Source: The Economist
Its prickly, isolated dictator has long been hostile to the West
Mar 8th 2022
When russia invaded Ukraine most of the world reacted with horror: on March 2nd an overwhelming majority of countries supported a UN resolution condemning Russian aggression. But among the usual suspects who voted against it (Belarus, Syria, North Korea, Russia itself) one stood out. Eritrea, which was also the only country other than Russia to vote against a UN human-rights investigation in Ukraine, is a small and impoverished country with little to gain from resisting the tide of international opinion so flagrantly. So why is it backing Russia?
Eritrea’s solidarity with an imperialist, revanchist Russia is at first glance surprising. As a young country long threatened by a bigger neighbour, it appears more like Ukraine. Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia, a much more powerful country to its south, in 1993—just a couple of years after Ukraine broke away from Russia. As in Ukraine, nationhood in Eritrea is seen as something fragile which cannot be taken for granted. It took decades of armed struggle against successive regimes in Ethiopia—first the imperial government of Emperor Haile Selassie, then a Soviet-backed Marxist junta known as the Derg—before a referendum on secession was approved. Five years later the two countries fought a bloody border war which cost perhaps 70,000 lives. Even today there are some in Ethiopia who question whether Eritrea is really a separate country at all.
Part of the reason for Eritrea’s unlikely support for Russia lies in its leadership’s background in the liberation struggle. Unlike many African liberation movements in the 20th century, such as the African National Congress which fought apartheid in South Africa, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) was not supported by the Soviet Union. In fact the Soviets armed the Derg and even sent military advisers to assist in the fight against it. But Gaim Kibreab, the author of a recent book on Soviet-Eritrean relations, argues that despite this “the EPLF always considered the Soviet Union as a strategic ally against imperialism, and saw America as its number one enemy.” Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Issaias Afewerki, the EPLF’s former leader and Eritrea’s dictator since independence, has continued to see himself as part of an axis of anti-Western powers led by Russia.
More recent history helps to explain the intensity of Issaias’s hostility to the West. When war broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1998, the Eritrean president felt America and its allies had sided with Ethiopia. After a humiliating defeat Issais retreated into embittered isolation. He put Eritrea on a permanent war footing, bloating its huge army with lifetime conscripts. Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans fled the country. In 2009 the UN, nudged by America and its ally, the Ethiopian government, imposed an arms embargo (in part for Eritrea’s alleged support for jihadists in Somalia). Ironically, Eritrea had briefly courted America in the early 2000s and even publicly backed its invasion of Iraq. Feeling stung, Issais’s regime gradually drifted into being the most anti-Western in Africa.
Eritrea’s controversial involvement in Ethiopia’s current civil war has set it on an even more confrontational path with the West. Eritrean troops are accused of slaughtering civilians, gang-raping women and blocking food from reaching the hungry. Tentative progress towards rehabilitating Issais’s regime, which culminated in the lifting of the arms embargo in late 2018, has screeched into reverse. In November last year America slapped sanctions on the Eritrean armed forces, the ruling party and connected entities. It has repeatedly called for Eritrean forces to withdraw from Ethiopia.
By contrast, the threat of a Russian veto has consistently stymied action against Eritrea or Ethiopia at the UN Security Council. Ethiopia, which also has Mr Putin to thank for this, is now trying to mend bridges with the West in order to rebuild its war-battered economy. But Issais has no interest in foreign aid, seeing it as a Trojan horse for Western interference in his country’s affairs. Nor does he care much for promoting the private sector. More important from his perspective are arms and large, strategic investments which bring lucrative rents. Russia has promised to sell Eritrea weapons and to build a logistics base for its own navy on the Eritrean coast. And in Mr Putin Eritrea’s president has a fellow autocrat who prizes bashing the West, and meddling with his neighbours, above the well-being of his citizens. Viewed this way, the two leaders seem like comrades-in-arms.