Binyam Zaid (22) was an unwilling conscript in the Eritrean army when he was caught trying to flee the country and jailed for 18 months at the Halhal military prison. On May 24 he was released in an amnesty that marked Eritrea’s 21st birthday and sent back to his unit.
Tigiste Beyene (35) was pregnant with her second child when she was sent to a desert prison in northern Eritrea for attending a banned Pentecostal prayer meeting. Upon release she was given 10 months to renounce her faith and pressed to do so by the local Eritrean Orthodox priest who had turned her in and by her family, who had to guarantee the state 50 000 nakfa (R28 000) to get her out. Four months later, she paid a smuggler 30 000 nakfa [R17 000] to take her to Ethiopia.
“The dark side of my life was not the year in prison, but the time I spent at home with my family,” she said as she sat on the dirt floor of her cramped 3m-by-5m mud-brick house. “It was a torment.”
Said Ibrahim (21), orphaned and blind, made a living as a singer in Adi Quala bars when a member of the security police claimed one of his songs had “political” content and detained him at the Adi Abieto prison. After a month he was released but stripped of his monthly disability payments for two years when he declined to identify the lyricist.
“I went back to my village and reflected on it,” he said over tea at an open-air café in the Adi Harush camp, set up in 2010 when the Eritrean refugee camp Mai Aini reached capacity. It is already nearing its limit of 20 000, according to United Nations officials. “If the system could do this to a blind orphan, something was very wrong.”
After appealing to his neighbours for help, two boys, aged 10 and 11, helped him to sneak over the border to Ethiopia and asked for asylum with him.
The newcomers join more than 65000 Eritreans in five camps along the tense border, whose disputed location was the spark that set off a fierce fight between the two countries from 1998 to 2000 and remains a source of heightened tension.
Most refugees tell similar stories of run-ins with the authorities in this once promising new nation, which has turned into one of the most efficient tyrannies on the continent over the past decade.
What distinguishes the influx here, as in Sudan on Eritrea’s western flank, is that most are young men who, like Binyam, are trying to break free of Eritrea’s national service, which they describe as a system of state-run indentured servitude that ties them up for 10 years or more, often as low-skilled workers in government departments or state- and party-owned businesses for which they are paid a pittance.
Launched in 1995, the programme initially demanded 18 months of military training and work on national reconstruction. Some grumbled at the time, but most saw this as a legitimate obligation of citizenship after a 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia that had left the territory devastated.
Even now, many escapees say they support the concept, just not the length of service, which has been extended further by requiring secondary school students to take their final year of school at a military base to prevent them from escaping. Students who drop out before that, or who fail to achieve passing grades, can be conscripted as young as 12.
Crisis seizing the country
The huge outflow of draft-age men it has triggered has become a major factor in the crisis seizing the country today. Its intensely secretive leadership shows signs of unravelling for the first time since a brutal crackdown on dissent in 2001 that followed Eritrea’s defeat in the last round of the border war.
Former soldiers say that most Eritrean Defence Force units are now operating at 25% of capacity or lower and the overall strength of the army, often estimated by outsiders at 250 000 to 300 000, may actually be less than 80 000.
Perhaps to compensate, Eritrea’s unelected president – former liberation front commander Isaias Afwerki – has ordered all able-bodied men not in the uniformed military to join village and neighbourhood militias and is issuing AK-47 assault rifles to them. He also ordered a shake-up in the defence force command structure, diminishing the authority of General Filipos Weldeyohannes, his favourite for the past five years, and elevating General Tekali “Manjus” Kiflai. It is something he does periodically with top generals and political appointees to prevent anyone from accumulating a base of support.
Taken against the backdrop of recent Ethiopian incursions along the disputed border – none answered by the Eritreans – these moves could signal the possibility of renewed head-to-head conflict, a threat Afwerki frequently invokes to justify his continuing crackdown on public debate. However, they may also indicate that the embattled leader, who has steadfastly refused to implement a Constitution ratified more than a decade ago and has never permitted national elections, is circling the wagons to protect himself from internal challenges.
