KAMPALA (Reuters) - Eritrea’s diplomatically isolated president, accused by the West of stoking Somalia’s Islamist rebellion, on Tuesday began talks on regional security with Uganda, which provides the bulk of African Union peacekeepers for Mogadishu.
Isaias Afewerki’s trip to Kampala has raised eyebrows among regional observers, especially because the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militants his government is accused of financing last year killed 79 in twin bombings on the Ugandan capital.
A U.N. Monitoring Group report said in late July that Eritrea was bankrolling al Shabaab, an allegation Asmara said was “ridiculous and absurd”.
“I suspect the visit has something to with Museveni’s or the West’s realisation that they have no chance against al Shabaab without the cooperation of Eritrea,” said political commentator Timothy Kalyegira.
The report also accused Eritrea of being behind a plot to attack an African Union summit in the capital of its long-standing enemy Ethiopia last year by detonating several carbombs, including one timed to explode as more than 30 African heads of state left the venue for lunch.
The U.N. has imposed an arms embargo on Eritrea, as well as a travel ban and asset freezes on political and military leaders who it says are violating an arms embargo on Somalia — allegations Asmara also denies.
The Ethiopian government’s head of information, Bereket Simon, told Reuters the visit — Isaias’ first in the region for years — was a ploy to avert more U.N. sanctions.
“The Eritrean regime has to go a long way if it is to be taken seriously. I think they have bluffed in the past and I think they are bluffing now,” Bereket said.
“They have been behind the arming of al Shabaab, behind a terrorist act in Uganda, behind a failed attempt at making ‘Addis like Baghdad’ during a summit of African leaders. The regime is a force of instability and we don’t think it will change its nature.”
Museveni and Isaias held the first of a series of meetings on Tuesday and the Eritrean leader will also visit a number of local companies and meet with the Eritrean community.
“We discussed strategic and political issues in the region and our ministers are developing various bilateral agreements,” Museveni said in an emailed statement, adding that trade opportunities, educational exchanges and regional flights were also on the agenda.
Isaias may be trying to mend relations with the West as al Shabaab loses some of its foothold in Somalia, analysts said. Earlier this month, the militants withdrew from Mogadishu.
“Isaias could be looking at which side his bread is buttered on,” Ugandan political analyst Nicholas Ssengoba said.
The secretive Red Sea state rejoined East African bloc IGAD last month, four years after it walked out on the body in protest at Ethiopia entering Somalia to oust an Islamist group that had taken over Mogadishu and swathes of the country.
For Museveni, once feted as a new breed of democratic African leader, but whose increasingly autocratic style of leadership is worrying donors, Isaias’ visit offers a chance to showcase his role in the fight against militancy.
“He will try to be seen as the man who brought back a lost sheep into the fold of the U.N. and the Western world,” Ssengoba said.