The secret world of Eritrea has begun to unravel at a stunning pace. Just two weeks ago, on 21 January 2013, mutinous soldiers overran the Ministry of Information. Reported to number roughly 100, apparently led by junior officers and backed by a couple of tanks, the soldiers called for the implementation of the 1997 constitution. They also demanded the release of political prisoners, tens of thousands of whom are held in half a dozen undisclosed prisons.
It is hard to tell exactly how this unprecedented mutiny was put down or if the soldiers stood down by themselves. The only thing that is certain is that, after their bloodless Potemkin moment, they were able to retreat to their original base, their security guaranteed. So far, there is no information of the mutineers being rounded up, arrested or court-martialled.
The mutiny was more spontaneous and improvised than planned. This is mainly why the government, which had been caught flatfooted, managed to regain control. If the plot had been hatched long before the mutiny and a coup d'état had really been planned, the ever-watchful security services would have uncovered it and Eritrean President Issayas Afewerki would not have shown this rare clemency. Moreover, the soldiers did not try to capture the airport, the Presidential Office or any military bases, which are critical to the survival of the government. The soldiers just chose to come forward more openly and to appeal to public sentiment. They did not attempt to effect political change by force of arms.
The causes of the mutiny are rooted in the widespread disaffection within the military, the gradual erosion of the authority of high-ranking officers and the increase in serious breaches of discipline. Despite official attempts to dispel rumours about its nature, purpose and implications, the mutiny points to serious problems in the perpetually reorganising military. On the one hand, high-ranking officers are increasingly involved in corruption and smuggling, activities that are overlooked due to political imperatives. On the other hand, the rank and file are hollowed out and demoralised. Yet, even though they are disillusioned, the rank and file still consider Issayas to be the embodiment of the armed struggle that led to Eritrea's liberation.
A diplomat based in Asmara said that 'this disturbing development belies the government's claim that it represents stability and it is one event among many others in an ongoing process that may already be taking place'. The mutiny should thus serve as a reminder that sudden change, while shocking, cannot be discounted in Eritrea.
Last year, a plethora of defections of high-ranking military and government officials hit the headlines. The most high-profile defection was that of Ali Abdu in November 2012. Ali held a key post as Minister of Information and had very intimate personal and political ties with Issayas, whom he never challenged. Another notable defection was that of two trustworthy Air Force pilots, Captain Yonas Woldeab and Captain Mekonnen Debesai. In early October 2012, they flew in Eritrea's only presidential plane to Saudi Arabia and asked for political asylum.
These two defections graphically depict the dissatisfaction deep inside Eritrea's political system. Because of the system's penchant for extreme secrecy, the details of internal dissatisfaction and struggles are hard to come by. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that relations are strained among top officials and that their cohesion is shaky. At the same time, these officials are not immune, along with their families and friends, to constant threats and restrictions.
This situation has been compounded by two factors. First, on 15 March 2012, Ethiopian forces attacked positions inside Eritrea and then withdrew. As Cedric Barnes so succinctly put it, 'Eritrean troops, surprisingly and perhaps ominously for their government, put up little resistance.' These attacks personally undermined Issayas because he had staked his political legitimacy on defending Eritrean territory against Ethiopia. Second, in April 2012, rumours were rife that Issayas, who has not publicly named any successor, was seriously ill. He reportedly suffers from a grave liver ailment and underwent successful surgery in Qatar.
The government's anxiety was further exposed by the large-scale arming of the civilian population in urban centres. This arming of civilians who were conducting patrols had begun months before the January 2013 mutiny and may soon create a bigger problem than the one it intends to solve. Civilians seem to be armed in order to pre-empt and deter assassination and coup attempts. There is, however, no information on how civilians are selected, organised and commanded, where they are deployed and whether they will remain loyal to the end.
These developments prompt three obvious questions. How can a political system facing internal challenges beyond its control survive? What will be the most likely form of political change? And, what will the post-Issayas order look like?
Issayas' system keeps itself in power because it controls all components of Eritrea's culture, media, education system, judiciary, economy, foreign affairs and even religious organisations. Moreover, Issayas has systematically eliminated alternative power bases and concentrated authority in a tiny inner circle. This circle is made up of handpicked officials selected on account of proven political loyalty and personal antipathy to each other. Issayas will never be complacent and demands the utmost vigilance from these officials, who will now be even more desperately tracking the mood of both the populace and the military for the slightest sign of rebellion.
Even so, political change will most likely come in the form of an extended and bitter internal struggle within the military, which is the only organised entity in Eritrea. Such a struggle could take the form either of a refusal to take orders from above or of breakaway units attempting to challenge Issayas, as happened in January 2013. Other units may join in en masse as soon as a (most probably violent) mutiny gets underway. Moreover, loyalist institutions like the security services or the shadowy Special Brigade protecting Issayas and key facilities and charged with neutralising military-led coups may inevitably rally around more audacious soldiers.
The most likely outcome will be a new authoritarian strongman, probably with a military background but politically weaker than Issayas. This strongman may fail to win the support of Eritrea's traumatised and destitute population and to impose discipline on unruly military units. Frightened by what he might unleash, it is possible that he may make only minor adjustments to the inherited system. He would certainly find it very difficult to maintain social stability, bring about economic improvement and then push forward long-delayed political reforms.
Berouk Mesfin, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Addis Ababa