Eritrea’s Regional Relations


Eritrea’s Regional Relations

Tim Freccia/Enough ProjectTim Freccia/Enough Project

The UN Security Council in December 2009 imposed an arms embargo, severe travel restrictions, and an asset freeze on Eritrean political and military leaders because of Eritrea’s support for extremist groups in Somalia. This step helped solidify the growing political isolation of Eritrea.

African Union

Eritrea has long considered the African Union as a tool of Ethiopia and treated it accordingly. Following the outbreak of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998 and the closure of the Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa, Eritrea no longer had a representative to interact routinely with the African Union in Addis Ababa. Girma Asmerom was the last Eritrean ambassador to Ethiopia and the African Union; he left in 1998. Eritrea decided in 2011 that it needed to counter the regional diplomatic isolation that it has experienced since the outbreak of conflict with Ethiopia. As part of this concerted effort to reengage in the region, it assigned Girma Asmerom, who doing the interregnum had served as Eritrean ambassador to the United States, as Eritrea’s ambassador to the African Union, resident in Addis Ababa. This was one of its first steps to end political isolation.

Intergovernmental Authority on Development

Eritrea pulled out of the Djibouti-based Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in 2007 after IGAD backed Ethiopia’s military intervention in Somalia. IGAD subsequently called for tough sanctions against Eritrea for its role in destabilizing the region. In mid-2011, Eritrea made a formal application to rejoin IGAD. IGAD is giving the request a “slow roll.” While Eritrea has not yet been readmitted to IGAD, this is another effort to end its isolation.


There is strong evidence that Eritrea once provided support for extremist groups in Somalia that oppose the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its Ethiopian ally. Somalia effectively became a proxy war for Eritrea against Ethiopia. Earlier reports by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea document this involvement. The 2011 UN report even alleged that Eritrea was behind a failed plot early in 2011 to bomb targets in Addis Ababa to coincide with the 16th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union. The report added that Eritrea bankrolled known members of al-Shabaab in Kenya and was involved in smuggling weapons through Sudan and Egypt.

The most recent UN report came out in July 2012. It is surprising in that it has so little to say about Eritrea’s involvement in Somalia. It concludes that the relative importance of Eritrea as a source of military and financial support for armed groups appears to have declined. The Monitoring Group found no evidence that Eritrea supplied al-Shabaab with arms and ammunition by air in October and November 2011. (It is not clear why these months are mentioned and the rest of the year is not discussed.) The report did state that Eritrea maintains relations with known arms dealers in Somalia and violated the arms embargo during the course of the mandate through its support for Ethiopian armed opposition groups passing through Somali territory. The Monitoring Group attributed Eritrea’s diminished engagement in Somalia to enhanced international scrutiny of Eritrea’s actions in Somalia and the region, growing friction in Eritrea’s relationship with al-Shabaab, and the absence of other viable armed opposition groups.

Sanctions against Eritrea have apparently had an impact and Eritrea has learned like everyone else that the Somalis are very difficult to coopt. Eritrea was not getting a good return on its investment in Somalia. Coupled with its desire to improve relations with other countries in the region, it decided to reduce significantly support for groups in Somalia that oppose the TFG and even pull back support for anti-Ethiopian Somali groups active in Ethiopia’s Somali Region. Eritrea is much more circumspect about funding dissident organizations. It reportedly no longer uses diplomatic representatives for this purpose but rather uses opaque financing through private intermediaries.


Djibouti and Eritrea have a recent history of animosity. The two countries nearly went to war in April 1996 when a Djiboutian official claimed that Eritrea shelled a border village. In 1998-1999, Eritrea accused Djibouti of allowing Ethiopia to use its port for importing military equipment during the Ethiopia-Eritrea war, an allegation which is probably accurate. The two countries then restored relations in 2001 with the help of Libyan President Qadhafi.

Early in 2008, Eritrea began preparing military positions along its border with Djibouti. By May, Djibouti’s president said the two armies are facing each other and described the situation as “explosive.” Fighting along the border broke out in June. Djibouti severed relations with Eritrea in November. Eritrea dismissed any argument that it had attacked or that a clash had even taken place and rejected all efforts at mediation. Nor is there any official complaint from Eritrea about a border claim against Djibouti. Eritrea probably initiated this incident out of unhappiness over Djibouti’s close ties with Ethiopia and possibly frustration that the port of Djibouti was booming while Assab was stagnant and Massawa operating well below capacity. Djibouti and Eritrea subsequently exchanged ambassadors again, but Djibouti remains wary about its Eritrean neighbor.

Djibouti’s minister of economy, finance and planning commented this July in London that while the conflict in Somalia is of great concern “the conflict in Eritrea has a much bigger potential to destabilize Djibouti and the whole region.” He added that he looks forward to the day that Djibouti does not have to pay large sums to have its military stationed on the border with Eritrea. This is money that could be used for poverty alleviation instead.

