Monday, September 26, 2011

Triggering revolt: Impoverished Eritrea financing, arming African militants

Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab, aiming to spread Islamic law in Somalia, is among the groups being armed and financed by Eritrea.

Stewart Bell  Sep 25, 2011 – 8:52 AM ET | Last Updated: Sep 25, 2011 9:00 AM ET

With drought, famine, pirates and armed Islamist groups fighting to overthrow the government, Somalia is a country defined by its needs.

It needs food. It needs to rebuild its ruined land. And it needs security. What it does not need is more guns.

The United Nations imposed an arms embargo on Somalia in 1992 but weapons continue to flow to groups like Al-Shabab, al-Qaeda-linked militants who recently awarded AK-47s to the winners of a children’s Koran competition.

Where the guns come from is no great mystery. The UN committee that monitors violations of the arms embargo has repeatedly blamed nearby Eritrea, one of the world’s most backward and repressive states.

“They are supporting terrorists,” Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, the Somali Prime Minister who was in Toronto this week, told the National Post in an interview.

“We have to face it and we have to impose more strict sanctions on Eritrea.”

In its latest report on violations of the arms embargo, released July 18, the UN monitoring group said Eritrea was training, financing and arming an array of African militant groups, including Al-Shabab.

“In the course of its current mandate, the monitoring group obtained firm evidence of Eritrean support for armed opposition groups throughout the region, including Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia and the Sudan,” it said.

The UN monitors also said Eritrea had “conceived, planned, organized and directed” a plot to bomb civilian and government targets in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in January to disrupt an African Union summit.

The attackers were arrested and the plot failed, but it highlighted the paradox that is Eritrea: one of the world’s least developed countries is a secret backer of armed groups throughout the Horn of Africa.

The consequences of Eritrea’s actions have been devastating for Somalia. As part of its drive to spread its bleak version of Islamic law, Al-Shabab has staged suicide bombings and imposed Taliban-like restrictions and dress codes on Somalis, particularly women. And it has exacerbated the famine by restricting the work of international aid groups.

Eritrea’s clandestine links to militant groups stem from its simmering conflict with Ethiopia. Eritrea became independent when it broke from Ethiopia in 1991.

Ever since, it has been led by the same man, Isaias Afewerki, a former rebel leader. It has also remained at odds with its neighbours, particularly Ethiopia, which dwarfs Eritrea both in size and population.

“They are obsessed today with conflict with Ethiopia, and their strategy has been to weaken their foe by supporting in effect anyone who will challenge them,” said Dan Connell, the author of several books on Eritrea and a journalism and African studies instructor at Simmons College in Boston.

The UN Security Council tried to reign in Eritrea by imposing a total arms embargo in 2009.

Canada, which has one of the world’s largest Somali diasporas and has lost an estimated 20 youths to Al-Shabab recruitment, implemented the sanctions last year.

But two years later, Eritrea continues to defy the world. The UN monitoring committee says Eritrea’s intelligence, military and the leadership of the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice run the insurgent aid program, working “under the direct supervision” of the president.

The country’s assistance to groups like Al-Shabab consists of training at what the UN calls an “extensive and complex” network of camps. Eritrean embassies distribute cash to Al-Shabab associates — $80,000 a month is paid out by the embassy in Nairobi. There is also evidence of Eritrean arms shipments to Al-Shabab-controlled areas by air and sea. Foreign Al-Shabab fighters have flown to Somalia on flights originating in Eritrea.

How can a country as poor as Eritrea afford to support insurgents? According to the UN report, Eritrea is controlled by a small group of political, military and intelligence officials who engage in “irregular financial practices” such as people smuggling, arms trafficking, money-laundering and extortion.

Revenues also come from a 2% “diaspora tax” Eritreans living in countries such as Canada are expected to pay to their local embassies. But the government is increasingly reliant on its newly emerging mining sector.

A Canadian company Nevsun Resources is among several foreign mineral ventures operating in Eritrea. Working in partnership with the government, Nevsun has opened a gold, silver, copper and zinc mine.

Last month, it announced Eritrean National Mining Corp. had bought a 30% stake in the mine for US$253.5-million, to be paid from mine revenues over the next two years.

A company press release says the UN sanctions should not have any impact on the project and Nevsun is “very pleased to have the State as its partner.”

The UN Monitoring Group said it had contacted Nevsun about the mine. The report said because of the “opaque nature” of Eritrea’s finances, it was unclear whether royalties and taxes paid by mining companies might be diverted to violate the sanctions.

Mr. Connell said Eritrea would start earning mine profits within the next year.

“There’s a little bit of a window there to contain Eritrea’s actions in the area, but once they get their hands on significant revenues from minerals, watch out.”

One option is to follow the model used to restrict the blood diamonds that fueled conflicts in Africa, he said. Eritrean minerals could be similarly regulated. Canada, the United States and Britain could also crack down on Eritrea’s collection of diaspora taxes.

“At this point those two actions are the biggest levers available,” he said.

The monitoring group highlighted those same measures, recommending the Security Council urge UN members to “introduce rigorous due diligence guidelines for mining companies operating in Eritrea with respect to payment of taxes and royalties.”

Governments should also demand Eritrea stop collecting taxes through its embassies, and police should investigate the use of intimidation and coercion to solicit donations, it added.

The Nevsun office in Vancouver did not reply to calls asking for comment. The Eritrean embassy in Washington also did not respond to interview requests.

In an appearance before the UN sanctions committee in July, an Eritrea official denied all the allegations in the report.

Ghezae Hagos wants tougher sanctions on Eritrea. The Eritrean journalist was studying at McGill University in Montreal in 2001 when the government began a crackdown on dissent, arresting critics of the president and shutting newspapers. He now lives in Winnipeg and chairs the Eritrean-Canadian Human Rights Group of Manitoba.

He calls his homeland the North Korea of Africa, a rogue nation with no constitution, one party and one ruler since independence. He is concerned about what could happen once Eritrea starts receiving mineral royalties.

“If they could do this kind of destabilization in the Horn of Africa, and this kind of repression in their own country, making the country one of the probably two or three worst countries in the world, what would they do if they get more money? That is the scary part.”

The Eritreans are not the only ones trafficking arms to Somalia. Yemen is believed to be another source, not to mention the Somali government itself. Underpaid pro-government troops use their ammunition as a currency, trading it for daily necessities, the UN said.

With an estimated 750,000 Somalis facing death by starvation in the coming months, Mr. Ali has been appealing for emergency aid. In the longer term, Somalia will also assistance rebuilding the country’s obliterated institutions.

Beyond that, he would like to see pressure stepped up on Eritrea so it will stop supporting one of the main obstacles to the battered country’s well-being: Al-Shabab.

“I think we have to impose all sorts of sanctions, starting with economic sanctions, on Eritrea because they have to feel the crunch and the pain they have inflicted on others,” he said.