Yemen, in a move reflecting its new close diplomatic and military ties with the US, is offering to mediate between Eritrea and Ethiopia in their territorial dispute, which is threatening to unravel the US’s carefully constructed anti-Sudan alliance in the Horn of Africa. The move is also clearly aimed at scuttling current efforts by Qatar to mediate between Sudan and Eritrea, which hosts Sudanese opposition groups and militia.
Sana’a’s offer of mediation between two African ‘Christian’ States, one of which (Eritrea) was forcibly occupying Yemen’s own Red Sea island of Greater Hanesh until as recently as October, is by itself of little importance. Yemen, after all, cannot settle its own territorial dispute with Saudi Arabia, a fellow Arab neighbour. It has also failed to pacify its own recalcitrant regions or to reconcile the squabbling members of its coalition government. It also lacks the necessary economic clout and political influence to exert strong pressure on Asmara and Addis Ababa.
The significance of the Yemeni intervention derives from the fact that it confers apparent ideological and political respectability on the US-supported war being waged against Islamic Sudan by Christian-ruled Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda. Yemeni solidarity with Christian aggressors against a member of the Arab League is intended to remove any impression of US-backed Christians ganging up against Arab Muslims. With Yemen now a virtual US military and intelligence base, the new alignment also gives strategic depth not only to the conflict, but also to Washington’s war against the presence of Islamic activism in East and Central Africa.
Indeed, when the Yemeni foreign minister, Abdul Kader Bajmal, turned up in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on November 12 to deliver his country’s offer of mediation, he put greater emphasis on co-operation between the countries of the region than on the peace-making role he was seeking.
Waxing lyrical about the benefits of peace in the region, he said parties to territorial disputes should follow his country’s example, which had settled its dispute with Eritrea peacefully. He cited the disputes between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Somali and Ethiopia, and Djibouti and Eritrea, without once referring to Sudan which is the target of armed aggression by all three: Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uganda. Indeed, Bajmal, who is also Yemen’s deputy prime minister, pointedly excluded Sudan from the list of countries with which Sana’a wishes to improved relations, describing ties with Eritrea and Ethiopia as being of prime importance to his government.
He told the London Arabic daily, Al-Hayat, that Sana’a wished to reinforce its historical and geographical ties with the ‘nations’ of the Horn of Africa, especially Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti. ‘Yemen hopes to find a peaceful solution to the border crisis between Ethiopia and Eritrea because of the historical and eternal relations binding it more closely to these two than to any other country,’ he said.
Clearly, according to the Yemeni deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Sudan is beyond the pale while Djibouti and Somalia, being of secondary importance, are expendable if they resist pressure to settle their territorial disputes with Sana’a’s special friends. Yet, Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia are, like Yemen, members of the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), with obligations towards each other under the terms of their membership.
It was, moreover, Eritrea, not Sudan, which humiliated Yemen in December 1995 when it seized the Yemeni Red Sea Island of Greater Hanesh and expelled Yemeni soldiers. Instead of fighting to recover its land, Yemen submitted the issue to UN arbitration. The International Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled in Yemen’s favour on October 8. The dispute concerned three major islands in the Red Sea, 100 miles north of the Bab al-Mandab Straits. Eritrea had seized Greater Hanesh, leaving the other two in Yemeni hands. The court ordered Eritrea to hand Greater Hanesh back to Yemen within 90 days, while granting it control over three minor islands and four islets.
Only three days after the Court’s decision, Yemeni president Abdullah Saleh was on the telephone to his Eritrean counterpart, Issaias Aferwerki, the first contact of its kind between the two men. Uncle Sam’s hand was visible in this immediate and abject cozying up to an enemy that had inflicted a military defeat, causing public humiliation and embarrassment. Indeed, some Yemeni analysts believe that Eritrea’s invasion of Greater Hanesh was engineered by the CIA to promote greater US and NATO military presence in the Red Sea and Gulf Regions.
Certainly the Americans have been actively developing military and intelligence relations with Yemen in recent months. During September and October alone, more than 20 high-level US political and military delegations visited Yemen. These delegations included senior diplomats and military experts, and held talks with equally senior Yemeni political leaders, including the president, and military officers. President Abdullah Saleh told a US Marines delegation visiting Sana’a on October 7 that he was fully satisfied with developing US-Yemeni relations in all fields. The Americans are reported to have secured future base rights, though both Washington and Sana’a deny this.
The CIA already has a strong presence in Yemen, having helped the president to curb the military and political influence of South Yemeni Marxists during the 1994 civil war. The agency is now more interested in combatting Islamic activists in the country, concentrating in particular on their training and financial capabilities. The US media have been claiming in recent months that the followers of Shaikh Osama bin Laden, including returning ‘Arab Afghans’ are active in the country. Now made respectable by its open acceptance as an arbiter in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, the CIA can be expected to assume a higher profile in the region as a whole.
The implications of this, and of the growing US military presence in Yemen, for Sudan and other Muslim countries and Islamic movements in East and Central Africa are likely to be clearly seen in the not-too-distant future.
Muslimedia: December 1-15, 1998