“We are sure they have sinister aims. Our relations with them can only go from worse to worse”, said Petros Salomon, Eritrea’s foreign minister, during a long exclusive interview in Paris, a few hours before the two countries broke their relations on 5 December (1994). The Eritrean foreign minister went even as far as raising the possibility of an open conflict between Eritrea and the Sudan.
Eritrea and Sudan have been too much of a tensed place and it is important that we see what the things have been going on in the border to see exactly how things have been happening around here. There has to be an understanding one way or the other according to the official source and get things done.
For years the Eritrean leaders, who had relied heavily on the facilities granted by the successive Sudanese regimes for their struggle against Ethiopia, had strived to keep normal relations with Khartoum, even after President Omar Hassan al Bashir took power in 1988 — in spite of their second thoughts about Hassan Turabi’s National Islamic Front. “We had”, said Petros Salomon, “good friends in the Sudanese army who told us: Don’t worry, there is a difference: the National Islamic Front and the army are not the same thing”.
But very quickly the Eritreans had to face the obvious. The Sudanese regime was totally controlled by Hassan Turabi, who supported the activities of a small subversive group, the “Eritrean Djihad”. “We told them we could not tolerate activities that went against the very fabric of our nation, its religious and ethnic diversity, and we asked them to stop arming and training these extremist groups”. The Sudanese denied at that time that they were involved in any way in the Djihad’s activities, claiming that it was easy for them to find weapons on the free market.
The first serious incidents occured at the end of 1992. The EPLF had seized the power in Asmara since 24 may 1991, but it had not yet proclaimed the independence of Eritrea. Djihad members laid mines on desert tracks near the Sudanese border and infiltrated small groups of fighters inside Eritrea. The Eritrean authorities then sent a delegation to Khartoum in January 1993 requesting the Sudanese regime to prove its “sincerety” by allowing them to organise peacefully, with the assistance of the United Nations, the “historical referendum” (on 24 April 1993) that was to lead to the proclamation of independence on 24 May 1993. The Sudanese kept their word, and for several months there were no more incidents.
Then in September 1993 new clashes took place. the Eritreans captured several members of the Djihad who confessed they had been trained in camps located in the Sudan. The tension increased again in December 1993 when several members of the “Djihad” were killed in an ambush. Among them, there were one Afghani and one Moroccan. “It became a major issue”, remarked Petros Salomon: “How could these foreigners come to Eritrea if the Sudan was not involved? It testifies that the Sudan is helping them”.
In early 1994 Eritrea sent a new delegation to Khartoum, calling on the Sudanese to bring to an end all subversive activities and to set up a joint security committee. The Eritreans also requested the Sudanese not to issue visas to the foreign members of the Djihad and to remove from the border Djihad members who were proselytizing in refugee camps where still live more than half a million Eritreans. Again, the tension decreased for a few months, until a recent incident occurred in which again several foreigners were killed — an Afghani, a Yemeni and a North African.
“We now have very clear informations”, said Petros Salomon, the foreign minister. “It goes far beyond helping the subversive agents. They want to set up in all the region of the Horn of Africa, in Eritrea as well as in Ethiopia and in Somalia, governments similar to the Sudanese regime. We cannot stand it anymore”.
According to the Eritrean foreign minister, the Djihad wants to convert Eritrea into a Muslim country (about 60% of its population is Christian), with an Islamic government implementing the Shariah (Islamic law) and including one or two Christian ministers.
According to the Eritrean foreign minister, the Sudanese have been particularly irritated by the Eritrean stand about the conflict of Southern Sudan at the last IGADD meetings. “We told them they should work out a federal solution that reflects the ethnic and religious diversity of the Sudan, and that the Shariah should not be imposed”, said Petros Salomon, adding: “Now we can no more find excuses in the rivalry of the superpowers. We, Eritreans, are concerned by this conflict. We need peace in the region to solve our problems of development, to get out of the drought and the poverty”.
But, according to the Eritreans, it is Hassan Turabi’s determination to set up Islamic governments in the whole Horn of Africa that explains the severe deterioration of the relations between the two countries. “The Sudan is a major factor of destabilization in the region, and Hassan Turabi is the master mind of this policy. He really believes that Islam is the solution to all problems, not only in the Sudan, but in the whole region”.
Turabi is helping not only the Djihad in Eritrea, but also the Ittihad in Somalia, and other organisations active amongst the Oromos in Ethiopia. Very serious clashes recently caused more than 150 victims in Ethiopia. But while the Ethiopians keep silent about these skirmishes, the Eritreans are apparently determined to get it all off their chest: “We, Eritreans, we are hot-headed, we are not so diplomatic”, remarked Petros Salomon.
But the Eritreans are obviously worried. Petros Salomon, who had been minister of defence for several years before being appointed foreign minister at the beginning of 1994, explained he was not ruling out the possibility of an open conflict with the Sudan. Although he peremptorily claims: “We are the best fighters in the Horn of Africa; the Sudan is not a country that can destroy us”, it is clear that Eritrea, which just emerged out of a 30 years long war of independence cannot afford a new conflict.
This could explain why President Isayas Afeworki of Eritrea has already waged the first battle — a diplomatic one — by sending his minister of foreign affairs on a mission to Europe a few days before he spectaculary severed his relations with the Sudan to make sure that nobody, especially not France, was playing the Sudanese card.
(The Middle East magazine, May 1995)