at the same time that he began to withdraw French troops from a civil war in French colonial Algeria over independence.

Another trait that France shares with the United States is the notion that its foreign policy, besides following its own realpolitik over trade and investments, also rests upon moralist ideals. After all, the 18th-century notion that men (and now also women and minorities) enjoy inalienable rights is the moral bedrock of both republics. But while America’s crusades have revolved around exporting economic and political models, France’s campaigns have leaned more toward evangelizing culture and language.

Both Western powers also have placed much weight on upholding their own military credibility to defend their respective allies from perceived external threats, sharing the logic that if one ally were to fall others might follow. This thinking, however, has sometimes led the United States and France to separately squander their credibility along with their principles. While America, during the Cold War, backed South Vietnam against North Vietnamese-backed forces, France, one year after the Berlin Wall fell, began to back Rwanda against another kind of foreign-backed aggression.

Fear of falling dominos has led America and France to each respectively back many regimes, including the aforementioned ones, even as they committed obvious war crimes. President Clinton finally took a step toward acknowledging America’s bloody record a year ago when he apologized in Guatemala City for United States’ complicity in what a U.N. Truth Commission the month before called “acts of genocide.”

France’s role in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide stands as the Fifth Republic’s bloodiest foreign campaign, which is all the more ironic being that it failed. The policy was a bipartisan effort led by a Socialist, President Francois Mitterrand. Of no strategic importance and without any valuable resources, Rwanda was not a priority for France until 1990, when a newly formed guerrilla front invaded from Uganda with Ugandan arms as large as Katyusha multiple-rocket launchers. To Rwanda’s ruling Hutu majority, the invading rebels were members of Rwanda’s minority ethnic group, Tutsis. But to France, the rebels were Anglophones backed by Uganda seeking to overthrow an allied Francophone nation.

Belgium, not France, had governed colonial Rwanda, although it was France in the early 1990s that rushed to aid Rwanda’s Francophone regime. Before Belgium had only strengthened colonial Rwanda’s ethnic divisions by issuing the first identity cards with ethnic categories. But over a half-century later, Belgium’s policy was mindful of the massacres that had accompanied the overthrow of a Tutsi monarchy during the country’s transition to independence. Yet France paid no mind to Rwanda’s prior ethnic violence as it provided arms, advisors and paratroopers to the regime. French artillery units assumed positions just south of the northern front bordering Uganda, while, over 40 kilometers away in Kigali, French armored cars patrolled the capital. Meanwhile, Belgium only provided the regime with boots and uniforms in a failed gesture to pressure Rwanda to share power.

French officials apologized for the Hutu government even though the Hutu forces committed many massacres of civilians as it was receiving French arms. “Civilians were killed as in any war,” French Col. Bernard Cussac, France’s military commander in Kigali, said in 1993 about ethnic killings that occurred in the three years leading up to the genocide. Ambassador Jean-Michel Marlaud was more discreet. “There are violations by the Rwandan army,” he said, “[but] more because of a lack of control by the government rather than the will of the government.”

On April 6, 1994, the Rwandan president died when his plane was hit by a rocket fired from the vicinity of a Rwandan army base. Hours later, presidential guards began killing fellow Hutus who were political opponents of the ruling party, starting with the country’s first elected prime minister and 10 Belgian peacekeepers around her. As ruling-party militias spread out to target all Tutsi, France seized control of Kigali’s airport, ostensibly to evacuate French and other Western nationals if necessary, but also so France could still fly in French troops if needed. Days later, however, or on the seventh day of the 90-day genocide, Ambassador Marlaud withdrew all French personnel from Rwanda to leave behind France’s remaining Francophone allies, who by then were directing the slaughter.

France’s role in Rwanda is not without dereliction.

French troops returned to Rwanda less than three months later under hastily granted U.N. auspices to establish a safe haven that, while no doubt protecting many innocent Hutu refugees, also protected countless former regime members turned genocidaires. Although human-rights groups already knew the names of many of the lead suspects, French troops did not apprehend even one. Today France, as part of its regional efforts to build anti-American alliances, is pursuing a similar strategy in the Balkans, where French troops have consistently failed to arrest Serbian war-crimes suspects who seem to move about freely within France’s U.N.-authorized zones of control.

