Eritrea sees CIA behind Somalia arms accusations


Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki said renewed accusations that Asmara is arming Somalia’s Islamist rebels was the work of CIA agents in the region bent on blackening his government’s name.

“We don’t interfere (in Somalia) and we don’t want to see any terrorism prevail in Somalia,” Isaias told Reuters.

Somalia‘s government has accused Eritrea of supporting al Shabaab insurgents with planeloads of AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons.

To the anger of Asmara — which says there is no evidence in accusations that have been around for several years — the UN has ordered a probe and east African bloc IGAD wants sanctions on Eritrea including a no-fly zone.

“It’s CIA operatives … these people are liars,” Isaias, a former rebel commander in power since 1991, said during an interview at Asmara‘s colonial-era presidential palace.

“This is a continuation of the old story. I know for sure, even the individuals behind these things. I don’t want to talk about that because it would poison the whole mood.”

Former US president George W. Bush’s government had threatened to put Eritrea on its list of state sponsors of terrorism, and Isaias said old interest groups were still jostling for influence with President Barack Obama.

He said Asmara would wait to see the impact of the Bush-Obama transition, and what he termed a bigger historical transition of U.S. economic ties and international attitudes.

“It is too early to judge,” Isaias said, acknowledging that Washington had bigger priorities than his country.

Eritrea is not a big deal. I don’t expect the United States and officials in Washington will be sitting there and talking about how they formulate their policies with Eritrea.

“This is a transition, a very difficult transition. We need to be patient. It may take a long time.”

Isaias said the new government of Somalia — the 15th attempt to restore central rule in the last 18 years — looked doomed to fail because it was imposed from outside.

“Leave this for the Somalis,” he said.

President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a moderate Islamist, became Somalia‘s latest president earlier this year in a peace process in Djibouti brokered by the United Nations.

“This is the mentality of a gambler,” Isaias said of the repeated attempts to set up a transitional Somali government with Western backing.

“This so-called government is not a government in terms of legitimacy. It cannot even influence one very small neighbourhood in Mogadishu, let alone Somalia.”

Risking further criticism from the West, Eritrea was in March the first country to receive Sudan‘s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir after the International Criminal Court indicted him on accusations of war crimes in Darfur.

Isaias, like other African leaders, said the case was politically motivated and risked further destabilising Sudan.

“Whether he is guilty until proven innocent, or innocent until proven guilty, is another matter. It is a legal matter. That is an issue for extensive discussion,” he said.

“It is purely a political case, it has no legality at all … It doesn’t serve any purpose for the people of Darfur.”

Isaias said the West was not showing the same clamour for justice in other places, such as Sri Lanka.

“The government did not allow journalists to go there, they did not allow relief agencies to even operate freely in that very small area,” he said of recent events in Sri Lanka where the army wiped out Tamil Tiger rebels. “The casualties on civilians were huge. No one intervened.”

Eritrea’s long-running border dispute with Ethiopia, where the two lost tens of thousands of men in a 1998-2000 war, has taken a back seat in the headlines of late, with no reports of clashes and rhetoric quieter on both sides.

Asked if that meant Eritrea could scale down its army and use resources elsewhere, Isaias shook his head and shot back: “Never relax.”

“I will never take any risk … We retain the allocation of our resources in spite of the bitterness we have about it. We have no other option, unless we fully guarantee and see things have changed for good.”

Afwerki on the Great Recession

Afwerki believes the financial crisis is a welcome restructuring of the global economic order and vindication of Eritrea‘s much-vaunted principles of self-reliance and sustainability. “People learn things the hard way sometimes,” he said.

The former Marxist guerrilla leader has ruled one of Africa’s smallest economies since its 1993 formal independence from Ethiopia. His government avows resistance to foreign aid.

Isaias said Eritrea, like other nations, had of course felt some pain from higher import costs — particularly oil and food — and lower remittances from abroad. But in the grand scheme, “these are very small things,” he said.

“The good thing about it is that the global economic situation is in the process of transformation,” the 63-year-old told Reuters in an interview yesterday.

“It is a wake-up call to many who have been preaching ideals about the functioning of economies in their own ways and trying to substitute real economy for finance and speculation … what I call the speculative economy or the economy of speculation.”

Eritrea‘s 4 million people are feeling the pinch, especially due to recent drought, but Isaias said there was no starvation and his country was better off than neighbours.

“For us, it’s a moral boost, because for the last 18 years, we’ve been focusing on the real economy — roads, ports, airports, electricity, water, housing, services, health, education, food security. Not a single penny has been wasted.

“It may not have accumulated the critical mass required for jump-starting the economy, but we have been investing and accumulating all along.”

Few African economies were as well-prepared to weather the crisis, he said. “There may be good examples. People talk about Ghana and other economies, but out of 50-something, you can talk about a handful.”

Talk of an imminent recovery by some world leaders was false prophesy, he said. “They are preoccupied with micro-managing panic … (so) you tell people lies.

“You see every day, on TV or the Internet, that ‘stock markets are reviving, stock markets are doing this and that’ when the real economy is not improving, employment is higher, real estate is going down, the car industry is collapsing.”

Isaias acknowledged hardships for Eritreans, but said the government was subsidising food and oil, while some communities were simply moving from arid areas.

“In comparison to the neighbours, I can say we are better off. I don’t want to exaggerate this. Yes, we have some areas that are badly hit,” he said, acknowledging that a “very little” food aid was coming in, including from Japan and China.

Aid sources say child malnutrition rates are up alarmingly in Eritrea, but the president said that was not the case.

Few hard statistics are known about Eritrea‘s economy, which is agriculture-based and depends heavily on money sent from Eritreans abroad. It is allowing more than a dozen foreign firms into its nascent mining sector, and wants to develop untapped fisheries potential off its Red Sea coast.

Eritrea is also seeking to create free trade zones to take advantage of busy shipping lanes nearby.

Isaias said Eritrea would move slowly to draw foreign investment, without exaggerating the possibilities. He laughingly cited a TV advert for tourism in Egypt which he said showed dolphins offshore where in fact there were none.

“There is nothing there … (though) at one point in time, I was there, to see the sea full of jelly-fish!

“We will have to create opportunities rather than create distorted images … And we are on the right track.”

Around Asmara, new residential construction projects demonstrate progress underway, while the presence of some beggars and the site of peasant farmers on the hills around underline the enormity of Eritrea‘s task.

Speaking anonymously, some Eritreans grumbled at worsening poverty, particularly in rural areas, while others said their leader’s long-term view was the right one. “He gets a lot of criticism from abroad, but he’s not emptying the budget into his pockets, like everywhere else in Africa,” one man said.