His abrupt disappearance from public view for most of April – an unprecedented absence for a man whose daily comings and goings are the centrepiece of coverage in the state-run media – set off a wave of speculation among exiles that he was either incapacitated or dead. Although he reappeared in May, reports that a cabal of second-tier officials is meeting to plot a transition continue to circulate.
But, although Eritrea appears obsessed with Ethiopia, the reverse no longer seems to be the case. “Eritrea is an irritant, not a strategic enemy,” said Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
“Our strategic enemies are poverty and backwardness,” he said in a two-hour interview on the subject of Ethiopia’s economic and social transformation. “We have seen poverty at its worst,” he said. “Nothing is more dehumanising.”
A former guerrilla commander himself, who came to power at the same time as Afwerki when the rebel armies they commanded routed the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, Zenawi insisted that he would step down at the end of his term in 2015. But he wants to wind down the conflict with Eritrea first, stabilising relations and reaching a service agreement to access Eritrea’s Red Sea ports similar to the pacts Ethiopia has with Djibouti, Somaliland, Kenya and Sudan.
“I would like Eritrea to be at peace with itself so it can be at peace with us and we can all benefit from common prosperity,” he said. “But I am not choosy how it happens.”
The decade-long standoff between the two countries, which played out in a web of proxy wars across the region, none of which reached the point of a direct confrontation, took a turn for the worse in 2010 when Ethiopia charged Eritrea with a bomb plot intended to disrupt an African Union summit in Addis Ababa.
“They wanted to transform Addis into Baghdad,” said Zenawi. “This made it impossible for us to ignore what they were doing.”
Since then, Ethiopia has sought to increase the pressure on the Afwerki regime, first lobbying for sanctions at the United Nations and then launching a series of attacks on “hard targets” close to the border inside Eritrea, while simultaneously waging a hearts-and-minds campaign aimed at the Eritrean public.
Ethiopian media have toned down their once vitriolic coverage of Eritrea – or simply ignored it – and Eritreans deported from Ethiopia during the border war have been urged to return to reclaim seized assets. But the most dramatic shift was the announcement of an “open camps” policy permitting refugees to live anywhere in Ethiopia so long as they prove that they have the means to support themselves. More than 1000 Eritreans now attend Ethiopian universities, refugee officials say.
Ethiopia also hosts about 34 Eritrean opposition parties, a number that has refugees here scratching their heads in frustration and leads many to dismiss them as little more than a talk shop. During a week of interviews in three camps, the Addis Ababa-based parties were rarely mentioned.
“The only time we see them is when they want to recruit us,” said one refugee, who denounced the government in Asmara, but saw the squabbling opposition parties as cut from the same cloth.
Many here think that change, when it comes, will arise from within the country and that it may take time to sort itself out. One scenario is for a junta to take over that would include key figures from the three main power centres: the military, the national security forces and the ruling party, the ironically named People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, over which the defence minister, General Sebhat Ephrem, presides.
Such a coalition would be inherently unstable because it would comprise bitter rivals, all of whom aspire to step into Afwerki’s shoes, even though none has his charisma or commands a similar following among the rank and file.
What makes Ephrem attractive as a front man is that Afwerki has long treated him as a largely ceremonial figure and given him little actual power, so he is not seen as a threat by his more ambitious colleagues.
Ephrem is also popular with Western governments and carries a degree of credibility with the public for his prominent role in the liberation of the country, first as the head of civilian mobilisation and then as the military chief of staff in the final years of the war.
How long such an arrangement would last, though, is an open question.
Dan Connell, a lecturer in journalism and African studies at Simmons College, Boston, has covered events in Eritrea for more than 35 years (danconnell.net)
(Reuters) - United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay accused on Monday gold-rich Eritrea, which holds a strategic stretch of the Red Sea coast, of carrying out torture and summary executions.
