Three events in quick succession have forced Eritrea to go on the defensive with its envoy in Nairobi declaring , “we have never been the bad boy”.
Despite the firm declaration of innocence by Asmara, the recent report by the UN Security Monitoring Group and assertions by leaders of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (Igad) provided ammunition for warring Eritrea and Ethiopia to renew their rivalry.
The two have escalated the row, with Asmara stating that the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was behind the smear campaign while Ethiopia has countered by asking its neighbour to own up and behave.
Kenya finds itself the battleground as the two protagonists fire salvos at each other. That Asmara has been boxed into a corner is not in doubt.
President Mwai Kibaki, as the chairman of Igad, set the ball rolling when he told his counterparts in the region to enhance security measures to curb the increasing destabilisation activities associated with Eritrea.
Even before Asmara could fully digest this information, the UN Security Monitoring Group unleashed a much harsher assessment of the country’s complicity with armed groups in Somalia, Djibouti and Ethiopia.
The UN report published “documentary evidence of Eritrean payments to a number of individuals with links to al Shabaab” through its embassy in Nairobi.
The mission is accused of making routine cash payments to members of Somali armed groups, but the administration of President Isaias Afewerki has in the past officially denied that it has ever “transferred cash to armed opposition group leaders or supporters,” the UN reported.
The report also accuses Eritrea of plotting to bomb the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. Asmara responded by reactivating its Igad membership which it had frozen in December 2006.
But Eritrean ambassador to Nairobi Beyene Russom denies that his government reactivated its membership in Igad because of the looming backlash from the international community over its alleged dalliance with al Shabaab.
The decision to return to the Igad fold, he said, was necessitated by recent changes in the region, including the creation of the new state of South Sudan and the growing humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa.
“Four-and-a-half years since we froze our membership, there has been the birth of a new country, South Sudan. We are very friendly with both Juba and Khartoum. We also have very good diplomatic relations with Kenya and Uganda, and we are solving the stage-managed and that never-was-border issue created as a problem with Djibouti bilaterally. We think it’s high time now to reactivate our membership, believing that we can work for the peace and security of the region inside Igad again,” the envoy said.
Kenya and Ethiopia, as are the rest of Igad members, are positive about Eritrea’s return.
In Nairobi, acting Foreign Affairs permanent secretary Patrick Wamoto told the Sunday Nation that Kenya would not oppose Eritrea’s return to the Igad bloc.
The Ethiopian embassy, too, said Addis Ababa would not object. “They are welcome. It is out of their own free will to sit in Igad,” said Fiseha Shawel, charge d’affaires at the Ethiopian mission in Nairobi.
Mr Russom told the Sunday Nation that Eritrea had been compelled to freeze its membership because Igad did not stop, or at least condemn, Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia, which was against a UN Security Council Resolution 1725 (2006).
One of the key points of Resolution 1725 was a call for an all-inclusive Somali dialogue for peace and reconciliation. At the same time, it sought to prevent frontline states from intervening militarily in Somalia.
But just two weeks after the resolution was passed, Ethiopia invaded Somalia to fight the Islamic Courts Union leader Sheikh Sharif Hassan (whose military wing was al Shabaab).
Eritrea claims that the invasion by Ethiopia had “some sort of blessing from Igad” because the regional bloc did not condemn it.
“We tabled our opposition but to no avail. So we thought that in addition to Igad’s indolence towards the Ethiopian invasion of Eritrea in 1998 and in 2000, we could not work inside Igad because it was not working for one of its holy agendas – peace and security of the region,” the envoy said.
Eritrea also vehemently denies UN and Igad allegations that it is supporting terrorism.
The allegations have escalated the diplomatic row, with Asmara asserting that Addis Ababa was behind the smear campaign. Prme Minister Meles’ government countered by saying that Ethiopia was not to blame.
Addis Ababa has often been uncomfortable with Eritrea over its alleged close ties with Ethiopian rebel groups Oromo Liberation Front and the Ogaden National Liberation Front. The two groups have been fighting the Ethiopian government.
The two neighbours have also been at loggerheads over border demarcation since signing a peace agreement in 2000.
Mr Russom wants the region and the international community to put pressure on Ethiopia to fully implement the verdict of the Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Commission that is agreed to be final and binding.