Eritrea: the failure of Africa’s most promising nation

June 20, 2014 

Fellow Africa hand Remer Tyson and I were huddling behind the thickest wall we could find one bad morning in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and, as one does as the bullets fly, we grew philosophical.

“If Africa had any sense,” said Remer, correspondent for a major American newspaper group, “it would give Somalia to the Eritreans to run.”

“Trouble is,” he added, “the Eritreans are far too sensible to take it.”

Map via Wikipedia

This was June, 1991. At the beginning of that year an unstable alliance of clan fighters had ousted Somali dictator Siad Barre. The country had spun into violent chaos from which, 23 years later, it has not yet emerged.

At the same time, the reputation of the Eritreans was flying high. Their territory bordering the Red Sea was a very unhappy part of Ethiopia. The previous month –May — fighters of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) capped a 30-year war for independence by marching in alliance with other Ethiopean regional rebels into the capital, Addis Ababa, and dislodging the regime of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Like most journalists and others who had seen the Eritreans in action, Remer and I had developed respect and even admiration for the abilities of these rebels. Most insurgent armies in Africa at that time were shambolic operations without discipline, organization or esprit. They were usually far more interested in preying on the people they claimed to be liberating than pressing home a legitimate revolution.

The EPLF was very different. Its fighters, men and women, were arguably the best foot soldiers in Africa at that time. They wore a simple uniform of shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops cut from used car tires. These were all manufactured in hidden factories in Ethiopian-occupied Eritrea. Also hidden, often in underground bunkers, were hospitals, and even workshops to make ammunition and service tanks they had captured from the Ethiopian army.

After being the driving force behind the liberation of Ethiopia, the Eritreans gained their own independence in 1993. This was a time when many African nations were overthrowing the rule of “Big Man” dictators and embarking on the stormy transition to forms of democracy. In this sea change, Eritrea, with its compact and resource-rich territory and highly motivated people, was seen as potentially the most successful.

Instead, quite the reverse has happened. Eritrea is now often called “the North Korea of Africa.” That neatly sums up the reality of today’s Eritrea as a grim totalitarian state with prisons crammed full of dissidents, shunned by its neighbours, forced into diplomatic isolation, and with its economy buckling under United Nations sanctions.

No wonder that Eritrea’s diplomats in Canada, as they do elsewhere in the world, try to strong-arm emigrant Eritreans into donating two per cent of their incomes to the government in Asmara back home.

So what went wrong? The answer is President Isayas Afeworki. He was elected the secretary-general of the EPLF in 1987; became the territory’s leader after the ouster of Mengistu in May, 1991; was declared head of state after independence in April, 1993; and has remained in power ever since. Isayas has not felt it necessary to resort to elections or even to put into legal force the constitution drawn up in 1997. It is one-man rule by presidential decree.

Photo by Helene C. Stikkel, United States Department of Defence (Public Domain)

This style of government never works out well, and in Eritrea’s case it is made worse because Isayas is a difficult character. After independence, I remember coming away from an interview with him appalled at what a closed, suspicious and defensive character he presented to the world. He is frequently called “paranoid.” Whether or not he has that clinical condition is for doctors to determine. But he certainly displays a seemingly irrational conviction that the world is out to get him. And, as usually happens, the fear has turned into reality.

Isayas’ own people are the most immediate target of his suspicion. About 10,000 people he considers a threat to his rule are being held in appalling conditions in prison, and are subject to regular bouts of torture, just for the fun of their guards.

Isayas is adept at keeping all those around him in the regime off balance, an essential skill for the successful dictator. But occasionally the dogs slip the leash. In 2001, 15 members of Isayas’ ruling party, the inappropriately named People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, signed a letter calling for political reform. So far as is known, the conspirators, who included government ministers, are still languishing in prison.

There were more explosions in 2012. In January that year, a group of mutinous soldiers briefly seized control of the state television centre in Asmara and demanded enactment of the 1997 constitution. In October, two air force pilots defected to Saudi Arabia in the presidential jet liner. And in the following month, November, the entire national soccer team defected after playing a match in Uganda. At about the same time, Information Minister Ali Abdu disappeared and is believed to have fled to Australia.

As a result of these upheavals, Isayas is reported to have fashioned a new relationship with the army, an entente that is said to have been lubricated by revenues from an increasing interest by China in Eritrea’s mineral resources.

Isayas’ external paranoia is fixated on Ethiopia. After Eritrea’s independence in 1993 it became necessary to draw up a boundary line with Ethiopia, but the negotiations quickly fell to squabbling. In May, 1998, the squabbling blossomed into war when Isayas sent a mechanized army division into northern Ethiopia.

The fighting went on until June, 2000, but the issues remain largely unresolved. As part of his efforts to keep Ethiopia off balance, Isayas made the moves that have led to Eritrea being subject to UN sanctions. He decided to try to cause Ethiopia trouble on its southern flank by sending arms and other material support to the al-Qaida-linked radical Islamist group, al-Shabaab, which had taken control of much of Somalia.

With the encouragement of the United States, Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 and again, as part of a UN-backed operation by African Union forces, in 2011. Although al-Shabaab no longer controls most of the country, it remains a threat not only in Somalia, but also to the entire region.

Isayas, meanwhile, appears to have grown tired of being an isolated regional pariah. He has recently dispatched a new ambassador to the UN in New York, with the apparent aim of getting the sanctions lifted. He is also courting African governments, and even Addis Ababa.

But to me the perplexing question is why the Eritrean people have put up with Isayas for so long, and for that there is no easy answer. 

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014


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