Pillay told the U.N. Human Rights Council there were between 5,000 and 10,000 political prisoners in the secretive African nation of some 6 million people which has been ruled by a single party and president since independence from Ethiopia in 1993.
"The human rights situation in Eritrea is a matter of deep concern," said Pillay, a South African former senior judge on the International Criminal Court in The Hague, who has just had her four-year term extended for a further two years.
"Credible sources indicate that violations of human rights include arbitrary detention, torture, summary executions, forced labor, forced conscription, and restrictions to freedom of movement, expression, assembly and religion," she said.
Eritrea, where former anti-Ethiopia guerrilla leader Isaias Afewerki has been head of state for nearly two decades, is rarely mentioned in the 47-nation council, where African and Asian countries often work to shield each other from criticism.
But responding to Pillay's remarks on Monday, a European Union representative said the 27-nation grouping backed Pillay's comments on the Red Sea state -- whose population is mainly Christian but includes a large Muslim minority.
Thousands of people have fled Eritrea in recent years because of poverty and political repression, according to human rights groups. Many have settled in neighboring Sudan, and some have reached Israel and Western Europe.
Independent human rights groups say the country has one of the world's most repressive governments, an accusation Eritrean officials reject, arguing that the country is the target of a foreign smear campaign backed by the United States.
Eritrea fought a border war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000 which killed 70,000 people on the two sides and occasional clashes have flared up since with both accusing each other of supporting armed rebel groups.
In April, Ethiopia's President Meles Zenawi Afewerki accused Eritrea of abducting dozens of miners from his country's north-western gold region which borders an area where Eritrea' largely untapped reserves of the precious metal are located.
Pillay told the rights council that she had written to the Eritrean government in January this year with an offer to send a mission from her office by this month at the latest to help it address its "human rights challenges."
But despite later talks with an Eritream delegation in Geneva, she said, there had so far been no reply.
(Reported by Robert Evans, editing by Diana Abdallah)
By Dan Connell
Notes from the CIDRiE Symposium
London, May 12, 2012
The topic of this symposium—the way forward—could not be more timely. It comes against a backdrop of:
—the democratic uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East.
—Ethiopia’s mid-March attacks on Eritrean guerrilla training camps.
—reports that Isaias was incapacitated and possibly out of power—premature, but underlined the precariousness of the current situation.
It also takes place against the backdrop of the steadily deepening frustration and anger of many over the state of affairs in Eritrea—once touted as part of an African renaissance but now at the bottom of nearly every global indicator, from press freedom and human rights to transparency and ease of doing business. You name the international survey and Eritrea competes for last place with North Korea and Turkmenistan
To begin with the biggest issue, there were numerous rumors on Isaias’s condition last month—he was dead, he was badly ill, he was sequestered, and so on. What I found most credible among the accounts I heard was that Isaias was struggling with depression mixed with physical ailments—notably his bad liver—probably set off by the March Ethiopian incursions and by his inability to respond due to the weakness of the Eritrean military, which has diminished significantly over past decade under his erratic leadership. Through much of this time, Isaias was said to be under care of long-time loyalist Dr. Haile Mitsun, one of the few he can trust, though a surgeon by training. It will be interesting to see what he does and says at the Independence Day celebrations in Asmara—and what he looks like.
One interesting aspect of a popular rumor I heard was that Hagos Gebrehewit had been jailed—not true but it brought attention to the fact that only two people know where all the money has gone and where it is now—Isaias and Hagos. When Isaias does go, Hagos’s status will certainly be a key indicator of who’s in charge and how much has changed. Isaias is back now, but I take seriously reports of secret meetings to plan transition. It’s coming. No one knows precisely when but I predict it will be relatively soon.
My starting point in assessing the situation today is the recognition that Eritrea is a highly sophisticated tyranny—one of the most effective in Africa today—where no public protest or dissent is permitted and thousands are in prison for testing that, some for speaking up at public meetings, others for simply attending a prayer meeting. The only way to express disagreement is to leave and even that’s illegal. You can be shot for trying to cross the border, but many do it anyway, making Eritrea one of biggest generators of refugees and asylum seekers in the world.
