OAKLAND — Armed rebels in the famine-ravaged Horn of Africa are being partially bankrolled by money from immigrants in the Bay Area, according to a United Nations report.
The East African nation of Eritrea finances militants across the region with the help of money funneled from Eritrean-Americans, who are pressured by the government to send a percentage of their incomes and other donations home, the report says.
Tens of millions of dollars are sent annually to Eritrea through a 2 percent income tax imposed on people of Eritrean origin who live outside the African country. Not all Eritrean immigrants pay, but some do out of a sense of duty to the impoverished country. Others pay because the Eritrean government can penalize them if they refuse.
Those who pay “are indirectly supporting the dictatorship,” said Solomon Assefaw of Oakland-based Eritrean Youth for Change, which opposes the Eritrean government. “No other country in the world does this except the Eritrean government.”
Oakland is one of the top U.S. hubs for Eritrean immigrants, many of them refugees who fled during a 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia. Immigrants from the Bay Area and elsewhere whose cash once supported the rebel movement are now a major moneymaker for the one-party government that has ruled Eritrea since it gained its independence in 1993.
The U.N. report backs up long-held suspicions that the tax collection and other fundraising may violate international treaties, and that money is being funneled to the al-Shabab insurgency in Somalia and other militant groups that have destabilized the region. The report comes as al-Shabab has exacerbated a devastating famine in Somalia by blocking incoming aid and outgoing refugees.
Released last week, the report asserts that Eritrea planned a terrorist bombing attack earlier this year in Addis Ababa, the capital city of its rival and former colonizer, Ethiopia, and details how Eritrea patronizes armed groups with weapons and training through a “vast and complex informal economy” run by government and military figures and funded by Eritreans living abroad.
The U.S. government curtailed the fundraising in California in 2007 during a diplomatic dispute when it shuttered downtown Oakland’s Eritrean Consulate, a branch of the Eritrean Embassy, but some Bay Area organizations remain closely tied to the Eritrean government and continue to collect money.
A document obtained by the Bay Area News Group asks vendors at the upcoming Eritrean Western USA Festival, which happens in Oakland and Richmond next weekend, to write their checks to the “Embassy of Eritrea,” but mail them to the nonprofit Eritrean Community Cultural Civic Center in the Temescal district of Oakland.
Assefaw has urged Bay Area Eritreans to boycott the center’s popular cultural events, arguing that the money could be sent to the Eritrean government. Berhane Kassa, the center’s director, said the instructions on the application must be a mistake. He denied allegations that the center is affiliated with the government.
“It should not be saying the Embassy,” he said. “They probably designed it a long time ago and they didn’t change. In the old days, it used to be like that.”
Networks tied to Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki’s ruling party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, have raised tens of millions of dollars around the world through party agents, community activists, honorary consuls and business networks, the U.N. report says, identifying Oakland as a major source of the funding.
“Some of this cash is deposited in Eritrean embassy bank accounts, but much of it is moved through increasingly opaque financial networks, employing money transfer companies and individual couriers,” according to the report.
The findings caused the U.N. Security Council to extend its monitoring of a 2-year arms embargo on Eritrea.
Eritrea has blasted the monitoring group as an “illegal” invasion of its sovereignty.
In the Bay Area’s deeply divided Eritrean community, the report elicited frustration from those who support the Eritrean government and believe the country is unfairly maligned by the international community, and a sense of vindication from the government’s critics, particularly those who object to paying the tax. The government calls the tax voluntary but keeps track of who pays, and can punish those who don’t by threatening to limit travel and take away land, inheritances and birth and death certificates and permission to do business in Eritrea.
“If you don’t pay that, you don’t get any services,” said Kassa, the community center director and a tax supporter. “One day you will go back to your country. If you need any service, you must have fulfilled the requirements the government has asked you to fulfill.”
Created after Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia after a 30-year war, the meh’weyi gebri — which means healing or rehabilitation tax in the Eritrean language of Tigrinya — was designed to help the shattered country rebuild.
“Eritrea is so in need of development assistance. I kind of think of it as a little bit of my part,” said Merhawie Woldezion, a structural engineer who pays the tax annually by mailing a check to the Eritrean Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Born and raised in Berkeley to Eritrean immigrant parents, Woldezion is a dual citizen of the United States and Eritrea. Contributing 2 percent of his income each year has allowed him to do engineering work in Eritrea. The U.N. report did not convince him that Eritrea was misusing his money.
“We’re not privy to CIA weapons transfers, either,” he said. “It bothers me, absolutely, but this is, I guess, the way governments work.”
Others who refuse to pay the tax said the report proved their fears about the Eritrean government.
Tedros Tesfay, an Orthodox Christian priest who recently moved to Orange County, considers the Eritrean government to be an oppressive dictatorship. Twenty years after independence, he said Afewerki still treats the national government as if it were the rebel army from which it originated.
“The government is very secretive,” Tesfay said. “They don’t have an annual budget. They don’t have any constitution.”
A former diplomat who was the Bush administration’s top representative in Africa, and who was involved in forcing Eritrea to close its Oakland consulate, said Thursday the U.N. report confirmed what many intelligence agencies already knew about Eritrea’s covert aggression against its neighbors.
“Eritrea has been planning bombing attacks and terrorism in Addis Ababa for quite some time,” said Jendayi Frazer, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.