Eritrea rejoins East African bloc, IGAD, nearly 16 years after walkout

Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki speaks during his visit at the State House in Nairobi, Kenya, February 9, 2023. [Reuters]

Eritrea has rejoined the East African bloc, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), nearly 16 years after the politically isolated state pulled out of the body, Information Minister Yemane Meskel said Monday.

"Eritrea resumed its activity in IGAD and took its seat" at a summit organized by the seven-nation bloc in Djibouti on Monday, Meskel said on Twitter.

He said the country was ready to work toward "peace, stability and regional integration."

The authoritarian state suspended its IGAD membership in 2007 following a string of disagreements, including over the bloc's decision to ask Kenya to oversee the resolution of a border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia in 1993 and fought a two-year border war with its neighbor that poisoned relations until a peace agreement in 2018.

Following the rapprochement with Addis Ababa, Eritrean troops supported Ethiopian forces during the federal government's war against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and have been accused by the United States and rights groups of some of the conflict's worst atrocities.

That war ended with a peace deal signed in November last year that called for the withdrawal of foreign forces, but Asmara was not a party to the agreement and its troops continue to be present in bordering areas of Tigray, according to residents who have accused the soldiers of murder, rape and looting.

'North Korea of Africa'

Monday's announcement comes after Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki told reporters during a visit to Kenya in February that his country would rejoin IGAD "with the idea of revitalizing this regional organization."

Isaias, 77, did not attend Monday's summit in Djibouti, sending Foreign Minister Osman Saleh and Presidential Adviser Yemane Ghebreab to the meeting instead.

Workneh Gebeyehu, executive secretary of IGAD, hailed Eritrea's return to the bloc, saying in an official statement: "Let me take this opportunity to welcome back the State of Eritrea to the IGAD family."

Dubbed the "North Korea" of Africa, Eritrea was sanctioned by the United States in 2021 after sending troops into Tigray.

In a rare news conference in Kenya earlier this year, Isaias dismissed accusations of severe rights abuses by Eritrean troops in Tigray as "fantasy."

Human Rights Watch in February called for fresh sanctions against Eritrea, accusing it of rounding up thousands of people, including minors, for mandatory military service, during the Tigray war.

The country sits near the bottom of global rankings for press freedom, as well as human rights, civil liberties and economic development.

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