Eritrea has two realities: one of visible institutions and official policies and procedures with which one deals most of time, the other one of informal channels, unwritten rules and unaccountable authority controlled by the president and sustained by fear and coercion, but I probably don’t have to tell anyone here this. The important thing is that we know something about such highly repressed societies: They are fundamentally unstable, though instability not expressed in the usual ways as too dangerous.
So what do we see when we look at Eritrea? We find a country that is increasingly isolated, with its economy slipping ever deeper into crisis. The spirit of volunteerism is rapidly waning, as is its once remarkable social coherence—one of most worrying signs is the rise of ethnic and religious identities as a basis for political and military action. Meanwhile, the country is hemorrhaging young people, and there is growing dissension in the armed forces, which, as I said, is a key reason Eritrea did not respond to the Ethiopian incursions, the first such attacks inside Eritrea in more than ten years. Instead, all we got was bluster.
Isaias has grown increasingly unpopular and erratic in his public and private behavior, though he still enjoys a sort of default popularity as the “father of liberation.” But for the first time, he now appears constrained in his ability to initiate unilateral action by his own generals and loyalists. I take this as a good thing.
A key aspect of the current situation that frames any consideration of the future is that Eritrean nationalism remains potent, as does the fear of loss of sovereignty at the hands of Ethiopia, and of course there is a deep distrust of the international community, which Isaias does his best to stoke at every opportunity in order to reinforce his own position and the continued repression of all dissent. Secondly, there is no obvious successor to Isaias, and the external opposition remains as weak and divided as ever. Meanwhile, there is a gold mining bonanza underway that could give the regime new life.
But I would make one more crucial point: Once a turning point arrives, events will unfold quickly with no warning. It is impossible to predict when—could be weeks or months—could be longer—but I doubt much longer. Hence, in my view we should think of Eritrea as in a transitional phase and act accordingly to prepare for it.
So: What are the alternatives?
Inside the country:There is no visible opposition. Eritrea is not like Zimbabwe or pre-uprising Egypt or Syria in this key respect. It is more akin to North Korea in the level and sophistication of repression and the cult-like focus on the leader, as well as in the isolation of the people.
However, there are many people inside the country who are disenchanted with and hostile to regime. You find them within the bureaucracy, the military and the wider society, and you see the effects of this in the pervasive passive resistance and disengagement. You also hear this over and over from recent refugees and defectors.
I am also convinced that the inner circle is now jockeying for position for a post-Isaias regime, in part out of ambition, in part out of fear that if Isaias goes, they could be left hanging out to dry if the truth comes out about their roles in the crimes committed over the past two decades (if not longer).
Outside the country: The EDA is the main organized political opposition, but it is united largely around opposition to Isaias and is not a major factor in hurrying the regime’s demise or in offering a viable alternative afterward. It has also been compromised by its relationship to Ethiopia in the eyes of many Eritreans, but despite this it should not be ignored. The EDA does represent a slice of the Eritrean political scene that needs to be incorporated into any post-Isaias transition if there is ever to be peace and stability in the country.
The main military threat to the regime, such as it is, comes from several small ethnic parties within EDA, drawn from the Afars, Kunama, and Saho and supported by Ethiopia, which is playing with fire by fostering such micro-nationalisms. These armed groups appear to be stepping up their actions to disrupt mining operations to prevent the emergence of an Eritrea flush with unlimited cash to spend on re-arming itself and returning to a more confrontational mode across the region.
Whatever you think of the EDA or these ethnic armies, I would make the point that support for identity politics is growing due to the perception that the secular nationalism associated with both the regime and key segments of the opposition has failed to mean recognition of and respect for their rights. Many members of these minorities see the declarations of secular nationalism as a mask for Tigrinya Christian domination, based not just on the polemics of their leaders but on direct personal experience. Anyone thinking about the future of Eritrea ought to worry about this and about how to defuse it through actions now, not just more speeches, demonstrating in unmistakable ways that the minorities have a stake in a democratic future.
