US embassies publish Warden Messages when they are concerned about the safety of visiting or resident Americans.  The US Embassy in Asmara issued a Warden Message yesterday, February 27, 2011.

Here’s the link:  Warden Message

Relations with the Eritrean government have been bad or worse for a decade.  When the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea ended in 2000, both countries agreed, as part of the ceasefire,  to accept the border between them that emerged from the deliberations of Boundary Commission of  the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.  The disputed border was the purported reason for the war though it is universally accepted that the reasons were more complex, diverse and still not altogether clear.

When the Boundary Commission made its new map public in 2003, Eritrea accepted the results.  Ethiopia did not, and still has not, though it hedges its rejection with obfuscating language. The results gave Eritrea the trophy town of Badme but held Eritrea responsible for starting hostilities.

According to the ceasefire, the results to be reached in The Hague were to be guaranteed — whatever that means — by the UN, the US, EU and the African Union.  Until today, no one has held Ethiopia to account.

Eritrea, specifically President Isaias Afewerki, was soon enraged to the point of policy incoherence.  He has held the US the most responsible for letting Ethiopia get away with trashing its own signed commitment because the US, he charged, has more influence in Ethiopia.  With Ethiopia an early and enthusiastic volunteer in the War on Terror, the Bush Administration made only weak and infrequent complaints.  The EU has said almost nothing.  The UN, which had peacekeepers in place to monitor a demilitarized  zone (entirely on the Eritrean side of the border…there is a price for losing, after all) eventually withdrew them as Eritrea’s frustration led to growing restrictions on UN mobility, its ability to monitor the zone and to support the peacekeepers in the field.   The AU has not been heard from.

Isaias’ rage against the US continues.  The last US ambassador to Eritrea was not permitted to present his credentials to the Eritrean government and therefore lacked the diplomatic status to have official meetings.  He spent several years in this farcical situation.

It is unlikely that the new Warden’s Message has much to do with this ongoing freeze in US-Eritrea relations.  A better guess is that Isaias sees how unhealthy the neighborhood has become for autocrats and is responding nervously.  Overreactions by police and others may be considered more likely. Isaias may even have reason to think that something is brewing, though civil society barely exists in Eritrea, all the media are entirely owned by the government, there is no freedom of assembly, etc.

A threat to Isaias is more likely to come from within his own security forces or the army.  The fragmented Eritrean opposition, who get some support from Ethiopia, admit that they have no chance of challenging him from outside.  There is no evidence that they are doing anything inside Eritrea, either.