Just a decade ago, Eritrea might reasonably have been described as challenged but stable. Today it is under severe stress, if not yet in full-blown crisis.
While not likely to undergo dramatic upheaval in the near future, it is weakening steadily. Its economy is in free fall, poverty is rife, and the authoritarian political system is haemorrhaging its legitimacy. Only if the international community engages more with this country, will it prevent Eritrea from becoming the Horn of Africa’s next failed state.
Eritrea has been deeply troubled since independence in 1991. Following the devastating war with Ethiopia of 1998 to 2000, an authoritarian, militarised regime has further tightened political space. It tolerates neither opposition nor dissent.
Relations are difficult with the region and the wider international community. Eritrea has become, in effect, a siege state, whose government is suspicious of its own population, neighbours and the wider world. Economically crippled at birth, it is a poor country from which tens of thousands of youths are fleeing, forming large asylum-seeking communities in Europe and in North America.
Conditions are worsening dramatically. Since the 2001 crackdown that ended a brief period of public debate, jails have been filled with political prisoners and critics, religious dissidents, journalists, draft evaders and failed escapees.
President Isaias Afwerki uses the standoff with Ethiopia to justify severe internal discipline and military adventures across the region. Ethiopia has reneged on part of the Algiers Agreement that ended the war, in particular by not accepting what was to have been a special commission’s binding decision on the border.
The Security Council’s failure to compel compliance reinforced the sense in Asmara that the international community is inherently hostile. Isaias’s foreign policy has become even more fixated on forcing Ethiopia to accept the border decision, with proxy warfare rather than conventional diplomacy the favoured tool.
As a result, militarised politics has spilled into foreign policy, the latter frequently involving armed responses and aggressive adventurism at the expense of conventional diplomacy.
To date, Eritrea has fought, directly or indirectly, with Ethiopia, Yemen, Djibouti and Sudan and involved itself in various ways in the conflicts in eastern Sudan, Darfur and Somalia. While it asserts that it is pursuing legitimate national security interests, the aggressive approach and abrasive tone have left it increasingly isolated.
The militarism and authoritarianism which now define the political culture have their roots in the region’s violent history. The 30-year war of independence was part of a network of conflicts which devastated north-east Africa. But the real significance of that legacy has only become clear in the last decade.
President Afwerki and a small cohort of ex-fighters have strengthened their grip on power, while suppressing social freedoms and economic development in favour of an agenda centred on an obedient national unity and the notion that Eritrea is surrounded by enemies. Isaias’s supporters, diminishing in number, assert that only he has the vision to guide it through difficult times.
Meanwhile, the growing ranks of his critics argue that he has hijacked the nation-building process, betrayed the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands who achieved and defended independence, and brought ruin to the country.
Remarkably, there have not yet been serious protests. But pressure is building, both inside the borders and in the extensive diaspora, whose remittances have been a major financial support. A range of external opposition groups – though still deeply divided – are lining up against the regime.
To avoid a fresh crisis in the Horn of Africa, the international community and the Eritreans alike will need to demonstrate a new level of imagination and flexibility.
It is vital that the international community engages with Eritrea, politically and economically, and rigorously assesses the country’s internal problems as well as its external pressures. Development assistance and improved trade links should be tied to holding long-promised national elections and implementing the long-delayed constitution.
At the same time, in particular the United Nations Security Council should pressure Ethiopia to accept the border ruling. Eritrea is an extreme reflection of its region’s rough political environment, but not its sole spoiler.
More effort to understand the roots of its suspicions and greater engagement rather than further isolation would be a more promising international prescription for dealing with the genuine risks it represents.
E.J. Hogendoorn is Horn of Africa project director and acting Africa Program director of the International Crisis Group in Nairobi.