NAIROBI (Reuters) - Most nations erect grandiose monuments to their historical triumphs. Eritrea put up a pair of sandals.
The sculpted black metal shoes in Asmara’s Shida (Sandal) Square, recalling the footwear of Eritrea’s rebels, were a symbol of its remarkable 30-year independence war against its giant neighbor Ethiopia that ended with secession in 1991.
And despite its small territory and population of just 4.7 million people, Eritrea has, from independence until today, continued to make big footprints on east African politics.
To detractors, including the United States, Eritrea is a nasty oppressor at home and troublesome meddler abroad. Washington has threatened to put President Isaias Afwerki’s government on its terrorism list for involvement in Somalia.
But to supporters, Isaias symbolizes the Eritrea of the sandals: plucky self-reliance and noble resistance to bullying superpowers. “We are all soldiers here, ready to defend our country,” one Eritrean man proudly told a visitor.
Either way, nobody underestimates Eritrea’s influence at a critical time for the Horn of Africa, where the Somalia war and Eritrea-Ethiopia border dispute fuel instability and keep the region on a war footing.
“Whether one likes it or not, Eritrea is an actor to be reckoned with,” Horn of Africa expert Matt Bryden said.
“The focus of Eritrean foreign policy is its dispute with Ethiopia, everything else takes a back seat or is related in some way. ... Domestic politics in Eritrea are frozen.”
Isaias, 62, and Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi, 53, go back a long way. Their respective guerrilla movements played a role in bringing down Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.
Initially feted by the West as part of a new generation of progressive African leaders, Meles and Isaias soon fell out, going to war between 1998-2000, and explaining authoritarian tendencies at home in the context of that still unresolved feud.
The United Nations fears a new war. Now both nations keep thousands of troops near their borders, oppose each other in Somalia, and make mutual accusations of internal interference.
To outsiders, it may seem absurd for two such culturally close nations to maintain such costly enmity, when their peoples are among the world’s poorest.
But for them you cannot erase history.
“It’s too late,” Isaias told Reuters this month, stiffening when asked about possible reconciliation with Meles’ Ethiopia.
“You would have to be an angel or someone like Christ.”
Given guaranteed world condemnation, stretched economies, and the past enormous cost -- 70,000 died in the border war -- diplomats in the region doubt Ethiopia and Eritrea will actually return to war, though they do seem perpetually close to it.
“They’re both focused at the moment on Somalia, they couldn’t deal with another conflict,” one African diplomat said.
Ethiopia has thousands of troops in Somalia, supporting a western-backed government against Islamist-led fighters in an insurgency increasingly seen as “Africa’s Iraq”.
Geographically straddling the Christian and Muslim worlds, Eritrea hosts some Somali opposition leaders and, according to a U.N. arms committee, funnels weapons to the insurgents.
Eritrea says such accusations are a smokescreen to cover up Ethiopia’s “invasion” of Somalia and another example of the double standards applied by the West in the Horn.
“Trying to associate the resistance of the Somali people with terrorism is a mere fabrication,” Isaias added in one of several recent interviews that seemed an attempt to explain Eritrea’s positions more forcefully to an often perplexed world.
Eritrea’s positive role in brokering peace for east Sudan, its desire for self-reliance not foreign handouts, and its vindication in the border dispute by an independent commission, are all wilfully overlooked by the world, Asmara argues.
“While Eritrea is right in much of what it says, its recent behavior is an object lesson in how not to do international diplomacy,” one diplomat said, citing obstacles to foreign aid groups and U.N. peacekeepers who are pulling out of the border.
Domestically, Isaias is under little pressure to fulfill pledges made at the start of his rule for elections or to enact constitutional guarantees on hold due to the Ethiopia conflict.
And his people’s economic hardship is unlikely to prove an Achilles’ heel, experts say, as Eritreans have endured worse, particularly in the independence war they call “The Struggle”.
“This is a people accustomed to suffering and sacrifice,” said one expert who, like many people when it comes to discussing Eritrea with journalists, did not want to be named.
Meanwhile, rights groups say thousands are in jail unfairly. Young people leave, illegally, by the thousands each year. And the suppression of basic freedoms make Eritrea the continent’s very own “North Korea”, according to one press freedom group.
“I like a lot of what the president has done for us in terms of anti-poverty strategy and rescuing national dignity,” said one young Eritrean professional in a cafe.
“But now it is time to be more flexible,” he added, lowering his voice. “The old men from ‘The Struggle’ just want to stay in power. Ethiopia is their excuse. Our leader used to walk freely round Asmara. Now you don’t see him. What does that show?”
(Editing by Jack Kimball and Mary Gabriel)