21 March 2013

Eritrea: Why Discontent Doesn't Necessarily Mean Change

Photo: Temesgen Woldezion /Wikipedia
Eritrean soldiers.

analysis

Recent events in Eritrea have so far shown two things: 1) Discontent is rising. 2) Afewerki can handle it.

Ali Abdu Ahmed, Eritrea's former information minister, has not been seen in Eritrea since his trip to Europe in September 2012. This has generated rumours that he has defected from President Isaias Afewerki's regime and is seeking asylum abroad.

Along with other recent events in the secretive Red Sea state, Abdu's absence suggests that while Afewerki's iron grip on control is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain, it perhaps stops short of heralding the Eritrean leader's downfall.

Here, there and everywhere

On 17 November 2012, Assenna, a Canadian-based opposition Eritrean website, declared that Information Minister Ali Abdu had sought asylum in Canada, fuelling speculation regarding the man once considered to be a possible successor to Afewerki. On 27 November 2012, however, Madote, a pro-regime website, claimed that Abdu had returned to Eritrea's capital of Asmara, and criticised Assenna for rumour-mongering. Nonetheless, Abdu was not publicly spotted in Asmara that day, nor has he been any day since.

Along with his prolonged absence, rumours of Abdu's defection have been supported by related developments. Abdu's father, brother, and daughter were reportedly arrested in late December 2012, an action ostensibly tied to Abdu's disappearance. In addition, Daniel Kiflom, a former director at Eritrean Television, who is reportedly close to Abdu, defected to the UK in December. Abdu also has significant ties abroad - his wife has reportedly lived in Canada for several years while his brother runs an opposition website in the US.

Curiously, a Swedish tabloid, Expressen, published an 'exclusive' interview in January 2013 that claimed to confirm Abdu's defection. The paper did not talk to Abdu directly, however, but quoted him via his brother, Saleh Younis, in the United States. Understandably, the account lacked credibility and Younis himself penned an article delegitimising the story, whilst remaining silent regarding his brother's actual situation.

A show of strength

The story of Ali Abdu's disappearance thus remains a mystery, but if he did flee, it would not be unusual for Eritrea. After the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, for example, four Eritrean athletes sought asylum to remain in the UK rather than return home. A few months later in October, two highly trained pilots from Eritrea's deteriorating air force flew a luxury passenger plane to Saudi Arabia to escape the regime. And after a regional soccer tournament in Uganda in December, 17 players and team officials missed their ride back to Asmara, with 15 eventually obtaining asylum.

In addition to these defections, a unique outburst of discontent occurred in Asmara on 21 January 2013. Disgruntled Eritrean soldiers, said to number around 100, stormed the Ministry of Information, interrupted programming, and began to broadcast a statement demanding the implementation of the yet-to-be enacted 1997 constitution.

On the one hand, this series of events and defections creates the impression that Afewerki is losing control after more than two decades at the helm. But at the same time, it is worth noting the speed with which Operation Forto - as the events of 21 January became to be known - was contained. While poor planning on the part of the instigators may be partly to blame, the public discontent in Asmara was shut down almost as quickly as it emerged. The ability of Afewerki's regime to manage the situation perhaps tells us as much about its capacity to maintain control as the mutiny tells us about the soldiers' ability to disrupt it (if that was indeed the goal of the planners).

In addition, Ali Abdu's case serves as a microcosm for the situation in Eritrea as a whole. Despite spending years defending Afewerki's actions, there are some indications he did not fully subscribe to the messages he was tasked with communicating. If Abdu has indeed fled Eritrea, his persistent silence may be a sign that he prefers a quiet early retirement abroad rather than seeking to combat a system with which he could no longer reconcile himself; his departure would also follow in a trend of high-ranking officials choosing to leave the country rather than staying and trying to change the system.

Tomorrow never knows

It is these factors that have led Eritrea - despite its population of less than six million - to become the number three African country of origin for refugees, something from which human traffickers benefit financially. And in the recent events in Eritrea we can see a key demonstration of the dynamics that may allow for the perpetuation of Afewerki's rule - his opponents and disgruntled countrymen are increasingly forced to pursue an alternative path abroad rather than work from within. This is not to say the diaspora cannot play a role in advancing change in Eritrea, as they certainly can, but it will be fraught with additional complications.

In this sense, fractures exposing discontent in Asmara have certainly been revealed, and the potential for similar events to gain traction until evolving into a wider and stronger push for regime change at grassroots level exists. Yet while recent events have demonstrated Asmara's weaknesses and the increased challenges Afewerki faces as he struggles to maintain a hold on power, they have also allowed an opportunity for his regime to exhibit its strengths.

The continued exodus of Eritreans is a clear indication that the nation is not improving, and Ali Abdu's disappearance is a signal that even the elite are not immune. Yet with each discontented border-crossing, the pool of agents for change within the nation diminishes, and Afewerki's rule perseveres. If Ali Abdu found Afewerki's system impossible to work within, and Operation Forto demonstrates how difficult it can be to challenge, then the hopes that these recent expressions of discontent in Eritrea signal increasing momentum for change, rather than a continuation of the same old system, may be misplaced.

Omar S Mahmood is an Africa Analyst at the Navanti Group. He attended the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where his thesis focused on Ethiopia-Eritrean relations and proxy war in Somalia.

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