On balance, it seems obvious that any substantive change in the character and make up of the regime has to come from inside, though external opposition groups can encourage it and they ought to be brought into whatever caretaker government is set up to manage a transition, as should Eritrea’s diverse external civil society.
The diaspora-based non-party organizations are if anything more fragmented than the parties, but they are a rich source of new thinking and leadership—and civil society is hotly contested terrain. One of the most interesting new trends is among the youth, where the government and the broad-based, largely non-party opposition are waging a battle for their hearts and minds—and for the loyalty and energy of those who will craft Eritrea’s future course.
The independent wing is holding a major conference and demonstration in Washington, D.C. on the weekend of May 25th—the Eritrean Youth for Change and the Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change, which you will learn more about on Facebook, much as was the case for the activists who played such a prominent role in the recent uprisings in the Arab states.
For its part, the government is also actively mobilizing among diaspora youth, with many young people asserting their Eritrean identity with greater militancy than their parents and being swept up in the jingoistic rhetoric of the ruling party. Organized as the YPFDJ, they are also holding a conference in Washington, but not until September.
Another strong indication of the energy and dynamism within the opposition is the vibrancy of the external media, mainly independent and oppositional websites.
Against this backdrop, the only certainty is that Isaias Afwerki is not forever. The question is just when will he go—and how. Among the many scenarios I see, three stand out:
1) Situation remains as is, with regime—whether under Isaias or a junta made up of his former allies and acolytes—counting on mining revenue while presiding over ever-tightening security state as economy declines.
2) Armed Eritrean opposition groups escalate attacks in Eritrea, disrupting exploration and production at key mining sites. Leads to intensified counterinsurgency against Muslims and ethnic minorities. Isaias takes the country back to war with Ethiopia to regain control of the internal situation and initiates another purge
3) Isaias is incapacitated, as we thought was the case last month, and power centers inside the regime band together to protect their position and seek to manage the transition so they not left out in the cold and so culpability for crimes of this regime are not brought to light—which is the scenario I think is already underway. I also think the depth of mistrust and rivalry among them will not allow it to succeed without more struggle.
However this plays out, Eritrea is headed for a political crisis that may or may not be violent but that will eventually alter or replace the present regime.
What might help to move this process forward?
1) If the object is to dismantle dictatorship with non-violent means, you need to increase the pressure on it so forces in the country get to point where continuing as things are is no longer acceptable—from a strategic point of view, where is the vulnerability? Answer is clearly in the economy—the mining industry, which leadership sees as solution to Eritrea’s isolation and stagnation and the 2% tax on which the regime depends for its survival—take a lesson from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africans and mobilize the international community to act on this
2) Especially important: support the expansion of alternative media—above all else Eritreans in the country need access to information and encouragement to think critically about the conditions—no single thing will do more to foster questioning and eventually some form of uprising there
3) Also, call for more targeted sanctions that pressure the regime but do not add to plight of population—expand the list of individuals who are affected by restrictions on travel and access to money kept abroad
4) Promote collaboration among the disparate political and civic groups in conferences and common activities like this one and be as inclusive as you can be—there has to be room for all Eritreans in a post-Isaias Eritrea, including many now with the PFDJ, so make sure your movement for change reflects this in everything you do.
5) Urge governments in Europe and North America to be more accepting of Eritrean asylum seekers, especially those breaking with the regime, who are often rejected under a “terrorism bar” that disqualifies someone who was a member of the government or the independence movement—this turns out to discourage people from breaking with the government, which is precisely what we want them to do
6) Finally, do more to help the refugees in Ethiopia and Sudan—show you really care—this is the most obvious and the easiest step for the community to take that demonstrates the kind of society and government you want Eritrea to be—ignoring those in the camps sends a very different message—and at this point all messages matter.