When UNSC resolution 1907, which imposed “targeted sanctions” on Eritrea, has been made public on December 23, 2009, many Eritreans were quick to denounce it as a flagrant act of evil devoid of any factual and or moral rectitude. It was branded as a blatant conspiracy orchestrated by the powerful western governments with the United States at the forefront of an evil campaign. On the contrary many opposition groups welcomed it as a deal breaker for the downfall of the unpopular incumbent regime and treated it as a kind of a ‘gift from above’ for the oppressed people of Eritrea. But I for one did not think that the sanctions will have a major impact on the political situation inside Eritrea in spite of the commotion it created in the Eritrean political playing field.
Historically, sanctions were being imposed on many countries. A broad based economic embargo was imposed on Iraq through UN Security Council Resolution 687. Iraq complied to six of the eight propositions. But those sanctions did very little to unravel Sadam Hussien’s regime. There was also a lot of corruption involved in managing those sanctions. Sadam’s regime was ousted by direct U.S. military intervention and not by sanctions. There were also sanctions imposed on non state actors such as UNITA (Angola) and the Khmer Rouge. Those sanctions only proved that UN sanctions fall short by a wide margin to meet their intended purposes. For example, although the sanctions imposed on the Angolan UNITA rebels banning the sale of diamonds was intended to starve the rebels to finance their military campaign it was never enforced and was imposed after the rebels got 4 billion of sales in gems. 1. Similarly an arms embargo on Rwanda had no impact whatsoever because it was imposed too late to stop the 1994 genocide and was resoundingly ignored. _2. There may be some instances in which UN sanctions have worked. But in most cases UN sanctions are either ignored or rendered redundant due to bad timing and weak enforcement measures.
For the foregoing reasons, I do not believe that the sanctions imposed on Eritrea will bring either reform or regime change in Eritrea. In fact, further besiegement and isolation of the Eritrean regime by the international community may result in its becoming more aggressive and taciturn to pursue its system of governance that has earned it to be one of the most oppressive regimes in the world and has given Eritrea the bad image of being “ the biggest open prison” in the world.
If we read through the resolution carefully, the sanctions have not been designed to address the crucial problems facing the Eritrean people. The sanctions have been imposed for two technical and legalistic reasons. First, the Resolution, drafted by Uganda, accuses Asmara of supplying Islamist rebels with money and arms as they fight to topple a fragile U.N.-backed transitional government in Somalia.. And the second reason is because Eritrea failed to comply with a UN Resolution which was passed on January 14, 2009 urging dialogue between Djibouti and Eritrea to solve their border dispute issue peacefully. The resolution stipulated Eritrea's withdrawal from the disputed area within five weeks after it was passed which did not happen. These issues are “non issues” as far as the Eritrean people are concerned. The Eritrean government may comply to the terms and conditions of the UNSC resolution and have them lifted if it so desires in a very short period of time. That is, it may cease to support the Al Shebaab and also resolve its border conflict with Djibouti peacefully if it feels threatened by the sanctions. But even if this happens, the regime’s compliance will bring little or no change inside Eritrea. As a matter of fact, if compliance leads to the lifting of sanctions, the Eritrean government may even come out of this dilemma stronger because it will be less thinly spread out over the entire Horn region than it normally is and thus be more able to concentrate in strengthening its grip to monopolistic political power and flauntingly revive its dwindling public image by propagating that the UNSC has become a recent addition to Eritrea's long list of 'enemies'.
The powerful western countries, who allegedly are said to be strongly behind the UNSC resolution, are believed to have a two-fold vested interest. One is that the Eritrean government’s alleged military adventurism in the Horn of Africa may be perceived as a contributing factor for the potential risk of Somalia being a safe haven for Al Qaeda and the prospect that Islamic militants with links to Al Qaeda may ascend to power in Somalia and establish an Islamic state there. An Islamic Somali state would be a thorn in the throat for most western countries. Secondly, restraining Eritrea’s involvement in the Horn of Africa may be necessary to secure safe passage for military and commercial shipping lines along the strategic water way linking the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean in view of the escalating sea piracy that is occurring in that part of the world. One can easily discern from this that the sanctions have been designed to address the geo-political spheres of influence and aspirations of the industrialized nations rather than to mitigate the problems plaguing the Eritrean or Somali people. The Horn of Africa is located at the gate way of the Arabian Peninsula, a region which is by far more important to the industrialized nations than the whole African continent for its tremendous sources of energy. Any turbulence or shift of alliances in the Horn of Africa could also have far reaching consequences on the volatile Middle East crisis between the Israelis and Palestinians especially when we take Iran‘s alleged presence in the Eritrean coastland recently. The stakes are too high for the industrialized nations to leave the fate of this strategically located part of the world to the political capriciousness and whims of small and unpredictable actors like the regime in Eritrea and the war lords in Somalia. So, there is more to it than meets the eyes to the whole affair of the said “targeted sanctions” against Eritrea.