South Sudan

Eritrea was a strong supporter of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) during the 1990s. Juba has never forgotten this help. Sudan’s now defunct opposition National Democratic Alliance, of which the SPLM was a member, once had its headquarters in Asmara. Following the 1998 outbreak of war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, Eritrea began to improve ties with Khartoum. Improvement of ties with Khartoum and the death of John Garang in 2005 resulted in a cooling of relations with the SPLM, but Eritrea always kept the channels open to the SPLM. A senior South Sudan delegation visited Asmara in March 2011 when it discussed future cooperation. A second senior delegation arrived a few months later. President Isaias represented Eritrea at South Sudan’s independence in July 2011, when he also met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in Juba. South Sudan is playing a role in breaking the political isolation of Eritrea.


Eritrea has since independence in 1993 had a volatile relationship with Khartoum. Throughout most of the 1990s, Eritrea strongly supported the SPLM and maintained a hostile policy towards Khartoum. Until 1998, Eritrea (together with Ethiopia and Uganda) was part of the so-called US-led “front-line states” policy aimed at putting military pressure on Sudan. This came to a halt with the outbreak of conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia and both countries normalized ties with Sudan.

Eritrea always supported the unity of Sudan, albeit with guaranteed rights for southern Sudanese. But Eritrea was always suspect in government circles in Khartoum. While Eritrea was helpful in negotiating a settlement between Khartoum and dissident groups in eastern Sudan that had ethnic links to groups across the border in Eritrea, it also maintained close ties with the rebel Justice and Equality Movement in Darfur.

More recently, Eritrea has made a major effort to strengthen relations with Khartoum. Eritrea was the first country to invite President Bashir following the issuance by the International Criminal Court of an arrest warrant. Isaias made a three-day official visit to Sudan in October 2011 when the two leaders promised to expand cooperation. A week later, the two presidents met in Kassala near the Eritrea-Sudan border to inaugurate a new asphalt road linking the two countries. Bashir announced on that occasion “the end of border tension between Sudan and Eritrea forever.” History suggests this is overly optimistic. Bashir made a three-day visit to Eritrea in May 2012. President Isaias said the two countries have expanded ties in education, health, agriculture, trade and investment. The following week the two countries signed a framework agreement for strengthening links in higher education. Sanctions against both Sudan and Eritrea have helped draw the two countries together.


Perhaps the biggest surprise in Eritrea’s campaign to break its diplomatic isolation is the developing relationship with Kampala. Uganda has supplied most of the troops for the African Union Force in Somalia (AMISOM) and Eritrea has, at least until recently, supported Somali groups that are fighting against AMISOM. Isaias made a three-day state visit to Uganda in August 2011. Welcomed by President Museveni and a 21-gun salute, this may have changed the dynamic of Eritrea’s previous support for extremist groups in Somalia. Museveni then made a two-day state visit to Eritrea in May 2012, when they signed a number of cooperation agreements.


Kenya has been less willing than Uganda, South Sudan and Sudan to improve relations with Eritrea. For the moment, Kenya, which has a military force in the lower Juba area of Somalia, seems to be bidding its time until Eritrea’s actions in Somalia become clearer.

Regional Trade Ties

According to figures provided by the International Monetary Fund, trade plays a minimal role in Eritrea’s relations with all countries in the region. Eritrea is a small import market and it produces very little that is sought by countries in the region. Eritrea’s geographical location, in spite of the fact that it has two major ports, also works against trade with some regional countries. Its most obvious trade partner is Ethiopia, but the break in diplomatic relations ensures that trade is nonexistent except for small amounts of local border transactions. Ethiopia, Uganda, Djibouti and South Sudan have almost no trade with Eritrea. Eritrea has no exports to Kenya but imports between $4 and $5 million annually from Kenya.

Between 2007 and 2010, Eritrea exported $3 million in value annually to Sudan and imported about $1 million dollars in products from Sudan. The IMF figures may not have captured all of Eritrea’s imports from Sudan, especially oil during the 2007-2010 timeframe. Even in the context of African trade relations, however, these figures are surprisingly small.

Bottom Line

While relations with Ethiopia remain completely severed, Eritrea has done a pretty good job in the last year of ending political isolation by other countries in the region. One can debate why President Isaias decided to reengage in the region. Has he experienced an epiphany and decided to end actions that irritate neighbors and other countries in the region? In view of his past record, this seems unlikely. Do these recent efforts to reach out to neighboring states represent short-term tactical maneuvers or a long-term strategic policy change? That is much less clear. What is clear is that Eritrea is having some success.

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