The bad boy of the Horn of Africa: How Eritrea’s strongman uses Kenya as a terror finance hub

Isaias-afeworki

In early July, as Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki headed to Addis Ababa to chair a meeting of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad), a six-country partnership formed to address issues of drought, security and development in the Horn of Africa, he sounded a stern warning to Eritrea.

For Kibaki, a president who is not known for his love of dramatic public gesture, to adopt a hostile posture against another country, there must have been more to the issue than the government was revealing to the public.

In March, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi — whose country has a strong security partnership with Kenya — had also warned that his government would use “all possible means” to depose Eritrea’s 67-year old strongman Isaias Afewerki, with whom he had fought a bloody secessionist war that killed 70,000 people between 1998 and 2000.

However, with the release of the UN Monitoring Group report on Somalia and Eritrea last week, it is now becoming clearer why Afewerki has gained the reputation of the bad boy of the Horn of Africa, a pariah state under international sanctions for sponsoring terrorism in the region.
While Eritrea has in the past been repeatedly accused of supporting Somalia’s Islamist militia Al Shabaab, a charge it strenuously denies, the current report catalogues Afewerki’s growing notoriety in the world of terrorism finance, and in particular the global web through which these funds are routed, with Kenya serving as a global transaction distribution hub.

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The report details the country’s activities in funding the terror group, following the money trail from its citizens in the diaspora in Europe and North America, through Dubai and the Eritrean embassy in Nairobi, and into the hands of Al Shabaab, all the while concealed in convoluted and opaque informal financial networks.

Isaias-afeworki
East Africa "Bad boy" Isaias Afeworki

The details of Eritrea’s destabilising role in the Horn of Africa are chilling, and would make good fodder for an action flick if only they were the stuff of fiction. The implications for the security of the greater East African region are deep and pertinent, so much so that the typically restrained President Kibaki came out strongly to chide Eritrea for supplying arms to Al Shabaab, calling upon Igad, which he chairs, to rein in the rogue state.

The report states that Eritrean support to armed opposition groups has routinely involved cash payments to members of rebel groups. The country only has a gross national income per capita of $360, among the lowest in the world. However, analysts say that in spite of its relative poverty, Eritrea’s ingrained siege mentality drives its foreign policy agenda relentlessly towards military activity, directing much of its revenue to armed opposition groups throughout the region, in the spirit of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.”

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Proxy war

The enemy is this case is Eritrea’s former colonial master Ethiopia. For both these countries, Somalia is merely the theatre of a raging proxy war, an extension of their longstanding border dispute, with each side supporting various rival factions and administrations since 1998. Al Shabaab is thus propped up by Eritrea’s determination to keep Ethiopia “off-kilter and overstretched,” according to British journalist Michela Wrong, writing in the Financial Times. Ms Wrong has written a bestselling book I Didn’t Do It for You, on the country’s struggle to free itself from various occupiers.

According to the report, Eritrea justifies its actions in Somalia by pointing to Ethiopia’s failure to implement the UN ruling of arbitration on the disputed border, and the continued presence of Ethiopian civilian officials and military forces on territory awarded to Eritrea.

The UN Monitoring Group indicates that cash transfers to Al Shabaab are facilitated by a vast and complex informal economy through which senior officials of the Eritrean government and ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) collect and control hundreds of millions of dollars each year in unofficial revenues, largely from taxation of Eritreans in the diaspora, and private business arrangements involving PFDJ-run companies or business partnerships abroad.
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