This is not to suggest, however, that the Eritrean regime is oblivious of western interests and policies on the Horn of Africa. In fact, the Eritrean government‘s involvement may have been motivated by a calculated risk. The government may have been trying to take advantage of Eritrea’s strategic location as a leverage to pull some strings on the major western countries in order to urge them put pressure on Ethiopia to honor the border demarcation ruling and to bring the border stalemate to an end. However, it may have come as a great surprise for the Eritrean regime that the UNSC would react by sanctions instead of trying to appease the tense dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The Eritrean regime’s political posturing has apparently proved to be counterproductive although it is hard to conclude that it will be affected significantly from its miscalculation.
If there is any thing that can weaken and finally unravel the Eritrean regime, it is the prolongation of the no war no peace stalemate over the border dispute with Ethiopia. The Eritrean people are getting weary of the border stalemate because they do not see a light at the end of tunnel. Also, the border dispute is being used as a scapegoat by the government for indefinite social control of the population. Besides, the Eritrean economy is going down to tatters because the country’s meager resources are being allocated for defense purposes. Supporting and providing for a 250,000 strong army by itself is a devastating endeavor to the Eritrean economy. With the alarming exodus of the youth evading military conscription, it is not certain how long the government will be able to keep out the military from total disintegration. The risk of the disintegration of the defense forces is becoming more likely as the clock ticks into the uncertain future and as more and more dissatisfaction is being witnessed in the ranks of the armed forces.
The UNSC may be aware of the fact that if there is anything that it will be able to achieve through the sanctions , it will be the dimming of the spotlight for Mr. Isayas’s super ego and his relevance as a major player in the Horn of Africa. But then the Eritrean government is being led by a shrewd leader who has the capacity to navigate through the underworld and provide clandestinely for his war machine. He has close to 30-years experience as a leader of a liberation movement that has successfully weathered many storms and upheavals. Mr. Isayas has successfully made ends meet for his liberation army against all odds and against a strong undercurrent of world power indifference and at times outright opposition for his liberation efforts. So, I am not sure if that the arm embargo imposed on his regime will have any effect on his fire power nor on his ability to provide continued support for the Al Shebaab.
On the economic front, it is hard to say that freezing of assets and travel bans will meaningful results. Although, much of Eritrea’s economic activity is monopolized by the state, the government has a very complex system of managing its financial and economic interests. Much of its foreign exchange reserve is managed by the Political Party outside of the formal financial market and outside of the spheres of responsibility of the state chartered central bank of Eritrea. So, it is very difficult to verify what assets the regime has in the international financial market to be able to freeze those assets. The incumbent regime, which is simply a continuation of the policies and tradition of the EPLF, has maintained and sustained all liberation era clandestine methods of operations. It has also a very broad based and loyal ‘grass root’ (Hafash Wudibat) parastatal organizations in every corner of the world through which it can do business. It will be very difficult for the enforcers of the sanctions to navigate through this complex political network to take proactive measures to curb the financial and political maneuvers of the regime and make the sanctions have a dent on the regime.
So, the question remains, “Will the targeted sanctions hit or miss the bull‘s eye“? I wouldn’t say that the sanctions are insignificant. If they may not hit the bull’s eyes, they will at least provide Eritreans with more talking points. But the fact remains that we have a very elusive and determined bull that will stick to his guns to the last breath and one that will not yield to this much publicized sanctions. So, my own opinion is that the targeted sanctions will not hit the bull’s eye. They will only be a recent addition to the long list of reasons why the regime thinks it is not the right time for it to introduce democratic governance in the country. And the “the targeted sanctions” imposed by the UNSC will be runner up to “Undemarcated Border” in the long and stale list that the regime has developed during the last two decades for refusing to maket a smooth transistion to democratic governance.