The latest news from our region seems to have come out from an old adventure book on the Caribbean Sea: tiny islands rendered leper colonies, ship pirates roaming the high seas and arms smuggled for gold.

The Associated Press reported, “ Sudan's president traveled to Eritrea Monday, choosing one of Africa's most politically isolated nations for his first trip abroad since an international court sought his arrest on charges of war crimes in Darfur.” (“Defying warrant, Sudanese president travels abroad”, March 23)

Under the PFDJ, beautiful Asmara has turned into a meeting place for political lepers, be it in the gatherings of all kinds of militant groups meant to destabilize the whole region or in the recent visit of Beshir of Sudan. At one time, when all the disgruntled outcasts of the neighborhood – from Tigray, Amhara, Oromo, Ogaden, Beni-Shangul, Somalia, Sudan, etc – congregated in Asmara, they made a sizable portion of the adult population. In the old days, when there was no cure for leprosy, lepers were quarantined for life in leper colonies, ofeten in inaccessible tiny islands. Now, Asmara has become the leper colony of the region.

What did it take for Isaias to invite Beshir to visit Asmara and for the latter to accept the invitation instantly? Beshir has to be rendered a leper first by the international community for him to visit a leper colony at such a short notice. It took the ICC to scare him to death to seek out his look-alike in Asmara. Poor Eritrea! What else could we expect from a nation led by a Grand Leper, shunned by everybody in the world except for the likes of Gaddafi and Mugabe, themselves old-time lepers.

There is no love lost between these two leaders; for years they have been doing all they could do to destabilize each other’s nations. Isaias has done everything possible to destabilize Sudan from every possible entry: by the SPLM from the South, by Beja insurgents from the East and Drafur insurgents from the West. Even when he supposedly sits at the “peace table”, it is always with the intention of blackmailing the government of Sudan. His message is simple: “If you don’t allow me to do whatever I want to do in Sudan, I can always reignite these insurgencies.” His insistence to sit in the peace table with the adversaries is meant to sustain the leverage that he has had with the insurgent groups. And the Khartoum government, whose plate is currently full with various intractable problems, cannot afford to antagonize the Isaias regime now. Beshir is no fool; he is just biding his time to pay back Isaias in kind. In the meantime, PFDJ has a free hand to rampage all over Sudan, be it in the form of the mafia businesses it conducts in the South and East, in smuggling arms to militant groups or in the harassment of Eritrean refugees it carries out all the way from the refugee camps at the border to cities such as Port Sudan and Khartoum.

And now, these two “pragmatic” lepers, who otherwise despise each other to death, have found a common enemy in the International Criminal Court (ICC). Isaias knows that he is no better than Beshir when it comes to crimes against humanity. He knows that if Beshir goes, he might be the next one in line to go from the neighborhood. As such, a defense for Beshir is a preemptive defense for himself.

But the most important reason to Isaias’ defense of Beshir is an old and tried cold-blooded calculation that served him well in the past: extract all the concessions you can when someone is at his weakest point. Isaias knows that Beshir is cornered as no time before in his political life. He knows that, this time around, Beshir cannot afford to ignore the invitation to visit Asmara. While Beshir’s benefit in his visit to Asmara remains largely symbolic, Isaias’ expected benefits from this encounter of lepers are much more tangible. First, he is expecting material help from Sudan; at minimum, to allow PFDJ’s mafia business entities to have unfettered access to Sudan’s economy. So far, he has such a success in the South and, to a lesser extent, in the East. What he is eyeing is the most lucrative market in Central Sudan. Given the desperate economic situation that the Asmara government finds itself in, this would be a great relief if the tyrant can pull it off.

Second, he wants the Sudanese government to give a blind eye to the smuggling of weapons that he is deeply involved in as it passes through its territory to other destinations. With its newly found relationship with Iran, Eritrea has become one of the main conduits of firearms to Gaza. This is usually done with the help of Rashaida smugglers, who follow the old smuggling route along the coast of the Red Sea. Please take a look at the latest news on how weapons are smuggled through Sudan and Egypt to Gaza (Sudan Tribune, “US carries deadly air strike against armed smugglers inside Sudan: Official”, March 24, 2009) In this deadly strike 39 Sudanese, Eritreans and Ethiopians were killed. No doubt these were refugees on their way to being smuggled to Egypt along with the firearms. Is this the arms smuggle that Eritrea has been accused of recently by the Israeli Ambassador? If so, won’t it be tragic that the very people who were escaping from the hell-hole that the despot has created to end their lives by the firearms that he was trading for profit?