French leaders make a popular case when they demand that America share the reigns of global leadership. But the notion that either Western nation has moral authority over the other only ignores the blood on both their hands. And without ethical credibility to back up its bi-partisan stance, France, alone, is too small and weak to successfully push the United States.

Frank Smyth is author of Arming Rwanda, a January 1994 Human Rights Watch report. The views expressed here are his own. He is a contributing editor of

Growing Pains in the Horn of Africa?

Many developing nations have borders that were first established by colonial powers. But few embrace their colonial heritage as closely as does Eritrea, a tiny nation of 3.6 million people that amicably seceded from larger Ethiopia in 1993. Though Eritrea and Ethiopia each have suffered tens of thousands of casualties in the past six months of sustained fighting over their common border on the African Horn, both countries unequivocally have agreed since Eritrea’s independence that its previous colonial borders denote the modern Eritrean state.

Yet the warring nations have produced different Italian maps from different colonial eras that contradict each other about their shared, 620-mile-long borderline. The Italian-Ethiopian Treaty of 1902 was among the first to establish a demarcation between Eritrea and Ethiopia, but its text was vague and the delineation of the border was never completed. Its final delineation was never completed even after Eritrea became an independent nation.

Having waged the world’s bloodiest war so far this year, the two states and their respective leaders now face the same fork in the road. Either they will sign a peace agreement that finally allows international arbitration to study colonial-era treaties and maps to determine the borderline, or they will squander far more of their precious people and treasure.

The beginnings of war

Blood was first drawn in an area known as Badame on May 6, 1998, after provincial Ethiopian militia ordered an Eritrean army unit to disarm and it refused to do so. The militia killed three Eritrean soldiers and four officers nearly a year after Ethiopia’s province of Tigray had begun expelling Eritrean peasants from Badame, even though Eritrea claimed most of Badame, too.mEither they sign a peace agreement or squander more of their people and treasures.

Eritrea responded by seizing all of Badame, along with four other areas along the border by May 12. Trench-warfare battles and bombing raids began last June. Sustained war broke out this February. Eritrea lost Badame after three weeks. Hours after it fell, Eritrea announced it would accept an Organization of African Unity (OAU) peace plan that it previously had rejected and that Ethiopia previously had accepted.

Today, Eritrea accepts a modified OAU plan; Ethiopia has asked for clarification on many points and has not yet accepted it. Eritrea and Ethiopia have sent delegations to Algiers to forge an agreement. Former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, now a special White House envoy, has flown between capitals to bring the warring parties to the table and keep them there. Many African leaders, including Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, back the peace talks.

One sticking point in negotiations now is whether Ethiopia will agree to compensate Eritrean expatriates whose property it confiscated after forcibly displacing 50,000 Eritrean nationals from Ethiopia last year. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, at the National Press Club in Washington on Aug. 16, said that while Eritrea will continue to raise the issue of compensation for deported property holders when and if peace is achieved, the issue is “not a precondition” for peace.

Meanwhile, Ethiopian diplomats say this Eritrean demand is what prevents Ethiopia from accepting the modified OAU peace plan.

From allies to enemies

Badame translates as “empty” or “nothing,” and it has no real strategic or economic value. But the Horn war is about more than nothing, as one objective of each nation is to show the other that it will not be pushed around and that it is willing to pay the highest price to defend national sovereignty. Their mutual logic already has made the Horn war the largest conventional conflict in sub-Saharan Africa’s history. Before the leader of either nation can end it, he must first convince his people that their respective loses were worth it and that they have achieved some kind of victory. Even though Eritrea has lost ground in the fighting, this is already a fait accompli for Isaias, as the Horn war has only united Eritrea’s population.

But presenting the Horn war as a victory may be harder for Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Unlike Isaias, Meles is an unpopular leader. To Meles’ left are militant Tigrinyans from the Ethiopian province of Tigray who claim that Tigray includes Badame. To his right are ethnic Amharas and Oromos who remain largely excluded from power even though they comprise roughly 25{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} and 40{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of Ethiopians.

One irony of the Horn war is that it broke out over Badame, in the same region where Isaias and Meles years ago learned to work together. While Isaias’ guerrilla movement, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, had fought the previous, U.S.-backed regime led by Emperor Haile Selassie, Meles’ guerrilla movement, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, emerged to eventually ally itself with Eritrean guerrillas after the establishment in 1977 of a Soviet-backed regime. The two independent Marxist guerrilla movements jointly deposed the communist dictatorship in 1991.

