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Made in Eritrea

23 February 2010 23 February 2010 Tags: , , , , , , , , , No Comment Print This Post Print This Post

Eritrea, the troubled Red Sea state, is playing a complex, dangerous and destructive game that involves shady international politics, greedy industrialists and gross human rights violations.

Eritrea is on the threshold of a mining boom that is hoped to boost the mainly agriculture-based economy that has suffered from irregular rainfall.  The United Nations last month voted to punish Eritrea for its alleged support of Islamic insurgents in Somalia. The abundance of minerals, including gold that nearly quadrupled in price during the last 8 years, attracts many international investors disregarding the fact that the associated money may be tainted.

Gold price trend in last 10 years.

Apart from small-scale artisan mining and some minor extraction by Italians during the colonial era, Eritrea’s mining potential is not fully exploited. Bisha is currently Eritrea’s most advanced mining project. Its 27 million tonnes of ore are believed to contain 1 million ounces of gold, close to 800 million pounds of copper and 1 billion pounds of zinc. Production is expected to begin by the end of 2011.

More than a dozen foreign companies are now exploring, or about to begin the exploration plans.  Before sanctions were imposed in December, the Canadian corporation Nevsun Resources Ltd, spent a record $21.7 million on its Bisha project in the third quarter of 2009.

Stanley Rogers, the head of the Bisha project for the Nevsun, implying an apparent lack of need for any social or political accountability of the inter-national corporations, said that the industry was not feeling the heat and that all eyes were on the movement of the price of gold. “For investors, the international price of gold is a more decisive factor than sanctions imposed on a single country. External perceptions of Eritrea are at odds with the internal reality. Internally, this is a stable place to do business. My view on this hasn’t changed,” he concluded.

Any ethical dilemmas? You be your own judge.

Eritrea is accused by the United Nations and others of fueling the chaos in Somalia — where 18,000 people have died in violence since the start of 2007 — by sending funds and arms to rebel groups battling the UN-backed transitional government. Sanctions include an arms embargo, travel bans and asset freezes but they do not target the interests of mining companies operating in Eritrea, where licenses are held by groups from Australia, Canada, China, Libya and the United Kingdom.  But some observers argue there is now an ethical obligation on the part of these companies — some hailing from nations who were vocal supporters of the sanctions — not to put millions of dollars in the pockets of the Eritrean government.

“Absolutely not the case,” said Rogers, “External investment is up to the individual. We’re not forcing people to spend money in Eritrea. We’re not involved in the politics of the nation or internationally … people are still investing.”

International lobbying efforts of Eritrea are substantial and routine. For example, in 2006 Eritrea paid total of $390,000 to BGR LLC. The description of BRG Group LLC, provided by Spin Profiles, a project of SpinWatch is self-explanatory:

Barbour Griffith & Rogers, LLC (BGR) is a Washington, DC-based lobbying company, which was described as “all-Republican” in 2007.[1] It describes itself as “performance based” and that it can offer “a proactive, creative approach to solving problems and aggressively seeking results”. [2]; and as ‘a premier strategic consulting and government affairs firm in the United States and worldwide’[3].

John Sununu: Bush's Bad Cop

A further check on the Chairman of BGR Group, Mr. Rogers reveals that he has a direct plug to the Republican politicians such as John H. Sununu, the former White House Chief of Staff under President George H. W. Bush – a rather close connection to a source of things to be done in the US and abroad. Not by accident, Mr.  Sununu was referred to as Bush’s Bad Cop by Time Magazine.

If there is a question why Eritrea came directly to the US government, instead dealing with the UN that is present in the region, the answer maybe found in this statement quoted from Eritrea: Independence Day call for a year of urgent human rights improvements by Amnesty International:

Such is the level of secrecy and intimidation inside Eritrea, which affects Eritreans in the diaspora too, that few confirmed details are available on new political detainees in the past year. They currently include 10 Eritrean staff of the UN Military Mission to Eritrea and Ethiopia (UNMEE) administering a buffer zone between the two countries, who were detained earlier this month as relations deteriorated further between Eritrea and the UN.

The accomplishments of Mr. Isaias Afewerki, president of Eritrea since 1993, in the area of human rights violations are evident as Eritrea has turned into one of the most totalitarian states in Africa. His early tactic was to ban multiple political parties and  privately owned press, and simply expel foreign journalists who became too critical.

“What is a free press? There is no free press anywhere.”

- Isaias Afewerki

The international journalist watchdog group Reporters Without Borders ranked Eritrea’s press freedom as the worse on earth in 2009, behind North Korea and Turkmenistan.  As if the complete suppression of political freedoms in Eritrea weren’t enough, Afewerki has found a remarkably “efficient” way to expand the size and scope of its government: a forceful servitude; he pays people about $50 a month to work as government employees, whether in an office or providing manual labor. Those not inclined to give up their former jobs, even if that actually provided enough money to support their families, were given another option: prison without trial. Afewerki’s scheme ran into snags when young Eritreans started fleeing to Sudan to avoid indentured servitude to their dictator. In turn, Afewerki ingeniously tackled the problem by simply jailing the families of people leaving the country to escape his state-mandated poverty. Finally, we can not omit the state sponsored persecution of religious minorities in Eritrea reported for years.

Eritrea President Isaias Afwerki standing with Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao.

It’s safe to presume that Afewerki will survive the latest round of fighting with Ethiopia, yet another source of problems in the troubled region. Afewerki’s decision to provide money and weapons to anti-Ethiopian militant groups may, however, backfire on him, as some experts expect.

With well orchestrated lobbying efforts of Afewerki any chance he will be resigning soon is unlikely. The latest assassination attempt on Afewerki was conducted in August, 2009. In this failed action, the president was barely able to escape death. The man who tried to kill the president though, a former freedom fighter, 43-year old First Lieutenant Daniel Habte Yihdego, after an exchange of fire with the president’s security, was shot to death.

I predict that President Afwerki’s complete disregard for the East-African wisdom stating that “Peace with justice is everything” and his attempt to apply his own wisdom will fail.

The latest about situation in Eritrea can be found at Asmarino Independent and Eritrea Daily websites.

Written by Mark Bajkowski.
Mark, born in Poland, is a Jack of all trades, master of none, who lives in New York since 1979. Mark has an unusually wide range of interests and is known to relate well to the people half of his age. Since his early childhood, he felt a curious relation to Africa, which unavoidably brings up the controversial subject of multiple-life experiences.

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