In ant case, in his arms smuggling to Gaza, Isaias is not interested in the plight of the Palestinian people. Nor is he interested in destabilizing Israel. In this case, it is pure “business”. Iran pays him to do its dirty job; it is as simple as that. He is in such a dire economic plight that he would do anything to get his hands on hard currency.

And, third, the despot wants Sudan to help him curtail the mass exodus of Eritreans to Sudan and further. More than anything else, it is the mass exodus that is giving Isaias the most headache; for if not curtailed soon, it may eventually cause the melting down of his army. Even though the fleeing of draft dodgers and army deserters to Ethiopia is still going on at a brisk pace, it is the mass exodus to Sudan that has reached an alarming rate. Every month, thousands of them are being registered in the refugee camps near the border. Isaias would do anything to curtail this bleeding to a sustainable level, and he sees this opportunity in the current predicament of the Sudanese president. If he could convince the Khartoum government to respond to the refugee problem the same way the Cairo government did, he would consider it a great success.

The first time a large number of Eritreans were deported back to Eritrea with the collaboration of the Eastern Sudan authorities, there was much criticism from outside, and since then no such large scale deportation from Sudan has been reported. Isaias hopes, now that Beshir has been made a pariah by the international community, there would be less incentive for the Sudanese government to heed the voices of condemnation from outside regarding Eritrean refugees.

In every move that the PFDJ makes in its regional policy, the last thing it has in mind is regional peace and prosperity. What seems a regional solidarity at a surface level, in fact, is one more move in this chess game of political survival at any cost. One can see these moves in every “statement” that the government makes regarding the region. A case in point: Ali Abdu’s latest allegation that Ethiopia is helping, and profiting from, the piracies in Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia. In an interview he gave to Gulf News while on visit to Saudi Arabia, he was quoted as saying, “They are extending logistic support to the pirates besides harboring them at the Ethiopian camps located on the Somali-Ethiopian boarder regions. Ethiopian Troops gave them protection even inside Somali territories before their pull out.” Of course, he was pandering to the fears of Arab nations who are dependent on the Indian Ocean route for much of their trading.

As it is the case with almost everything that the Isaias regime does, there is another bigger unarticulated fear that motivated Ali Abdu to bring up the subject matter of piracy in Indian Ocean, and the supposedly Ethiopian connection, unprompted. Believe it or not, it is true that the Asmara regime abhors the piracy in Indian Ocean. But it is not for a conventional reason; what it really abhors is the attention the piracy has attracted from NATO and other forces in the region. This is because it has made it next to impossible for Eritrea to smuggle firearms to militant groups in Somalia, especially Al Shebab, the way it used to do before.

There are three possible routes to Somalia: land, air and sea. The first one is almost impossible. First, there is Djibouti blocking the land passage. But even if one makes it through or around Djibouti, there is a lot of hostile territory before the firearms could reach their destination further down in Somalia. Second, the air flights that Eritrea used to deliver arms (often through clandestine Eastern European cargo airlines) stopped with the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. And after the withdrawal of the Ethiopian army, its antagonism to the present state of Somalia makes it impossible for such flights to resume in order to arm Al Shebab and other Islamist groups. So the only route left to it would be the sea; but that has become a no-no given the heavy presence of NATO and other fleets guarding the route; hence all the “piracy concern” for the region that Ali Abdu feigned in his usual outlandish way.

In every regional concern that the regime shows, be it in fostering peace in Sudan, in helping Somalis achieve statehood, in showing solidarity with Beshir or in lamenting the piracy in the region, there is always a Machiavellian subtext to it that is meant to safe guard the Isaias regime’s own interest only, which in the end boils down to the political survival of Isaias.

So what is to be done? As the despot is getting more and more desperate, his actions are becoming more and more brazen. He has become like a criminal who steals in broad daylight. It is us, the opposition, who are not maximally capitalizing on it. We should push with all our resources not only to render him a persona-non-grata in the West, as is the case with Mugabe, but also to bring him to International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, as is the case with his newly found friend, Beshir.