Isaias and Meles addressed each other as “comrade” until hostilities began in the Horn war in May 1998. Before full-scale conflict broke out this February, American and Rwandan diplomats together tried to convince both men that their respective interests should compel them to peacefully resolve their border dispute. American officials told Eritrean officials that only Meles was likely to keep Ethiopia from fragmenting along ethnic lines.

Besides backing anti-Ethiopian factions in Somalia, Eritrea has been reaching out to Ethiopia’s long-disenfranchised Oromos. Though Isaias denies it, Eritrean loyalists say Eritrea has been backing Ethiopia’s Oromo Liberation Front against Meles’ government. The Oromo rebels recently have made gains in the south and east of the country. But although they are Ethiopia’s largest single ethnic group, the Oromos never have governed Ethiopia, and few non-Eritrean observers expect the Oromo Liberation Front to ever take power.

The objective of each nation is to show the other it will not be pushed around.

War over nothing?

Instead, Ethiopia’s Amharas are better poised to gain power if and when Meles’ grip slips. Today, most Amharas clearly resent Meles and his ethnic minority dictatorship, though many are nonetheless united with him against Eritrea in the Horn war. During it, Amhara opposition groups have grown more active. The high number of Amharas and Oromos in the Horn war will only make it harder for Meles’ government not to share real power with both ethnic groups.

While Meles’ government always has agreed that Eritrea’s borders are the same as those of its former colony, other Ethiopians resent Meles’ decision in 1993 to allow Eritrea to secede from Ethiopia. Many Amharas especially seem to resent even more the decision to allow Eritrea to secede with two Red Sea ports, leaving Ethiopia a landlocked nation.

Despite the Horn war’s already staggering carnage, some observers say it is less of a tragedy than it looks, as the border fight is merely part of the growing pains of newly emerging states. If that is the case, then the war over nothing may resolve little or nothing at all.

Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist who has also served as an investigative consultant for Human Rights Watch as well as Amnesty International, is a contributor to Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff.

Africa’s Horn War

Secessionist struggles stoke nationalist passions, but they do not necessarily correspond to ethnic groups. While ethnicity burns the fire in the Balkans, ethnic Tigrinyans lead both Ethiopia and Eritrea into battle in the war on the African Horn.

Militant Tigrinyans have long been at the forefront of each nation’s nationalist movements. They arose from two independent Marxist guerrilla groups that together deposed a Soviet-backed dictatorship back in 1991. The two groups were led by two Tigrinyan men who now lead each respective nation.

The war in the Horn like the one in the Balkans is over a border, but while Kosovo may eventually secede from Yugoslavia, Eritrea has already seceded from Ethiopia in 1993. Eritreans like to point out that their independence from Ethiopia was preceded by an overwhelming popular vote for it in a referendum among Eritreans, but no Ethiopians have ever been polled about the matter.

Many if not most Ethiopians have long resented Eritrea’s secession. Today the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea is ostensibly over several broad patches of hardscrabble land around their common 620-mile-long border.

Slouching toward conflict

Back in 1993, when Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia, it took with it both of Ethiopia’s Red Sea ports — Masawa and Assah. The Masawa port has long been linked by paved road with Asmara, the Eritrean capital, while the Assab port has long been linked by paved road with Addis Abeba, the Ethiopian capital. But because both ports fell clearly within the former Italian colonial boundaries of Eritrea, Ethiopia agreed to cede to Eritrea both ports along with all of Eritrea’s former colonial territory. Why? Ethiopia’s government had no choice.

Back in 1991, in their joint struggle against the Soviet-backed dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front liberated Ethiopia’s northern province of Eritrea first. The Eritrean guerrilla leader, Isaias Afwerki, who is now president of the state of Eritrea, then provided the artillery for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s final assault on Addis Abeba, the Ethiopian capital. The Ethiopian Tigray guerrilla leader, Meles Zenawi, is now Ethiopia’s president. Back then he had multiple reasons for agreeing to cede all of Eritrea’s former colonial territory, which helps shape Eritrea’s modern national identity. No doubt one was that Eritrean guerrillas were stronger than his guerrillas.

