The Armed Slaves of Eritrea
July 3, 2012: Ethiopia has emerged as East Africa’s political powerhouse, despite being landlocked. Eritrea controls what used to be Ethiopia’s seaports, before Eritrea became a separate nation in 1991. Since then Ethiopia has relied upon Djibouti and the Somaliland Republic for port access. Last year Ethiopia and Djibouti discussed constructing a new railroad line between the two countries. Recently Ethiopia announced that it had reached a deal with two major construction companies to extend and improve its railroad network. One company is Turkish and the other is Chinese. The project is long term, but by 2020 Ethiopia plans to have an additional 5,000 kilometers of railroad track. The project is designed to improve transportation within Ethiopia but the strategically critical link is a new rail link from northern Ethiopia to Djibouti’s Port Tadjourah.
July 1, 2012: Every so often Ethiopia calls attention to the Eritrean refugees living in refugee camps inside Ethiopia. The refugees are always good for horror stories about food shortages, arbitrary arrests, and corruption in Eritrea. Between 60,000 and 70,000 refugees live in the camps. Others gather in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. However, last year more and more Eritrean draft dodgers began crossing the border.
The complaint is broader than avoiding military conscription; many of the draft dodgers are in fact draftees who have deserted after serving far longer than what they regard as a reasonable tour of duty. According to the conscripts who have deserted, a draftee’s initial service, at least for those lacking political connections, can last for several years. These refugees have told reporters that sometimes draftees serve for a decade, not just in the military but in various government jobs or even businesses owned by the ruling party.
Eritrea began mass military conscription in the mid-1990s, as a means of building up its military in the face of what its government called the threat from Ethiopia. The strategic concept was the creation of an armed people. If the far larger and stronger Ethiopia attacked, the Ethiopian Army would ultimately have to fight everyone in Eritrea. At least that was the idea. Initial military training and service lasted 18 months. Sometimes draftees worked on road and military-related construction projects.
Now it appears the definition of military-related construction has changed. The continual influx of draftees who have deserted has to have some deleterious effect on Eritrea’s armed forces, but how large an effect is open to speculation. It is clearly an indication of declining morale. One recent report quoted refugees who claimed that some Eritrean Army units (ie, the ones of which they had direct knowledge) had only 25 percent of their assigned personnel. How much a given conscript actually knows about his unit’s authorized level of personnel is a fair question to ask, because he might be assigned to a reserve unit. However, many of the refugees interviewed indicated that units throughout the army are under-strength.
Eritrea could carry these under-strength units on its order of battle as full-strength units in order to inflate the size of its army and thereby deter Ethiopia, but that wouldn’t fool Ethiopian military intelligence analysts for very long.
In neighboring Kenya gunmen attacked a church in the town of Garissa. The attackera killed two policemen, stole their rifles, and then killed 15 and wounded 40 inside the church. The policemen had been assigned to guard the church because of rising violence in the region. Attackers also struck a second church in Garissa using grenades. Three people were wounded by grenade fragments. Garissa is not far from the Kenya-Somali border and militant Somali Islamists have been threatening to launch more attacks on Kenyan Christians.
The Kenyan government has pointed out that Kenyan Muslims also feel threatened by the Islamist attacks. Several Kenyan tribes have both Muslim and Christian members. The attack on a worshipping congregation is similar to attack launched by the Nigeria militant Islamist organization, Boko Haram. Al Qaeda and the Somalia Islamist group Al Shabaab have claimed that they are organizing militant Islamists throughout Africa.
June 30, 2012: Kenyan authorities are looking for a group of gunmen who kidnapped four aid workers at the Dadaab refugee camp (about 100 kilometers from the Somali border). The Kenya deployed helicopters, search aircraft and ground troops to find and rescue the captives.
June 29, 2012: Gunmen attacked a convoy and seized four foreign aid workers near the Dadaab refugee camp. Their Kenyan driver was killed in the attack.
In the central Somali town of Baladweyne an al Shabaab roadside bomb struck an Ethiopian Army convoy. There were no casualty reports. Ethiopia still occupies Baladweyne.
