22 January 2013

Eritrea: How Long Can Eritrea Remain a Closed State?

Photo: United Nations
President of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki (file photo).

analysis

Calm has returned today, but with scrutiny on Eritrea's political prisoners and thousands attempting to flee the country every year, Afewerki's control will continue to diminish if things stay the same.

Calm has returned to Eritrea the day after dissident soldiers seized the information ministry and called for the release of political prisoners. Although it is notoriously difficult to verify reports from Eritrea given severe media restrictions, it is believed that the mutineers stood down once their terms were accepted by the government.

According to some sources, there has been growing dissent in the military in recent weeks and months, and the uprising was an attempt to "jolt back negotiations for democratisation".

It is not often that Eritrea is talked about internationally, but this was in fact the second time the East Africa nation has made it into the global news for unflattering reasons recently. A report released a week ago accused the Eritrean government of using forced labour to build a gold mine. According to Human Rights Watch, national service conscripts were forced to work 12-hour days in appalling conditions and with paltry pay. Labourers were not allowed to leave without permission and those who did could be arrested and imprisoned.

While details of both stories are startling, neither is perhaps wholly surprising given the repressive nature of President Isaias Afewerki's regime. The UN estimates there to be between 5000 and 10,000 political prisoners in Eritrea, and the country is believed by many international observers to have one of the worst human rights records in the world.

However, compounding that - in fact, in large part to prevent an influx out of the country - no ordinary Eritrean has the freedom to leave Eritrea, and anyone caught attempting to escape faces indefinite incarceration in secret prisons, forced labour, and the jailing of close relatives. Largely unknown to the outside world, this is a state where every citizen is a captive.

"Empty overnight"

How many Eritreans would leave if they had the option? According to one Eritrean student, it would "empty overnight". But dramatic predictions aside, it is true that many Eritreans have little incentive to stay. Compulsory conscription which can last as long as fifteen years, limited political rights, and the pull of the diaspora are all factors that might trigger an exodus. Aware of this, the government persists in trying to confine the entire population.

But the borders are not watertight. Enforcement relies on a shrinking military which is made up mostly of unmotivated conscripts. Furthermore, the willingness of many Eritreans to pay substantial sums for passage out of the country has created a burgeoning human trafficking industry.

Yet paradoxically, the regime actually benefits from its own restrictions being flouted. Those who escape join a diaspora which sends money home to relatives and keeps the country's economy afloat. The ruling party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), condemns those who leave while simultaneously profiting from their flight.

In contrast, the situation is causing the international community a great deal of cost and concern. An estimated 70,000 Eritrean refugees have crossed the border into Sudan, and are now the responsibility of the UN. Having been unable to exercise influence over the country, the UN now finds itself dealing with the fallout of the regime's failings. Forced to fire-fight rather than effect structural change, the situation is a microcosm of the some of the organisation's wider struggles. It finds itself condemning the terrible situation within Eritrea and yet hopeful that the PFDJ prevent further mass movement across the border.

Beyond the UN, the number of Eritrean asylum seekers is forcing several countries to take a greater interest in Eritrea. The effect the situation has had in Israel has put that country into a particular political and moral quandary. With the arrival of an estimated 50,000 African refugees (predominately from Eritrea and Sudan) over the last six years, Israel has begun to step up efforts to curb (what is said to be illegal) immigration - particularly at its Sinai border with Egypt.

Eritrea's escaping elite

While the majority of those fleeing the country are ordinary Eritreans, escape is not confined to the struggling poor. Many Eritreans in positions of relative power are also attracted to leave and inevitably have more opportunities to do so. One audacious escape saw two high-ranking Air Force officers steal the president's luxury plane and fly to Saudi Arabia, while other notable asylum seekers have included the Information Minister, a leading eye surgeon and most of the national football team.

As prominent Eritreans choose to flee rather than endure life in Eritrea, it becomes harder for the tired propaganda machine to depict the government as united or effective. The prospect of future defections fuels a culture of suspicion within the ruling party. It is also likely to drive the country into even more complete isolation, with any official foreign engagement representing a chance to escape.

Anecdotal estimates suggest that two in every three who attempt to escape fail. But the fact that thousands continue to try reflects desperation of the Eritrean people. As with yesterday's seizure of the information ministry, this also suggests that Eritreans are more willing than ever to defy the regime. This must be worrying for a president who for so long has been reliant on obedience through fear.

As stories of successful escapes spread, the all-powerful image of the Afewerki regime could disintegrate further. Afewerki will be aware of the damage the departures are doing to the country's battered international standing. Yet he will also be secure in the knowledge that potential opponents escaping overseas pose little risk to him while he dominates in Eritrea, though this appears to be increasingly under threat now too.

In the short-term, President Afewerki is seemingly faced with two equally difficult options: continuing with a policy that is undermining the regime, or softening his strategy and risking an all-out exodus. As evidenced by yesterday's confrontation, the longer things stay the same, the more his control of the situation will diminish.

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