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What Johnnie Doesn’t See in Eritrea

Johnnie Carson (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Johnnie Carson (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Recently the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs at the US State Department, Johnnie Carson, has said that if Eritrea wants better relations with the United States it must cease its actions in Somalia.  Although the tone is slightly different from the previous Administration, fundamentally the message is the same.

Although certainly within its rights and privileges as the preeminent global power, this comment will likely be ignored by Eritrea. The reasons are numerous but not difficult to understand. These reasons can largely be reduced to three points:

  1. The Somali government and people supported the Eritrean struggle for independence during the Ethiopian occupation in the 1970’s and 1980’s,
  2. It’s bid to prevent the descent of the region into chaos have been botched by the international community,
  3. The United States provides hundreds of millions in aid, including military assistance (both training, equipment and financial) to a country occupying Eritrean territories for nearly a decade.

Somali Support for Eritrean Independence

A brief journey into history shows that immediately after World War II the United States, advocated that Eritrea be bound to Ethiopia although the people clearly wanted independence. This is most clearly seen by the comments of the then soon-to-be Secretary of State John Foster Dulles at the United Nations:

From the point of view of justice, the opinions of the Eritrean people must receive consideration. Nevertheless, the strategic interests of the United States … make it necessary that the country [Eritrea] be linked with … Ethiopia.1

At the same time, the other former Italian colonies (of which Eritrea was one) were granted independence, and in the case of Somalia, used this independence to unify the Somali people that had been separated by colonial boundaries. Eritrea was forced to fight the longest war for independence in recent African history and Somalis allowed Eritrea to treat its wounded in Somalia.

Eritrea on Regional Peace

A regional organization, IGAD (Inter-Governmental Authority on Development), took up the issue of the Somali conflict. As a member in good standing at the time the Government of Eritrea spoke out against any foreign military intervention in an attempt to solve it, suggesting that it would only inflame the warring parties. The organization was split on this issue, with Eritrea and Djibouti against any military intervention, while Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda wanted to intervene. Eventually Djibouti capitulated and IGAD sent in Ugandan peacekeepers. This, as predicted further inflamed the situation and as the situation spiralled out of control for the Kenyan elected Somali government, Ethiopia invaded.

For the casual reader I should note that Ethiopia and Somalia have had a violent history, having fought three wars over the same territory in the past 100 years. It should also be noted that although Ethiopia is a majority Muslim country it has been ruled by Christians throughout modern times.

This was a disastrous decision and has given rise to the now infamous Somali piracy as well as rallying of more violent foreign fighters. Eritrea held a Somali-only peace conference in Eritrea to try to bring all Somalis together from all corners of society to build a homegrown solution.2 This has since failed however as the international community has bombed Somalia and supported Ethiopia’s invasion.

Similarly in Sudan Eritrea helped the central Government of Sudan make peace with the Eastern Sudanese rebels eventually bringing them into Government. Eritrea’s involvement in Darfur too was to try to bring all Sudanese to the table to solve issue, winning it widespread acclaim for its efforts to bring regional peace by the European Union.3 However, apparently Johnnie Carson, like Jendayi Frazer before him disagrees with the European Union.

US Assistance to Ethiopia

Civilian Aid to Ethiopia
OECD Data

Since the 2002 border decision Ethiopia has continued to occupy the border territories with Eritrea, which amount to roughly 20% of Eritrea. Since that time Eritrea has called for sanctions against Ethiopia until it withdraws from its territory, however, instead the United States has provided an unending supply of assistance to Ethiopia.

Typically the Government of Eritrea does not respond to every quote from foreign governments, however, if they did, in this case (Johnnie Carson’s comment4 they would likely say, if the United States would like to have better relations with Eritrea the United States should press Ethiopia to withdraw from occupied Eritrean territories, recognize the grievances of the Somali people and recognize efforts to bring peace to the region. All this will likely bring US-Eritrean relations to a point where mutual respect will allow them to discuss pointedly frustrations each has with the other, build a real friendship.

Eritrea and Ethiopia are natural allies, however, the short-term view of some in the United States could prevent recognition of the long-term interest the United States has with Eritrea although the reverse is certainly recognized.


  1. Semere Haile The Origins and Demise of the Ethiopia-Eritrea Federation Issue: A Journal of Opinion, Vol. 15, 1987 (1987), pp. 9-17 

  2. http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L31176949.htm 

  3. http://www.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idUSL0451942120070504 

  4. http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUSN08346100 

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