June 27, 2012: Twenty-three Ethiopians involved in opposition politics were convicted of terrorism. An Ethiopian journalist was also convicted on terrorism charges. They all face life imprisonment now. The defendants argued that they were prisoners of conscience and were not engaged in terrorism but legitimate democratic political action.
June 26, 2012: An Al Shabaab claimed its fighters ambushed a Kenyan Army convoy near the town of Haluqua (inside Kenya, near the Somali border), killing 23 Kenyan soldiers and wounding nine. The claim is unsubstantiated and Kenya did not report an incident. Both Kenya and Al Shabaab, however, acknowledge that there is a fight going on in the Somali town of Badhaadhe. Kenya reported that it killed five Al Shabaab fighters. Three Somalia Transitional National Government (TNG) soldiers were killed in the firefight which occurred when Al Shabaab fighters attacked a Kenyan and TNG base in the town.
The government of South Sudan said that Ethiopian forces had captured a Jonglei tribal spiritual leader who had fled South Sudan. The spiritual leader opposes South Sudan’s tribal disarmament policy in Jonglei state. Ethiopia has indicated that it will send the spiritual leader back to South Sudan. Ethiopian forces also captured some of the leader’s supporters who were accompanying him.
June 23, 2012: Djibouti opened its new Djibouti Naval Operations Center. The U.S. and France helped Djibouti build and equip the center, which will be used to track ship movements in Djiboutian territorial waters, the Red Sea area, and very likely the Gulf of Aden. One of its missions is counter-piracy. The European Union’s EU NAVFOR squadron will also be involved with the center.
An Ethiopian criminal court convicted a UN security guard of communicating with a terrorist group, sentencing him to seven years in jail. The government said that the guard had used his job to gather information for the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), an Ethiopian rebel group.
June 22, 2012: Ethiopia announced that it will keep troops in Somalia until Somalia passes a national constitution and has a military that is able to protect the country. This is a major change from what Ethiopia said it would do earlier this year. At one time Ethiopia indicated that its forces would leave Somalia this fall.
Ethiopia arrested 14 gunmen who were involved in the April murder of 19 people in the Gambella region (western Ethiopia). The group ambushed a passenger bus. The same group of gunmen had been involved in a skirmish with South Sudanese security forces.
Kenyan authorities arrested several men, including two Iranian nationals, who were allegedly planning terrorist attacks in Nairobi and Mombasa. The group is connected to the Somalia’s Al Shabaab. The group had stored chemicals used in making explosives at a golf club near Mombasa.
June 18, 2012: UN officials accused Eritrea of torturing political prisoners and conducting summary executions of political prisoners. Human rights violations by the Eritrean government include forced labor.
June 16, 2012: Kenyan media reported that the Kenyan military has lost 12 people in operations in Somalia. Five died in combat and seven in accidents. The figures are unconfirmed.
June 15, 2012: The Kenyan government denied that it is letting the U.S. use Kenyan territory or airspace to conduct aerial surveillance missions. The Kenyan denial, however, was very carefully worded. Kenya basically said that it does not know about any US use of Kenyan airspace, but Kenya does share intelligence information with the US.
June 12, 2012: The Kenyan military intends to launch a final assault on the Al Shabaab-held seaport of Kismayo sometime in August and Kenya wants international participation in the operation. That means several things. Kenya has asked the U.S. to provide funding assistance. Ethiopia has suggested that it may send troops south to help the Kenyans attack Kismayo. Kenyan forces are now flagged as members of the AMISOM peacekeeping operation in Somalia so conceivably other AMISOM peacekeepers (form Uganda, Burundi, possibly Djibouti) could participate. Kenya has also approached the European Union and asked for naval support.
Local Somalis report that some Al Shabaab fighters have returned to the town of El Bur after Ethiopian forces pulled out on June 10.
June 10, 2012: An Ogaden rebel website accused an Ethiopian paramilitary police unit of burning down the center of the town of Degahbour on June 8.
June 8, 2012: The U.S. government announced that it is offering $33 million in rewards for information that leads to the capture of senior Al Shabaab leaders. The US is offering seven million dollars for Al Shabaab’s founder, Ahmed Abdi aw-Mohamed Nom de guerre is Godane).
* Originally published on Strategy World – July 3, 2012, titled “The Armed Slaves of Eritrea”.
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