Eritrean President Afwerki talks to the press

Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia came amicably, though tension between the two nations increased over time. In what in hindsight looks like an obvious mistake on both sides, the two governments never took the time to jointly delineate their common border even though there were disputes over various pieces of territory from the start. Moreover, Ethiopia began paying a price for being a landlocked nation. Until Ethiopia began boycotting it last May, duties and fees levied on Ethiopian goods passing through Assab were generating 18{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of Eritrea’s total revenues.

Ethiopian diplomats today categorically deny that their government has any wish to reclaim Assab. But irritation over its loss has only fueled Ethiopia’s other claims against Eritrea.

Much of the friction has centered around the disputed area of Badame, about 100 miles east of Sudan. In recent years, many former Ethiopian guerrillas have moved into the Badame region to farm small plots of land, displacing many Eritrean farmers who were already there. By August 1997, armed Ethiopian forces expelled Eritrean civilian administrators from the village of Bada. In October 1997, Ethiopia published a new official map that incorporated Bada along with most of the Badame region into Ethiopia.

One month later, trade relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia broke down. Eritrea issued its own currency, the nakfa, after having used Ethiopia’s currency, the birr, for four years. Each side had different expectations about what the new Eritrean currency would mean for their bilateral trade. While Eritrean officials wanted Ethiopia to accept the nakfa in a one-to-one exchange rate for the birr, Ethiopian officials instead demanded that Eritrea pay for all its goods in hard currency, which both sides lacked. Trucks soon were backed up at border crossings, while ships waited to unload at Assab.

Is might right?

The conflict turned bloody on May 6, 1998. After Ethiopian militia displaced yet another group of Eritrean peasants in the Badame region, a local 12-man Eritrean army unit sought out the Ethiopian militia.

Both sides say the Ethiopian militia ordered the Eritrean unit to disarm. A firefight ensued, which left seven Eritrean personnel, including four officers, dead. Within hours Eritrea mobilized thousands of troops to occupy the Badame region. Six days later, Eritrea seized four other pieces of disputed territory along the common border further east, including one around the road from Addis Abeba to Assab, its former port. Earlier this year before full-scale war broke out, Eritrea deployed sizable forces in Assab in order to deter any possible Ethiopian assault.

Elsewhere, Eritrea seized ground for tactical reasons that went well beyond disputed territories to take positions that were clearly within the borders of Ethiopia. Eritreans seemed universally confident that their experienced guerrilla fighters would be able to hold their ground.

For that reason, Eritrea’s Isaias rejected an Organization of African Unity peace plan brokered by Rwanda and the United States. The plan called for international mediation to determine the border line, and one of its conditions was that all sides must withdraw to positions held before May 6. Ethiopia accepted the OAU plan; Eritrea did not.

“Might is right,” Isaias said shortly before full-scale war broke out this year on Feb. 6. But he, like many Eritrean loyalists, appears to have miscalculated.

Although Isaias successfully led a protracted insurgent struggle to achieve Eritrea’s independence, the Horn war has been a conventional conflict involving the use of heavy firepower over open terrain. Eritrea went into the war with far less tanks and jet fighters than Ethiopia did, and with no helicopter gunships. Three weeks later, after a bloody campaign that claimed tens of thousands of lives, Ethiopia drove Eritrea out of the Badame region and Isaias, on Feb. 27, reversed his position to say he would accept the OAU plan.

One Ethiopia?

Ethiopia, however, has pressed on, although it may eventually agree to negotiate. So far Eritrea has continued to hold most of the other disputed territories. Though no reliable figures are yet available, Ethiopia appears to have suffered the heaviest casualties in recent fighting: to take Badame, it deployed waves of infantry fighters, who preceded and followed heavy air and artillery strikes against Eritreans dug into trenches. Nonetheless, Eritrea cannot afford to sustain combat as long as Ethiopia can, as Ethiopia’s population is 17 times greater, and its pre-war economy was eight times the size.

The United Nations is currently trying to mediate between the two sides. This week U.N. envoy Mohammed Sahnoun has engaged in shuttle diplomacy between Asmara and Addis Abeba to try and bring Isaias and Meles together. Eritrea now seems anxious to reach a settlement, but it remains unclear if Ethiopia will ultimately decide to expand its military objectives. Even if Meles remains reluctant to break his 1993 promise to respect Eritrean sovereignty, other Ethiopians sound like some Yugoslavians talking about Kosovo when they say that Eritrea has no right to be an independent nation.

Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist, has written about Africa in publications including The New Republic, Foreign Affairs and The New York Times.