The United States has removed Eritrea from a list of countries uncooperative in the fight against terrorism, the latest in a series of diplomatic victories for the East African nation.
The U.S. State Department first placed Eritrea on a list of countries not cooperating fully with its anti-terrorism efforts in 2008. A year later, the country also faced U.N. sanctions for allegations that it supported al-Shabab, a terror group based in Somalia.
Until Wednesday, Eritrea was the only African country on the list, and it found itself alongside such pariah nations as Syria, North Korea and Iran. But government officials have long denied supporting terror groups, and a U.N. monitoring group was, for many years, unable to find evidence that Eritrea was backing al-Shabab.
Eritrean Minister of Information Yemane Gebremeskel took to Twitter to praise the change:
#Eritrea's decades-long track record of combatting fundamentalist terrorism is impeccable.The tangential benefits of wider external cooperation on this matter notwithstanding,Eritrea's firm stance emanates from & is principally prompted by its own national security considerations— Yemane G. Meskel (@hawelti) May 30, 2019
Herman Cohen, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, hopes the U.S. will take this opportunity to forge closer ties with Eritrea. "We should see Eritrea as a friendly, crucial strategic country, and we should take advantage of it and give them assistance in the economic area because they are looking to modernize their economy," he told VOA.
Cohen also said the country's location on the Red Sea, near Yemen and Gulf states, makes it an important military partner. "It's very important to have military people there who can observe what is going on in that very volatile, crucial area," Cohen said. "We used to have a military station in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. I think it would be wonderful now if we could restore that."
The move is the latest thawing of hostilities between Eritrea and the rest of the world. Last year, Eritrea and Ethiopia announced an end to a 20-year dispute over their border, and the U.N. Security Council lifted sanctions on the country. And in March, a U.S. congressional delegation made the first such diplomatic visit to the country in 14 years.
Awet Weldemichael, an associate professor of history and global development studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, said Eritrea's removal from the list is a symbolic gesture, but U.N. sanctions, which lasted nearly a decade, had a more tangible impact on the country.
"[The sanctions were] consequential for Eritrea because [of] the restrictions on the use of the U.S. dollar and close scrutiny of its foreign transactions (that had previously been carried out in U.S. dollars) severely hampered the country's foreign transactions, even for legitimate and peaceful purposes," Weldemichael said in an email.
Since 2015, Weldemichael said, Eritrea has allowed Saudi and United Arab Emirates forces to use an Eritrea naval and air base to launch strikes against rebel forces in Yemen. This too may have raised the country's status as a valuable military partner in the eyes of the U.S., he added.
"There is already serious and consequential cooperation going on by proxy," he said of the U.S.-Eritrea partnership.
Eritrea remains a tightly controlled nation, without a democratically elected government and with severe restrictions on freedom of speech and religion. Thousands of young people have fled the country to avoid mandatory, indefinite military service.
But Cohen believes the country's economy is improving, pointing to increased activity at the ports of Massawa and Assab, the potential for cross-border trade with Ethiopia, and the nation's rich mineral wealth.
"Generally speaking, there is an upsurge of economic activity that's going on now. More mining companies are coming into Eritrea," Cohen said. "They have a very, very big mining potential. So now that the tensions have diminished and the hostility is diminished, I think things should really expand nicely."